Saturday, 26 December 2009

Films: Night at the Museum 2; X-Files: I Want To Believe; and Memento

This time I'm ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, starting with the latter. I rather enjoyed Night at the Museum, based on what might happen if an ancient Egyptian tablet in New York's American Museum of Natural History had the power to make all of the exhibits come to life in the hours of darkness. It was an undemanding children's fantasy, but quite original and entertaining. As usual, the sequel can't match up because the central premise is no longer novel, so Night at the Museum 2 (subtitled Battle of the Smithsonian in the USA) is just more of the same. In fact, one of the interesting plot elements - that the tablet can also extend people's lives - is dropped rather than followed up, and another feature - that the tablet can be adjusted to prevent exhibits waking up - is also ignored in the sequel, since that would scupper the whole plot. The emphasis is on slapstick humour, but for me almost the only laugh-out-loud moment comes after the film is over, in a short clip shown as the credits are rolling. This one is really only for young kids who loved the original.
On to another sequel, X-Files: I Want To Believe. On release in 2008 this one got quite a pounding from X-Fans, as I recall, and I'm not surprised: no aliens, no top-level conspiracies, no dramatic CGI, all rather dark (in both senses) and rather slow. Unlike the first film, the plot was quite credible and hung together logically (well, relatively), while the X-Factor was handled in a subtle fashion, so that it was never clear whether the key figure of the paedophile priest really was having visions or just colluding with the bad guys. Perhaps worst of all from the X-Fans' viewpoint, it was full of relationship stuff between Mulder and Scully, the latter being distracted by an irrelevant sub-plot concerning a terminally ill boy she was looking after at a hospital - which also finished on a surprisingly but satisfyingly ambiguous note. Of course, X-Phobes might conclude that this was a much better film than the first one, being far more adult and mature, but would any of them get to watch it?
After I had posted my review of Douglas Thompson's Ultrameta it was suggested to me that there were some similarities with the film Memento, so I managed to get hold of a copy. The film was written and directed by Christopher Nolan and released in 2000. It stars Guy Pearce as Leonard Shelby, whose ability to remember had been badly affected by a head injury during an incident in which his wife was murdered. His memory up to the incident was unimpaired, but since then he had been unable to remember any new events for more than a couple of minutes. The only way he could keep track of his life was to keep lots of notes, tattoo important facts on his body, and take annotated Polaroid shots of any significant items - people he knew, his car, the place he was staying - otherwise he would forget them as soon as he left them. His condition was a major handicap in pursuing the sole purpose of his life - to avenge his wife - but he was making steady progress in tracking down her killer.

The film really tests viewers' concentration by working backwards from the moment he kills the murderer. After each clip, time is rewound to an earlier moment and the next clip runs from then to the start of the previous one, and so on. As a result, the viewer slowly builds up a picture of what has led to the climactic moment and becomes aware - in a way which Shelby cannot - of the way in which his condition has allowed people to deceive and manipulate him.

This is a tragic tale (something I would normally avoid) but it is so well-constructed and intriguing that I found it engrossing throughout. It stayed in my mind for days afterwards as I kept thinking through the implications. It is leagues above the usual dumbed-down Hollywood action thriller fare, and must have taken courage to produce. When I checked the film out on the web, I was pleased to see that it did well in terms of both critical acclaim (including a couple of Oscar nominations) and at the box office. That was richly deserved.


Alexander Stark said...

Well, Anthony, do you reckon Douglas Thompson ripped this one off then?:) I just caught up with another somewhat related film tonight: The Machinist (2004), which is darker and more tragic but plays similar mind games. All of these are almost part of a sub-genre one might call "dream after death" scenarios, of which Mulholland Drive is another prime example. All of them (including the tv series "Lost" and the novel "House Of Leaves")owe a debt perhaps to Flann O Brien's quite extraordinary novel: The Third Policeman. Traditional concepts of hell and repetitive punishment are subliminally embedded in all these works. It's a rich seam to follow.

Anthony G Williams said...

You needn't worry about Douglas, Alexander, his plot is quite different!

I don't know any of the other references you mention; yet more for the to-do pile (as if it wasn't big enough already, already...)

Alexander Stark said...

Yes, friends keep adding to my reading pile too, such lists stretch to potential infinity, but reviewers like yourself help me to "map" even the things I won't find time for. The 1980's/90's films "Jacob's Ladder" and Terry Gilliam's "Brasil" might also be added to this sombre sub-genre. Maybe you should watch that Truman Show tape though, and try the Flann O Brien book, which I recently picked up in a humble Waterstones, because it also manages to be laugh-out loud funny, as well as strangely deep.