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by Ed Owens

It was like something out of a bad movie. A friend and I had decided to make a day trip to see Requiem for a Dream. We had both been dying to see it ever since we first heard about it (I am a fan of Pi, while my friend is not), and it had finally opened somewhere close enough to justify the trip. Decision made, we headed north.

The trip took a little over an hour, which got us there just in time to buy our tickets and take our seats. The theater was a little hole-in-the-wall art house with one screen and an auditorium that probably only seated fifty. Soon after the scheduled start time, the manager came out and announced that there were some technical problems, but that the film would be starting shortly. A few minutes later, it started.

A few minutes later, it stopped. The lights came up and there was a flurry of noise and activity in the projection booth. People chatted amongst themselves and then the lights went down for the second time, only to come back up again before we had even gotten through the opening credits. The manager announced that the show would have to be cancelled, but that they would hopefully be able to continue with the 7 o'clock show as planned. Having driven an hour to see the damn movie, my friend and I decided that our only course was to kill time until the 7 o'clock show, and pray to whatever movie gods may be to smile down upon our efforts and allow the 7 o'clock show to go off without a hitch. The only problem was killing three hours.

As it turned out, in what could either be considered a happy coincidence or the first sign of good fortune bestowed upon us by the aforementioned movie gods, Shadow of the Vampire was playing across town, and at the perfect time for us to swing over, see it, come back across town, grab something to eat, and still make the 7 o'clock show of the film we had traveled from afar to see. Decision made, we headed west.

SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE (C-)

I must be missing something.

That's the only possible explanation for the disparity between some of the reviews I've read and my own reaction to the film. Aside from an incredible performance by Willem Dafoe (for which he was appropriately Oscar-nominated and should, if there be any justice in the world, win), the film is a mess, a one-trick pony that grows tiresome shortly into the second act.

The premise is intriguing. German director F. W. Murnau hires an actual vampire named Max Schreck to play the part of Count Orlock in his film version of Drac...I mean, Nosferatu. But what the movie actually does with this premise is far less interesting. In fact, the film itself seems unsure of what to do with its premise, playing some scenes for camp, others for drama/horror, and not being entirely successful either way.

One of the biggest problems is the seemingly random editing. The end of act two contains some of the most incoherent filmmaking I've seen outside of Un Chien Andalou (at least Bunuel's surrealist work had a point) - and the third act is so choppy it fails to ever achieve anything even remotely resembling a climax. The bottom line is that even Dafoe's stellar work can't save the film from collapsing in on itself. The result is 91 minutes that feel a lot longer.

I have read several critics who praise the picture as a psychological study of the lengths a filmmaker would go to in order to finish a picture. Bah! The film's version of Murnau (played by John Malkovich) is little more than a shrill, morphine-addicted caricature, who plays second fiddle to the far more engaging Schreck. Furthermore, I find the implied notion that "true" film buffs will get more out of the film than regular movie-goers a tad insulting. While that may very well be true, this film buff couldn't see the point of wasting his time.

*

We left the theater disappointed, nay, crestfallen. Was this an indication of how our day would turn out? Were the movie gods teasing us? Were we merely pawns whose pain and suffering provided for their celestial amusement? Well, there was one thing the movie gods had no say in...what we ate. Surrounded by elegant restaurants, we opted for the self-medicating glories of fast food. There just happened to be a burger place next to the art house. Besides, dying young from a heart attack was one way we could strike back at the movie gods, depriving them of their pawns. Decision made, we headed back east.

BURGER KING (D)

I'm definitely missing something.

Being a fast food whore doesn't mean I have no standards - merely that I'm more easily inclined to lower them. And like an addict with his drug of choice, I have my preferences. Let me just say up front that The Home of the Whopper isn't one of them.

It's hard to fault the Whopper entirely, given the abysmally poor showing by the supporting cast. While the 20oz. Fountain coke struggled to find the right balance in his character, the onion rings went all out, putting up such a rough exterior that they were all but inaccessible to the audience (several overheard comments confirmed that this was indeed an audience-wide problem and not just my subjective opinion). Again, I was left wondering what others saw that I didn't.

*

The movie gods must be laughing.

Dinner, such as it was, had been worse than the movie (though I can't say it was more disappointing, given my low expectations going in), and a heart attack, at best, was still years away. Our only hope at getting anything out of the day's activities was that Requiem for a Dream would be good...assuming that the 7 o'clock show actually went off as scheduled.

A shout of "Hey!" echoed behind me and I turned in time to see my friend rolling towards me across the parking lot. I quickly discarded my first evaluation of the situation (that my friend had tripped and fallen) in favor of my second evaluation (that my friend had, for reasons unbeknownst to me, chosen that particular moment to demonstrate his gymnastic prowess) before returning to the more reasonable of the two, an assumption he quickly corrected by announcing that he had tripped over the large crater directly behind him. I asked him if he felt like going on to the theater, and he said he was fine. So, decision made, we headed across the street.

REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (A)

I missed a lot.

The final sequence of Darren Aronofsky's follow-up to his breakout indie hit Pi has become a bit of a myth in its own right. Stories that border on urban legends abound concerning the various effects the images have had on audiences - at least one person (though the numbers vary depending on the source) is rumored to have gotten physically ill because of the sequence. While the veracity of such tales may never really be known, one thing is certain. Aronofsky is a very gifted filmmaker.

The argument, of course, centers on whether or not Requiem for a Dream, Aronofsky's collaboration with Hubert Selby, Jr., is an adequate display of those gifts. The film centers on a group of addicts whose chosen paths are, from the very beginning, clearly headed for destruction. A summary is of little importance, given that the primary focus of the film is experiential. We don't so much watch the downward spiral of the characters as feel it, with the culmination being the infamous final sequence. Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, it's difficult to deny the power of the film's final "trip."

Ellen Burstyn is absolutely heart-wrenching as the absent-minded widow turned unwitting addict. Her transformation is painful to watch, and her performance is nothing short of amazing. For once in a great while, the Academy has the chance to honor the best of the best, and I will be horrified if they award Julia Roberts' paint-by-numbers-turn as Erin Brockovich over the artistry of Burstyn's Sara Goldfarb. Fortunately, Burstyn is not alone. While both Jared Leto and Marlon Wayans are believable (has Leto ever been in a movie where he doesn't get maimed in some way?), Jennifer Connelly is the real surprise. Her character is particularly haunting, and she has the daunting task of expressing a wide range of emotion by merely showing us the pain behind an otherwise vacant stare, something she accomplishes with seeming effortlessness.

The real star of the film, however, is Aronofsky. Requiem for a Dream is a director's film if ever there was one, and Aronofsky has gone all out, crafting a morbidly hypnotic editing language all his own, and giving us a visual tour de force that is nothing short of awe-inspiring. If there are two particularly bothersome omissions from this year's list of Oscar nominees, they are Aronofsky (Best Director) and Jay Rabinowitz (Best Editing). The film's final sequence is brutal and powerful, daring you to look away even as it forces you to watch. Many will (and do) hate the movie for that sequence alone. But the power of it, for better or worse, is undeniable.

Requiem for a Dream easily surpasses my number one film of last year to become the top film in my Best of 2000 list. My putting it there has nothing to do with whether or not I enjoyed the movie (not in the usual sense) nor with whether or not I was entertained by it (ditto). Instead, it has everything to do with the fact that I was moved by it, shaken from my all-too-commonly trite responses to most films, and forced to confront what I had just seen (or, more accurately, experienced). In a year that many have dismissed as banal, Requiem challenges even the most jaded movie-goers to remain unaffected.

I missed a lot by not having seen Requiem sooner, by being so caught up in the moment that I had no chance to really think about what was going on on-screen. Requiem for a Dream is a difficult film (some have called it unwatchable), but I for one am already anxious to see it again.

*

The movie gods are certainly fickle. In a year that was in many ways the worst in recent memory, Requiem turned out to be one of the most memorable. My friend and I both liked it, though we agreed that it wasn't for everybody. (The manager admitted to us that she had been unable to sit through it). The fact that we would go on to discuss it the entire way home (just over an hour) says something, especially given that most films are forgotten before I've even gotten to my car. We listened to the opinions of others on our way to the parking lot (mixed, though all of them were very strong one way or the other), and decided we were glad we had made the trip.

Decision made, we headed home.


CineScene, 2001

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