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Do I know you? (l-r) Winslet and Carrey in Eternal Sunshine.

Remember Me

By Ann Morrow

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Directed by Michael Gondry

Many couples, after the relationship has gone bad, wish they had the chance to start over. And more than a few want to forget the whole thing. When Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) hit the skids, they experience both options—and in ways neither they, nor the audience, could’ve ever expected. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the newest brain teaser from screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, Joel and Clem meet on the train home from Montauk and hit it off as if they already know each other—which they do. And which they’ve forgotten: This is Kaufman on Philip K. Dick, meaning time and space are for warping and bending to the story’s enrichment.

Waiting for the commuter train to work one day, Joel suddenly gets the urge to walk on the beach. Doodling in his diary, he muses, “Sand is overrated. It’s just tiny little rocks. I wish I could meet someone new.” And then he does. During the ride home, Clem breaks through his geeky reserve, and although she seems crazily eager, Joel accepts her offer of a drink. “You’re going to marry me,” she tells him, to which he tacitly agrees. A fractured sci-fi tale on romantic destiny, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the zenith of Kaufman’s blazingly original and audaciously cerebral work to date. In Being John Malkovich, the screenwriter burrowed so deep into absurdity that he couldn’t get out. In Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Adaptation, he was hampered by the sort-of-true source material. But since Eternal Sunshine is set in the very near future, Kaufman is free to spin a fully realized, multidimensional plot that circles back on itself with geometrical meaning. This is an art film that is playing the multiplexes only because of Carrey’s bankability, but it’s also an art film that will appeal to just about anyone who has ever been in a relationship.

When Joel finds out Clem has erased all memory of him with a radical new procedure called Lacuna, he retaliates by having the procedure himself. The Lacuna head shrinker (Tom Wilkinson) uses Joel’s recollections to chart a “map” of where his Clem memories are stored. Joel is then zonked with a shot and taken home, where two medical techs (Elijah Wood and Mark Ruffalo) blast his neurons like electrolysists zapping hair follicles. But while unconscious, Joel realizes he doesn’t want to let go of his memories of Clem, and resists the process. The film then enters the alternate universe of his memory bank, where, somehow, Clem’s subconscious merges with his. The synapse-crossed lovers flee across the terrain of Joel’s remembered life, fugitives from science harried by their own misunderstandings and mutual resentments. At one especially funny-poignant point, Joel tries to “hide” Clem in a deeper part of his memory, where the 4-year-old Joel—fully grown but visually shrunk down hobbit-style—lurks under the kitchen table waiting to ambush his mother into paying attention to him.

Directed by Michael Gondry (whose visual flamboyance serves the story better than it did in Kaufman’s Human Nature), Eternal Sunshine zigzags from reality to memory to flashback with remarkable clarity. As introverted Joel, Carrey finally achieves his breakthrough to serious actor: He makes Joel’s loneliness not only palpable but inevitable. And without his physical expressiveness—downshifted from hilarious to nuanced—the film’s interior fantasias simply would not work. Winslet’s bitchy willfulness gives direction to the free-spirited Clem, and Wilkinson and Ruffalo make strong impressions in their small roles. So does Kirsten Dunst, who plays a foolish young woman who repeats a painful mistake after undergoing erasure—a chilling little subplot on the downside of not knowing all there is to know about oneself.

Yes, those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, but according to this bizarrely lyrical and optimistic film, those who cherish it just might get a second chance.

Murder by Numbers

Taking Lives
Directed by D.J. Caruso

In movies, serial killers are always brilliant, even sexy. The agents who track them are always brilliant, even sexy. Inevitably, the canny murderer will get inside his tracker’s skull, seductively intoning things like “We’re the same, you and me,” in an attempt to make both the good guy/gal and the audience question our own morality. While the conflict between good and evil is age-old and bears interest, its use in nearly all the recent serial-killer genre movies is gimmicky, to say the least. The latest case in point is D.J. Caruso’s silly Taking Lives, based on the 1999 Michael Pye novel.

It doesn’t help that screenwriter Jon Bokenkamp makes a mess of Pye’s stylish and cohesive work. The ubiquitous red herrings in Taking Lives are without substance or any link to the plot, and don’t serve their purpose to make us wonder about the clues we’ve been given. Instead, they make us laugh at their outrageous, fake nature. For instance, when one detective is seen fashioning little figures out of a piece of straw—something the killer has been known to do—it’s to induce doubt in the viewer’s mind that maybe this guy, who is helping crack FBI profiler Illeana Scott (Angelina Jolie), is the killer. However, the reaction of anybody with minimal IQ who has seen at least two films of this genre will be: “Oh, this is a false clue trying to take our minds off the fact that the real killer is screwing Agent Scott right now.”

Yes, folks, it will come as no surprise that our lovely, astute agent is a fool for love, especially when it comes wrapped up in a package marked “dangerous.” Witness how giggly the normally stoic Scott is the morning after. Up to this point, Taking Lives had a few things going for it, notably a sharp visual sensibility, a sense of place (although it’s awkwardly obvious that Caruso’s Montreal is really old Quebec City), and a trio of cool French actors—Olivier Martinez, Jean-Hughes Anglade and Tcheky Karyo—playing cool but believable French detectives. Even Jolie is credible, as she analyzes the trail of a killer who takes on the lives of his victims, like a homicidal hermit crab. However, when she reveals her, er, feet of clay, all is lost. She goes from giggly schoolgirl to a weepy mess who desperately deserves the slap that Martinez’s Agent Paquette packs to the side of her face. Hey, unlike James Bond and countless other male agents, who bed nearly every suspect in their own movies, Agent Scott loses her job and reputation, ending up in a dismal but appropriately creepy and deserted farmhouse. What more perfect lair to lure the whack job, n’est-ce pas?

While there are one or two genuinely jolting moments, they alone don’t create an atmosphere of growing terror, an atmosphere so necessary to a successful thriller. Wallowing in gore, and intermingling that gore with sexuality, Taking Lives is just another in a long line of emotionally, morally bankrupt films masquerading as stylish entertainment.

—Laura Leon

Super Zombies on Crack

Dawn of the Dead
Directed by Zack Snyder

What could be simpler than a mindless corpse trying to kill you? Like the undead themselves, the zombie genre is almost unstoppable. The zombies in this “re-envisioning” (per Universal’s press notes) of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead aren’t you father’s, or Romero’s, zombies. They’re absurdly fast, quickly self-replicating and out-of-control.

When Ana (Sarah Polley) and her boyfriend go to sleep, everything’s normal. When they wake, the cute neighbor girl is a rotting beast trying to eat them. In a deft precredits sequence, we share Ana’s terror as her peaceful suburban neighborhood is transformed into hell. Driving away from the carnage, she sees any number of horrors, like the undead devouring passengers trapped on a city bus.

Eventually, she meets up with other survivors, including a cop played by Ving Rhames. They make their way to the mall, where they find sanctuary, as well as a trio of unfriendly, power-mad mall cops led by CJ (Michael Kelly). Will they survive the onslaught of the hungry dead? (If you’ve ever seen one of these before, you already know the answer.)

While first-time director Zack Snyder deploys hints that the zombie plague is a form of God’s judgment (the survivors are holed up in Cross Roads Mall, a TV preacher intones “when there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the Earth,” and Johnny Cash’s apocalyptic “The Man Comes Around” is featured during the credits), he’s all about the action.

And the action comes hard and fast. The undead swarm the living with terrifying ferocity. Snyder shows a real talent for building tension within a scene; he also shows a neophyte’s inability to build tension between scenes. The big budget means the horror is more “realistic” than before, and the A-list cast (Polley, Rhames, Mekhi Phifer) is a plus. This also means there’s almost no social commentary, though it’s fun to note that there isn’t a single product placement in the film. (Apparently, the Gap doesn’t want to be associated with the end of the world.)

As the climax nears, the action-film paradigm triumphs over all. Still, even this isn’t enough to completely spoil the fun; be sure to stick around through the credits for the “real” ending.

—Shawn Stone

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