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  Directed by
    None Listed
  Starring
  Specs
  • Widescreen 1.66:1
  Languages
  • English: Dolby Digital Surround
  Subtitles
  • None
  Extras
  • 4 Deleted scenes
  • 2 Theatrical trailer - + 5 other movie trailers
  • 2 Audio commentary - Darren Aronofsky, Sean Gullette
  • Cast/crew biographies
  • Production notes
  • 1 Music video
  • Filmographies

Pi

Madman Entertainment/AV Channel . R4 . COLOR . 80 mins . M15+ . PAL

  Feature
Contract

It’s an expensive business, this filmmaking caper. You’ve got an idea for a story and a vision for your cinematic masterpiece, and you want to put it on the big screen? No problem. You’ve got two choices. You can pitch it to a major studio, of course. If they like it, they’ll give you shedloads of cash, cast a couple of A-list tabloid stars in the lead roles, assign a director who happens to be flavour of the box office month and get the top “script doctors” to come in and rework your stuff until it suits the masses. They’ll allocate a multi-million dollar budget to the project, and once you’ve paid for the catering and the obligatory gratuitous computer effects that nobody notices (“hey, why shoot in San Diego - we can MAKE San Diego in the computer!”) and the hasty re-editing after test screenings, you’ve found your name on a film that has a passing resemblance to the original idea, neatly tweaked for modern audience pleasure.

Or you can make your movie yourself.

“Surely you jest” (or less printable words to that effect), we hear you say. “You can’t make an independent film in these uber-expensive cinematic times that people actually want to go and see!” Well, if you don’t want to talk to the hand, at least tell that to Darren Aronofsky.

The name may sound familiar to you. Aronofsky recently scored huge praise for his feature Requiem For A Dream, and this year will helm the next high-concept Batman moofie. But it was Pi that put him there. Winning acclaim at the legendary Sundance Festival and then around the world, Pi stunned audiences with its deft blend of styles and genres, its eye-popping cinematography and the almost incalculable visceral excitement that permeates its short running time. Pi was made by the director and a bunch of friends on a budget of about $60,000, much of that raised through contributions from family and friends. The fact that it looks like it cost a hundred times that amount is telling; Aronofsky is undeniably a skilled filmmaker, but to come up with something that works this well with so little money you need more than artistic skill - you need to be an innovator. And as far as debut features go, Pi is perhaps the most innovative seen to date.

The story may be simple enough, but the telling of it is far from conventional. Mathematician Max Cohen (intensely played by Sean Gullette, who collaborated with Aronofsky on the screenplay and was extensively involved with the pre-production process) is a tense, private man who’s obsessed with number theory as the basis for much of the makeup of the world and everything in it. Having decided that the stock market is as likely a place as any for a numerical pattern to emerge out of the human chaos, he sets himself the task of finding a pattern in the market’s madness that will enable him to accurately predict where individual stocks are headed. The effort of calculating all this quite literally destroys his gargantuan home-built computer, but before it dies it spits out a 216-digit number which, it seems, means different things to different people. Soon Max is being pursued by greedy corporate types and religious fanatics, becoming increasingly paranoid (not without reason!) as the migraine headaches he’s had since childhood increase in intensity and regularity. Far from being comforted by his discoveries, Max may very well be going insane…

Aronofsky is telling a fairly simple story here in a short space of time, but it’s a story that leaves a lot of blanks for the viewer to fill in for themselves - Just as the best classic sci-fi does. Stylistically, Pi draws on everything from The Twilight Zone and ‘50s film noir to modern Japanese cinema and avant-garde still photography, but this is no mere pastiche; Aronofsky wants to take us into Max’s mind in the most visceral way possible, and that’s exactly what he does via innovative photography, some remarkable editing, a perfect lead performance by Gullette and, crucially, a spot-on music score by Clint Mansell (who many music fans will know from his time with UK band Pop Will Eat Itself).

We’ve all seen films that cost tens of millions of dollars that showed every cent on screen but were dull beyond belief. Pi, an entire movie made for less than the cost of a single syllable uttered by the likes of Schwarzenegger, hooks you tightly from the first frames and lets you go 80 minutes later sweating and breathless wondering why, if these guys can thrill and amaze you on a welfare budget, can’t the major studios get it right more often? What Aronofsky does with the Batman franchise should prove intriguing; whatever happens there, though, Pi stands as a vibrant resume, living proof of the fact that a truckload of cash can’t compete with those elements so sorely lacking in Hollywood at the moment - raw talent, consummate skill and reckless invention.

  Video
Contract

If you’re one of those readers of DVD reviews that steadfastly ignores the review of the movie itself and heads straight for the technical sections to see if the transfer is of “reference standard”, then let’s get this out of the way early; you’re going to take one look at this gloriously grungy transfer in all its grainy goodness and then run, panting with fear, over to your bookshelves so you can hug your copy of Toy Story 2 and assure yourself that it’s okay, that DVD wasn’t meant to be this way. Now for the shock announcement. Grain is good.

Pi was shot in a very unusual way. For starters, it was done on 16mm (and then blown up to 35mm for theatrical release). But more unusual was the film stock that cinematographer Matthew Libatique chose to use in an attempt to realise Aronofsky’s vision - Kodak’s black and white reversal film stock. Reversal film is better known to most of the world as “slide film” - in other words, instead of producing negatives, it produces positives that can be (but obviously are not) projected right from the developed camera film. Those of you who’ve used Super 8 cameras will be very familiar with colour reversal film, but the black and white variant is rarely used - it’s very difficult for a cinematographer to control. Perfect, really, for a film about the order in chaos and the chaos in order.

Presented at its original 16mm aspect ratio of 1.66:1 (and not 16:9 enhanced), Pi on DVD looks terrific. This would certainly not have been an easy compression job for the authoring team; grainy film is very demanding when it comes to digital data, and is very hard to compress without other problems cropping up. There are a lot of sequences throughout Pi where there’s so much grain you’d think you were looking at a decades-old reel of documentary footage shot in the dead of night. None of these sequences presents any kind of problem in the transition to compressed video on this DVD, a remarkable achievement considering that the movie (admittedly only 80 minutes long) and various extras are crammed onto a single disc layer. Madman Interactive, who authored this disc, is fast becoming one of the most skilled authoring facilities in the world when it comes to challenging material.

Throughout, contrast is strikingly dense and as a result shadow detail is often minimal; this is intentional, and the superb telecine transfer keeps tight control of the more visually adventurous sequences, ensuring that we always see what we’re meant to see. Black levels (and there’s a LOT of black) are spot-on. Pi is one of the most visually striking films released in recent years, and this superb transfer presents it in its best possible light.

  Audio
Contract

Needless to say, with this kind of budget Pi was never going to get a 5.1 surround sound mix. But especially considering the limited funds available, the Dolby Surround mix that was done for the film was quite superb, and it’s presented here on a non-Dolby-Surround-flagged 2.0 track at a generously high 256Kb/sec bitrate. Fidelity is excellent, and there are few problems throughout; those that do crop up (occasional odd panning of voices, small clicks and clearly audible dialogue edits) were inherent in the original sound mix. Largely driven by its music score, Pi does leap into multi-speaker action during some of the more visceral sequences; it’s a nicely controlled, very exciting mix that gets better as the film progresses.

  Extras
Contract

A nice set of extras is supplied on this packed-to-the-last-bit DVD, replicating most - but not all - of the contents of Artisan’s US release of the film on DVD (which was on a dual layered disc). The most notable omission is the behind-the-scenes footage that Aronofsky refers to several times during his commentary; it would have been nice to see it here, but aside from that we do get the most important extras from the US version. Special mention must be made of the fully animated main menu design, by the way - it’s superb.

Audio Commentaries: We get two highly worthwhile commentary tracks here - one from writer/director Darren Aronofsky and one from lead actor Sean Gullette. Aronofsky’s commentary is a real treat; ingenuous and friendly, he offers insight into the creation of his film without ever falling into the trap of trying to explain everything - obviously proud of his creation, he sounds very grateful that those listening were interested enough in the film to do so. Gullette’s commentary is more reserved and offers less insight, but is still a fascinating perspective on the film, its lead character and the evolution of both. The opening words of Gullette’s commentary are missing on this version of the disc; we presume that he started speaking over the Artisan logo at the front of the film on the R1 disc, a logo that’s been removed for this release.

Deleted Scenes: Three short deleted scenes are provided here, along with a longer test reel for an improvised body-mounted camera rig (the “Snorri Cam”!) used during shooting. Aronofsky provides commentary during all four excerpts here, though annoyingly there is no second audio track provided so that the viewer can listen to the production audio by itself. All four items here are from an NTSC video source with a bloody great timecode in the top right corner.

Trailers: Two trailers here - the original trailer used to sell the film (complete with an ever bigger bloody great timecode in the top right corner) and Artisan’s far more refined (but curiously less effective) review-quoting trailer used for full-scale theatrical release. Audio on both is stereo.

Soundtrack And Music Video: A gratuitous plug for the soundtrack CD, this screen also offers the music video that was used to promote it - Clint Mansell’s music accompanied by imagery from the film as well as colour stock footage of insects and other such stuff.

Production Notes: 13 pages of well-written notes about the making of the film.

Cast & Crew Profiles: Short bios and filmographies for Aronofsky and Gullette as well as actors Stephen Pearlman (who was in Xanadu!) and Mark Margolis.

Madman Propaganda: The usual handy collection of trailers for other Madman DVDs, this batch including the ever-present Amores Perros trailer along with The Bank, Mullet, Shadow Of The Vampire and The Most Fertile Man In Ireland.

Easter Egg: Highlight the “pi” symbol at the top of the Extras menu; it leads to three pages of text information about the eternal fascination with, not surprisingly, pi.

  Overall  
Contract

A remarkable, innovative and dazzling film that’s the best kind of sensory assault, Pi is a superb film that seems all the more remarkable for its low-budget origins. Madman Entertainment’s DVD presents the movie with a near-perfect video and audio transfer (and this disc is worth buying just for the movie itself) along with a set of informative extras, with the loss of the behind-the-scenes featurette the only negative (and with over two and a half hours of audio commentary to keep you occupied, it’s a small negative indeed). If you’re after a film that’ll simultaneously wow you and get you thinking, don’t hesitate to pick this one up.


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      And I quote...
    "...one of the most visually striking films released in recent years... this superb transfer presents it in its best possible light."
    - Anthony Horan
      Review Equipment
    • DVD Player:
          Sony DVP-NS300
    • Receiver:
          Sony STR-AV1020
    • Speakers:
          Klipsch Tangent 500
    • Surrounds:
          Jamo
    • Audio Cables:
          Standard RCA
    • Video Cables:
          Monster s-video
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