Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Oct 05, 2017 12:49 pm 
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Brain waves

This austere, elegant little film from Michael Almereyda is based on the Pulitzer-nominated play from two years ago by Jordan Harrison about a near-future world where hologram duplicates of deceased relatives can be employed as companions and memory stimulants for the bereaved. It features an impressive and well cast Lois Smith in her stage role as Marjorie, a beautiful old woman, once a skilled professional musician, at a future time perhaps 35 or 40 years from now when Christo and Jeanne Claude's 2005 "The Gates" in Central Park has become a distant and fuzzy memory - a shame, if that could really happen. Much of this play/film feels dry and in the head, though some fortunate viewers have spoken of being deeply moved by the constant explicit references to loss of loved ones.

Marjorie's not doing so well either physically or mentally - crippling arthritis and serious memory loss come and go. She may also be depressed, since it's hard to coax her into eating even a spoonful of peanut butter. So her daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and son Jon (Tim Robbins), who now live with her in a handsome modern Long Island house by the water, have arranged for her to have an A.I. hologram, known as a Prime, of her late husband Walter (an excellent Jon Hamm), actually long dead, in a much younger version of him, to stimulate her memory and keep her company. This is the starting point, and the scene between Hamm and Smith is when the concept is still at its freshest, when hologram and human are getting to know each other, as it were, and Marjorie is feeding Walter Prime information to expand his fund of pretend memories.

But though well acted and elegantly filmed, the cinematic Marjorie Prime (however the play may work with live actors) is stiff and dreary. It seems like an unusually prosaic as well as overlong version of a "Black Mirror" episode. In fact "Black Mirror" season two episode two, "Be Right Back" in 2013 already explored the idea of hologram replacements of lost relatives in a way that's much livelier - and 54 minutes shorter than Marjorie Prime..

Later in Marjorie Prime two more replicants of deceased relatives come into play to comfort their respective bereaved loved ones in the same family and location. At that point the novelty has worn off and it's the arguments between Tess and the drunken Jon (Robbins slurping his drinks and rattling the ice) that stand out - though their explanatory arguments are wearying. The action is momentarily enlivened with cameos by other characters including offspring at various ages and a pretty Latina caretaker, plus some old photographs of Lois Smith in her beautiful younger incarnations, and much ado about some dogs. The Primes can also emit music, a device that fails miserably every time. As sci-fi this is a dry exploration of a concept, and the film is notable for its lack of humor.

In the final scene the concept briefly but stunningly comes to life again. All three Primes stand together, in front of a dark window, implausibly but spookily carrying on a conversation - exclusively among themselves. Since Primes only "remember" what living people tell them, in this Prime-to-Prime-to-Prime scene all three are very evidently, and somewhat absurdly, winging it. But the scene is still a bit too stilted and flat to bring out the inherent humor in the situation.

Harrison's concern is with William James' notion of the failure of emotional memories, which he said grow successively weaker: the idea is explicitly, somewhat pedantically, referred to here. The nearby water - and a large photograph on the wall of rippling waves - is clearly meant to remind us that the brain's records - and our sense of ourselves - are in a state of flux. It's no doubt intentional, but a bit weak as a concept, that Primes are dubious as stimulants to early-stage Alzheimers folks if they rely on the folks' own memories to construct themselves. Give the film/play credit, though, for sliding into its sci-fi world subtly without explaining too much. It's made clear that Primes come equipped with lots of knowledge they may not need to access. For instance the Prime Walter (and Hamm is excellent in several stages of his role) reveals when asked that he knows over 30 languages.

Despite spinning out much detail and adding further characters - and a hidden secret of a lost child it was long taboo to mention - it doesn't get much better than the first sequence of the lovely but failing old lady with the polite and exquisitely helpful clone of her husband half a century ago. Marjorie knows this Walter is a clone. Is he really company? There is much talk of various family dogs (more than enough talk): would a dog be better? Perhaps so, it's hinted by her daughter and son-in-law, but it would be too much for Marjorie to take care of at this stage.

But the focus in Marjorie Prime is on how people build memories, then lose them, or lie. We are going to have more stories like this, and Replicants are back with a vengeance in Denis Villeneuve's flashy new Blade Runner movie, a blockbuster which also is all about memories, real and implanted. Villeneuve may be right to combine his homage adventure with gorgeous visuals and noisy violence. Just sitting in a room didn't quite work so well this time for the talented and adventurous Almereyda.

Marjorie Prime, 98 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2017; ten other festivals including Rotterdam, San Francisco, and BAM. Limited release 18 Aug. 2017. Screened for this review at Quad Cinema 5 Oct. 2017. Reviews are enthusiastic, Metacritic 83. But I have to agree with Indiewire that said "Almereyda’s feature is rich in acting talent, but this stagey, flat drama can’t match the wattage of its leads."

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