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Media Watch: ‘Moulin Rouge’ is musical fluff; ‘Memento’ is dark, thoughtful film
by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register
(From the July 5, 2001 edition of the Inland Register
The original movie preview and television advertisements for Twentieth-Century Fox’s new film Moulin Rouge seriously downplayed the fact that the movie is a musical. Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge is definitely a musical. It is a musical that attempts to stretch the boundaries of what a musical can be. Moulin Rouge is a Fourth of July carnival for the senses joined to MTV, the Keystone Kops, and Puccini’s La Boheme.
The first 20 minutes of Moulin Rouge, I must admit I didn’t think I was going to make it through the whole movie. There are an incredible number of jump cuts that had my stomach swirling. The movie never slows down to any kind of leisurely pace. But eventually a shot slows from two seconds to maybe four or five. Or maybe I just got at least semi-comfortable with the kinetic movement of the film.
Christian (Ewan McGregor) is a would-be writer who comes to Paris at the end of the 19th century. He becomes a friend of Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo) who lives in the apartment above him. Through a combination of events he falls in love with one of the stars of the Moulin Rouge. Satine (Nicole Kidman), the courtesan star, is an unattainable love for the poor writer. However, Christian becomes the writer of a dramatic extravaganza that is being financed by a love-struck Duke of Monroth (Richard Roxburgh). The Duke expects the favors of Satine for financing the play that the participants believe will be The Producers of their day.
Christian writes the drama in a way that makes it a story of his love for Satine. So throughout the rehearsals for the play we see in the drama what is happening in the life of the key participants. The movie centers on the question of could Satine ever really love the poor writer? nd does Christian have a chance against a rich and manipulative duke? To complicate everything we learn very early in the movie that Satine is suffering from a very severe case of tuberculosis.
Within this framework director Luhrman, whose earlier Australian film was Strictly Ballroom, gives us visuals that are almost mindboggling and sensory overkill. The songs are from pop culture, ranging from Sound of Music to "Like a Virgin." A musical is admittedly filled with artifice, and Luhrman pushes the limits to make sure we never forget that reality. Only in the love songs between Christian and Satine does the movement slow down a little.
Ewan McGregor, who became famous in the 1996 Scottish film Trainspotting, shows that he has come out of the English music hall tradition. He holds his own against the beauty and star presence of Nicole Kidman. John Leguizamo is a talented comedian and actor, but is miscast as the famous painter Toulouse-Lautrec. Richard Roxburgh as the villain acts like he just came out of a western melodrama where the audience is supposed to hiss. In this overblown production his portrayal works.
For those who like musicals and pop music Moulin Rouge will be an enjoyable experience. My own view is that a little slow time in the film would have been more humane for us all. But I am over 60 and this film is designed for those raised in a MTV world.
Moulin Rouge is rated PG-13 - Parents Strongly Cautioned. Some material may not be appropriate for children under 13. There is sexual content.
In mid-May while I was visiting my sister Patty in Hastings, Minn., one Saturday we went to an afternoon showing of Memento at a theater in the Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis. Every seat was filled. As we walked out of the film Patty said she didn’t care for the film. And I said something to the effect that I thought it was one of the best films of the year. Nearby a couple were arguing over the film. He thought it was a masterpiece. She thought it was a disaster.
To be honest, I never thought Memento would make it to the Spokane area. In the last few weeks this independent film that was a winner at Sundance has become a hit across the nation. The movie was made for $4.5 million and now has taken in a total of $17 million in 11 weeks of distribution in the larger cities of the country.
Friday I saw it for a second time at the Newport Cinemas. For me the second time was even more enjoyable than the first viewing. This is the kind of movie where an outline of the plot of the film is destructive of your own personal viewing. Memento is a “film noir” mystery where the less you know the better.
A couple of key facts are important for your understanding and enjoyment of the film. The main character, Leonard (Guy Pearce), is searching for a man he believes killed his wife. But he has a severe disadvantage in that search. Because of a severe wound to his head he has lost his short-term memory. So unless he writes himself a note or takes a picture and identifies the picture Leonard has no memory of what has happened 15 minutes ago. He does remember everything up until he was wounded at the time of his wife’s death.
The most unusual aspect of the film is that in five- or six-minute segments the movie is telling the story backwards. So the normal end of the film is what you see at the beginning of the film and the normal beginning of the film is shown at the end of the film. Yes, the writer-director Chris Nolan is playing with our minds. But the multi-layered story that can be interpreted many ways stays with us as days and weeks go by since seeing Memento.
My own theory is that when you come down to the bottom line, Memento is an intriguing discussion of what is reality, and how do we know what is real? The moderate realism of an Aristotle and Aquinas is exemplified when Leonard hits a table and bangs an ashtray while saying that he knows these are real. The shadows on the walls that Plato refers to are exemplified by the entire movie where Leonard’s belief in the truth is totally dependent on people he meets who may or may not be telling the truth.
Even if you find Memento confusing, you will enjoy it very much by just watching the acting. Guy Pearce, who did such a great job in L.A. Confidential, does a superb job of acting. He certainly should be nominated for a Best Acting Oscar next spring. Carrie-Ann Moss as the mysterious Natalie is top-knotch. Joe Pantoliano as Teddy could not be better.
Memento is one of those thought-provoking films that rarely comes down the pike. See it with some friends and go out for coffee. I think you will be amazed at the many different views of what people have just seen.
Memento is rated R for Violence and Language.
(Father Caswell is ecumenical relations officer for the Diocese of Spokane and pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish, Cheney.)
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