Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Pi: Special Edition (1998)
Studio Line: Artisan - Faith in chaos

A brilliant mathematician teeters on the brink of insanity as he searches for an elusive numerical code in this critically acclaimed, sci-fi thriller! Maximilian Cohen is on the verge of the most important discovery of his life. For the past ten years, he has been attempting to decode the numerical pattern beneath the ultimate system of ordered chaos--the stock market. As Max verges on a solution, chaos is swallowing the world around him. Pursued by an aggressive Wall Street firm set on financial domination and a Kaballah sect intent on unlocking the secrets behind their ancient holy texts, Max races to crack the code, hoping to defy the madness that looms before him. Instead, he uncovers a secret for which everyone is willing to kill.

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Sean Gullette, Mark Margolis, Ben Shenkman, Pamela Hart, Stephen Pearlman, Samia Shoaib
Box Office: Budget: $60 thousand. Opening Weekend: $31 thousand. Gross: $3.216 million.
DVD: Widescreen 1.66:1; audio English Dolby Surround; subtitles: none; closed-captioned; single side - dual layer; 36 chapters; rated R; 85 min.; $24.98; street date 1/12/99
Supplements: Director's Commentary Track; Actor's Commentary Track; Behind The Scenes Montage; Lost Scenes; Music Video; Theatrical Trailers; Production Notes; Cast and Crew Information.
Purchase: DVD | Novel - Darren Aronofsky | The Joy of Pi - David Platner

Picture/Sound/Extras: D+/B/A-

And now for something completely different. To refer to Pi as an unusual film would be a grand understatement; this mofo's downright weird! Weird isn't bad, however, and Pi manages to make for a modestly compelling if heavily flawed picture.

Pi seems pretty amateurish in general and strongly resembles a student film. I found the piece to be generally poorly acted, with only a few exceptions like Mark Margolis as Sol Robeson. In the main role as Max Cohen, Sean Gullette isn't terrible but he's not terribly good either; for the most part I felt that he was Acting with that capital "A."

Pi tries very hard to be artsy and stylish, both tendencies that have been the undoing of many other films; there's something about these mini-auteurs like director/writer Darren Aronofsky that makes them want to offer their Big Statement in these little independent movies, and it almost never succeeds. As such, Pi tends to be rather pretentious and uses some less than subtle imagery, such as the Icarus legend and the confrontation between a skinheaded Max and some Hasidic Jews.

That last part occurs during the film's final act, which is where a fairly compelling story almost completely crashes. Pi tries to become some sort of pursuit thriller and it just doesn't work; I felt like I suddenly was watching a different movie. Whether or not you like the first hour of the movie, it at least seemed all of one piece; the last 25 minutes or so appears out of left field and is very incongrous.

Despite these many flaws, I still found Pi to be pretty interesting. Yeah, it lost me in the action-movie plot of the last third, but it kept fairly me involved up until then. I was very curious to see where things were going to go before the movie ultimately became too artificially spiritual and "meaningful." Pi is not a great film by any stretch, but it seems to be a provocative and thoughtful effort.

The DVD:

Pi appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; because of its mild letterboxing, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. One word for you to remember if you intend to watch this DVD: grain. Learn it, love it, because if you view Pi, you're gonna be living it.

As with other films like Clerks and The Blair Witch Project, Pi provides an image that I found exceptionally difficult to rate because it looks like crap. While that fact usually makes video assessment easy, the problem is that it's supposed to look like crap; that's they way it was shot, that's the way it is, that's the way it always will be. The transfer itself seems to be excellent; I couldn't detect any flaws that appeared inherent to the digital rendition of the movie. Of course, they might be in there, but the piocture often features such insanely high levels of grain that they could hide the Brooklyn Bridge in there and I might have missed it.

Understatement of the year: a reviewer for a website that will remain unnamed wrote that "there is a bit of grain visible in the image." I almost choked on my cud when I read that. A bit of grain??!! That's like saying the Pope's a little religious! I can't say that Pi offers the grainiest image I've yet seen, but it's high on the list.

The problem remains that this grain does seem largely intentional. Grainier scenes appear to somewhat correspond to those parts of the movie where Max feels more overwhelmed and attacked, but that's not universal. Actually, the grain also seems to relate closely to the simply technological restraints. It looks like the movie was shot partially with available light and the exposure was set high for the darker scenes. As such, when there's little light, the grain dominates - check out many indoor scenes and especially the nighttime shots of Max being chased by the stock folks - but daylight scenes often/usually seem quite clear and grainless. The filmmakers may have intended some of the grain for the reasons I already mentioned, but I think most of it stemmed from a fact of the low-budget filmmaker's life: when you have to shoot with low light levels on cheap film, the result's gonna look like death.

The film also is pervaded with some harsh lighting at times; again, I had trouble discerning how much of this came from a stylistic choice and how much was simply the overexposure that created excessive contrast. Despite all these flaws, I somehow still found Pi watchable. Behind all that grain is a fairly sharp image with no evidence of jagged edges or moire effects. The print seemed to be relatively blemish free; I detected a few spots and scratches, and God knows there may be more buried in there somewhere, but that's all I definitely noticed. Black levels usually seem deep and dark, and shadow detail was fine. Pi's a bit of a video nightmare, with a vicious mix of stylistic decisions and bargain basement filmmaking creating a very marred image, but it somehow seems appropriate for the movie much of the time. I have to give it a "D+" just because it's so bad, but I must admit the grade doesn't tell the whole story.

Much more satisfactory and less controversial is the good Dolby Surround 2.0 mix for Pi. It's not a world-beater, but for such a cheap film, it's quite effective. The soundstage mainly uses the movie's techno score across the different channels; it pops up everywhere it could and adds effectively to the atmosphere. Some effects also show up in the side speakers but not a whole lot; it's mainly music-intensive. Dialogue also stayed pretty close to the center, though a few examples of side channel speech occurred. One of these appeared to be either accidental or was the result of poor planning: when Max and Lenny first chat in the coffeeshop, their dialogue is set hard in each of side speakers. This sounds awkward and never occurs again, so I think it was a mastering flaw. The sonic image occasionally bleeds a little bit, though, and will gently favor one side of the front over the other; this is never as severe as during that coffeeshop bit, however.

Rear usage tends to favor the music as well. The score was a tremendously active participant in this film; it actually seemed to function as an ambient effect as well, and that's how it's used in the surround channels. This method serves the movie nicely, as the atmospheric qualities of the music work well in the monaural surround channels.

Sound quality appears quite good, especially for such a low-budget affair. Dialogue always seems clear and natural; I experienced no intelligibility problems. Effects appear relaistic and accurate, and the score sounded very rich and full-blooded; highs were crisp, lows were deep and the entire thing seemed very nicely reproduced. Pi definitely looks like an independent film, but the audio sounds much more rich and effective than I'd expect.

Despite the movie's modest origins and less-than-stellar box office take, Artisan have prepared a full-blown special edition DVD of Pi, and it's a pretty good one. Two full audio commentaries appear, one from director/writer Darren Aronofsky and another from actor/writer Sean Gullette. Gullette's is probably the stronger of the two. He provides a lot of information about the production and adds some useful insight; it's a good track.

Aronofsky's commentary is also good but not quite as compelling. It tends to be a bit drier and reveals less of interest with more of a focus on technical aspects of the film. Still, Aronofsky provides some fun facts and discusses the movie's meaning to a degree, so it's worth a listen.

Next is the "Lost Scenes" section. This presents four deleted segments. The first three are very short - only about 20 to 30 seconds each - and don't offer much, though they're worth a look. The final "lost scene" is really just a test reel of the "Snorricam," the camera used for the "in your face" shots of Max.

You can also watch with all of these scenes with director's commentary. While the first three worth going through twice - especially since they're so brief - the "Snorricam" should be viewed only once, and done so with the commentary on; Aronofsky doesn't say much, but nothing happens during the clip - it offers no audio component, really - so why bother with it twice?

The "behind the scenes" piece lasts about eight and a half minutes. We see basic footage from set and from their stay at Sundance, all of which is accompanied by commentary from Aronofsky and Gullette. This program is watchable but nothing special; it provides no real insight into the film's production.

The DVD provides both the theatrical and "Darren and Eric" trailers. I'm not clear what the deal is with that second one, but I'd guess it's an early attempt at a promo from both Aronofsky and producer/writer Eric Watson. Both clips make the film look more tightly focussed than is but provide different ideas of the movie's purpose.

We also get the "Pi r squared" music video. This basically presents clips from film intercut with color film of bugs doing nasty bug stuff while accompanied by music from the score. It's a pretty blah and useless video.

Finally, there's the "Book of Ants" graphic novel. All this shows is three screens of excerpts from a comic book interpretation of film. It's really a promo item, especially since the introductory screen tells us how we can order the book. There are also some brief but decent production notes about the film.

Pi stands as an unusual and intermittently compelling film, but one with a high number of flaws. Despite some objectively poor video quality, the DVD appears to reproduce the original image accurately and also gives pretty good sound and some fine supplements. The movie isn't quite good enough for me to recommend Pi as a purchase, but it's definitely worth a rental.

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