Requiem for a Dream (2000)


There are definitely SPOILERS of plot points in this review.  That said, these spoilers may actually help you get through the film if you have not yet seen it.  You decide……

Darren Aronofsky’s second feature film, Requiem for a Dream was the follow up to his bold and original debut Pi.  Both films had experimental elements of filmmaking that helped Aronofsky make a name for himself as one of the young up-and-coming Indie directors at a time where the Indie circuit was thriving with exposure.  Both of these films are dark in composition and both contain characters struggling with identity.  Pi is about one individual and Requiem… has four main players; it is this expansion of character development that gives Aronofsky’s experimental vision as a filmmaker a solid place in cinema history.  Requiem for a Dream is a masterpiece that evokes the falsehood of the American Dream, a concept that is held up only by archetypes containing no real road map as to how to be achieved.  Although the film ostensibly shows drug addiction to be the demise of our four main characters, Aronofsky is arguing that the false advertisement campaign that is the American Dream is really the root cause for the film’s characters’ dreadful demises.

Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) is a sixty-something widow living alone in her Coney Island apartment left to her life of eating sugary snacks and watching her favorite infomercial on her rundown television set.  Of course she can only do this after she routinely buys back the TV from the pawn shop her son Harry (Jared Leto) sells it to with his best friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) so they can get some cash to buy heroin and shoot up.  Harry’s beautiful girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly), like Harry and Tyrone, is a twenty-something whose parents put her up in a nice apartment with a steady stipend so long as she sees her scuzzy psychiatrist regularly – he has ulterior motives for their visits.  Marion uses heroin as well.

Sara longs for the days when her husband Seymour was alive and when Harry was in high school.  These were times that gave her a purpose and she felt like a useful cog in society – serving her husband and making her son smile.  Now she resorts to eating food to fill the void left by Seymour’s death and Harry living elsewhere.

Harry and Tyrone are floundering and trying to find different ways to spend their summer days.  Sure they can get high and go to the boardwalk, but they want to make some money like everyone is supposed to in the United States – They hope respect will soon follow.
Marion aspires for more than just money from her parents and with some loving nudges from Harry, she decides to pursue her love for all things fashion and works towards opening a boutique selling the clothes she has designed.

Sara gets duped one day with a phone call from the parent company of the infomercial she watches religiously.  A man on the other end tells her she has “won” a chance to be on television.  This prompts Sara to start watching what she eats so she can fit into her red dress that Seymour loved her in, and she can then wear it on television.  When her initial attempts to lose the weight are not doing the trick, she visits a doctor who hastily prescribes her to diet pills.  These pills help her lose the weight steadily as she uses the zipper on the back of the red dress as a barometer for her progress.

Harry and Ty decide to turn their habit into an enterprise.  They get enough money together to buy some heroin, cut it, and begin to sell it making money hand over fist and become well on their way to their goal of buying a pound of pure, which they say over and over again.  Pound of Pure refers to heroin, but also is an alliterative phrase just like many of the commercially marketed phrases people cling to on their journey to the American Dream. 

Marion, with Harry’s support, begins to work hard on her clothing designs and eventually Harry is able to lease a small commercial space for her business.  This is good for Marion not only because she is on her way to realizing her dream, but she does not have to rely on seeing her shrink to get money from her parents.

Sara begins to lose the weight rapidly, but also her mind slowly.  There’s a scene where she goes to visit the doctor for a checkup and prescription refill.  Aronofsky keeps a tight shot of Sara’s face in clear focus, while the doctor is seen in the blurry background and not paying too much attention to Sara.  She tries to convey her concerns about the pills’ effect on her body, but the doctor pays her no mind and simply hands her a new prescription.
Sara continues the normal pill regiment until she does not feel the same speedy effects as before – she begins doubling and tripling her dose whenever she wants.

When Harry and Tyrone have saved enough money to secure their Pound of Pure, Ty has a face to face meeting with a local heroin supplier in the back of his limo.  Then the meeting goes awry and a shootout ensues forcing Ty to run away from the limo with the blood of the supplier all over him.  Ty gets arrested and Harry has to bail him out with their hard earned cash, which nearly wipes them out.

This, of course, sets Marion back too, and now all that seems to matter to any of them is scoring dope so they can shoot it and feel normal, at least for a little while.


Aronofsky and his crew pay special attention to the backdrop of every scene.  During the good times of the film, when the characters are all still functioning drug users, the lighting and music is very soothing and peaceful.  Aronofsky creates stock (quick) montages for when our characters are getting their fix.  Although these may seem redundant after awhile, I assure you the use of the montages is not only apropos to the exposition of the character’s drug use, but also helps cement the parallel of drug use and the American Dream archetypes – Which are made up of quippy slogans and fast shortcuts to wealth….allegedly.

Aronofsky’s unique camera direction set to a chilling score helps to encapsulate the true horrors experienced by an addict.  The best examples of this are during the last 15 minutes of the film which is a juxtaposition of all four characters final spill on their own downward spirals.

Sara ends up in a mental institution after she begins wandering the streets in her red dress.  Eventually she gets shock treatment to “cure” her ailment.

Tyrone takes Harry to a hospital to have his arm looked at due to a massive infection Harry gets from injecting heroin into the same hole in his arm nearly every time.  It is there where they get arrested and sentenced to hard work detail in prison.  Due to Harry’s infected arm, he is deemed unfit to work and is moved to the hospital ward of the prison where we see his arm amputated in a gruesome scene….
Harry using the same vein can be viewed as a metaphor to someone burning the candle at both ends to realize their dreams…eventually the candle is small and useless.

Ty remains on hard work detail under the watch of racist guards in prison.

Marion becomes a sex worker in order to continually get her dope.

This passage of the film serves to not only put on display the ultimate doom of the four characters, but with its masterful editing really gives an honestly artful representation of the tipping point that segues to the final stages of a downward spiral.  Hard to watch, but I found my eyes peeled to the screen seeing it again.  Because we care about these characters, we are able to endure this starkly depressing passage. Also the score helps to guide us through this 15 minutes with haunting strings and ambiguous tone that drives the action as we the viewer wait for the requisite happy ending that never comes for our four heroes….

All of these characters are normal enough and I believe that is the point.  Like Paul Thomas Anderson did in his terrific film Boogie Nights, Aronofsky is showing us regular people trying to do regular things in the shadows of the “normal” people trying to do “normal” things.  Strip away the minutiae, and Requiem for a Dream is delivering a story about people chasing the elusive American Dream; it is only with judgment that one can look at these people and say that what they do is not socially acceptable.

Knowing how the plot unfolds for these four characters whom we care so much about, you may ask yourself, Why would I want to watch such horror? The best answer I can give to this is Aronofsky’s filmmaking prowess; he is simply on fire in his execution of telling this dark tale.  Seemingly going for broke with nearly every scene, he paints a bleak picture with the use of quick camera movements and bright colors (two characteristics usually reserved for big budget action films).  Another movie with a major drug theme that used similar filming tactics is the wonderful film from 1987,  Less than Zero.  That film had more to do with how an addict acts as the rope in a game of tug-o-war between those closest to him on either side: One side who is trying to help him get off the drugs, and the other side who is able to easily convince him to keep using.  Both films are supported by their unique filming techniques to the drug addiction film genre, both have regrettable outcomes.

It must be noted that Ellen Burstyn gives one of the greatest performances of her stellar career in this film.  When I saw Requiem… for the first time in the theater I was hanging on her every word and movement.  In a role that could’ve easily been perceived as campy or too over-the-top, Burstyn never hits a false note, playing Sara as an innocent who does not know she is an addict, because how can she be if a doctor prescribed her the drugs? There is a scene in particular where Burstyn really shines:  Sitting alone in her apartment and hallucinating (due to her overuse of diet pills), her thinner self and her favorite TV show host (Christopher McDonald) morph out of the TV set and make fun of Sara’s apartment.  Watch how Burstyn as Sara is forced to succumb to the judgement of her TV-self, reminding us how we all take cues from television in determining our self worth.

The three other performances turned in by the young actors are flawless as well, and definitely deserve special mention, but it is Burstyn who steals the show.


We see each of the four characters curl up into the fetal position at the end of their respective downward spirals (at the end of the 15 minute montage).  I think Aronofsky is trying to show here that most human beings will regress to childlike emotion in times of great crisis.  I think his broader point here is to indicate that we retreat to the times that make us feel most comfortably in crisis, so do not lose that ideal in the first place.  There is a time to be an adult and a time to be firm, but we never have to lose our innocence in the process.  If you lose it, you will end up back at it in the end anyway, because crisis is inevitable.  Aronofsky knows that if one is addicted to drugs, crisis is not too far off.  The drug addiction in this film serves to indicate a need for innocence by our characters.  They have trouble holding on to it in search of their dreams, so they bring it on by the use of drugs.  Aronofsky is encouraging us to chase our dreams, but to do so by playing things close to the chest and without the use of the generic blueprint that is the American Dream…..

Into the Wild (2007)

Say what you want about religion (and I can say plenty), but it certainly has helped to provide allegory for the artistic world.  So familiar are the salient details of the basic premise of religion (especially Christianity in the USA), that even the most simple of artful comparisons may be noticed by the layperson.  Sean Penn’s film Into the Wild is not solely a religious metaphor, nor do I think it is Penn’s central theme to the film.  But when watching Penn’s adaptation of John Krakauer’s best selling book “Into the Wild” unfold on the big screen, I cannot help but think of the same desires and idealistic aspirations I once shared (as a younger man) with the film’s real life hero Christopher McCandless aka Alexander Supertramp (Emile Hirsch). Knowing the ultimate fate of McCandless’ adventure to be death, I cannot help (but to) personally view him as a Christ-like figure – which is to say he sacrificed himself (for all those like he), hoofing the trail to the west of his problems eventually leading him to his last adventure which will test his perseverance and threshold for lonliness out in the wilderness…alone.  I seriously doubt McCandless intended on being a martyr for those of us who sought similar solitude, but his incorrigible disposition notwithstanding, he made it to that place many of us wanted to be, and with this emotionally wonderful film of his story, we get to feel the virtue and misfortune of his journey in the most visceral way possible.


Because we know the fate of the film’s hero before we see it, Into the Wild has the pending doom feeling throughout its 148 minute run time.  We know the story ends tragically and this makes for an uneasy feeling at times.  I have now seen the film around four or five times and I have to say it has improved with each viewing.  The reason for this is not only due to it being (quite simply) an enjoyable film, but because the more you grow accustom to Sean Penn’s construct of the story, the more you realize this film is a defense of McCandless’ actions and ultimate death.  That isn’t to say a pretty picture is painted by Penn stating Parents bad – Rebellious child GOOD! Penn carefully displays the uniqueness of Chris’ mom and dad’s collective normalcy as his parents.  The film actually begins by bypassing all of the minutiae that drove Chris to head to Alaska.  Instead we see him being dropped off by a kind stranger named Jim Gallien** at the head of the Stampede Trail where Chris’ Alaskan journey begins.  The film jumps back and forth to various points in between Chris’ college graduation at Emory University and his death in 1992 on the ‘Magic Bus’*** in the Alaskan wilderness.

By juxtaposing all off the significant moments of McCandless’ life during this nearly two year stretch, I believe Penn is first and foremost trying to pay the best homage he can to an extraordinary young man.  He is celebrating McCandless’ bravery, and goes to great length to show Chris’ disdain he had for his parents, but I do not believe Penn is asking us to take sides nor is he taking a side himself.  He paints broad strokes in the scenes with the McCandless family allowing for the tension between Chris and his parents (William Hurt & Marcia Gay Harden) to indeed feel tense, but to disallow room for judgment.  Sure the parents are flawed, but who isn’t….?

Chris’ younger sister Carine (Jena Malone) is the central narrator of the film.  She and Chris have a lovingly close relationship – always there for one another to serve as an emotional blockade from their mom and dad’s hurtful arguments.  It is therefore especially heartbreaking to hear Carine speak (in narration) of how she wishes Chris could have made an exception to his rule of silence, if only to drop her a line and say he is doing alright.  Carine’s words and the way in which Jena Malone delivers them are a healthy support to the story; sure she is upset that she does not get to speak to her brother, but she lends an objective opinion and begrudgingly understands Christopher’s plight.  Malone’s superb delivery  of Carine’s narration is one of the film’s best attributes and is a masterstroke of direction by Penn to include and apply it to the film the way we hear and see it.  With a kind voice, Malone is sympathetically critical of Christopher and thus (subtly) forcing objectivity (as it pertains to judging Chris) on to the viewers.

As the film’s chronology doubles back on itself, we are afforded the chance of meeting some interesting film characters, all incarnations of real life people Chris met and made privy to his intended Alaskan voyage.  There’s Jan and Rainey (Catherine Keener & Brian H. Dierker), a sweet hippie couple Chris meets out on the road who we learn are Rubber Tramps to that of Chris’ moniker of Leather Tramp (they wander by car and Chris by foot).  They briefly take in Chris and fall in love with his spirit despite his obstinate refusal to carry his past with him.

We briefly meet Sonja and Mads, a young and vibrant Danish couple on holiday in the United States where so far they’ve seen Las Vegas and Chris on the stone banks of the Colorado River.

Just before he heads directly to Alaska, Chris meets a nice and friendly old man named Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook).  We learn Ron lost his wife and young son many years ago while he was in Europe for the Army.  He takes a grandfatherly shine to Chris and instills him with a value of forgiveness and love.  This is a powerful performance by Holbrook; despite his short amount of screen time, Holbrook makes quite the impact on us, making us wish Chris takes Ron up on his kind offer….

My favorite of the people Chris meets is Wayne Westerberg (Vince Vaughn), a grain elevator operator in South Dakota who befriends Chris and hires him to some part time work.  Vaughn once again brings some comedic gravitas to a part that could’ve been just a stop-along character, but Vaughn gives Wayne a transcendent likability that shows what a good man he was for Chris to meet on his journey (even when he gets caught doing something not so good).

These characters and others Chris meets along the way all enrich his life in some way regardless of how brief the encounter.  They arm him with knowledge he (possibly) already possessed, but to gain it from a fresh perspective from these people whom he senses have no ulterior motives may have allowed it to resonate more clearly in a way it never had before.  Through these encounters we also are able to discern Chris’ voyage as one taken in earnest.  He is not doing this to have a story to tell or even to rebel against his parents.  Sure he may state surface reasons along the way, but these seem more spoken out of convenience (at the time) than anything else.  He is recognized as a loved and loving soul who has a lot to offer anyone with whom he comes in contact.  But through their heeds of caution, they understand what he is doing and that Chris must see it through….

Penn carefully allows Hirsch as McCandless to immerse himself in to the natural elements of the Alaskan wilderness, juxtaposing scenes of Chris’ disdain for the everyday “city life” to the harsh and unforgiving realities of nature.  Chris ultimately realizes the virtues of his journey and thus feels accomplished in this path.  He sought solitude and found it; it was not always as he imagined, but it was what he endured nonetheless and seemingly made peace with the idea of sharing his life.  It would seem Chris always intended on returning to urban civilization, but nature had other things in mind.


This is truly a great American film; one we can be proud that circulates the annals of our country’s cinema.  But more than that, it is a great American story.  Heading west, setting out for the frontier in search and hope of a better place or better understanding of what we are all doing here.  If I had to guess, I would say that Christopher McCandless would not want a movie made about his ultimately doomed trek to Alaska.  He craved not fame, but spiritual adventure. I do think, however, that if Chris saw this film, he would be proud of it.  I think he’d feel a sense of purpose in the filmmaking in that it is a cautionary tale of the indomitable spirit of man.  I doubt Chris would agree with me and my comparison of him to Jesus insofar as a martyr.  As the film depicts it, Chris reached a psychic plateau of love and wanting to share it; a place he could only get to by firstly taking this journey.  While his death is tragically sad, it is not due to hubris; Chris had the knowledge that escape would lead to what he was looking for.  His realization of shared love may not have been his intended salvation, but it’s not always about intentions, but rather how and where you end up.  Chris’s tragedy is not a flaw, but a circumstantial occurrence of death.  He went for the truth and in his death, taught those of us who care how to search for our own.

**The Jim Gallien character was played by the real life Jim Gallien.

***The Magic Bus is an abandoned bus Chris McCandless found smack dab in the middle of the Alaskan WIlderness.  He made it his home base whilst in Alaska.

Joy (2015)

David O. Russell’s new film Joy is a biopic showing us the journey Joy Mangano took from broke (and in debt) single mother to multi millionaire queen of QVC and HSN.  Jennifer Lawrence plays the titular role making this the third time she and Russell have collaborated.  Lawrence starred in Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook for which she took home the Best Actress Oscar, and also in Russell’s followup American Hustle for which Lawrence was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, and you can bet the farm we will be hearing Lawrence’s name listed as a Best Actress nominee for her wonderful turn in Joy.

Some movie fans do not like David O. Russell as a director.  These people will tell you that he is all style and no substance.  That is certainly a valid argument, but one with which I disagree.  I happen to like his style as it pertains to his storytelling and I think it worked best in Silver Linings… and American Hustle.  Say what you want about Russell’s style, but you certainly must call it unique!  At the beginning of Joy, as the studio logo is displayed to some light sounding bells, on to the opening (out of focus) camera shot, you can tell right away you’re in a David O. Russell Production!  And I am here to tell you it is the right style for this wonderful biopic about an extraordinary woman.

To tell Mangano’s story as a straight drama would be almost too depressing to watch.  She has a mother Terry (Virginia Madsen) living in her house who is so afraid of men and the outside world that she confines herself to her bed watching her soap operas in glorious agoraphobic fashion!  Joy’s ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramierez) lives in the basement practicing his singing in to a cheap P.A. system while their two kids are being watched upstairs by Joy’s grandma (Diane Ladd)  who also narrates the story with obsequious praise of Joy, always reassuring her that one day she will do great great things.  Joy’s father, Rudy (Robert DeNiro – another multiple Russell collaborator), who was once married to Terry, owns a body shop that his daughter Peggy (Elisabeth Rohm) helps him run.  Peggy is always there to let Joy know she has done something wrong and how she would have done it better!  OH!! And when we pick up the story, Rudy moves in to the house as well after being kicked out of the house of his longtime girlfriend, and since there is no room left in the house, Joy is forced to put him in the basement with her ex Tony, who does not get along with Rudy!  It should also be noted that Joy is broke bordering on in debt, and soon to actually be in debt, but as played by Lawrence, she remains so cute cuddly and calm….

Russell does some fun things like showing us the fake soap opera that Terry is always watching and actually uses some iconic soap opera stars like Susan Lucci to play the fake characters.  Russell intercuts the soap sequences with the plot scenes of the real movie.  He does this to show how Joy’s life is just like a ridiculous soap opera and how living a life like this can lead to you inventing the world’s first self ringing mop!  Which is what she did….

Rudy meets a lady named Trudy (Isabella Rossellini) through a dating service for widows and widowers (even though he isn’t a widower himself).  They begin a romantic relationship.  It is Trudy who ends up lending Joy the money to start her business to build and sell these mops.  Part of the fun of this film is to watch all of the great struggles Joy endures to become a success, so I will not spoil it for you.

One of the things  I like most about the film is the way Russell’s screenplay strips down a lot of the business minutiae and leaves in a bunch of phrases and bureaucratic nonsense (from the real world) that keeps many big and good ideas from coming to fruition in this country.  Over and over and OVER again we hear Trudy say to Joy in some form, “That’s the cost of doing business…” when something goes wrong for her.  This becomes a turn of phrase for Joy’s bad luck and misfortune.  The screenplay does a nice job as well to take us on the roller coaster ride that is Joy’s journey to selling her Miracle Mop to the country – how apropos a name!!

My fovorite parts of the film are with  Bradleey Cooper as QVC sales executive Neil Walker.  We get so use to the craziness that is Joy’s life and the zaniness of her family and their little manic tics, that when we see Walker as Cooper plays him – calm, cool, steady and collected – we can feel how Joy herself is calmed by him as well.  There is a moment in the film (my absolute favorite) at the QVC headquarters where Joan Rivers (played by her daughter Melissa Rivers) is selling her jewelry with a pretty female QVC host.  Walker is taking Joy on a tour of the studio when they begin watching the live broadcast with Joan.  The way Russell makes it look as if Cooper is conducting a large orchestra during this scene as he is showing Joy the connection between the movement of the host’s hands to the numbers of calls coming in is nothing short of enthralling!

I want to once again talk about how stripped down a lot of the screenplay is regarding the business side of things.  Russell does a great thing here to oversimplify the business terms and strategies; he instead uses these simple terms to give an overarching theme of how ridiculous people sound when they say (complicated/wordy version of) these things.  I believe Russell is trying to show a story of a brave woman with little to no business acumen who made it to the top because she had guts and a good idea!  By stripping down the language, Russell is rendering these traditional methods insensitive and superfluous.  This point is further emboldened when we learn Joy’s best friend Jackie and her ex Tony are her business consultants (even well after she bcomes rich).
Russell is also showing how it was this type of behavior from others that made Joy Mangano in to not only a successful business woman, but an empathetic one who is willing to take chances on other people’s ideas and also take care of her family long after they maybe didn’t deserve it.

Joy Mangano’s story is truly an American one!  A lot of people these days are losing sight what that really means.  It is an interesting and challenging choice for Russell to write and direct a film about this extraordinary woman.  I do not know what made him decide to do it, but in many of his films, non-fiction or otherwise, he likes the story of the underdog – the one everyone is counting out.  We all feel like that person at times in our lives, and Russell is showing us stories that say anything is possible – especially if we reach for our inner Joy….

This is one of the best films of the year…


Whoa baby! This film is sure to embolden the hatred men and women have for one another in the (sometimes) rotten game of love! “Closer” (2004), directed by Mike Nichols, is often compared to his brilliant movie “Carnal Knowledge”(1971), and rightfully so; both movies involve love triangles of sorts, but “Carnal Knowledge” contains characters you like whereas “Closer” forces the viewer to feel a sort of ambivalence towards its characters, so you have to stand back and wait to see the whole picture unfold before you go all in with any of them.

Although it would never be recognized as such at first glance,                   “Closer” may very well be one of the best movies ever made about love. Brutally honest and unrelenting, this film will hit closer to home with most people than any of the “fairy tale” love stories have in the past.  

What we have here are four people caught in a crisscrossing of confusing feelings of love. Alice (Natalie Portman, Best Supporting Actress nominee) who falls in love with Dan (Jude Law) after a unique meet-cute which begins the movie, and is an example of some very fine film making. Then Dan meets Anna (Julia Roberts in her best role) and falls for her while he is still with Alice. Before Dan and Anna have a chance to get together, Anna meets Larry (Clive Owen, Best Supporting Actor nominee) in another quirky meet-cute (which was inadvertently set up by Dan), and end up married.

This set up sounds like it could be the beginning of a screwball comedy, but I assure you, it’s not that…

By the time it is all said and done, both men will have slept with both women, but that’s not what the film is about. How they all arrive in these misguided passionate scenarios, and the order and number of times they all happen, is what drives this film’s plot.  

And speaking of fine film making, mid way through the film we get to witness a brilliant juxtaposition of two breakups taking place. In each case watch how the men relinquish control of the situation for different reasons, and yielding very different results.  

Clive Owen is amazing in his role as Larry, especially in the aforementioned breakup scene. He seems to be the best of the four characters at this dirty love game. Watch the way he uses Guerrilla warfare tactics that do not always initially get him what he wants, but always give him the upper hand in the long run. In a movie chalked full of great scenes, there is one involving Larry and Alice in a private room of a strip club. Alice is a stripper dancing for Larry and carefully extracting lots of money from him (as women in that arena are ought to do). Note the way this makes Alice feel as she trots around with an arrogance that makes her seem superior to Larry. Only at the end of the scene do we notice that Larry will not be made a fool, and with some snappy coarse dialogue, he puts Alice right in her place. And I promise you this: Most men will be staring in to Larry’s eyes at the closing push in of the scene, in hopes of seeing what he sees.

This film is not for everyone. Most will watch and be disgusted with all the characters. Others, who are more honest with themselves, will watch “Closer” and see a true-to-life character study of love and danger, and the mutual exclusiveness of those two words. I implore you to watch this with an open mind; try to recognize the nastiness of the characters as a normalcy. If you can do that, this will be an enjoyable film for you. Right up until the end, you’ll realize you don’t really know that much about people at all; even those closest to you.

NOTE: The song ‘Blower’s Daughter’ by Damien Rice bookends this movie in the opening and ending scenes. It is one of the best uses of a song I have ever seen. ENJOY!