Review: Easy as ‘Pi’. Not really.

Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky

Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky

I am pretty certain that most people who enjoy certain movies entertain the notion of repeat viewings for those movies. Most people don’t say, “Wow, that was a fantastic movie, and I am never going to watch it again!” Anyone who has seen a Darren Aronofsky film, however, knows exactly what I’m talking about. Pi (1998) is Aronofsky’s first feature-length film, and his least scarring one.

Still a little scarring. It wouldn’t be Aronofsky without psychological scarring.

Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) is a mathematician obsessed with finding the key number that will unlock all the secrets of the universe, from nature to language to the stock market. Inspired by the Fibonacci Sequence, Max consults his friend, mentor, and former professor Sol Robeson (Mark Margolis) on the existence of this key number. Max encounters a mysterious number while writing a program to predict stock market fluctuations, which causes his computer’s motherboard to shut down completely. While delving deeper into this enigmatic number that seemingly holds so much power, Max meets Lenny Meyer (Ben Shenkmen), an Orthodox Jew and fellow mathematician. As Max discovers more about his mystery number, he also realizes that he is not the only one who wants their hands on the number.

Aronofsky is one of several apt masters of the psychological thriller genre. He is talented at viewer confusion, and a downright genius when it comes to stretching our minds to the breaking point of both logical understanding of the film’s universe and our internal sense of imagination. If you had to reread that sentence (like I did to make sure it was grammatically correct), a repeated view of Pi might be part of your near future.

Don’t be discouraged! This is not admittance of intellectual defeat or of stunted psychological cognition. It is merely evidence that Aronofsky is a fantastic storyteller in both writing and direction. Before the Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999) revolution that created the demand for twist endings in movies, not very many films were gritty in nature, nor did they offer viewers the luxury of having their minds blown. I have talked about this before, but I love films with ambiguous endings. I love movies where I go “What. The. Hell”, get mad for a week, go into a theory/analysis research spree, and then accept that the movie was fantastic.

My favorite reaction to movies ever.

So the plot is a tad bit hard to follow at times. What about non-narrative aspects of the film? Well, my dear internet friends, there is not much luck in the cinematography/color/lighting areas if you are looking for clarification. The film is shot in high-contrast black and white, a telltale sign of Aronofsky’s inspiration of German Expressionist films. In each shot of the film, the frames are both over- or under-exposed, casting harsh shadows and mostly eliminating detail from the characters and their surroundings. Although this can be frustrating at times, it allows the viewer to focus a little more on the plot.

Aside from Mark Margolis, who most notably (to me and other Breaking Bad fans) portrayed Tio Salamanca, the cast consisted of actors I am not familiar with. For many of the actors in Pi, this was their first major role in a feature film. Retrospectively, I think this was another good move on Aronofsky’s part; placing actors in the film who were recognizable in 1998 would have adversely affected the narrative flow by distracting viewers.

Pi does not necessarily have a distinct message meant for the viewer. It is not a clean ending by any means. However, it is a testament to the quality of independent and low-budget films. It is also a testament to quality thrillers in general. For those about to have their mind fried: it’s a glorious feeling. Embrace it.

I SAID EMBRACE IT.

Rating: A-

Official Trailer

Advertisements

Review: ‘Manic’ in both content and execution

Manic (2001)

Directed by Jordan Melamed
Written by Blayne Weaver, Michael Bacall

It’s hard to believe that most all of the young actors in Manic (2001) are just that – actors. It would so naturally seem like director Jordan Melamed walked into a juvenile psych ward and documented its day-to-day-happenings. Although this low-budget cinema verite hosts many famous actors now, as young people, they seem to understand mental illness hauntingly well.

The film follows Lyle Jensen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as he is admitted into a juvenile psych ward for a vicious assault on a fellow member of his baseball team. The ward’s doctor, Dr. David Monroe (Don Cheadle), is determined to help the teenagers in his ward cope with their emotional problems so that they can live in the ‘real world’. A host of behavioral and psychological disorders are introduced in the typical circle-discussion-therapy of movies set in hospital or psychiatric wards. Kenny (Cody Lightning) is Lyle’s roommate, and is a barely-thirteen-year-old child molester. Chad (Michael Bacall) is a manic-depressive who soon becomes Lyle’s best friend in the ward. Tracy (Zooey Deschanel) has low self-esteem and terrible nightmares, and connects emotionally and romantically to Lyle.

For those who have trouble with motion sickness, this movie will not be your cup of tea. Each scene is shot completely with a handheld camera, and a lot of shakiness and lack of focus is the result. The videography, though occasionally headache-inducing, gives a good look into the emotional impulsiveness and chaos of the teenage patients, as well as the uneasy feeling of being in a constant state of psychological upheaval. There is no still moment throughout the whole movie, and it keeps the viewer on their toes, wondering what the impulses of the young patients will be, and also the entailing consequences of those impulses.

Dave Monroe is the only true tie that his patients have to the outside world, and he constantly encourages them, not through bribes or sugary falsehoods, but by using his own emotional turmoil as a grasp to relate to the teenager’s struggles. He asks questions like “What gives your life meaning?” in order to encourage progress, but also as a demand of the viewer: What gives you the greatest sense of accomplishment? Why are you alive?

For this movie, I live for the subtle and magnificent performances of most all of the characters. Levitt conveys his feeling almost exclusively through his body and facial expressions; whether the camera captures his whole body or just his eyes, the intense undercurrents of his past struggles surface, almost in an uncomfortable manner. Cheadle, too, was fantastic. Although he is an acting giant in his own right, he provided a solid foundation that allowed his younger counterparts to find their acting niche.

Manic opened up an uneasy Pandora’s box: one of adolescent psychological disorder that, for most films, is used merely as a throwaway explanation for why characters act the way they do. It delves into the history behind each character’s disorder, not in order to make light of their struggles, but so that the viewer and the character can understand them, but so that they may both embrace them.

Melamed accentuates the importance of freedom throughout the film – for the teenagers, freedom is primarily a release from the ward, but it is also the freedom from their emotional distress and seeming societal limitations. For the viewer, Manic is the freedom to experience a raw sense of uninhibited feeling, and to actually be okay with their discomfort. It is the freedom to experience not only acting or film as an art, but pure emotion as its own art.

Rating: B+

Official Trailer