What’s Star Wars?

I found out about a very silly essay defending the Star Wars prequels. The writer is basically arguing that the underlying structure of Star Wars is akin to that of a ring where each movie repeats and is interconnected, or some other pseudo-intellectual crap. He pretty much ignores the fundamental problems with the films and instead focuses on some dumb theory that’s completely irrelevant to the ways humans create and retain narrative (who cares about similarities between the films when the stories and characters themselves suck?) I’m not a Star Wars fan (I prefer Star Trek) and I’ve always felt that even the originals weren’t very good, but at least were somewhat competent, aside from some of the acting, in comparison to the prequels. Maybe I’ll read the whole thing, but then again it’s ten whole pages long. Still not as bad as some academic essays I’ve read however.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) – Movie Review

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is supposed to be a lament, but it just sucks. Visually, the film is great; there’s all sorts of neat tricks with lighting, camera movement and special effects to conjure the illusion that two drug addicts stumbling about is somehow interesting, but, unfortunately, the illusion’s effectiveness quickly fades and all that is left is the bad script. The script is so bad that they should have called it Dull and Boring in Las Vegas instead.

There isn’t really a plot. We follow two druggies, Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and his attorney, “Doctor” Gonzo (Benicio del Toro), as they engage in a chemically-induced assault on the Las Vegas strip. Duke is supposed to be there to write on a bike race in the desert, but is instead inspired to write about the American Dream and the failure of the 1960’s counterculture. However, the narration Duke provides only makes the film seem pretentious as if he’s trying to make the things depicted on screen seem more significant than they actually are. It’s a shame for the premise had potential; perhaps the problem lies in the source material, Hunter S. Thompson’s 1971 book of the same name, but I haven’t read it so I cannot say.

Anyway, I don’t really have much to say about this movie so I’ll let another do the talking. Here’s what one Ron Wells says of the film, when it first came out in 1998:

For all of you idiot film reviewers, do the two main characters, Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and Dr. Gonzo (Benicio del Toro) really look like they’re having a grand old time? I don’t think so. Like Hunter S. Thompson’s classic tome, we see the ugly downside of the drug revolution. Revolutions tend to end in anarchy and pointless bloodshed. Instead of a higher consciousness, we get Duke, and we get a ringside seat for how meaningless and cruel the real world is, and a close look at the demons within himself. “Fear and Loathing” does for psychedelics what “Boogie Nights” does for cocaine; displaying in graphical detail the ultimate failure of drugs as an escape route. You feel the psychic thud as our anti-heroes hit bottom. It ain’t pretty.

Okay, maybe I should add my two cents here. Yes, the film displays the “ugly downside of the drug revolution,” but the problem is is that it hardly does anything more. There’s the narration, as mentioned before, and some images that try to heighten things, but they mostly fail because the “insights” Duke provides aren’t exactly mind-expanding. And the images are quite blatant in their meaning as we see, during one of Duke’s more potent highs, Richard Nixon’s distorted head on a television screen along with Jimi Hedrix’s rendition of Star Spangled Banner juxtaposed in the background. During that same scene Gonzo offers Duke more cocaine that he sprinkled on his knife, then seconds later he offers more but on his gun, then Duke’s mind molds him into the Devil. A bit obvious, no? But even then, the emphasis is still on how “crazy” Duke’s and Gonzo’s shenanigans are. Wells goes on:

It’s a valid complaint since we barely see what the poor bastards are like when they aren’t binging, so no level-headed base line is ever really established. These guys didn’t end up this way overnight, though. They worked their way down. “The Truman Show”, one of the best films of the year, doesn’t make a lot of sense without knowing the conventions of television. However, we all know about sets and cues and product placements. In this case, uneducated about drugs, these bozos look like a couple of joy-riding assholes pissing on anything standing in their way. They aren’t exactly doped up on any judgement enhancers. Duke and Gonzo’s understanding of the repercussions always comes too late. They have no guide for their descent into hell, just the psychic corpses of everyone they ran down on the way to mark their way.

This is just Wells making excuses: It’s not the movie’s fault, but your own for being too square to understand the psyche of a junkie, okay? Seriously, the film really is just “a couple of joy-riding assholes” with a message merely tacked-on. That’s it. It could have worked if the film had more to rely on than just the visuals. Oh well. So, what else does Wells have to say?:

Now this is a damn funny film, but it’s not some Bill Murray flick. Vegas is surreal enough, without turning into a cross between Sid Vicious and Otis, the town drunk. You can either laugh at the buffoonery and/or cringe with recognition from your own experiences. I know I did. Duke, Thompson’s alter-ego, has moments of clarity throughout the film. He knows the 60s are over. Like a lot of habitual users, though, he’s always trying to move the bottom of the well lower to prevent hitting it on the way down. The drugs may expand your mind, but sometime you’ll look down and see only the filth you’re standing in.

Notice how he doesn’t mention any specifics concerning the humor in the film. Yes, the movie attempts to be funny, but mostly fails. For one thing, Depp’s performance is silly at first, but it’s, in the end, too cartoony. All he does is stumble about, make jerky arm movements and eye-twitches. There really isn’t much of a character to laugh at, but rather a collection of traits and eccentricities that are seemingly designed to illicit laughter. I’m not saying there should be a deep characterization, but at the same time this isn’t a 1930’s slapstick; the film is established in reality (or, rather, crashing through it) so there at least needs to be something a little bit more to the character that we can laugh with/at. There are also a number of scenes and moments that try so hard to be funny, like the scene in which Duke is pulled over by a cop (played by Gary Busey) which ends with the punchline of the cop wanting a kiss on the cheek.

Also, note how Wells defends the film for what it depicts, instead of how it depicts it. Now, what he describes can also describe almost every movie about drug usage and addiction. This reminds me of another “review” by wannabe internet celebrity Jeremy Jahns where he calls The Avengers an amazing film, but says so because it featured superheroes who didn’t get along at first. What’s silly about this is that every movie about a team assembling to save the world, or whatever, starts the same way. Just because certain tropes are present doesn’t mean the movie is “better” or “more believable,” but it’s in the way in which the tropes are used or whether if they work for the film. Wells concludes his review:

What kind of moron thinks this film glamorizes drugs? “Die Hard” can be a lot of fun to watch, but I wouldn’t want to live through it. “Fear and Loathing” is a sort of psychedelic action film. It’s a blast, but I wouldn’t want to be there, either. If you want an easy rush, get on a roller coaster. The other stuff is just pants-shitting terror. Buy a ticket, take a ride.

He’s right in that the movie doesn’t glamorize drug use, but one also can’t deny that the movie expects us to be intrigued by it; perhaps, this isn’t an unrealistic expectation for there are the sheltered who will be drawn to such “dangerous behavior and lifestyles”; however, drug usage and its predictable outcomes aren’t immanently intriguing. And this is, again, the film’s greatest flaw; it’s almost nothing, but druggie shenanigans even with the inclusion of Duke’s narration. Shenanigans can be interesting, but with Fear and Loathing we just get the same shit over and over that’s about as exciting as a ride on the Ferris wheel. However, as much as I like to rag on critics, especially “professional” ones, they, overall, seemed to had gotten this movie right when it came out, perhaps for the wrong reasons (maybe reasons Wells was originally trying to counter in his review,) but whatever. This movie is lousy and I don’t know why I wasted two hours on it. I guess maybe because it’s one of those “cult films” that are supposed to be once-neglected gems, but now have been pulled from the muck. But after watching this, I’m hoping there are more deserving films out there, ready to be truly seen.

Cutter’s Way (1981) – Movie Review

Cutter’s Way, directed by Ivan Passer, is a decent enough film that presses some interesting ideas, however, one can’t help but feel that it could have been something more. The acting, cinematography, direction and score are all good, but it’s the script that weighs everything down, and it’s not even a bad script, just one laden with numerous flaws.

The movie starts with Rick Bone, played by a pre-“Dude” Jeff Bridges, living the cushy lifestyle until witnessing the murderer of a teenage girl as he was dumping the body, however, after leaving his car after it breaks down by where the body is found he becomes the prime suspect of the homicide. Soon, Rick recognizes the murderer in the parade–J.J. Cord (Stephen Elliot,) a rich oil tycoon. Rick’s friend, an alcoholic and physically-disabled Vietnam vet named Alex Cutter (John Heard) prompts Rick to inform the police that Cord was the one who dumped the body, but Rick is reluctant to, possibly because he fears endangering his lifestyle if Cord comes after him. As a result, Cutter decides, along with the victim’s sister Valerie Duran (Ann Dusenberry) to try to blackmail Cord, believing that if Cord pays-up it would be an admission of guilt and Cutter will bring this information to the police. Of course, things don’t go as smoothly as planned and Rick Bone’s life becomes in jeopardy.

While the movie is classified as a “thriller” and the plot reflects this, the center of the movie is Rick’s relationship with Alex and his wife (Lisa Eichhorn). Rick, like Alex, is a liberal but unlike Alex is lazy and more adamant about maintaining his easy lifestyle. Rick is obviously correct in believing that blackmailing a wealthy oil tycoon is a terrible idea, but he offers no other solution and would much rather keep quiet, allowing an evil to go unresolved. Even after he recognizes Cord as the guy he saw the night of the murder he quickly changes the story, insisting on the possibility that he was wrong. Throughout the film Rick denies the obvious while Alex cuts through the B.S. However, Alex is a violent, emotionally-disturbed but driven man whose obsessed with enacting “justice”. To Alex, Cord represents the evil, rich man who eludes justice while everyone else is massacred in the trenches. The scenes where Rick and Alex argue over the morality of their decisions constitute the best the movie has to offer for they are the most intellectually intriguing as well as the best-acted and most memorable.

Some of the drama also takes place between Rick and Alex’s wife who is lonely. Alex and his wife’s relationship is quite damaged as their sex life has dwindled into nothing (due to the pain of Alex’s wounds–the left side of his body is missing an eye, a forearm and leg,) and they both cannot emotionally deal with one another thanks to Alex’s drunkennes. Rick and Alex’s wife are obviously smitten with one another, or at least lust after one another, however Alex’s wife continually denies Rick’s advancements. While some of these scenes are good they don’t carry as much as the aforementioned scenes with Rick and Alex. And the scenes where Rick finally does become intimate with her drag on for way too long. One could argue that their sex scene has to go on and on in order to capture the discomfort Alex’s wife has in betraying her husband, but the surrounding scenes with the two (the minutes before and after they have sex) are far too bloated and plod along ever so slowly.

Another flaw comes with Rick’s character and his not going to the police to tell them about seeing Cord. Even though he wants to protect himself I just couldn’t by his possible reasoning for not claiming that he witnessed Cord. It just didn’t seem all that believable that he wouldn’t want to say anything because the audience isn’t given enough reason behind his motivations. This reeks of the screenwriter trying to push the plot forward by disregarding reality, which is kind of frustrating to watch.

But the script’s greatest problem comes at the end (warning: spoilers! skip this paragraph and the next if you don’t like spoilers!!!) At the end, after Alex has blackmailed Cord, Cord fucking burns his house down with his wife in it. Rick suggests that maybe his wife burned the house down on her own after Rick left her alone (he basically admits to having an affair to Alex at this point,) but it’s obvious that Rick is just lying to Alex and himself for it’s apparent that Cord was responsible. So, Rick and Alex infiltrate a party being held at Cord’s mansion. Rick thinks that Alex is just going to negotiate with him, but then he learns that Alex is going to straight-up murder the dude. This leads into a few chases with Cord’s security chasing Alex and Rick around. Rick is caught and is confronted by Cord (the first time he is shown up close and speaks) while Alex commandeers a horse from Cord’s stable. This is where the movie decides to drop right off the cliff. Alex rides along the side of the pool (or I should say, a stuntman wearing the world’s worst hairpiece) and then launches himself through Cord’s office window where Rick and Cord are. This scene is so over-the-top, doesn’t fit with the rest of the film’s tone and borders on comedic–if it were in another film it would have been amazing, but here it’s just jarring. I know Alex is supposed to be self-destructive and obsessive and this scene was supposed to culminate with all of that, but come on!

Then Rick goes to tend to Alex, but Alex dies due to the broken glass (I guess) after handing him the gun. Rick looks up and fires in Cord’s direction (Cord is shot off-screen). The End. What’s weird about all this is how the ending is both over-the-top nonsense and anti-climatic at the same time, what with Alex’s shenanigans and Rick just plainly shooting Cord (we don’t even get to see Cord dying!) One of my friends, whom I was watching the film with, came-up with an even better ending where there’s ambiguity as to whether Cord really was the killer, yet Alex murders him anyway out of spite for what he represents, not for what definitely did, and then the aftermath. This would have been a more poetic ending and would have also fit better with the movie’s themes, but the filmmakers seemed like they didn’t know how the end the movie so they just ended it…with that, nearly ruining what could have been something pretty good.

Unfortunately, Cutter’s Way, is another film that could have been so much more, but it’s still pretty decent. However, it still contains some depth which makes it a more engaging watch than the fucking schlock that Hollywood is pumping out these days like Think Like a Man Too! Who wants to see that bunch of slop! Am I right?!? Guys?!?!

Oh wait, there’s this one scene I forgot to mention. Early on in the movie, Alex is super-drunk and plows another car out of his driveway, pushing it into his neighbor’s front lawn. The neighbors are, predictably, furious at such hooliganry and call the cops. While the cops come Alex heads back into his house and drinks some mouthwash (this shows how smart Alex is–he is masking his breathe whilst still sating his alcohol addiction!) He comes out and talks to the police officer in the most civil way possible, but in a way that’s entirely believable. The cop sympathizes with Alex and only writes him off a ticket for an expired license. This scene is great because it shows that, despite his convictions, Alex is a hypocrite for he doesn’t take responsibility for a crime he committed, choosing to weasel his way out instead. Despite his pursuing of justice he is more interested in seeking revenge–the man is entirely selfish, even though the audience can sympathize with him, just like the cop.

So I guess I would recommend this movie, despite its being overlong, for the few scenes that contain some great depth and dialogue.

247 °F (2011) – Movie Review

247 °F, directed by Levan Bakhira and Beqa Jguburia, is one of those movies that had the potential to be an incredibly stupid B-movie. After learning the premise of the film, a suspense thriller about three people getting trapped in a sauna, I anticipated the movie to be complete dreck. Fortunately, the film turned out to be actually decent, with some nice suspense and attempts at characterization.

The first twenty minutes are dedicated to boring expository scenes necessary to establish what needs to be established: Jenna (played by Scout Taylor-Compton) survives a car accident that killed her boyfriend. Three years later she is still traumatized, depressive and taking pills. To help push her out of her bubble a friend Renee (Christina Ulloa) insists that she stay with her and her boyfriend, Michael (Michael Copon) and his friend Ian (Travis Van Winkle) who takes an interest in Jenna, in a cabin for a weekend getaway. The cabin is owned by Ian’s cool uncle Wade (Tyler Mane) who smokes pot and lives a drive away. As Renee’s and Michael’s relationship starts turning sour due to Michael getting more and more wasted, Ian tries to flirt and converse with the reluctant Jenna. They drink, smoke weed, etc. and talk about going to a party that’s nearby. These scenes, while kind of dull, are actually alright compared to similar films as the writing and acting is better than average. At this point I was somewhat surprised but was just waiting for it all to start going downhill.

So they soon decide to check out the gas-powered sauna in the cabin that Ian’s pot-smoking uncle built. This is where I was expecting the movie to falter in some terrible schlock that I can laugh at. Eventually, after the drunk Michael has a fight with Renee he leaves the three who stay and sizzle in the sauna. Moments later, Ian tries to open the door but seems to be unable to. They quickly realize that they are trapped in what is perhaps the world’s most poorly-built sauna as there is no way to shut-off the heat from the inside. What makes 247 °F better than most films of its genres (and how it exceeded my expectations) is how the characters handle the situation. Ian, as established before, is actually quite well-read and seemingly intelligent as he tries to assess their situation without panicking (at least at first.) The two others that are trapped as well, Jenna and Renee, suggest that they break the tiny window, but Ian points out that the cool air that would come in as a result might be detected by the sauna’s thermostat and the heat will continue to rise within the sauna. But he eventually breaks the glass so that they could get more air and so that Ian can try to figure out if they can somehow move whatever’s blocking the sauna door. So what makes this particular movie stand out is that the characters aren’t completely stupid and thus annoying to watch. However, I wondered why Ian didn’t just take the heating rocks out, either with the towels or the wooden spoon, from the wire basket and let them cool, then block the gas valve. Some posters on the Imdb forums even thought of this as well, but maybe when one is in that kind of situation, mentally debilitated by the increasing heat, it’s understandable to be unable to think of a reasonable solution. Regardless, it’s still refreshing to see a movie that doesn’t try to build its suspense and horror from the dumb actions of its characters.

Another thing that works to the film’s advantage is that all of the film’s drama and conflict seems to be the result of human fallibility, rather than from some sinister force, psychosis, or madness. From Ian’s uncertainty as to whether removing the sauna’s thermostat is a good idea or not, to Michael’s accidentally jamming the door, and to Wade for thinking he can build a sauna on his own. Another thing that is also interesting is Ian flipping-out toward the end of the film as opposed to Jenna who becomes the more level-headed one in the moment. One would expect Jenna to be mentally worse than Ian, who was the most rational for a while, in that situation. This sort of reminds me of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia where the mentally unstable character is better able to rationally deal with incoming doom than her sister, who before was the more “normal” character. But a slight problem does arise out of this, as the audience isn’t surprised (and were probably expecting) Jenna to become the “hero”. This is like in Jack the Reaper where the audience just knows that the girl who was molested by her father would survive. I should also mention that when Ian finally does go nuts it ends up being pretty fucking hilarious, rather than terrifying.

So yeah…not a bad film. Not great by any means as there are some scenes that seem to drag, killing some of the tension, but still, I was sweating so much that it made my seat wet! Get it? Because the movie’s about a sauna. So the “reveal” that Michael was the one that trapped the other characters in a stove, and unintentionally, was supposed to be a surprise. But when Renee and Michael are arguing and Michael stumbles away I already knew that he was the one that was going to cause all the shit, and that he wasn’t expecting to as well because there would be little reason for him to block the door on purpose even though he was pissed-off and disappointed by his girlfriend. Other than that the movie is alright. Did I mention it’s based on true events? That’s pretty crazy ain’t it, except for the minor deviations from reality, like the fact that the sauna was actually electric-powered and that they were able to switch off the heat. But other than that this shit really happened!

247 °F is a decent B-movie that might be worth watching if nothing else is on or if you’re hankering for something suspenseful that isn’t total garbage. But be warned, the characters won’t be the only ones sweating! Wait, I already used that joke. Shit. Um…you’ll have a blistering good time! Yep, that’ll do just fine.

CBGB (2013) – Movie Review

CBGB is the story of Alan Rickman who after making thousands of dollars from the Twilight series decides to grow an afro and travel back in time to open-up a bar called The Mudd Club in order to see how long he can go without paying the bills or sanitizing the toilets. The Dead Kennedys help out by playing some songs in exchange for glue. The movie was an instant success; Roger Ebert lauded the film for its realism and sensitivity toward minorities and the public loved Ron Weasley’s portrayal as a flasher. It’s a stunning film, directed by Francis Ford de Palma, and wrought with awe-inspiring visual effects. I give CBGB a very hardcore C+.

*stops reviewing the trailer and realizes that there is actually a film called CBGB and watches that*

CBGB is the story of Harry Kristal, not to be confused with popular comedian Billy Cringle, who after a couple of failed attempts to run a business decides to become an owner of a bar which he christens CBGB’s originally attended to feature bands playing country, blue-grass and blues music; however, things don’t go as planned when his foul crap-den of a bar attracts all sorts of alienated kids, druggies and weirdos whom inevitably start the punk-rock movement of New York in the mid- to late seventies. Strangely enough, his failure of a bar-owner is what ends up making him successful, except for the part where he can’t pay the bills because he’s serving too many drinks for free.

The problem with the movie is that it focuses too much on Harry Kristal, whose story about barely managing his nightclub isn’t all that interesting. Maybe it could have been, but the screenplay is by-the-numbers. It also doesn’t help that Alan Rickman is being his usual Alan Rickman self, barely sustaining an American accent as well as playing his usual persona rather than an actual character; we never get a deep understanding of the kind of person Kristal was though this might be more of a fault with the script than Rickman’s portrayal.

Another reason why honing in too much on Kristal without doing anything substantial with his character is that it leaves less time draw the types of characters that were frequent occupants at CBGB’s. Instead, we get brief comedic vignettes and performances by look-a-likes portraying the likes of The Talking Heads, Blondie, The Ramones, Iggy Pop (though I don’t think he ever played at the titular venue,) Patti Smith, Television, Lou Reed, etc. And none of the depictions are all that interesting. I guess it kind of works for the viewer gets a sense as to the type of place CBGB’s was and what the time was like back then, especially surrounding the music scene, but there’s still a desire for something a bit more significant when watching; the movie, simply, is too lightweight.

I mean, the movie is okay if you want a fun romp, except that the movie isn’t all that fun. Most of the scenes that are meant to be funny tend to fall flat. There’s a running gag with Crystal’s dog, the joke being is that it shits everywhere. And there’s also Harry Crystal’s buddy whose into all sorts of drugs named Idaho (played by Freddie Rodriguez) who I guess is supposed to be the comic-relief.

I guess some of the scenes where the actors lip-synch to the songs are alright, though their use of using the highly-polished, studio versions that you’ve heard on the radio numerous times before took me out of the movie a couple of times. Like, when the Talking Heads are auditioning to play a night at CBGB’s, they play the song Psycho Killer, but the studio version that came out in 1977, but the version they were playing in 1975 (the year I’m assuming this particular scene is supposed to take place even though dates are never given) sounded a bit different. It’s hard to believe that it’s supposed to be live and by an up-and-coming rock group when the version of the song they’re lip-synching is so polished. Though I guess the fact that Jared Carter (the guy mimicking David Byrne) looks so much like Byrne sort of makes-up for it. But there’s also the fact that, when Blondie is shown performing a couple of songs, one of them is Denis. I’m not sure if they’ve ever played that song anytime earlier than 1978. Also, when Blondie was starting-out they had Gary Valentine on bass (or some other guy before him) but who ever was playing the bass player was bouncing up and down like Nigel Harrison, who wasn’t in the band until 1977 or 1978. When watching I assumed it was depicting the bands just starting out. By 1978 I’m not even sure Blondie were still doing shows at CBGB’s. I don’t know, maybe they were… Patti Smith (Mickey Sumner) later on plays Because the Night and that song came out later as well, a song she also wrote with Bruce Springsteen so she when she released that song she wasn’t just “staring-out.” This might seem like nit-picking (and it is) but the filmmakers had an opportunity to play songs that weren’t the ones that saturate radio stations, but I guess it’s easier to be lazy or something. I think they also wanted to make sure that the audience recognized who was who. Meh.

Since the movie lacks depth and insight and everything else, director Randall Miller decided to slather every other frame with word balloons and stuff to make certain scenes seem like they’ve been culled from a comic book, the problem with this is that it is blatant compensation and never rises above mere gimmickry. The visual style just comes off as annoying as a result, as well as desperate instead of capturing the 70’s underground movement.

There are also some cliched narrative tropes that were annoying. Like when Kristal is at his lowest point after trying to act as manager for the band The Dead Boys he retreats to, you guessed it, the house he grew-up in in order to clear his head. But the biggest problem with the film is how it chooses to superficially capture its subject, instead fixating on the quirkiness as well as some of the pretentious narrative of the underground movement constructed by Punk magazine founder and editor John Holmstrom (Josh Zuckerman). There are some opportunities of satire as well as insight that could have been taken, but were missed instead.

The acting isn’t all great-shakes either. One performance I was confused by was Evan Alex Cone’s portrayal of Television’s original bassist Richard Hell who is constantly mugging and making faces; I’m not sure if that’s just bad acting or if Cone was trying to show how dedicated Hell was to posturing. If it’s the latter, then kudos. Other than that, you won’t find any good performances but mostly mimicry. Joel David Moore is at least slightly humorous as Joey Ramone.

The best I can say about this movie is that it could possibly work as a good primer for those unfamiliar with 1970’s rock music or the punk scene that included bands like Television or the Dead Boys. CBGB could have made for a decent comedy or even commentary on New York in the 70’s. There are some instances of where the movie tried to show what was happening, either to explain why the punk movement occurred or why the movement was of any import to begin with, with some heavy-handedness like when they happen to be watching Richard Nixon on TV or reading a headline that shows New York City was in the shitter. Unfortunately, it all falls flat.

Maybe it’s just difficult to make a good movie about punk music for it may involve too critical an eye on the various music scenes. Filmmakers want to poke fun, but not too much lest they alienate their demographic or realize themselves that their subject might not have been too worthy of their admiration in the first place for I imagine the people who are involved in these films are acting like fans first, and artists second. And I’m not saying that the only way to make a film like this is to be nasty with your subject matter, but when you’re covering punk music there’s a lot of things that are ripe for mockery. Other than that there’s also opportunity to explore other issues that are associated with alienation and rebellion, maybe address the underlying universality of punk rock, but I guess it’s just easier to take the easy way out and hire Professor Snape to mutter to himself while The Ramones play in the background. CBGB doesn’t add a whole lot and is rather mediocre, as a comedy, a music film and as anything else for that matter.

Pi (1998) – Movie Review (Contains Spoilers)

Pi, the 1998 film by Darren Aronofsky, is a pretty tense film. It’s about Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) a guy with a simple dream: to discover the answers to the universe. He tries predicting the outcomes of the stock market not because he’s interested in material wealth, but rather in testing his theories: that the correct calculations of pi could lead to the ultimate understanding of the universe.

It starts out with a voice-over by Max reading a personal note, “When I was a little kid my mother told me not to stare into the sun. So once when I was six I did.” We also learns that he believes that this is the reason for his intense headaches. We then sees that he lives in a small apartment and tries to avoid human interaction as much as possible including one of his neighbors, a young woman who flirts with him. The only person he confides in is a former professor, Sol Robeson, who calls Max out on his obsession with numerology, telling him that “life isn’t just mathematics.” Max also meets a Hasidic Jew named Lenny who tells Max that the Torah may be a numeric code sent by God, “the language of God.”

Later on, when doing calculations Max’s computer suddenly crashes after spitting out a print-out containing a string of 216 digits. Max, at first, regards this as an error but then realizes that some of the predictions he made for the stock market turned out to be accurate. When he informs Sol of the 216 digits Sol tells Max to abandon his pursuits. Here the audience gets a sense that there is an underlying subtext in what Sol tries to tell Max, that he might be onto something.

While much happens it’s still a short film and one could tell that it was shot on a low budget, but it uses what it has efficiently. The grainy, black and white look serve well for the purposes of the movie. Pi is also perhaps the antithesis of movies like Theo Angelopoulos’ The Weeping Meadow not in terms of quality but in how it approaches its subject. Pi use quick-cuts in order to reflect the supercharged mind of Max as well as numerous close-ups to emphasize a sense of claustrophobia in the viewer. The long takes in The Weeping Meadow allowed the audience to take-in what was happening and allowed contemplation, but there is no breathing-room in a movie like Pi; there is hardly an objective distance the audience takes, but instead we’re stuck within the atmosphere of an obsessed ego.

There are also some nice details included in the film such as a shot of Max sitting in his room from the perspective of the frame holding his computer’s processor; the computer frame almost looks like the golden ratio, a math concept Max briefly limns to Lenny earlier.

However, the best thing about the film, script-wise, is the ambiguity and unreliability of Max. In the first half we’re unsure of whether Max is just insane or that he’s onto something and there are people tracing him. The ending has been the source of some debate as to whether it’s a dream, reality, or if Max is truly dead. At the end, after reciting the 216 digits he seemingly transcends. But then he wakes-up and is back to reality. He then burns a printout with the numbers and then puts a power-drill to his head for he has the numbers memorized. The next shot is him at a park bench that he sat once earlier in the film. The background seems to be obscured by a white glow, perhaps hinting that Max is really dead. A little girl that lives in his apartment building who, like before, asks him to give the answer to a math problem she already knows the answer to on her calculator. But Max, this time, doesn’t seem to know the answer and is satisfied. People have claimed that Max is still alive, this might be reason for him wearing a hat which is covering the area where he drilled a hole in his head, meaning that he recovered. However, it’s quite clear, from where he placed the drill bit and how deep it went, that he wouldn’t have survived and the ending takes place in his personal heaven where he no longer needs to calculate. There is also the possibility that the end, or the part where he kills himself, is just a dream for he’s had numerous dreams of him destroying his brain (a brain.) But this possibility is also unlikely for his other dreams were more abstract. From how that scene is framed we’re supposed to take it that he actually drilled himself. It’s an interesting end that works, for the most part, for it’s ambiguous but not too ambiguous that it annoys/frustrates the viewer. Even if the ending isn’t “real” it serves its symbolic purpose nevertheless.

Thematically, the movie is obviously about obsession, but it also could be interpreted as a commentary on transcendence through the destruction of one’s self and the aversion to reality. While the fact that Max avoids interacting with his neighbors could be read as him simply not having the patience for others as he has more important matters to attend to, one can also see that Max is contemptuous of the muckity-muck of everyday life and would much rather break away from it. His obsession with understanding the universe entirely could stem from his want to transcend the baseness of reality. I imagine many artists and geniuses have pursued their work not simply for a greater understanding but also of the possible “escape” that their work can yield, some form of immortality or transcendence. I’m probably just talking out of my ass, but this is a side to the story that I don’t think has been commented on but might be there.

Despite this being a good debut film and an interesting movie overall I’m reluctant to call it the “cinematic masterpiece” its champions claim it is. For one thing, as I mentioned before, its ambiguity was makes the movie, but it becomes more and more clear that Lenny and the other Hasidic Jews are correct and Max really does hold the key to God. One might argue that him “transcending” may all just be in his head as well, but from the way it’s all set-up I think we’re supposed to take the ending, at least until the last very last scene, at face-value. This doesn’t mean that the movie suddenly falls apart toward the end but it makes it somewhat less interesting as we’re still watching Max go mad. Despite all this it’s an intriguing film with excellent acting, especially from Sean Gullette who carries the whole thing, and one that stays in the mind even days after watching it, which is saying something.