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History's nightmares 

Three new films explore crimes, minds and memories

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the new Charlie Kaufman-scripted romance (let us say), is perhaps a movie that might be best served by the viewer empowerment features of the DVD format. This isn't a put-down; rather, it's a testament to the power and interest of this manic story of two lovers fighting attempts to erase their memories of each other.

I caught this film on the day of my deadline, and though I'm inclined to hurl myself at this film's feet, I'm still trying to reassemble its two-hour blur of fantasies, memories and very real ecstasies into something like a straight story. But Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind isn't really a straight story; instead, it's an essentially random access narrative that's trapped in a linear (celluloid) space--perfect, in other words, for the DVD format. As such, this film strikes me as the most successful effort so far of the epistemologically inclined Kaufman, who's become the world's most famous screenwriter thanks to self-reflexive efforts like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. Here, Kaufman and director Michel Gondry tackle a fantasy often indulged by people recovering from heartbreaks and other traumas: Why can't painful memories be excised from our brains?

In Sunshine, which takes its archly appropriate title from an Alexander Pope poem, Jim Carrey is Joel, a timid, post-nervous-breakdown painter and Kate Winslet is Clementine, a volatile, alcoholic and impulsive designer and bookstore clerk. When their relationship hits the skids, each goes separately to a company called (naturally) Lacuna to have all evidence of the other's existence removed. Most of the story is told, not so much in flashback, but in a memory scan that occurs while Carrey is sedated by the Lacuna staff (a sharp, well-written gallery played by Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Wilkinson and Elijah Wood).

Winslet and Carrey deliver fervent performances as emotionally fragile lovers trying to repair the cognitive firewall that they've allowed the Lacuna company to breach. In the blur of images that comprises so much of Sunshine, it's unclear if any neural sensation can be truly privileged as more real than any other, but one thing is certain: You can't, as a certain punk rocker once sang, put your arms around a memory.

Zero Day, Ben Coccio's debut feature, is a smart and audacious fictional rendering of the Columbine massacre using the Blair Witch Project strategy of telling a story with found videotape footage. Here, the killers are Andre and Cal (played by newcomers Andre Keuck and Calvin Robertson), and they've kept a secret video record of their activities in the year before their assault.

Aided by Coccio's nimble script, Keuck and Robertson nail the banal inscrutability of such killers' motives. Some scenes are innocuous (shooting off bottle rockets on the Fourth, hanging with parents and friends) while others are quite chilling (nonchalantly building pipe bombs, going out for target practice with a relative's gun collection). The actual Columbine killers, as Michael Moore so memorably informed us, went bowling on the morning of the massacre. It's the particular brilliance of Zero Day that such banal evil seems perfectly sensible.

Unfortunately, Zero Day was eclipsed by the release of Gus Van Sant's Elephant, a svelte and lavishly produced film that snagged the headlines and the Palme d'Dor. This is a pity, because as good as Elephant is, Zero Day's imagining of the two conspirators in all their heartbreaking ordinariness is the far more convincing of the two efforts. Taken side by side, Elephant is the film about the wider culture of high school, in all of its variations. With its shifting perspectives on the same lunch hour, Harris Savides' sensuous photography and the spare, spare soundtrack, Elephant was--and is--a gorgeous formal triumph.

However, on the issue of character and motivation, Van Sant settled for poetry, provocation and pat explanations: a Beethoven piano piece, a kiss between the boys in the shower, mail-order guns, violent video games, teasing at school. But Van Sant seems to be just throwing these things out there. Coccio, likewise, doesn't know what would really inspire such an act, but what makes Zero Day so remarkable is its plausibility. Surely these kids, ordinary suburban teenagers of above-average intelligence, are just bluffing for their video camera. We're thinking, "This is just a home movie; surely they're not actually going to do it."

But they do. And, inadvertently or not, Coccio has found the perfect story to tell with a digital video camera. The everydayness of the images only enhances the quotidian personalities of the killers. Thus Zero Day becomes no less believable than the evening news.

With its interest in complex moral issues, both personal and political, Norman Jewison's The Statement is an aggressively old-fashioned thriller. It opens with a knockout sequence in the south of France, when we meet a furtive character, played by Michael Caine, who's sitting in an outdoor cafe while a sinister-looking younger man spies on him. We infer that the older man--who's identified as Pierre Brossard--is some sort of fugitive from justice, and soon a patently unfair chase scene is under way through the Alps.

Brossard, it turns out, is a war criminal, a man who oversaw the summary execution of seven Jews in a small village during the waning months of the Vichy regime in 1944. For decades, he's been in hiding--though more from extra-legal Jewish Nazi-hunting organizations than from the French themselves, who were all too eager to forgive and forget. But things are changing for Brossard. Two idealistic, no-nonsense French investigators (Tilda Swinton and Jeremy Northram) are reopening the case, against the stern advice of their superiors, and their investigation takes us into a moldy network of right-wing Catholic clergymen who've sheltered Brossard all these years.

Based on a novel by the late Brian Moore (Black Robe), who himself worked from real case files, The Statement has its limitations as a film. Although we naturally sympathize with the hunted man, Caine's Brossard is simply too old for this film's action movie theatrics.

Otherwise, he's simply vile, no matter how fervently he prays--a point underscored when he threatens to kill his estranged wife's dog to ensure her cooperation. For audience identification, we're left with the square cops played by Swinton and Northram, a wanly bantering, buttoned-down couple who make agents Scully and Mulder of the X-Files seem like Starsky and Hutch. EndBlock

  • Three new films explore crimes, minds and memories

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