DVD & Blu-ray Thoughts

Blu-ray: Pi

Sean Gullette in Pi

Darren Aronofsky’s debut feature about a troubled mathematician is a reminder of his precocious gifts as a writer-director.

Shot in black and white on location in New York, it made a big impact at the Sundance Film Festival in 1998 and fifteen years on still holds up very well.

When the obsessive maths genius Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) becomes involved with a numerical pattern which may or may not explain the patterns of the stock market, he soon attracts the attention of a shady Wall Street firm and a Kabbalah sect, both of whom take an interest in his work.

But his frequent headaches, obsessive nature and paranoia all conspire to drive him to the brink of madness despite the best efforts of his former professor (Mark Margolis) to reign him back.

Made for just $60,000, it heralded the arrival of a precocious talent, who would go on to direct Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006), The Wrestler (2008) and Black Swan (2010).

But there is something special about Pi in the way it completely rejects indie movie clichés to create something distinct and memorable as the protagonist pursues the meaning of an elusive number rather than a one dimensional villain.

It isn’t everyday you see a film featuring the Fibonacci sequence and the board game Go, but whilst the subject matter is unusual the film is successful blend of genres (Wikipedia describes it as a “surrealist psychological thriller”) which Aronofsky somehow ties together.

Mixing black and white film stocks, unorthodox angles and camera rigs, as well as an excellent sound design by Brian Emrich, we are plunged into Max’s neurotic world of migraines, computers and numbers.

The urgency of Clint Mansell’s high-tempo electronic score is also brilliantly effective and would mark the start of a long collaboration with the director.

As for the acting, it is on par with the fine work behind the camera: Sean Gullette manages to capture the magnificently tortured soul of Max – a man whose brilliance is only equalled by his mental and physical torment.

In key supporting roles, Mark Margolis as his mentor and Ben Shenkman as a rabbi stand out, whilst Aronofsky makes clever use of extras in exterior locations – especially Chinatown and the New York Subway.

It won the Directing Award at Sundance in 1998 and during the following summer grossed over $3 million, more than making its money back.

More importantly it established Aronofsky firmly on the filmmaking map, although he has kept mainstream Hollywood at an intriguing arms length.

Despite being attached to big studio tentpoles such as Batman: Year Zero (which eventually became Batman Begins) and The Wolverine (later taken over by James Mangold), he has always been drawn back to passion projects like The Wrestler and Black Swan.

Whilst studios such as Fox Searchlight have distributed his recent films films, he has always retained a degree of control on the fringes of the system (his upcoming biblical film about Noah will be interesting as it is co-financed by Paramount, perhaps the most cautious of the major studios).

The roots of that creative defiance can be seen in this 15th anniversary release of his first film, which combines unconventional ideas with technical flair.


  • Commentary with Darren Aronofsky: A very detailed audio commentary which describes many aspects of the production from set design, camera moves and a whole host behind the scenes info.
  • Commentary with Sean Gullette: A more considered audio commentary from the lead actor, describing his role and the experience of playing the tortured Max Cohen.
  • Deleted Scenes: Include a scene where Max gets confronted outside his apartment and one with a slinky that ironically became one of the press images despite the scene not making the final cut.
  • Behind the scenes montage: An 8-minute featurette shot in colour showing how some scenes were filmed, including one inside Max’s apartment and another with the Hasidic Jews, as well as some footage from Sundance 1998.
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Original Trailer
  • Music Video

> Buy Pi on Blu-ray at Amazon UK
> Official site from 1998
> Darren Aronofsky at the IMDb


Darren Aronfsky’s Pi

On Pi day it is worth recalling Darren Aronofsky‘s 1998 debut feature Pi (or π) which established him as a director and remains a compelling US indie.

The atmospheric tale of a reclusive maths genius named Max (Sean Gullette), it explores his obsession with number patterns and how they can explain life as various people take an interest in his experiments including: a former teacher (Mark Margolis), a shady Wall Street firm (how prophetic that seems now) and a Hasidic sect.

As he delves further into the underlying patterns of numbers that may (or may not) explain things he suffers from crippling headaches and paranoia.

Filmed in 16mm black-and-white and made for just $60,000, it was a breath of fresh air when it broke out of the Sundance Film Festival in 1998.

Here was a film a world away from the hardening conventions that surrounded the festival in the late 1990s but it managed to create a buzz, winning the drama directing award and later the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay.

Although he recently admitted cringing when revisiting the film, it still stands up as a bold and original mix of David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1976) and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974).

The intriguing ideas, distinctive editing, powerful use of sound, inventive lensing by Matthew Libatique and a bold electronic soundtrack by Clint Mansell all helped paint a powerful picture of a man caught between madness and genius.

In the lead role, Sean Gullette is terrific and would briefly appear in Aronofsky’s second feature Requiem For A Dream (2000) before going to do a variety of other projects.

It was acquired at Sundance by Live Entertainment (later to become Artisan), the independent studio who a year later would have a massive breakthrough hit with The Blair Witch Project (1999) before being acquired by Lionsgate in 2003.

What struck me on first viewing was how alive and inventive it was for a low-budget film.

There was no navel-gazing, no acoustic guitars on the soundtrack, it wasn’t about the relationship problems of white people and the ideas were genuinely interesting without being pretentious.

There are some similarities with Christopher Nolan’s Following (1998): that was also a debut feature shot in black and white on 16mm that screened in Park City, Utah during 1998, although Nolan’s film was at the Sundance off-shoot Slamdance.

Aronofsky went on to make the ambitious-but-flawed The Fountain (2006), the gritty, acclaimed drama The Wrestler (2008) and dark, psychodrama Black Swan (2010) but there is an urgency and energy to his debut that is well worth experiencing if you’ve never seen the film.

> Official site (it is still up!)
> Find out more about Darren Aronofsky at Wikipedia
> IndieWire interview from 1998 with  Darren Aronofsky and Sean Gullette
> Buy Pi on DVD from Amazon UK
> Find out more about Pi Day (March 14th) at Wikipedia

Interesting Random

Was Etoile an influence on Black Swan?

Was an early Jennifer Connelly film an influence on Black Swan?

Darren Aronofsky’s intense drama about a ballerina (Natalie Portman) isn’t the first film to use the story of Swan Lake as a backdrop.

Filmmaker Magazine have reminded readers that back in 1988, Jennifer Connelly starred in Etoile, a largely forgotten film about a ballerina in Italy, directed by Peter Del Monte.

It never got a release in the US, so remains something of an obscurity, but years later Connelly went on to star in Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000).

There only appears to be a Japanese trailer on YouTube:

And now have a look at the trailer for Black Swan:

You can check them out side-by-side at YouTube Doubler here.

Some of the posters from Etoile are also interesting to compare with the designs for Black Swan.

Was the earlier film any inspiration for Aronofsky?

His film recently passed $61m at the US box office, which is very impressive for a platform release filmed on a limited budget of $13m.

After strong festival buzz in the Autumn, it scored mostly favourable reviews and already looks like a multiple noiminee at the Oscars this year, with Portman already looking like the strong favourite for Best Actress.

Black Swan opens in the UK on Friday 21st Jan

[Via Filmmaker Magazine]

> Black Swan official site
> LFF review of Black Swan
> Reviews of Black Swan at Metacritic

Awards Season

The Hollywood Reporter Director Roundtable

The latest Awards Watch roundtable discussion from The Hollywood Reporter features the directors Peter Weir (The Way Back), Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan), Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine), Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech), David O’Russell (The Fighter), Lisa Chodolenko (The Kids Are Alright).

> Awards Watch at The Hollywood Reporter
> Oscar analysis at In Contention and Awards Daily

Behind The Scenes Interesting

The Sound of Black Swan

Soundworks have released a video detailing how the sounds of Black Swan were achieved.

Craig Henighan has worked with director Darren Aronofsky since Requiem For A Dream (2000) and his work on this film (as sound designer, supervising sound editor and sound re-recording mixer) is a key element of why it works so well.

SoundWorks Collection – The Sound of “Black Swan” from Michael Coleman on Vimeo.

> Black Swan at the IMDb
> My LFF review of Black Swan

Festivals London Film Festival

LFF 2010: Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky’s portrait of an obsessive ballerina is wonderfully intense experience, powered by a standout performance from Natalie Portman.

Set amongst a New York City ballet company producing Swan Lake, it focuses on the psychological and physical tribulations of Nina (Portman), a dancer desperate to impress her demanding director (Vincent Cassel) and possessive mother (Barbara Hershey).

After she wins the lead role we see Nina’s ambition and drive turn into something much darker.

She begins to have suspicions about her predecessor (Winona Ryder), a fellow dancer (Mila Kunis) and herself as she becomes burdened with all kinds of psychological and physical problems.

Incorporating a variety of influences that include The Red Shoes, Repulsion and David Cronenberg, it also riffs heavily on the raw source material of Swan Lake itself.

Tchaikovsky’s original work is given a modern day twist, as the trials of a young princess turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer get unsettling and often surprising parallels.

At one point Cassel’s director says of his staging of Swan Lake:

“It’s been done to death, I know, but not like this. We’re going to strip it down and make it visceral and real”

This might also be Aronofsky talking, as that is exactly what he does with Black Swan.

Clint Mansell’s score also emphasises this, expanding on Tchaikovsky’s original compositions but taking it to a more sinister place, which, allied with some highly effective sound design, makes for an arresting audio backdrop.

Intriguing parallels with The Wrestler abound: both examine the physical and mental costs of being a performer; show the pressures of ageing; feature a character’s desire to connect; and climax with a grand flourish.

Black Swan goes further in cranking up the tension and, along with a paranoid, unreliable narrator, there is an unusual amount of visual effects shots that depict the crumbling reality of Nina’s world.

Mirrors are a recurring motif throughout and shots in rehearsal rooms are designed so we don’t see the reflected cameras; people and body parts morph in creepy ways; and a variety of subtle effects are used to make us question what we have just seen.

Part of what gives the film such an exhilarating kick is Matthew Libatique’s handheld visuals, shot on grainy 16mm. Like in The Wrestler, his work has a fluid urgency which really pays off in the dance sequences and also the claustrophobic world of Nina’s apartment.

But the heart of Black Swan is Natalie Portman’s captivating central performance. In what is easily the best part of her career, she conveys a believable kaleidoscope of emotions – including fear, aggression and pain – in a relentless push for artistic perfection.

Performing well outside of her comfort zone as an actress, her work has a certain meta quality that reflects the journey of her character, although we can safely assume the actual film production wasn’t as gruelling as the fictional ballet.

In supporting roles, Vincent Cassell is brilliantly arrogant as the manipulative director; Mila Kunis is a charming foil; Barbara Hershey conveys a suffocating and vicarious ambition, and Winona Ryder has a small but juicy role as a fading star.

Since establishing himself in the independent sphere with films such as Pi (1998) and Requiem For A Dream (2000), Aronofsky has carved out an impressive niche for himself with thoughtfully crafted character portraits that have included mathematicians, drug dealers and wrestlers.

Black Swan is probably his most daring film yet: the bold mix of genres, combined with a dark sensibility may put off some audiences, but is also a reminder of how rich and rewarding his work can be.

Black Swan played at the London Film Festival today and screens on Sunday 24th and Monday 25th.

> Black Swan at the LFF
> Official site
> Reviews from Venice and Toronto at MUBi


Trailer: Black Swan

Fox Searchlight have released the first full length trailer for Black Swan, the new film from director Darren Aronofsky about two ballet dancers (Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis) in a New York production of Swan Lake.

It opens the Venice Film Festival later this month and is likely to be an awards season contender.

The feel seems to be The Red Shoes crossed with Requiem for a Dream.

> Black Swan at the IMDb
> Official site

Cinema Interviews Podcast

Interview: Darren Aronofsky and Mickey Rourke on The Wrestler

Mickey Rourke and Darren Aronofsky filming The Wrestler

The Wrestler is a new film about an ageing wrestler – Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson (Mickey Rourke) – past his prime, who struggles to make ends meet doing shows on the weekends in New Jersey.

The story follows him as he works in a deli, strikes up a relationship with a stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) and seeks a reconciliation with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood).

I spoke with the director Darren Aronofsky and Mickey Rourke back in October when the film played at the London Film Festival.

You can listen to the interview here:


You can download this interview as a podcast via iTunes by clicking here

The Wrestler is out at UK cinemas on Friday 16th January

Download this interview as an MP3 file
Darren Aronofsky and Mickey Rourke at the IMDb
> Read reviews of The Wrestler at Metacritic
Official UK site

[Image: Niko Tavernise / Optimum Releasing © 2008]