Movies at the Turn of the Century (Part II)

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As the trials and tribulations of adolescence slowly gave way to a monotonous and repetitive adulthood, these are the movies of the 2000s…

 

Seven) Once – John Carney (2007)

While in New York recently, I managed to catch the Broadway production of Once, which in my opinions, was not nearly as engaging as the eponymous movie it was based on. Don’t get me wrong, there was nothing really terribly wrong with the performances of the actors and actresses in the musical. The Broadway version did win multiple Tony Awards after all. However, as a medium, musicals in theatres tend to rely on exaggerated tones and flamboyant performances to solicit audience responses. Once, the movie, on the other, is a sombre and naturalistic drama that uses sparse musical moments to great effect.

In retrospect, it was apparent the greatest charms of Once was the mundane and unpretentious manner the leads (Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova) portrayed working class individuals who were in love with music. The fact that Hansard and Irglova were actual musicians added authenticity to the entire proceedings. It also explained why Carney’s glossy Hollywood follow-up, Begin Again, kind of fell flat, even though it featured a relatively established cast (Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley) and had a far bigger budget (Once was made on a budget of about US$150,000).

There were many great moments in the movie. One of these involved the leads approaching a bank manager to secure a bank loan for recording some tracks. Touched by the raw, unfiltered quality of Hansard’s demo, the bank manager picked up a guitar and played his own songs for the two, in a telling moment of unfulfilled dreams, before agreeing to the loan. Another great moment involved Hansard and his ever supporting father, who generously encouraged his son to pursue his muse in London. At time wish-fulfilling, these are the types of moments people in pursuit of a dream would love to see, even if they rarely occur in real life.

While there was undeniable chemistry and tons of empathy between the leads, the movie was never really a conventional love story, with Irglova’s character reconciling with her estranged husband in a pragmatic but realistic ending and Hansard pursuing a long neglected music career. If anything, the movie is a story dedicated to the love of music and its transcendental impact.

 

Six) Pan’s Labyrinth – Guillermo Del Toro (2006)

Not being much of a fan of either fantasy movies in general or Del Toro’s repertoire (Mimic, Hellboy and the recent Pacific Rim all struck me as somewhat boring), I was pleasantly surprised by Pan’s Labyrinth, a unique potpourri of fantasy, horror and Spanish civil war fiction.

Set in Spain in the 1940s after the Spanish Civil War, Pan’s Labyrinth revolved around the life of a young girl Ofelia, who may or may not be the spirit incarnate of Princess Moanna, whose father was the king of the Underworld. After moving in with her stepfather, the brutal Captain Vidal, Ofelia was led to believe she was in fact Princess Moanna by the faun, who assigned her three tasks to complete before she can return to the underworld.

The premise is simple, but effective. Unlike Del Toro’s other movies, which are firmly positioned in fantastic worlds, Pan’s Labyrinth alternates with ease between the bizarre and sometimes grotesque world of the fantastic and the dreary but no less horrifying world of the real. It was never really made explicit to the viewers if the creatures that Ofelia encountered were real or if they were merely part of Ofelia’s hallucinations as she seek to escape from the brutal realities of post Spanish Civil War life.

Even though I am not well verse where filming and photography techniques are concerned, Pan’s Labyrinth impressed me with its contrasting cinematography of the two distinct worlds. Rich saturated tones adorned the fantasy world while dry greys characterised the brutal realities of a war torn countryside. Many will likely agree that the crown jewel of the film is the awakening of the Pale Man (portrayed by Doug Jones), a scene that inspires dread in a manner not seen since alien chestbursters first made their debut in Ridley Scott’s classic. That image alone would have earned the movie a place on this list, but Del Toro has truly delivered a lasting classic here.

 

Five) Requiem for a Dream – Darren Aronofsky (2000)

Speaking of real horror movies, few come across as harrowing as Darren Aronofsky’s sophomoric effort, Requiem for a Dream. There are neither monsters nor strange creatures in Requiem for a Dream, but there are still plenty of cringe-worthy moments as viewers follow the four protagonists’ downward spiral into drug addiction and depravity.

While there were prior movies that depict the dire consequences of drug addiction, none are nearly as effective as Requiem for a Dream. This is likely due to a mix of Aronofsky’s direction and Ellen Burstyn’s sterling performance as an amphetamine-addicted retiree, who had only one thing to look forward to in her twilight years – being selected for her favourite televised game show. The film is heart-breaking and bleak at the same time as characters teetered towards an inevitable grim end.

Rhythm appears to play a big part of the film, with Aronofsky relying on hip-hop montages, which are defined by some critics as a series of split-screens and fast edits, designed to invoke a sense of repetition. In a way, such repetition may be meant to reflect the addictive nature of drug addiction, with victims helplessly drawn to the endless cycle of drug consumption and misery.

At times crushingly tragic and bleak, each of the protagonists had some redeeming quality that audience can relate to, thus making their demise even more depressing than ever. Jared Leto’s Harry was an exploitative son, but he showed genuine concern over his mother’s addiction to diet pills. Ellen Burstyn’s Sara is most tragic as she did not seem to exhibit any obnoxious flaws except for a misguided final grasp at happiness. The final moments of the film, involving scenes of electroshock therapy and amputation, can be hard to stomach, but are strangely fitting for a movie of such nature.

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