Friday, 21 February 2014

Review: Requiem for a Dream

Ask any film-nut for a list of their favorite drug movies, and they will probably choose beloved genre stalwarts such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Drugstore Cowboy and Scarface

They will also probably nominate Darren Aronofsky's 2000 film Requiem for a Dream (trailer) as the best drug movie of them all.


Requiem chronicles its four main characters' dependence on drugs. 

Starry-eyed lovers Harry (Jared Leto) and Marion (Jennifer Connelly) and their friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) are hooked on heroin, and plan to make a killing by selling a really good batch. Harry and Marion dream of opening their own clothing store, and Tyrone hopes to escape his life of poverty.

Meanwhile, Harry's widowed, TV-addicted mother Sara (Ellen Burstyn) starts to take diet pills in order to fit into a favorite dress for a game show appearance.

My Take

The main problem I had with Requiem for a Dream was that it pities its characters instead of empathizing with them. Where my favorite drug movie Trainspotting shows its characters both enjoying and suffering in their lives of addiction, Requiem puts its heroes in such an excessively grim world that I can never understand or relate to them.

Choose life?

The Spike Lee movie Jungle Fever has a sobering sequence where the main character Flipper (Wesley Snipes) searches for his crack-addict brother (Samuel L. Jackson) in a derelict house full of zoned-out addicts lying around. Since Jungle Fever is portrayed through Flipper's non-addict perspective, he and we feel pity for the addicts because we can clearly see how messed up and divorced from reality they are. 

I felt bad for Requiem's characters in the same outsider way, but this film is supposed to convey the experience of addicts, not the experience of a non-addict looking at some poor druggies.

The whole reason why people stay on drugs is because the state of mind the drug grants them feels better than a harsh-seeming reality. Maybe if Requiem's filmmaking showed me what that state of mind looks like, I would be able to understand the characters more. If all I can see is the dinginess and sadness that they are escaping from, I feel like I'm missing out on an important piece of their big picture.

Trainspotting's protagonist Renton (Ewan McGregor) is energetic and loves being in the company of his gang of fellow addicts. He does have harsh encounters with death and disease, but the fact that he's also high all the time is reflected in the film's often ebullient mood and fast pace.

Trainspotting invited me into Renton's experience and showed me why he has made a lifestyle choice which I would otherwise find completely unrelatable. What was Requiem for a Dream trying to do, just tell me that drugs are bad? Okay, I already knew that.

Requiem starts out with well-written and -acted (albeit bleak) dialogue:

(Harry:) 'What is the big deal about being on television? Those pills you're taking will kill you before you even get on, for Chrissake.'

(Sara:) 'Big deal? ...I'm somebody now, Harry. Everybody likes me. Soon, millions of people will see me and they'll all like me. I'll tell them about you, your father, how good he was to us...It's a reason to get up in the morning...It's a reason to smile...It makes tomorrow all right.'

Even though I didn't feel empathetic to these characters' drug plights, I believed in the actors' performances. However, as Requiem progressed I started to get yanked out of the movie by Aronofsky's heavy-handed, in-your-face directorial decisions.

For example, Sara constantly watches a confusing, abrasively obnoxious TV show in which a host (Christopher McDonald) yells things in a dark void while a studio audience chants mindlessly and loud noises and words flash everywhere. I got the feeling that Aronofsky was compiling everything he hates about TV and hammering my senses with the idea that television is indeed horrible and drug-like.


Things predictably worsen for our four Requiem protagonists, and the film's final act is one of the great gratuitously-miserable cinematic crescendoes.

I won't give away everything that happens, but as the madness starts Sara experiences intense hallucinations of people derisively laughing at her, and Harry develops a hideous black infection on and around the shooting-up vein in his forearm.

In case this isn't bad enough, Harry continues to inject into the same vein directly into the wound, which we of course have to watch in gruesome close-up.

Don't worry; all I'll show you is this reaction shot.

If Aronofsky had simply had Harry switch veins, he could have both spared us a revolting image and had his character make a logical decision. Unfortunately, that kind of restraint would have involved Aronofsky's least favorite activity: getting out of my face.

As things continue to get worse we hear an intensely weepy violin score (Clint Mansell in your face) and meet several ancillary characters that are little more than menacing caricatures: vocally racist cops, a lascivious psychiatrist, murdering drug dealers and an assortment of appallingly unethical doctors. 

Shouldn't the whole point of drug stories be that addicts are their own worst enemies? Why does the whole world have to turn evil to prove to me that drugs ruin lives?

I felt like the natural progression of events was being forced into such a grotesquely hellish, sadness-porn ending that I stopped believing the movie. The illusion constructed by all the filmmaking elements disappeared from my attention until all I could see was Aronofsky in my face.


Trainspotting is available on Blu-ray and DVD (including Collector's Edition and Director's Cut variants) at all major media outlets and online retailers. It is also available as a digital download and as a rental.

Screengrabs: Requiem for a Dream was produced by Artisan Entertainment, Thousand Words, Sibling Productions, Protozoa Pictures, Requiem for a Dream and Truth and Soul Pictures, in association with Industry Entertainment and Bendeira Entertainment. The UK DVD was distributed by Momentum Pictures. 
© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this weblog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Review: Princess Mononoke

Animation director Hayao Miyazaki (Castle in the Sky, Howl's Moving Castle, Ponyo) is both the king of Japanese animation and a great of filmmaking in general.

As Pixar founder and chief creative officer John Lasseter says: 'When we have a problem and we can't seem to solve it, we often take [one] of Mr. Miyazaki's films and look at a scene in our screening room for a shot of inspiration. And it always works! We come away amazed and inspired. Toy Story owes a huge debt of gratitude to [Miyazaki].' (

The works of Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli are now so esteemed and widespread that if you've only ever seen one animé feature, it was probably one of his. Miyazaki's graduation to international recognition came with his 2002 Best Animated Feature-winner Spirited Away, but his 1997 film Princess Mononoke (もののけ姫 Mononoke-hime in its native Japanese) (trailer) brought him to the attention of critics and cognoscenti on the other side of the Pacific.


'There's something strange going on', says Ashitaka (voiced by Billy Crudup in the English dub), prince of a modest, secluded rural village. 'The Wise Woman wants everybody back to the village at once', he commands a group of girls.

'In the forest - Something's wrong', they say. 'The birds are all gone. And the animals, too.'

Ashitaka heads up a watchtower and sees trees putrefy and die in the wake of a grotesque beast with glowing eyes and a hide of writhing black worms. The thing blazes towards the thatch-roofed village and ignores Ashitaka's cries to leave his people alone.

Ashitaka primes his bow and engages the monster, which reveals itself to be a gargantuan, possessed boar.

Ashitaka fells the boar, but not before an infested appendage grips his arm and infects it with a dark, mottled mark.

'The infection will spread throughout your whole body', the Wise Woman later divines. 'It will cause you great pain, then kill you...Look at this: This iron ball was found in the boar's body...It shattered his bones and burned its way deep inside him. This is what turned him into a demon.'

'There is evil at work in the land to the west, Prince Ashitaka. It's your fate to go there and see what you can see with eyes unclouded by hate. You might find a way to lift the curse.'

Ashitaka rides out of town on his elk steed to seek the origin of the iron bullet.

My Take

I'm not normally a fan of animé. Most of what I've seen seems to share the same melodramatic writing style, chump-change recycled animation tricks and giant-eyed/triangle-mouthed/neon-haired/stick-thin character designs.

That being said, I feel that Miyazaki's films have a strong idiosyncratic style that encompasses both epic, sweeping fantasy and a realistic design of characters, animals and scenery. Mononoke has formidable artistic resources which are especially evident in the deftly handled action scenes and the numerous, lushly-painted environments - of which some only appear for a fraction of a second.

Something that I never realized when I first saw Mononoke - on VHS at age ten - was that, despite the film's brilliant colors, its story gets bleak. Miyazaki might have the epithet 'Japan's Disney', but this ain't Cinderella. Mononoke is less fairy-tale fantasy, and more Lord of the Rings-type war movie. Its Joe Hisaishi score - replete with memorable character themes rendered in rumbling cellos and somber woodwinds - even gives Rings composer Howard Shore a run for his money.

Wolf-god Moro (Gillian Anderson) battles against Iron Town, which threatens to clear away her forest to mine the mountains. The film's titular Princess Mononoke (trans: 'princess of vengeful spirits', actual name San) is a human girl raised by Moro who fights alongside the wolves (and is voiced by Claire Danes on familiar shrill, shouting form).

The war isn't as simple as 'the good-guy animals are just trying to stop the evil humans from destroying their homes.' When we meet Iron Town chief Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver), we find out that she has both a desire to slay the wolves...and leadership of a progressive town with equal opportunities for women and the diseased.

The animal gods and their tribes (of which there are boar and apes in addition to wolves) aren't benevolent, but are instead vicious, obstinate and proud; like the petty, jealous gods of ancient Greek legend: 'Silence, boy. How dare you speak to a god like that?!...Now leave this place at sunrise. Return, and I shall kill you.'

Lady Eboshi is also antagonised by an army of marauding samurai, and the animal gods argue amongst themselves instead of unifying. The war is messy, and nobody can truly be called bad guys or good guys - they all just want their own room to prosper.

Even though Ashitaka constantly tries to prevent everyone from fighting each other, his grim disposition can make him a hard character to root for. Throughout the movie I am shown several characters' scores they want settled or threats they want to defend against, but our protagonist fights against any of this being resolved.

Maybe this is Miyazaki's message: I the audience member may desire revenge or power for my favorite characters, but the real truth of the world is that the only way to end the violence is to not kill the other guy, and instead stop without gaining satisfaction. This is way more meaningful and complex than most adventure/fantasy, which tends to feature only the most unequivocal and archetypal 'good' and 'bad'.

Ashitaka's grimness supports a belief of mine, which is that while a hero's adventure can look exciting and profound, being a hero isn't fun at all. We all know that the supposed ultimate act of heroism is to die to save others, but 
I don't see how a tragic disregard for one's own life can be something transcendentally noble and worthy of aspiration.

In an effort to not make Princess Mononoke sound like such a total abyss of misery, I would like to mention that it does have moments of levity. We hear banter from the sassy Iron Town women (including Jada Pinkett-Smith's Toki); we see eccentric, bowling ball-headed woodland spirits...

...and we encounter the mercenary Jigo (Billy Bob Thornton), whose loquaciousness is a welcome contrast to Ashitaka's taciturnity:

'Hand me your bowl. My point is, everybody dies, boy. Some now, some later. From brothel girl to emperor. I've heard them say that the Emperor has promised an entire hill of gold to anyone who can help him live forever-beautiful bowl, I've seen one other like it. Have you heard of the Emishi people? They're said to ride red elks...'


Hayao Miyazaki retired from filmmaking after Princess Mononoke, but returned to release his most successful films and collect his Oscar. His upcoming film The Wind Rises is being billed as his 'final' film, but can even he say that for sure?

Further Reading

For more about animation, see my post about Sita Sings the Blues.

For more about giant monsters, see my post about Troll Hunter.

Screengrabs: Princess Mononoke was produced by DENTSU Music And Entertainment, Nibariki, Nippon Television Network (NTV), Studio Ghibli, TNDG and Tokuma Shoten. The UK DVD was distributed by Optimum Releasing Ltd.

© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this weblog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.