Great Films You Need To See – Pi (1998)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the visually focused film magazine that proves there’s more to film than meets the eye. The Big Picture is running a series of features and reviews throughout August with the theme of ‘outsiders, loners and losers’. This piece is part of the site’s Lost Classics section (featuring in my list of Great Films You Need To See), in this case Darren Aronofsky’s debut Pi.

It’s a trait that has remained constant throughout much of his career, but the dangerous consequences of obsession were never more strikingly explored than in Darren Aronofsky’s distinctive debut.

Filmed on jarring black and white reversal film stock, the high contrast it provides to Pi (1998) is emblematic of the madness/genius see-saw its gifted young mathematician Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) rides as he becomes progressively more consumed with finding a numerical pattern that unlocks the door to life, the universe and everything.

Aronofsky's Pi adds up to an absorbing and idiosyncratic calling card for its uncompromising director and a compulsive study in the destructive power of obsession

Aronofsky’s Pi adds up to an absorbing and idiosyncratic calling card for its uncompromising director and a compulsive study in the destructive power of obsession

As Max himself states: “One – mathematics is the language of nature. Two – everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers. Three – if you graph the numbers though any system, patterns emerge. Therefore there are patterns everywhere in nature.”

Shot through Max’s POV or in tight close up (occasionally through the disarming use of steadicam), we see the world through his repressed and paranoid perspective. He lives in a cramped apartment swallowed up by a vast computer system he’s built to reveal the pattern that exists behind the numbers of the New York Stock Exchange.

Do the math: Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) in Pi

Do the math: Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) in Pi

Despite keeping human contact to a bare minimum – his only acquaintance is former maths teacher Sol (Mark Margolis) – he attracts the unwanted attention of a Wall Street analysis firm keen to exploit him; and Lenny, part of a radical group of Hasidic Jews that believe Max is the vessel to reveal the 216-digit string of numbers hidden within the Torah that imparts the true name of God.

Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) finds the goden spiral pattern in the universe in Pi

Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) finds the golden spiral pattern in the universe in Pi

The conspiracy theories, mysticism and high level maths may make for a good thriller and feed the pre-millennial angst that was rife at the time of the film’s release, but Pi is at its strongest as an unnerving psychological horror of one man’s descent into the very spiral he believes represents the pattern to end all patterns.

Clint Mansell’s aggressive electro score, in turns intriguing and nightmarish, is the perfect soundtrack to the chaos that plays out in Max’s mind, most discordantly during the increasingly debilitating headaches he experiences.

Peek-a-boo: Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) in Pi

Peek-a-boo: Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) in Pi

Aronofsky takes a number of visual cues from the industrial horrors of David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977), while the nod to Japanese cyberpunk classic Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) can be seen in Max’s search for the soul in the machine.

The director’s doffing of the cap to Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling as “the patron saint of the movie” also makes sense when considering how that TV show’s penchant for the cautionary tale fits neatly alongside the numerous references Max makes to Icarus; the tragic figure from Greek mythology who ignored the warnings and flew too close to the sun.

Driller killer: Maths genius Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) in Pi

Driller killer: Maths genius Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) in Pi

Max’s obsession with the golden spiral, meanwhile, is reflected in much of the film’s imagery, from the swirl of milk in a stirred cup of coffee, to the circular journey of a paper plane; and the 360-degree movement of the camera as it coils around him.

Aronofsky’s Pi adds up to an absorbing and idiosyncratic calling card for its uncompromising director and a compulsive study in the destructive power of obsession. Do the math.

Review – Guardians Of The Galaxy

The Marvel Cinematic Universe lives up to its name in this star-spanning space opera that puts the fun back into a genre that had disappeared up its black hole.

A genuine pleasure, Guardians Of The Galaxy should give JJ Abrams something to think about for the next installment of  that other well known space opera

A genuine pleasure, Guardians Of The Galaxy should give JJ Abrams something to think about for the next installment of that other well-known space opera

The fact that Guardians Of The Galaxy is drawing so many comparisons to Star Wars is not only a testament to the high esteem it’s being held in by so many critics, but also to the fact that it’s so refreshing to watch a film of this ilk that resolutely refuses to take itself too seriously.

Too often, sci-fi filmmakers get bogged down in blindsiding their audience with Midi-chlorians, flibbertigibbets and unnecessary solemnity at the expense of an intriguing narrative and engaging characters. Although Guardians… isn’t averse to a spot of Basil Exposition (understandable considering it’s the first in what will undoubtedly become another Marvel franchise), it does so with a light and breezy air that avoids spoon-feeding the audience.

The A Team - Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Groot (Vin Diesel) and Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) in Guardians Of The Galaxy

The A Team – Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Groot (Vin Diesel) and Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) in Guardians Of The Galaxy

Abducted from Earth as a young boy following the death of his mother, intergalactic thief Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord, (Chris Pratt) incurs the wrath of the super-evil Ronan (Lee Pace) when he steals a mysterious orb. With Ronan’s henchmen, and women, hot on the trail of the orb, including his lieutenant Nebula (Karen Gillan), Peter forms an uneasy accord with assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), genetically engineered racoon Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), the tree-like Groot (Vin Diesel) and warrior Drax the Destroyer (WWE star Dave Bautista).

When the extent of the orb’s power becomes clear, and Ronan’s diabolical plan reveals itself, Peter must turn his ragtag associates into a full-on fighting force to save the galaxy from destruction.

The heroic Peter Quill/Star Lord (Chris Pratt) in Guardians Of The Galaxy

The heroic Peter Quill/Star Lord (Chris Pratt) in Guardians Of The Galaxy

Marvel’s policy of trusting its multi-million dollar products to leftfield directors (Edgar Wright’s departure from 2015’s Ant Man notwithstanding) once again pays off. The edgy comic touch of James Gunn’s previous flicks Slither (2006) and Super (2010) is a perfect fit for Guardians‘ tongue-in-cheek sensibility.

The film takes great pleasure in sending up the clichés of the genre, such as the team’s slow motion walk towards the camera in which Gamora can be seen yawning. Gunn and Nicole Perlman’s meta script goes off on tangents, some funny, others less so, and concentrates on the relationships between the lead characters. This is a bunch of misfits we can believe in and the bond they gradually form is convincingly handled by the cast.

The evil Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) and his loyal lieutenant Nebula (Karen Gillan) in Guardians Of The Galaxy

The evil Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) and his loyal lieutenant Nebula (Karen Gillan) in Guardians Of The Galaxy

One of the more successful elements of Guardians… is its soundtrack of 70s and 80s classics, ingeniously crowbarred into the film as they form part of Peter’s beloved mix tape from his mother. Setting aside the fact that his Walkman wouldn’t probably survive 26 years and that AA batteries would likely be a little hard to come by in outer space, the music serves as a reminder that Peter, like Buck Rogers and John Carter, is a human in an alien environment and our way into this universe.

Gamora (Zoe Saldana) learns more about the mysterious orb in Guardians Of The Galaxy

Gamora (Zoe Saldana) learns more about the mysterious orb in Guardians Of The Galaxy

Despite trying a bit too hard at times to be Han Solo’s slightly less cool brother, Pratt is a good fit for Peter and proves a likeable lead. Saldana may look like a character from Star Trek, but she kicks ass and is proving a formidable presence in the world of big budget sci-fi, what with the Trek and Avatar franchises already in place. Cooper’s energetic, fast-talking voice work for Rocket is nicely played, while Diesel manages to give a new meaning to each new utterance of his singular phrase “I am Groot” and even non-actor Bautista does some solid work as meathead Drax.

Elsewhere, Gillan is impressively alien as Nebula, while Gunn makes sure to give his other supporting cast members something to do, especially Michael Rooker’s blue-skinned alien Yondu and John C Reilly’s corpsman Rhomann Dey.

A genuine pleasure, Guardians Of The Galaxy should give JJ Abrams something to think about for the next installment of  that other well-known space opera.