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Sometimes it is wisest to skip the movie theater and rent a video

Ah, movies.  We all love a good story told well.  Unfortunately in recent years it has become more difficult to say, "This has been a great year in movies."  It is just getting more difficult to wade through the sea of remakes, sequels, and blockbusters.

When Hollywood doesn't provide us with high quality entertainment I turn to videos, the best alternative for a poor movie season.  Until the day they call it the DVD store, for now your local video store has 100 years of great movies.  It is time to check them out again.

Below is our much anticipated and over-hyped first crack at our video recommendations.  For other movie ideas we also recommend a browse through two of our favorite movie sites, the 100 Greatest American Films and the Internet Movie Database.  To learn more about them, go to our Books and Movies or simply jump right into their websites.


But enough stalling.  Over one and a half years after they should have appeared in ideas and, here is Memento, Party Girl, and Fall.

Memento begins with a murder - a killer, a victim, a handful of mysterious images, and a ton of unanswered questions.  As the movie progresses, we are exposed to longer glimpses of this initial scene.  Eventually a fuzzy picture becomes more and more clear as new characters are introduced and we learn more about the main character, Leonard Shelby.  

Leonard is a sympathetic loner who unfortunately suffers from severe short term memory.  In mere seconds he forgets friends, acquaintances, motel desk clerks, bartenders, and even who he really is.  The only thing that drives him to remember anything - using Polaroid snapshots, little jotted notes, and other gimmicks - is the search for his wife's killer.  

The characterization of Leonard, played by Guy Pierce from L.A. Confidential, is the first success of Memento.  Bound only by vague memories of his wife and his past, Leonard is truly a tortured soul.  Anyone he meets on the street could be a stranger, an enemy, or an ally in his vigilante cause.  

Complimenting Guy Pierce's impressive performance is Memento's inventive use of flashbacks.  In this aspect Memento succeeds as much as Pulp Fiction and The Usual Suspects.  But the movie which most resembles Memento is Mickey Rourke's and Robert DeNiro's 1987 thriller Angel Heart.  Although it lacks the dark imagery and plot line of Angel Heart, Memento's flashbacks also build fearful anticipation that leads to an unsettling surprise ending.  

It is a shame that Memento came and went largely unnoticed because it is a truly refreshing picture in a market of remakes and tired-old plots.  It barely made an appearance at the 2002 Academy Awards with a nomination for Best Original Screenplay.  Then in a blink it passed without registering a memory.  Set some time aside and check it out today.  It will take a run or two to completely figure out what you just saw.  

Our next two video picks, Fall and Party Girl, don't pack the dramatic punch of a movie like Memento, but they are entertaining nevertheless.  

Like so many good stories, Fall grabs your attention with its first scene. The main character, Michael, is psyching himself up for the work day one morning. In a hushed voice you hear him say, 

I was a funny little man.  I needed the fans' help just to make it out of bed every morning.  But luckily, I was blessed with the best fans in the league.  

For the rest of the day, I needed God's help.  But luckily, I was blessed with the best God in the league, too.

From that point on, Fall turns an impossible plot into an highly entertaining and thought provoking film.

Michael is a New York taxi driver whose life changes the day that Sarah, an international supermodel, gets into his cab. While not overly impressed with him, she still respects his brimming confidence. But New York being New York, Michael and Sarah later run into each other and begin a passionate love affair while Sarah's husband is away on extended business. And although Michael and Sarah pretend that their relationship is just casual, reality is always within arm's reach. The movie then leads to its inevitable conclusion - the choice Sarah has to make between Michael and her husband.

If you can believe that a supermodel can fall in love with a taxi driver, you can believe that Fall packs a lot of real life into a movie. My favorite moments are when Michael faxes little love notes to Sarah.  It sounds cheesy but it works, just as the entire script works - love notes and all - because all of the movie is extraordinarily well written. 

Fall's other appeal is that it brings together a fine cast, starting with the movie's lead actor, Eric Schaeffer.  Schaeffer is an unusual artist.  Not only does he star in Fall, he also wrote, directed, and co-produced this movie. The other cast members would make you believe Schaeffer picked his friends, relatives, and a real supermodel to play their parts.  Normally that would be a criticism but in this case it is a praise.  The entire cast is very convincing.   

Our last bit of encouragement for you to rent Fall is that unfortunately it is getting harder to find nowadays.  Find out if your Blockbuster or Hollywood Video has a copy and rent it today.  

Finally, we have Party Girl.  Whatever image you might have of a movie called Party Girl, it is probably not accurate.  

The story follows the fashionable and popular Mary, a twenty-something woman from Manhattan whose life is completely directionless.  Mary's life bounces around from getting arrested, to her job as a library clerk, to her infatuation with the handsome young Lebanese man who owns the local falafel stand.  But the oddest thing that happens to her is when she learns the Dewey Decimal System in one drug induced night.  Sound strange?  Well, Party Girl is strange, but it is also nicely filled with characters that eventually rise above their seemingly dimwitted and underachieving selves thanks to Mary.  

The question remains whether Mary finds the fulfillment she so desperately wants.  That's not as important as are all the great elements that make up Party Girl - very funny and well-written dialogue, a fantastic cast of oddballs from Manhattan's club life, and the perfect performance of Parker Posey as Mary.  In fact, watching Party Girl is likely to make you a instantaneous Parker Posey fan.

At this point in a review I would insert some particularly poignant or funny dialogue from the movie - and obviously there is much more that can be said about Party Girl - but trying to capture its comedic essence will not do the movie justice.  We simply recommend Party Girl because it shares some of the best elements of Memento and Fall.  It has the breakout performance by its lead actress, a highly entertaining script, and a fine supporting cast.  But thankfully it does not have Memento's disturbing ending - one brooding movie is enough for now.  

You should just give Party Girl a try.  It is a quirky movie whose appeal is not limited to younger viewers, because good comedy cuts across all generations.

There you have them, our first answer to that offhand question, "What should I rent tonight?"  Thanks for browsing a small set of our favorite movies.  In the future we hope to offer more from off the beaten path.

Posted Wednesday July 2, 2003.