Movies at the Turn of the Century (Part III)

the-hurt-locker

The millennium tension continues…

Four) Memento – Christopher Nolan (2000)

Having watched Memento for the first time back in 2000, I remembered being very impressed with the narrative structure of the movie and the talents of one Christopher Nolan. Flashbacks in movies were a dime a dozen, but having an entire movie delivered in reverse chronological order was something entirely new and exciting. Memento also introduced Nolan’s penchant for opening a movie with an obscure critical scene that will unveil its shocking meaning as the story unfolds.

In Memento’s case, the movie begins with a murder and ends with the discovery of the rationale of the murder, with red herrings aplenty to keep the viewers engaged from start to end. After an attack by two men (who also raped and killed his wife) left him with anterograde amnesia, Leonard Shelby (played perfectly by Guy Pierce) set out to find and mete out justice to the elusive second attacker. Encumbered by a lack of short term memory, Leonard relied on a system of written notes, polaroids and tattoos to remind himself of the progress of his investigation.

Along the way, Leonard would encounter various shady characters, who were out to exploit him for their own ends. Carrie Ann Moss’ Natalie was one such character, shifting from sympathetic in one scene to diabolical in the next. Fresh off the success of the Matrix (where she played an emotionally restrained Trinity), it was hard to imagine Carrie Ann Moss playing a cunning, two-faced bitch, but she did it with aplomb. Guy Pierce was perfectly cast as the determined but tragically-exploited Leonard, who desperately tried to make sense of a world, in which he was severely disadvantaged.

Memento was Christopher Nolan’s sophomoric feature film (after the comparatively low budget The Following), but it quickly established him as tour de force in the cinematic world. Since then, he has directed far bigger hits with more impressive box office returns and greater technical advancements, but creatively, Memento marked an apex that is rarely seen in his oeuvre. If you are even mildly interested in his later works (such as Interstellar or The Dark Knight trilogy), you owe it to yourself to check out Memento.

 

Three) High Fidelity – Stephen Frears (2000)

If there is any movie that came close to capturing my psyche around the turn of the century, High Fidelity had to be it. Adapted from the Nick Hornby book of the same name, I remembered being awed by how perfectly the book described the mentality of the avid record collector. Hours spent obsessing about one’s record collection, making up top five lists for different occasions, and generally being a music snob through discovery and subsequent disavowing of new obscure acts. These are all classic record collectors’ behaviour perfectly captured in the book.

Originally set in London, the movie shifted the location of the story to Chicago, while casting John Cusack in the lead role. Not quite how I picture it, as I was leaning more towards Ewan McGregor at that point in time. On the other hand, the movie did brilliantly cast Jack Black in the role he was born to play – a belligerent music snob who judged people by their music preferences. Jack Black’s career really did take a turn for the better after High Fidelity.

While music lovers would have a fabulous time scrutinising and (perhaps in a self-mocking manner) laughing at the various tics and obsessions of the music elitists, the movie is more than just a paean to the record-collecting subculture. The movie is also about growth – moving from adolescent concerns such as knowing every bit of trivia about your favourite bands to more adult ones such as caring about the emotional needs of your partner. When the movie starts, John Cusack’s character Rob would only date people with similar taste in music and films, while making up list of top five relationships like it was some arcane pop chart. By the end of the movie, Rob realises that there will always be newer, hotter girls with hipper music preferences, but his current girlfriend (despite a lack of music cred) will always the one he can get along with. Music fascists should take note.

Two) The Hurt Locker – Kathryn Bigelow (2008)

Despite having seen such acclaimed classics as Apocalypse Now, Courage Under Fire and Full Metal Jacket, I have never really taken a liking to war movies until The Hurt Locker. One of the reasons I gathered is likely the fact that The Hurt Locker was one of the first war movies to comment on an ongoing war (at that time) dealing with the subversive nature of terrorism, whereas previous  war movies were satisfied with detailing full-on conflicts between armies in the distant past.

Where terrorism is concerned, one can never tell with confidence who is an enemy and who is an innocent bystander. With such a premise in mind, The Hurt Locker illustrates with an understated ease the confusion and dread the US Army faced in Baghdad, during the ill-advised incursion into Iraq for the so-called search for mass weapons of destruction. There was generally a sense of authenticity to the whole proceeding. Part of that was likely due to the contribution of screenwriter Mark Boal, who was an embedded journalist with a US Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal team during the Iraq War.

Having only seen Point Break and Strange Days (which were decent but unexceptional), I was pleasantly surprised by Kathryn Bigelow’s direction in The Hurt Locker. War movies rarely move me, as characters are often one of two archetypes: the war-weary veteran who ploughed down enemies with strangely-renewed bravado or the war-damaged sociopath who was on the verge of mental breakdown. Bigelow’s take is more balanced and realistic as her world of war was filled with duty-bound soldiers who were anxious to finish their tour of duties or soldiers who were addicted to the high of the nature of potentially fatal work.

The Hurt Locker can also be construed as a sly critique of US foreign policy and by extension, the US Army. Characters such as Sergeant William James often seek to do the right thing, but are so confused by circumstances, unfamiliar surroundings and foreign culture that they usually exacerbate a borderline untenable situation. As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. After The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow went on to direct the even more controversial Zero Dark Thirty (dealing with the touchy issues of torture), but The Hurt Locker was where it all began.

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