When the summer movie line-up gets to be too much (or too little), give thanks for your VCR and head to the New Releases section of your neighborhood video store. Last year's blockbusters are there, to be sure, lined up in shiny plastic rows. But nestled in between are a few copies of those lesser known films that never made it to mid-market towns like Colorado Springs, films like Darren Aronofsky's stunning Requiem for a Dream and Spike Lee's searing Bamboozled. Do not delay: Go out and rent them now. Your faith in the power of movies to take on difficult topics with imagination, vision and feverish flair may be restored.
Aronofsky's Requiem garnered an Academy Award nomination for leading lady Ellyn Burstyn and, thus, a certain amount of media play. Still, it was one of the less visible films of 2000 since it was originally smacked with an NC-17 rating due to graphic content relating to drug use and degrading sex. I say watch it with your teenagers, especially if you think any of them may be contemplating recreational use of hard drugs. There could be no more powerful turn-off than the spectacle of decline that Aronofsky artfully applies to the screen.
Burstyn is Sara Goldfarb, a dumpy Brooklyn housewife who gets hooked on diet pills in a mad effort to lose pounds quickly. Her son, Harry, played by Jared Leto, is a small-time thief and passive heroin addict who spends his days with his addicted girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly) and his addicted best friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans), waiting for the "big deal" that will free him from relative poverty. All the actors give very brave performances, and Aronofsky films them with the eye of a painter -- closing in on portraits of tortured beauty and ruined lives.
Fast forward effects depict what a fix must feel like in tight focus, then fade to a steady, quick plummet of spirits when the effect wears off. The film is unflinching -- we do not expect these characters to be redeemed and they are not. Requiem for a Dream is an urban tragedy scripted for our times.
Lee's Bamboozled, too, takes a subject we retreat and hide from -- the depiction of black people in mass media -- and drives home a diatribe on racism that startles and surprises.
In this restless satire, Damon Wayans gives a dead-on deadpan performance as Pierre Delacroix, a Harvard-educated black man who's a successful television writer, trying to sell a concept for a new black show to the network. When he proposes a Cosby-like situation comedy, depicting the pitfalls of middle-class black Americans, his white boss (Michael Rapaport) demands something more edgy. Delacroix, in a fit of pique, sarcastically proposes a minstrel show for the new millennium, complete with watermelon patch and black face, to be played by an all-black cast. He is surprised when his idea is embraced and the show is actually given the go.
Delacroix recruits two street entertainers to play the show's leads: Mantan (tap dancer Savion Glover) and Sleep 'n Eat (Tommy Davidson), modeled after two 1930s minstrels. The supporting cast who shuffle and hoof on the old plantation set include Aunt Jemima, Topsy and Uncle Remus.
Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show, sponsored by Da Bomb malt liquor and Timmy Hilnigger jeans becomes an instant hit, and Delacroix and his proteges are drawn into a surreal situation where their demeaning depiction of their race becomes their claim to fame.
Jada Pinkett-Smith makes much of her supporting role as Delacroix's assistant, Sloan. Rapaport is the epitome of sleaze, insisting that although he's white, he's the blackest guy at the network. The entire cast, down to the extras, zing with energy.
Lee is relentless as always. Many critics accuse him of losing focus when the film shifts from delirious comic satire to dark fatalism. I believe they are merely tuckered out by his full frontal attack. Bamboozled may not be structurally perfect, but it's an important film, written, acted and produced with passion and nerve -- a rare animal in current cinema.