Requiem for a Dream (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★
Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) lived by herself and she spent most of her days watching television. When a caller informed her that she had been selected to appear on television, she became obsessed with the idea of losing weight and wearing her beautiful red dress for the occasion. Her first attempt at dieting didn’t work so she saw a doctor. The so-called doctor prescribed colorful “diet pills” which, unbeknownst to Sarah, were amphetamines. Her addiction reflected that of her son’s (Jared Leto), his best friend (Marlon Wayans), and girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly). Directed by Darren Aronofsky, the film’s approach was to showcase drug addiction as a slow descent to hell. Heavy-handed with its themes, it showed its characters in utter physical and mental pain with little hope of rehabilitation and a better life. On one hand, some of the scenes were well-made. Sara’s hallucinations of the refrigerator attempting to get close to her signified Sara’s subconscious need to eat. It was terrifying, especially when the fridge would appear out of nowhere, but at the same time I found it darkly comedic. I relished the scenes between Burstyn and Leto particularly the one when the son finally found the time to visit her lonely mother. Combined with Aronofsky’s sublime direction, Burstyn’s performance was electric when she expressed to her son what being on television really meant to her. Even I can admit I was on the verge of tears because I really cared for the character she created. Lastly, there was a shot the defined Leto and Connelly’s relationship. When they were laying next to each other on the bed, presumably after sex, there was a split-screen and the camera was fixated on their respective faces. It was meaningful to me because the message I extracted from it was despite the fact that they took up the same space, were looking at each other, and the words they uttered were directed at one another, it wasn’t a meaningful relationship because there was a disconnect between them. As long as they were under the influence of drugs, there would always be that disconnect because the need for the drugs would always be more powerful than their need for each other. That one scene was probably one of the most powerful in the film even though it didn’t show any drugs, just two people talking. I wish the rest of the picture was more like that. In other words, what the film desperately needed was subtlety. Most of the time, I felt like Aronofsky was hitting me over the head with a mallet every time he wanted to get a point across. It wasn’t necessary with people, like me, who can think for themselves and are aware of the pros and cons of drugs. His technique here would most likely appeal more to high school students. Based on Hubert Selby Jr.’s novel, “Requiem for a Dream” was nonetheless a powerful head trip. It was a classic case of unhappy individuals attempting to find happiness elsewhere other than within.
A Prophet (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
19-year-old Arab named Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) was sentenced up to six years in prison. Taken under César Luciani’s wing (Niels Arestrup), a Corsican, Malik slowly gained power in prison as he learned the politics and economics among each group of inmates. I liked that the plot was relatively simple. We had a chance to observe a vulnerable man evolve into someone who was cunning and capable of deceit yet the story was able to hang onto the core of the lead character’s being. That is, despite the difficult decisions he had to make, he was still capable of being sympathetic to those that helped turn him into a kind of person he had become. Those individuals did not always deserve his sympathy but he hung onto them anyway perhaps because he respected them in some way. His relationships with the other prisoners was always at the forefront and the “favors” he had to do were secondary but both are just as gripping. Jacques Audiard, the director, could have easily turned this film into a typical prison movie about a man hardened by hatred over the years but it chose the more insightful and elegant path. It begged the question how far a person was willing to go in order to survive and eventually flourish in a very dangerous environment, it challenged the effectiveness of rehabilitation centers, and it questioned whether a person, when given a chance, could leave behind his criminal life. Rahim was fantastic in portraying lead character. At times the movie would jump forward in time and I found myself unable to recognize Malik at first glance. Surely there were some physical changes but the way he carried himself such as his posture and the manner in which he conversed with another were more interesting to watch. Despite the film not showing us certain periods of time, we still got the sense that the hardships that Malik had to face did not stop. I did, however, have a problem with its running time of more than two-and-a-half hours. I saw no reason for it to last that long. In fact, I thought the last twenty minutes, except for the final scene, were weak and more typical compared the rest of the picture. It became redundant instead of ending it in a place where it left us wondering whether or not he would choose to risk losing everything he worked for over the years. Nevertheless, I believe “A Prophet” is worth seeing because it did not lose its heart despite the violence and drugs. It really made me question what I would have done (assuming I survived in the first place) if I was in Malik’s position. I certainly could not imagine hiding razor blades in my mouth.
Boy A (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Originally a novel written by Jonathan Trigell, this feature film directed by John Crowley is ultimately about about rehabilitation and redemption. Even though it’s more focused on the rehabilitation outside of a facility, I think it’s more interesting because it also manages to tackle the philosophical question of others’ knowledge (and lack thereof) of a particular event in one’s life–how that knowledge can change the way they think and act around the person of controversy. Andrew Garfield does an amazing job as Jack Burridge who was sentenced to jail as a child because of a murder he committed. With the help of Peter Mullan’s character who is like a father figure to Jack, Jack is given the chance to reintegrate into a society that he left (or of which that left him?). Garfield, within the first five minutes, proved to me that he truly regrets the past and wants to lead a normal life again. He has that childlike quality that is extremely charming, but at the same time there are moments in the film that shows the audience that the evil inside him–which most likely resides within us as well–is not fully expunged despite his best efforts. Garfield gives us a really complex character study; how a person that is continually challenged and reminded of his past reaches some sort of breaking point even though many things are seemingly going in the right direction. Another stand-out performance is from Katie Lyons as Garfield’s girlfriend. She’s strong and spunky, determined and a bit over-the-top–which is a perfect fit for Garfield because he tries to dim his light since he doesn’t want to get much (positive and negative) attention from people. Some of the highlights in the film include Garfield’s dance when he was under the influence of ecstasy (I thought that was kind sexy), Garfield and Lyons’ intimate conversations, and the final scene. The last scene blew me away because it was so powerful when it comes to engaging the audience. The film’s strength and downfall were the flashback scenes. Even though those scenes are necessary to explain what happened in the past and they were placed in the right moments in the film, the flashbacks brought up new questions that weren’t really answered in the end. Perhaps if one read the novel, the answers would be clearer but those that did not might be a bit confused. Still, this is a very good movie that gathers momentum as it goes on and doesn’t break its spell until after the exemplary last scene. This is a thinking person’s movie because it essentially comments on (and even questions) human psychology. It is also the kind of film that ignites discussion.