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Requiem for a Dream (2000) [Review Re-View]

Released October 6, 2000:

Rarely does a movie today affect you that when the end credits roll you’re left silent and unable to speak. Requiem for a Dream is an unforgettable and intensely harrowing experience. You can’t take your eyes away from it. Afterwards you’re left in disarray and unable to think straight for most of the day.

Requiem chronicles the lives of four individuals and their spiraling addictions and missed choices. Harry (Jared Leto) is a small time coke dealer along with his friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) who can’t help to taste their merchandise and eventually end up broke again. Harry has gotten into the habit of routinely pawning his elderly mother’s TV set for some quick cash to score with. This happens so often that the pawn broker has a special folder for Sarah Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) and her televison. Harry is in love with his more positioned girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly). She’s given an annual allowance of money from her wealthy folks to spend in her own fashion, but she’s denied love or attention. It’s between these four main characters that we will go through hell with.

Ellen Burstyn shows her grace with age and utterly blows your mind with her jaw-dropping performance as the lonely and strung out Sarah. Sarah has no husband anymore or a son to look after. She is alone and old, and those are two bad ingredients. She lives in an apartment complex overlooking the decaying ruins of Coney Island. Sarah has a different addiction than her child, she is addicted to food and is overweight. One day she mistakes a random junk phone call as her ticket to appear on television. She daydreams about gliding across the stage in her red dress that she doesn’t be able to properly fill anymore. With her elderly peers aflutter she tries her best to stick to a diet to fit into her slender dress. When the temptation becomes overwhelming she consults a friend’s doctor for some special “pills” to suppress her appetite.

Harry and Tyrone are embarking on their own dealing dreams to eventually move up the ladder and score some pure coke. Marion and Harry experience their love through simultaneous shoot-ups that space them out and turn them into romantic philosophers. Harry speaks of great dreams he has and the yearning to be something. Tyrone is haunted by thoughts of himself as a child and disappointing his sweetly loving mother who was proud of her son no matter what.

The film starts off in the summer and we are in the good times for all four characters. Harry and Tyrone are successful and racking up profits. Sarah has an unusual amount of energy through her prescribed pills and feels good about herself when she sees actual results as the pounds begin to melt away. Marion dances in her love of Harry and is ambitious with plans for her own design store. Things never are as good as they are again. Fall rolls along and Tyrone and Harry lose their money and lose their ability to secure drugs to sell. Sarah is noticing her pills are not having the same effect they were earlier and decides to ignore guidelines and take them like M&Ms. Marion starts to lash out at Harry’s ineptness at scoring and begins to tear at their relationship. She gets pushed to the brink to score that she resorts to the practice of using her body to secure what she needs. This isn’t even the beginning of how dour and horrible events will become for these four.

One of the strengths of Reqiuem is the treatment of these characters. The film shows sympathy for them and their situations but never condone them. Harry and Sarah are a family that have much love between them they just don’t know how to express it. When Harry discovers his mother is on essentially speed when he pays her a visit he’s left a shattered and crying mess. Only an injection into his veins in that cab ride saves him from his emotions. The relationship between Harry and Marion is initially seen as puppy love or people brought together through a love of drugs, but there are moments where you see the true beauty they have. In the end when Harry is out of state and dramatically in the need of hospitalization he calls Marion just as she’s doing her make-up for a “special” get-together. In a hushed tone she asks when he will be coming home, to which he responds in a mix of pain that it will be soon. She then so sincerely and beautifully asks if he can come back today – to which through an array of tears he agrees. Her sincerity and emotion in this sequence is a powerful glimpse at the love that does exist between the two of them. The second time I watched this film I started crying at this moment.

Burstyn is the stand-out star and if she doesn’t at LEAST get an Oscar nomination then that is the most unjust crime of them all. It’s been some time since her roles in The Exorcist and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore but she still shines like a true gem. She magnificently portrays Sarah’s descent into madness and chemical dependency and leaves us with a chilling and haunting figure. Leto and Connelly show that they aren’t merely pretty faces and deliver their best performances of their lives. Both show incredible warmth and emotion.

Requiem was directed and adapted for the screen by Darren Aronofsky who gave us the head trip that was Pi. Here he uses camera trickery like speed up and slowed paces to show Sarah’s journey through her drugs. Other items include cameras mounted on the actors, split screens, and hyper edits to show the process of every drug shoot-up. His camera moves and tricks are never out of place though, as many gimmicky video director’s are. Each effect has a specific purpose. Aronofsky brilliantly uses a scene where Leto and Connelly are lying in bed besides one another but split screen to show the closeness they can strive but the distance that still exists. While each talks we see shots of the other’s hand carefully caress the other’s body. It’s a scene that’s as powerful as it it thematically romantic.

The tragedy of this is this film has been rated NC-17 by the MPAA and of course anyone who sees it knows the exact scene. The film is being released unrated by Artisan because NC-17 is a commercial kiss of death. The shame is this movie needs to be seen. Make it mandatory in schools. DARE isn’t working but this film will. No one with an urge to use drugs will have that same urge after seeing this harrowing film.

Nate’s Grade: A+

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

Requiem for a Dream was a seminal event for me. It floored me when I originally saw it during the fateful fall of 2000. I can still vividly recall wandering out into the daylight after the movie and feeling like a zombie, just left to walk aimlessly and mumble to myself. I remember my friend Kat Lewis and I were unable to even articulate sentences other than, “Wow,” and, “Ooof,” for like an hour as we processed the drug-fueled descent into madness and hell. It was a movie that struck me dumb and left a mark. I became a lifelong fan of writer/director Darren Aronofsky afterwards and haven’t been disappointed with his movies yet (his 2014 biblical epic Noah is criminally underrated). At the end of 2009, I declared it the second-best film of the decade. Requiem for a Dream is the kind of movie you can admire for its craft and crushing emotional impact but also one you may never want to watch a second time. I haven’t gone back to it for at least 15 years for that same reason, the hesitation to get back into the morass and experience the tumultuous tumble all over again. Except when I did sit and re-watch it for my twenty-year review, I was amazed how many moments felt strikingly familiar. I was anticipated specific actor inflections (“I’m lonely. I’m ollllld”), gestures, and even sound cues. It was a strange experience because it was like re-awakening dormant memories I had papered over. I thought I had forgotten the movie but, in reality, I must have watched it enough in those early 2000s days to commit so much to memory. I was afraid to dive back because of the depressing subject matter that I expected to rightfully wreck me. Instead I experienced a different sort of awakening, and that was my question whether the movie’s highs might be over inflated and whether the younger version of myself was dazzled by a movie with more evident problems.

This is not a subtle movie in the slightest, not in subject matter, form, or style, and I’m sure that was part of what 18-year-old me so valued. It’s a movie dripping with style and wild imagination with how best to visualize the elation and instability of drug abuse. The editing by Jay Rabinowitz (8 Mile, The Tree of Life) is abundantly hyperactive, amassing over 2,000 cuts over the course of only 95 minutes (an average “non-Michael Bay” film running the same length has maybe 700 edits). It is all deliberately overwhelming to convey the frenetic energy of the junkie, and the repetition of edits and structures creates visual routines that Aronofsky then escalates or deconstructs brilliantly, using the language of film to immerse the viewer in this world and blend our senses together into a rapturous contact high. It’s not hard to see the inspiration for Edgar Wright’s own hyper-kinetic visual style here. The entire movie becomes a visceral reflection of the characters’ physiological state. The photography by Matthew Libatique (Black Swan, Iron Man) can be alienating, disquieting, but also vibrantly alive and excitedly inventive. This is the first feature film I can recall that used Steadycam cameras and attached them to the actors so that as they moved through their world they remained our stable focal point. It’s such a great and unsettling convergence of perspective. We are attached to the actor close-up. The musical score by Clint Mansell (Black Swan, Moon) is instantly iconic thanks to its sense of foreboding and the central haunting theme from the Kronos Quartet that was used in a thousand trailers afterwards because it’s that gob-smackingly, recognizably brilliant. These talented men were the essential wingmen for Aronofsky to achieve his beautifully horrible vision.

The 90s indie scene and well into the early 2000s was an audacious time that pushed the limits of film style, reshaping our sensibilities of what movies could accomplish, and Aronofsky is a world-caliber stylist. After two low-budget indie films, it’s clear why Hollywood came knocking and offered the man many high-profile titles like rebooting the inactive Batman franchise. There are entire complicated setups devoted to capturing single shots, and there are so many stylish choices that come flying that part of the appeal of the movie is simply lying in wait for what Aronofsky will deliver next, like a magician that keeps you asking for the next trick and the next trick. Some highlights include Sara (Ellen Burstyn) being taunted by her fridge and the hunger pangs she feels, including a delusion where the household appliance comes alive like a monster from an early Peter Jackson horror flick. The use of split-screen is stunning to convey coordination and also disconnect. There’s a lovely scene where Marion (Jennifer Connelly) and Harry (Jared Leto) stare at one another, their fingertips stroking different portions of their bodies, and the editing jumps around from close-up inserts to their slightly disjointed alignment face-to-face. It’s both sensual and romantic. They’re close but also far away. This is the kind of move that attaches a camera to a bungee cord and throws it off the rooftop just for a couple second shot of free fall. It’s the kind of movie that seems to test every visual and audio setting of cinema. I admire the sheer gusto of Aronofsky as a filmmaker and his drive to push himself and his story to the limit.

However, at a super-charged 95 minutes before end credits, Requiem for a Dream is just too much. Its sledgehammer approach to drama had an odd effect on me as a 38-year-old versus than as an 18-year-old. My younger self was dazzled and left profoundly affected and devastated. My current self felt empathy for the suffering of the characters but I wasn’t emotionally connecting with them in the same way I did back in 2000. After some reflection, I think this is because the movie is just trying so hard that it feels like it’s speaking in nothing but exclamation marks, all capital-D drama, that it has its own numbing effect. Things do get considerably worse for our quartet of characters as they go through hell, but because the pacing is so amped, speeding along to get to its next fix, it doesn’t ever let the movie breathe and linger before hitting you again. It’s so fast-paced that the tone becomes more overtly theatrical, and I found myself less able to connect with the characters on a deeper and meaningful level. The limits of characterization were really felt with my recent re-watch, and the love story of Harry and Marion, which felt tragic for me in the early 2000s, now feels empty. Maybe that was the point and it took me decades to see it through, that the two of them are caught under the spell of infatuation but cannot fully grow together from a co-dependent relationship built around self-destruction. Or maybe they’re just underwritten tragic bohemians. The only character that really gets worthy consideration and nuance is Sara. If the movie had slowed down, or even been 20-30 minutes longer, I think it would have more room to make its drama felt in a way that didn’t feel so anxious to the point of bordering on desperation. There are points where Requiem for a Dream feels like an overblown indie version of an after-school special on drugs.

The real heart of the movie is with Burstyn who delivers a career-best performance (she lost the Best Actress Oscar that year to Julia Roberts). Sara Goldfarb is the kind of person everyone might know, an older retiree who feels overlooked, afraid of pushing too hard against a son she can’t control, and someone who wants to feel special one more time in her life. She doesn’t see herself as an addict and the movie portrays her struggle as being analogous to the cocaine and heroin abuse of the other users. Sugar, caffeine, starch, red meat, all common items that can be just as addictive to the brain and body, and Sara’s struggles to lose weight are relatable and take on a horrifying transformation after she starts using prescription drugs as a quick solution. Burstyn is the definition of heartbreaking here and that’s even before she starts popping pills. She delivers one hell of a monologue about her sad state of needing something, anything to cling onto to give her life a glimmer of needed hope. It was the moment that made me instantly recognize the levels of sadness we’re working with. I enjoyed the little burst of happiness she felt when the other neighborhood ladies admired her for her chance of being on television. for her, this was everything. Burstyn goes through a physical transformation, from padded body suits to emaciated and sweat-stained (this is a very very sweaty movie; you can practically taste the grime coating the actors). She’s unrecognizable by the end. Burstyn is so devastatingly good as her character literally loses her mind, becoming one of those crazy people on the street. You feel such a reservoir of grief knowing what drugs have done to demolish this woman’s identity and transmute her into a living phantom.

The social commentary isn’t prevalent, beyond the universality of personal addiction, but it has one major critique and it’s the indifference of the system to those in need. Three of these characters are living through poverty and limited means of self-sufficiency. Marion has a trust fund but has to jump through hoops to maintain it, including at different points selling her body. When Sara visits her doctor to inquire about possible medicine, he never looks at her once and quickly writes her a prescription. When she’s admitted to a psychiatric ward, the orderlies barely even view her as a human being and threaten her with physical harm if she will not swallow her food. The ward doctor can clearly tell she’s not of sound mind but gets her to “sign” her permission for dangerous, experimental electroshock therapy. These are bureaucrats, professionals, and people of means that simply don’t care. The institutions of this country are geared to let people down, to slip between the cracks, and the supports are insufficient. In this regard, Requiem for a Dream is a condemnation for the system and its lack of real compassion.

The closing montage of degradation is so gut-punching, so expertly edited together for maximum symmetry, and so disturbing that I can completely understand if nobody would ever want to watch Requiem for a Dream again. Early on, while re-watching this movie alone, I thought, “My girlfriend would really be intrigued by this and appreciate the style and verve,” and then by the end I reconsidered whether or not it all might be too much to endure. You feel a little dirty by the time it’s all over. I think this time, in 2020 as opposed to 2000, it was too much for me because I was feeling less attachment to the characters and more removed from their drama because everything was so operatic and going by so fast. The movie still has so much technical and artistic ambition to drop my rating too low, but this is not the near-perfect A+ movie I highly regarded in my youth. This is not the second-best films of the 2000s. It’s still a good movie and one that will be felt and remembered long after. It’s hard to shake off its effect which are still felt even if you have difficulty engaging with the people beyond a general level of human empathy. My original review consisted of mostly reciting the plot, an aspect of my reviews I’ve tried to steer away from. I hate reviews that are 80 percent plot synopsis and then only a paragraph or two of critical analysis and deliberation. Requiem for a Dream is still a powerful and immersive movie that masterfully uses the full gamut of film tricks as its disposal. While it might not be a personally-defining movie for me any longer as an adult, it still was for years in my youth, and while it shattered me and left me a shambling mess, it also made me realize just what movies can do.

Re-View Grade: B+

Blue is the Warmest Color (2013)

blue-is-the-warmest-color-(2013)The French drama Blue is the Warmest Color has been bathed in publicity and controversy ever since its debut at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. It’s a three-hour lesbian romance about sexual awakening and finding a deep human connection, but all anyone wanted to talk about was the graphic sex. The drama split audiences down the middle, with people like Steven Spielberg praising its unflinching examination on the craving and heartache of young love, and others like New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis called the director/writer Abdellatif Kechiche “oblivious to real women.” It’s an impressive film, a rapturous love story for the twenty-first century that defies swift categorization. This isn’t just a gay film. This isn’t just a romance. This is a highly relatable, appealing, and heartbreaking movie of the first-order; however, both the defenders and detractors of Blue have substantial merits to their claims.

Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) is a normal 17-year old girl trying to gather a sense of her self. Her peers are pressuring her to lose her virginity with a popular guy, but it’s another person, a mysterious blue-haired lass, that Adele can’t stop thinking about. This woman, the somewhat older Emma (Lea Seydoux) is an art student and an out lesbian. One night, Adele follows her into a lesbian bar and they strike up a friendship, one that quickly translates into something more romantic. Over the rest of the movie, we cover several years of Adele and Emma’s lives together and learn that each has left an indelible mark on the other, for good and bad.

109202_galLet’s tackle the portion that’s gotten the most coverage in the media, the graphic sex sequences that earned the film the rare stateside NC-17 rating. You may have thought 2011’s sex addict drama, Shame, earned its NC-17 rating, but Blue trounces it. Short of unsimulated sex scenes in movies like Shortbus and 9 Songs, I doubt many audience members have experienced sex sequences this explicit and this lengthy (you may start checking your watch at some point). At its Cannes premier, the critical response breathlessly hyped a sexual encounter that went on for 18 minutes. That number may be the total onscreen copulation time; the longest sex scene is seven minutes or so, but you do feel the vigorous extension. Is there a particular reason the steamy sex scenes needed to be this long or this graphic? Kechiche likely wanted to communicate an explosion of immeasurable passion unlike anything Emma or Adele will experience in their lives. But did this need to be communicated with seven minutes of orgasmic fingers, lips, and tongues exploring every crevice of their bodies? Would six minutes of enthusiastic sex prove insufficient? I’d be a hypocrite if I said I found little entertainment in watching. I just don’t think the film demanded as much drawn out sex when the drama is this strong.

And that’s the mass appeal blurb when it comes to Blue is the Warmest Color: come for the intensity of the sex, stay for the intensity of the feelings. You will swiftly feel the nervousness and sexual tension that comes from the exploration of attraction. All those high school butterflies come fluttering back. The depth of feeling is easily relatable. The characters are searching for unparalleled human connection but also discovering more about who they are. This is a moving, absorbing, and crushing love story, but it’s just as much about two people falling out of love. That was a major surprise for me. What’s more is that the forces behind their breakup are completely understandable and you can see them coming; at heart, they are two different people that operate in different worlds, and they do change over time. That’s excellent storytelling when one can feel for both sides of a breakup, comprehend how this moment arrived, and looking back, see how inevitable a conflict like this would be. Emma’s sphere of friends is one that Adele does not feel a comfortable place within. Emma worries that Adele needs to find a sense of identity outside their relationship. Adele is still too timid to admit the truth about her relationship with a woman to her colleagues and family. These are major conflicts and they simmer and gestate in ways that feel like real life. Beyond some of the specifics in the bedroom (more on that later), there isn’t a moment that feels unbelievable in the entire three hours. This is a naturalistic love story that unfolds in small waves, allowing us to get to know the characters and their lives.

blue-is-the-warmest-color-poster1-e1381173193485The two actresses are outstanding and bare much more than their flesh for this film. Exarchopoulos and Seydoux disappear into their characters. These are richly developed characters, and each actress does her best to bring them to startling life. Exachopoulos (who looks like a Parisian Maggie Grace) has so much of the film riding on her 19-year-old shoulders since her character is the film’s major point of view; we often see the world through her perspective. She’s excellent as the curious, anxious, bashful young woman, and her encounters with Emma open her world up, allowing Adele to broaden as a person. She’s still not confidant, given to doubts that Emma seems to lack, but Exarchopoulos convinces you of the difference. Every step along her journey is credible, acted with poise, even the uncontrolled weeping. In a just world, this French newcomer would be up for serious acting award consideration. Seydoux is the more assured character, the one who sizes up her interest, but when hurt, the ferocity of Emma’s fury is staggering. This is not a woman to scorn, and Adele will learn this the hard way. Later in the film, as the history hangs in the air between Emma and Adele, we get a powerful sense of how conflicted both women are, having never turned off their feelings but trapped by circumstance and consequences. You feel each member cycle through the myriad of emotions, fumbling between desire and desperation. The actresses work together beautifully, raising one another’s performance, and giving one another the environment to get truly intimate, emotionally and physically.

The film is more a representation of a man’s fantasy of lesbian sex. The male gaze, a term referred to often in feminist film criticism, is trenchant in this film. Kechiche’s camera doesn’t just love his two young stars; it fawns over them, lusts over them. The camera is always within inches of Adele’s face, glued to tight shots lingering over Exarchopoulos’s pouty lips. Seriously, the actress has her mouth open the entire movie, her lips forever pillowy, forever pouting. It’s a sensual movie, yes, but does every shot of young Adele need to be so tawny and voyeuristic, her hair always slightly askew in her face, her body positioned just so that her assets are featured? Critics like Dargis are correct about Kechiche’s fawning camera pushing over into the boundary of erotic fetishism. This is where my questioning of sexual positioning comes back; going ass backwards when it comes to cunnilingus (and yes, I will intend that pun) is aesthetically pleasing in a sensuous manner, and that feels like the dictum of Kechiche’s intimate camerawork. It’s heterosexual male pleasure represented on screen, at least in its depiction. Otherwise, with the camera always tethered inches away from Adele’s face, why don’t we remain focused on her face during all this physical pleasure? It can be just as erotic. However, with all that out there, why can’t lesbian sex be given the same ridiculous fantasy depictions of heterosexual sex in the movies? I can almost guarantee that pool tables are not a prime location for indulging one’s urges. And just showcasing lesbian sex onscreen between a committed couple (not just girl-on-girl flings like in Black Swan) and normalizing it, whatever intention, is a virtue.

-1But it’s not just the sex scenes that could use some judicious snipping; the entire three-hour enterprise could be easily consolidated. The film is replete with loping scenes that sort of drift along, recreating the ordinary rhythms of life rather than the plot beat connect-the-dots we associate with most film narratives. That’s fine, you need time to establish characters and setting, but do we need people interpreting poetry at length and indulging in gender philosophy for minutes on end? Perhaps if I watched Blue is the Warmest Color a second time I’d be more tolerable of the narrative bloat, finding added subtext and metaphor to all those ponderous philosophical discussions over the nature of the self and gender identity. Of course seeing a three-hour movie, again, is going to take a significant time commitment.

Sensual throughout, beautifully developed, richly observed, and brought to life with bristling and audacious acting, Blue is the Warmest Color is a love story that hits hard with emotional force. By nicely realizing the characters, providing them depth and fallibility, we can empathize with them along the different stops of their romantic journey, seeing where each is coming from and understanding the yearning, frustration, and passion. When things are good, there’s a frisson on screen, a palpable sense of desire accentuated by Kechiche’s loving (and occasionally obsessive/fetishized) camerawork. The acting by Exarchopoulos and Seydoux is as raw and fevered as their onscreen lovemaking. I doubt it needed to be a full three hours long, and I doubt the notorious NC-17-earning sex scenes needed to be as graphic to communicate delight, but I’m most pleased that Blue is offering a full movegoing experience, watching the formation of two characters over time and how they change. It’s easily watchable even during its more ponderous, dare I say French-y, sidesteps. The ending is a slight misstep, calling out for greater certainty, but the French title for the film was, Adele: Chapters 1 & 2, the implication being there may be future cinematic adventures that await these people. I don’t know if this will ever come to fruition considering the original graphic novel by Julie Maroh is a mere 160 pages, rather shrift considering the medium, but I can hope. Romances this involving, observant, and intense don’t come around too often and deserve to be cherished. Just consider the sex a bonus.

Nate’s Grade: A

Killer Joe (2012)

This is one nasty, alarming, but very involving movie that wallows in darkness and plays it up for laughs. Killer Joe is a dysfunctional family drama, a crime thriller, and a mesmerizing character study when it comes to the lessons of amorality. Based on the play by Tracy Letts (August: Osage County), Joe (Matthew McConaughey) is a crooked cop who works as an assassin on the side. A weasely loser (Emile Hirsch) and his family hire Joe to kill their mother for the insurance money. Things get out of hand in frequent measure, with splashes of brutal violence, healthy amounts of sex and full-frontal nudity, and a disturbing sexual act with chicken that more than earn this film its adults-only NC-17 rating. What makes the movie rise above base exploitation is its depraved, deep-fried sense of humor. There is plenty of uncomfortable laughter and guffaws. The end of the film, during a fever-pitch of violence, is so sudden, so kooky, so debauched, that my friend and I burst out laughing. Without its wicked sense of humor, and its sharp ear for working-class dialogue, the movie could be accused of wallowing in the muck. There’s also the terrific acting, chiefly from McConaughey. He gives a hypnotic performance, chilling, unpredictable, and deeply committed to retribution. When he zeroes his cold eyes on you, boy does the flesh crawl. It’s an intense performance and arguably the best of the man’s career. Directed by William Friedkin (who also directed the 2006 adaptation of Letts’ play, Bug) with brutish élan, Killer Joe is one nasty piece of work, but given the right audience, it could prove to be a perverse entertainment.

Nate’s Grade: B

Shame (2011)

Most of the press about the seedy drama Shame has centered on the exhibition of star Michael Fassbender’s manhood, hence the NC-17 rating shackled to the film. Director/co-writer Steve McQueen, who teamed with Fassbender on the riveting Irish hunger-strike drama Hunger, decided against recutting his film for a more audience-inclusive R-rating. The Fassbender penis cannot be cut (draw your own circumcision conclusions). All of this fuss over seeing a penis onscreen seems a little ridiculous and immature. It just seems silly to censor a story about sex addiction by being coy with the appearance of the male anatomy. If they gave awards for onscreen penis performances, Harvey Keitel would have gotten a lifetime achievement award years ago. For all the physical nakedness on screen, when it comes to compelling characters and a story, that’s where Shame goes limp.

Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) is a high-powered New York City businessman working in a high-powered office doing important business stuff. At least, that’s about the impression the movie gives. What makes Brandon tick, though, is the biological highs of giving in to his carnal desires. He is a sex addict. He has sex daily, some with women he picks up, some with prostitutes. He has a mighty stash of pornography and his work computer is filled to the brim with smut. Brandon’s world of empty physical pleasure is interrupted when his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), drops by to stay a while. She’s a needy, emotionally troubled woman, the kind of girl that gets into bed with her sex addict brother to feel some kind of warmth. Sissy drives Brandon mad, a madness that not even meaningless sex can cure. When sissy sleeps with Brandon’s married boss, his life becomes even more hectic. Perhaps brother and sister aren’t far off in their dysfunction.

What’s most shocking about Shame is not the explicit sex scenes or the full-frontal nudity (sigh, another reason to hate Fassbender) but what a shallow move this is. From beginning to end, everything in this movie is surface level. We don’t get to know anything about Brandon except for his expensive interior decorating. Ooo, he has a fine collection of vinyl, it makes perfect sense that he would be a sex addict now. The movie is filled with joyless sex, but just because there’s a lot of it, and the camera takes time to show Fassbender’s remorseful expressions mid-coitus, does not mean we have approached anything introspective or revealing. The most we learn about Brandon is that his longest relationship lasted four months. When Sissy comes to crash with her big bro it seems to unnerve the man. Why? Is it because her emotional neediness holds a mirror up to Brandon about his own broken behavior? Is it because she’s the only person in his life he has some relationship with and he wants to sever this, to cut him off completely from feeling anything? What has caused both of these people to become so dysfunctional? What about their parents? Your guess is as good as mine. McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady) cannot be bothered to shed light on their characters. This must have been the easiest movie in the world to write, as well as one that almost fulfills some sort of filmmaking exploitation dream (“No no, we’re doing a serious art movie. Now ladies in this scene you’ll be engaged in a threesome for an exhausting amount of screen time. Make sure to lick those nipples like you mean it”).

Because of the narrative shortcomings, the film can grow rather tedious. You never get a real sense of sexual addiction. Just because we watch a guy have sex with strangers, prostitutes, and watch a lot of porn does not mean we are any closer to understanding his urges and compulsions. There’s one brief moment where McQueen seems to communicate Brandon’s thinking, as the camera cuts between sensuous close-ups of a female officemate (Nicole Beharie). This technique is used too sparingly, though, and we’re left to just assume, “Oh, this guy has just gotta have it.” I would have greatly appreciated McQueen taking a more assertive role in communicating the mindset of his main character. Let’s get into his head, let’s see the world the way he does, let’s through the power of editing feel the gnawing craving for physical release. There is one terrific scene during the opening where Brandon and a woman on the subway seem to be communicating a shared desire simply through careful expressions and body configuration. It’s the one scene in Shame that feels like we’ve gotten a peak into Brandon’s world. Instead, the majority of Shame is far too cold and clinical, watching Brandon’s self-destructive behavior from a safe distance like we’re afraid of catching something. I get that all of the onscreen sex is supposed to be seen as unsexy, but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t have followed Brandon’s point of view deeper. Just following a character’s POV is not the same as consent of their lifestyle. McQueen’s camera favors pretty long takes that voyeuristically eavesdrop on his characters, creating a sense of reality that can become ensnaring. I wanted to break free from a near five-minute take filmed from the back of Brandon and Sissy’s heads while they sit on a couch watching, in a strange moment of public domain access, a cartoon from the 1930s. McQueen’s film almost feels like a bait-and-switch bauble, promising the audience the seedy perversions of a man dominated by his uncontrollable desires, and then just delivering a guy who speaks little and jerks off at work a lot.

From an acting point of view, the lone saving grace of Shame, both Fassbender and Mulligan give captivating performances. Fassbender has had an incredibly varied year performance-wise, posing as Rochester, Magneto, and Carl Jung (one wonders what Freud would make of Brandon). The steely actor has a commanding presence and he’s able to reflect a burning intensity with the power of his eyes. Brandon, on the page, has about maybe 100 words of dialogue, so much is left to the actor’s fluid imagination, and Fassbender makes his character compelling to watch, at least for a while, despite the fact that the screenplay does not give him a compelling character to play. Mulligan (Drive, Never Let Me Go) is becoming rather adept at playing sad-eyed Kewpie doll women. Her character has a bit more to say in Shame, a girl trying to connect to the only family she has left, a brother who wishes to cut himself off from all feelings. The movie is at its best when these two are onscreen together. And for the horndogs out there, Mulligan matches Fassbender’s “I’ll show you mine” dare and delivers the full-frontal goods as well.

Shame is a sexually frank movie that seems curiously tight-lipped when it comes to character and plot. It’s filled with body parts but rarely do those parts assemble into a character. The movie is all surface, shallow and repetitive, and if that’s meant to communicate the self-loathing nature of its main character then what a strange mission that McQueen has achieved. The movie is flat, tedious, and distant, too timid to go deeper with its characters and their compulsions. I want to see Brandon’s personal and/or professional life suffer because of his addiction. I want to see the struggle to keep the urges at bay. I want to see Brandon hit rock bottom. I want to feel his desire to change. But we get none of this. Shame ruefully takes its narrative cue from Brandon, which means it’s a whole lot of nothing in between bouts of meaningless, empty sex.

Nate’s Grade: C

Lust, Caution (2008)

Ang Lee’s period romance is no Brokeback Mountain, though there is a heavy supply of thrusting. Lust, Caution is an NC-17 rated peak into life in China under Japanese occupation in the 1930s. Most of the film follows a school drama club that decides to become freedom fighters. They scheme to murder Chinese officials working with the Japanese government, and one gal (Wei Tang) is tapped to seduce and then kill a high-ranking official. For such a controversial movie, the sex scenes don’t even begin until 90 minutes into the flick (though our undercover heroine is deflowered by her drama club peer for the good of her mission). The movie is exquisitely shot, handsome in its details, and the lead performance by Tang is exceptional, simmering with conflicting emotions and some real sensual heat. The sex scenes doe have an erotic potency to them and they are more explicit than the kinder gentler fare found in typical Hollywood movies that consist of only seeing the slow-motion ecstasy result from a man on top. The offbeat love story gestates too late in the film’s run, leaving little time to delve deeper. Too much of the movie concerns back-story following the drama club’s road to becoming revolutionaries, and while it’s interesting it’s also rather needless on second thought. There’s a nine-minute difference between the R-rated version and the theatrical NC-17 cut; what’s in those nine minutes I do not know since I saw the edited version, but I’ve been told it’s a lot of thrusting. In lusty terms, the movie is heavy on foreplay and too short on a satisfying climax.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Inside Deep Throat (2005)

I find that there are generally two requirements that make a really great documentary: 1) have an interesting story, and 2) have an interesting way of telling it. I’ve seen documentaries on ripe topics squandered because of the dull and unimaginative ways they tell their tales. The skilled documentary team behind The Eyes of Tammy Faye and Party Monster has set their sights on a little smut film that changed the world in the early 1970s. Deep Throat was a “dirty movie” made for peanuts (25 grand) that ended up becoming the most profitable film of all time, eventually grossing more than $600 million. The story behind its meteoric rise, cultural acceptance, and damnation hits both requirements, thus making Inside Deep Throat a sensationally entertaining documentary.

It all started in 1971 when Gerard Damiano wanted to make an inexpensive pornographic film. Back in those days, many aspiring filmmakers actually got their start in porn (Wes Craven admits it). Damiano was in the planning process when he was visited by a man who wanted his girlfriend, Linda Lovelace, to appear in the eventual porno. He swore his girlfriend could do the most amazing trick. Lovelace demonstrated her trick, the full swallowing of an erect penis. Damiano was dumbstruck. He was determined not just to involve Lovelace but to base an entire film around her stunning ability. Deep Throat was written in three days, filmed in six days, but the furor it would bring would be irrevocably long lasting.

Deep Throat, as many of the crew will happily report, is not exactly a good movie. In fact, some call it the worst pornographic film of all time. Lovelace’s character found sex joyless, that is, until a doctor (Harry Reems) discovers that she has her clitoris all the way in the back of her throat. Thus to orgasm she has to swallow head-on (oh the double meaning). When the crew actually witnessed Lovelace’s cavernous abilities firsthand, they too were flabbergasted. But they wouldn’t be alone. Inside Deep Throat makes smart use of archival footage to prove how mainstream a small smut flick became. We see clips of Bob Hope and Johnny Carson cracking jokes about the film, and most amusingly of all are one or two interviews with little old ladies who “wanted to see a dirty picture.” Deep Throat crossed over and people went out in their Sunday finest to watch a hard-core porno.

Inside Deep Throat is rated NC-17 and with good reason. We do get to see Lovelace strut her stuff and the film almost playfully teases an audience with anticipation. We hear interviewees discuss their amazement; we see a close-up of Reems face as he gets pleasured. By the time the scene in question is shown uncut, we’re eager to witness this feat of fantastic fellatio ourselves. Let’s be honest, you can?’t have a documentary about Deep Throat‘s impact without showing the goods.

Filmmaking duo Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato have a very visually satisfying way of telling their story. Images tear across the screen and animation pops, all set to what must amount to most of the soundtrack to Boogie Nights. The glossy visual flair reminds me of the swirling, near-pop-out book imagery of The Kid Stays in the Picture. The pacing of Inside Deep Throat is near break-neck, with the film clocking in at just over 90 minutes. I wish that the filmmakers had spent more time on their subject and gone more in depth into certain areas like Lovelace’s turnaround from girl next door goddess to anti-porn crusader back to fifty-something nude model (she was killed in a car accident in 2002).

The cultural splash Deep Throat made is interesting enough, but the meat of the story is in the battles that would ensue. Damiano openly talks about how the mob controlled the early porn industry. He admits that he refused his share in the millions out of fear that he might have had his legs broken, or worse. There’s a long tangled web of mafia influence in the proliferation of Deep Throat. It was banned in over 30 states, but everywhere it went it became a hit. A Mafioso says that they were making so much money that they had to count it by the pound. Mob hits would materialize over the film’s profits and territory.

Even more fascinating, the U.S. government, to no one’s surprise, declared the film indecent. They couldn’t prosecute the director, or the distributors (unless they liked sleeping with the fishes), or anyone really making money off of the success of Deep Throat. So what’s a stubborn government to do? They prosecuted Reems for his involvement in a pornographic film. It was the first time an actor was ever prosecuted for his participation in art after the fact. Celebs like Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson came to Reems’ aid, fearful of what might happen if a government could retroactively punish artists. Sadly, Reems was found guilty and sentenced to years in prison and was really never the same afterwards.

But instructional films on sexuality were still okay as far as government was concerned, and we see clips of them in all their medical film hilarity (apparently some positions are not meant for the obese we’re told). These were acceptable because they were meant to help and inform, whereas porn is meant to entertain.

The film’s interviews comprise some of its best and worst moments. Most of the Deep Throat crew is in their 60s or 70s now, and hearing them talk about porn and sexual acts does make you titter a bit. The crew provides funny anecdotes and some of the juiciest material. However, the film also curiously interviews people like Dick Cavett and Bill Maher. The expected talking heads are here like Dr. Ruth, Camille Paglia, John Waters, Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt, but they regularly don’t have anything insightful to say.

Inside Deep Throat goes back and forth with its objectivity. It’s obviously pro-freedom of speech and doesn’t mind ridiculing the government agents who tried taking Deep Throat down (oh the double meaning). Particularly telling is an FBI agent who wishes that terrorism could be tidied up so that he could finally get to the real importance, which is stopping people from seeing pornography. One of the main points of the prosecution of Deep Throat was that it “wrongly” purported the idea of a clitoral orgasm (I think many will find some error with this judgment). It’s easy in retrospect to chide government officials ruling on inaccurate information or just plain ignorance. It may be too easy for some viewers, but for me it’s fair game to lambaste any idiot trying to strip me of my Constitutional rights.

Inside Deep Throat is an engrossing if light-hearted look at a moment in time. Some of the seedier elements feel skipped over, but this is a documentary on a fascinating subject told with a pleasing visual style. Don’t be put off by the NC-17 rating or the subject matter. Inside Deep Throat is more than a behind-the-scenes featurette on a wildly successful porno. It’s a fast, funny, and greatly entertaining time capsule of an era where boundaries were still being pushed, both by artists and by censors. And in today’s FCC-fearing landscape, maybe not everything has changed since Deep Throat brought porn into the mainstream.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Rarely does a movie today affect you that when the end credits roll you’re left silent and unable to speak. Requiem for a Dream is an unforgettable and intensely harrowing experience. You can’t take your eyes away from it. Afterwards you’re left in disarray and unable to think straight for most of the day.

Requiem chronicles the lives of four individuals and their spiraling addictions and missed choices. Harry (Jared Leto) is a small time coke dealer along with his friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) who can’t help to taste their merchandise and eventually end up broke again. Harry has gotten into the habit of routinely pawning his elderly mother’s TV set for some quick cash to score with. This happens so often that the pawn broker has a special folder for Sarah Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) and her televison. Harry is in love with his more positioned girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly). She’s given an annual allowance of money from her wealthy folks to spend in her own fashion, but she’s denied love or attention. It’s between these four main characters that we will go through hell with.

Ellen Burstyn shows her grace with age and utterly blows your mind with her jaw-dropping performance as the lonely and strung out Sarah. Sarah has no husband anymore or a son to look after. She is alone and old, and those are two bad ingredients. She lives in an apartment complex overlooking the decaying ruins of Coney Island. Sarah has a different addiction than her child, she is addicted to food and is overweight. One day she mistakes a random junk phone call as her ticket to appear on television. She daydreams about gliding across the stage in her red dress that she doesn’t be able to properly fill anymore. With her elderly peers aflutter she tries her best to stick to a diet to fit into her slender dress. When the temptation becomes overwhelming she consults a friend’s doctor for some special “pills” to suppress her appetite.

Harry and Tyrone are embarking on their own dealing dreams to evetually move up the ladder and score some pure coke. Marion and Harry experience their love through simultaneous shoot-ups that space them out and turn them into romantic philosophers. Harry speaks of great dreams he has and the yearning to be something. Tyrone is haunted by thoughts of himself as a child and disappointing his sweetly loving mother who was proud of her son no matter what.

The film starts off in the summer and we are in the good times for all four characters. Harry and Tyrone are successful and racking up profits. Sarah has an unusual amount of energy through her prescribed pills and feels good about herself when she sees actual results as the pounds begin to melt away. Marion dances in her love of Harry and is ambitious with plans for her own design store. Things never are as good as they are again. Fall rolls along and Tyrone and Harry lose their money and lose their ability to secure drugs to sell. Sarah is noticing her pills are not having the same effect they were earlier and decides to ignore guidelines and take them like M&Ms. Marion starts to lash out at Harry’s ineptness at scoring and begins to tear at their relationship. She gets pushed to the brink to score that she resorts to the practice of using her body to secure what she needs. This isn’t even the beginning of how dour and horrible events will become for these four.

One of the strengths of Reqiuem is the treatment of these characters. The film shows sympathy for them and their situations but never condone them. Harry and Sarah are a family that have much love between them they just don’t know how to express it. When Harry discovers his mother is on essentially speed when he pays her a visit he’s left a shattered and crying mess. Only an injection into his veins in that cab ride saves him from his emotions. The relationship between Harry and Marion is initially seen as puppy love or people brought together through a love of drugs, but there are moments where you see the true beauty they have. In the end when Harry is out of state and dramatically in the need of hospitalization he calls Marion just as she’s doing her make-up for a “special” get-together. In a hushed tone she asks when he will be coming home, to which he responds in a mix of pain soon. She then so sincerely and beautifully asks if he can come back today – to which through an array of tears he agrees. Her sincerity and emotion in this sequence is a powerful glimpse at the love that does exist between the two of them. The second time I watched this film I started crying at this moment.

Burstyn is the stand-out star and if she doesn’t at LEAST get an Oscar nomination then that is the most unjust crime of them all. It’s been some time since her roles in ‘The Exorcist’ and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore but she still shines like a true gem. She magnificently portrays Sarah’s descent into madness and chemical dependency and leaves us with a chilling and haunting figure. Leto and Connelly show that they aren’t merely pretty faces and deliver their best performances of their lives. Both show incredible warmth and emotion.

Requiem was directed and adapted for the screen by Darren Aronofsky who gave us the head trip that was Pi. Here he uses camera trickery like speed up and slowed paces to show Sarah’s journey through her drugs. Other items include cameras mounted on the actors, split screens, and hyper edits to show the process of every drug shoot-up. His camera moves and tricks are never out of place though, as many gimmicky video director’s are. Each effect has a specific purpose. Aronofsky brilliantly uses a scene where Leto and Connelly are lying in bed besides one another but split screen to show the closeness they can strive but the distance that still exists. While each talks we see shots of the other’s hand carefully caress the other’s body. It’s a scene that’s as powerful as it it thematically romantic.

The tragedy of this is this film has been rated NC-17 by the MPAA and of course anyone who sees it knows the exact scene. The film is being released unrated by Artisan because NC-17 is a commercial kiss of death. The shame is this movie needs to be seen. Make it mandatory in schools. DARE isn’t working but this film will. No one with an urge to use drugs will have that same urge after seeing this harrowing film.

Nate’s Grade: A+

 

Reviewed 20 years later as part of the “Reviews Re-View: 2000” article.

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