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Review Nuggets, 2001/09/10:10:05

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I recently watched these films: Woody Allen's Deconstructing Harry, David Mamet's State and Main and Memento, starring Guy Pearce.

I think I need some kind of rating system. Let's see... I'm used to rating things on a scale of ten (even though I have eleven fingers) so I'll just go with that. So, I give Deconstructing Harry a "5", State and Main a "7.5" and Memento an "8".

"Harry" is self-indulgent mush. Allen looks awful, and although the fantasy is surely agreeable to Woody, the notion that Elizabeth Shue would shack with such a dissipated geez strains one's will to suspend disbelief. The Harry of the title is Philip Roth (if Philip Roth were Woody Allen) and writes barely fictionalized novels about the personal lives of his friends, casting them in the worst possible light. Naturally these people are disgruntled. Harry/Roth/Allen is a differently-moraled exploitive jerk. One cannot muster much sympathy for the character, nor interest in the otherwise interesting problem of transmogrifying one's life into fiction.

The highlights of the film are the little enactments of Harry's fictions--highlights mostly because Allen himself doesn't appear in them. The one scene with Allen I did enjoy was his visit to his half-sister's home. She and her radically Orthodox husband hit him with the "how could you depict our father like that" self-hating Jew song and dance. I enjoyed the dialogue here, where Allen argues that "religion is a way of defining the other" and where his half-sister exclaims "You have no spiritual center. For you it's all quarks and cunts!" (or something to that effect). The theme here--finding sane moral ground between religious fanatacism and naturalist nihilism--is worth being explored. But for the most part, the film is awful. Woody should spare us some of his vanity.

I liked State and Main. David Mamet is smart. The film is about the attempt of a Hollywood film crew trying to make a movie in a bucolic Vermont town. William Macy is outstanding as the fake-to-the-bone passive-agressive Hollywood player/director. And Seymour Phillip Hoffman is great as the sensitive, earnest playwright working on his first screenplay. The plot turns around the ambitions of a local political-wannabe, the taste of the movie's hearthrob star (some Baldwin or other) for underage flesh (the ubiquitous Julia Stiles), and the romance of the writer with the simple-but-brilliant local bookstore owner. The movie, like the movie within the movie, is about purity and getting second chances, and I felt pretty OK when it was over. Mamet's as hard on Lalaland's flaky viciousness as he is on insurance salesmen and the results are satisfyingly funny.

Memento is a sweet little mindfuck. I won't give the story away, but it involves a fellow (Guy Pearce) who is searching for his wife's killer, but is unable to form new memories. Let me just say that I didn't draw an especially skeptical lesson from it, like some friends of mine have. It's a movie about context and what happens if you can't hold on to context. What happens is that "facts" (even when tattooed to your chest) become meaningless when shorn from their habitat of sustaining relations, and thus when context is lost, what you think you know may be terribly, terribly wrong. Memento is better on the first viewing, since the artful disorientation engendered by the backward plot movement is vitiated by familiarity. However, a second viewing does allow you to pick up lots of interesting little details that you're sure to have missed on the first round.
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