36. PI (1998)

AKA π; π: Faith in Chaos

“Very much like the universe itself, the more technologically advanced we become and as out picture of π grows larger, the more its mysteries grow.”—From “Notes on π” on the Lions Gate Pi DVD

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Darren Aronofsky

FEATURING: Sean Gullette, Mark Margolis

PLOT: Max, a reclusive mathematics genius, searches for a pattern that will help him predict the stock market with the assistance of a supercomputer he has built in his apartment.  He also suffers from terrible migraines which cause him to hallucinate, and believes (sometimes correctly) that people are stalking him.  As he gets closer to locating a certain 216 digit number that may have mystical predictive qualities, he finds himself caught between the machinations of a large corporation and a mystical sect, both of whom want the knowledge inside his head and will stop at nothing to get it.

Still from Pi (1998)

BACKGROUND:

  • Pi was made for a mere $60,000, financed largely by $100 contributions from friends and family.  Each of the cast and crew worked for an identical salary and a share of the film.  Pi eventually grossed over $3 million domestically.
  • The movie was shot in high contrast black and white reversal film stock (usually used for still photography).  In his DVD commentary Sean Gullette says that Pi was the first feature length fiction film shot this way.
  • Pi won the Directing Award at the 1998 Sundance festival and was nominated for the Grand Jury prize (losing to the now largely forgotten Slam).  It won the main prize at several smaller film festivals.
  • Aronofsky also created a graphic novel called “The Book of Ants” that presents a slightly different take on the story of Pi.
  • This was the first soundtrack scored by former Pop Will Eat Itself frontman Clint Mansell, who has now become an in-demand Hollywood composer.
  • Aronofsky went on to further critical success with the bleak addiction parable Requiem for a Dream (2000); the weirdish science fiction/romance The Fountain (2006); the straightforward drama The Wrestler (2008), which earned Oscar nominations for stars Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei; and five more Oscar nominations (with a statuette for Natalie Portman) for Black Swan.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  A brain crawling with ants that shows up in the strangest places, including on a subway staircase and in a sink.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Math wiz Max’s frequent migraine induced hallucinations give Pi


Original trailer for Pi

all the weird cachet it needs, but even without them, the hermetic world created by the mix of grainy high-contrast monochrome photography, rapid-fire montage editing, a pulsing electronic soundtrack, and ideas too grandiose and metaphysical to be completely described would have created a movie seething with weirdness.  It also features a tough, streetwise gang of devout Hasidic Jews, which by itself gives it an extra weird point.

COMMENTS:  “When I was a little kid, my mother told me not to stare into the sun.  So Continue reading 36. PI (1998)

CAPSULE: NINJA CHAMPION (1985)

Ninja Champion has been voted onto the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies of All Time. Comments on this initial review are closed. Please see the official Certified Weird entry to comment.

DIRECTED BY:  Godfrey Ho

FEATURING: Nancy Chan, Bruce Baron, Richard Harrison

PLOT: The hard-to-unravel plot involves a raped woman seeking vengeance, her relationship with the ex-fiance Interpol agent who deserted her, diamond smugglers, identical twins, and ninjas.  No champions appear.

Still from Ninja Champion (1985)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTNinja Champion is like manna from heaven for bad movie fans, who will want to check it out posthaste.  Its only weirdness, however, comes from the utter incoherence of its cut-n-paste plot, and this chopped-up chopsocky needs more than that to escape out of the kung fu jungle and crack the List of the best weird movies of all time.

COMMENTS:  Godfrey Ho is a director who believes that basic continuity is a luxury only big-budget productions can afford; he’s confident that the meat-and-potatoes masses won’t care if a movie makes absolutely no sense, as long as there are frequent ninja battles in it.  You must turn off your rational faculties to enjoy Ninja Champion. Otherwise, you will be rewinding the DVD every five minutes, trying to solve riddles like “where did that actress’ new blouse come from?,” “who was that guy and why he just disappear for no reason?,” and “how in the heck did she get those handcuffs off?”  The film seems to be simply another cheesy, cookie-cutter kung fooey, until the first really wacked out scene appears.  To prove her smuggling cred to an opium-smoking crime boss, our heroine Rose opens her blouse wide to display the diamonds she has been hiding.  It’s obviously a cheap ploy to smuggle some nudity into the film—but—the actress’ breasts (and the pilfered jewels) are blurred so that nothing can be seen. (It’s not a case of censorship, as a naked breast does appear in the film later, courtesy of a body double). It looks like someone smeared a thick wad of Vaseline on the bottom half of the camera lens. We are even treated to leering, full-frame closeups of her smudged, impossible to ogle chest.  This begs the question: is Godfrey Ho the first director in exploitation movie history to manage the oxymoronic feat of including a gratuitous topless scene with no nudity in it?  Hot on the heels of this bungled attempt at smut comes the badly integrated ninja storyline, wherein a Caucasian ninja randomly hunts and kills other ninjas (sometimes wearing headbands helpfully describing themselves as “ninja”) while they are practicing their circus tricks.  In between trying to follow the twisted, ludicrous plotline and watching for continuity errors, you can thrill to sparkling lines of dialogue:

“OK, you can help me kill them if you like, but I’m still going to kill you!  It’s over, George!”

“We ninjas are getting bored.  Can we start now?”

And of course, this immortal exchange:

“The wine, there must have been something in it!  Oh God!”

“Not the wine, my nipples, you jerk!”

Ho “directed” over 40 movies with “Ninja” in the title.  His method was to buy up cheap footage from unreleased Hong Kong movies and to intercut them with film he shot of American actors playing ninjas, then dub the older movie to incorporate a ninja subplot.  The results were then dumped into U.S. video stores in an attempt to cash in on the minor 1980s craze for ninja movies.  Without having seen any of his other efforts, I’m going to declare Ho’s Ninja Champion his weirdest, because the diamond smuggling/rape revenge/identical twin plot is so bizarre and confusing on its own that I doubt he could have found a more incompetent film to use as the base movie.

Although Ninja Champion is sold separately or packaged with various other kung fu, the best deal is Mill Creek’s “Martial Arts 50 Movie Pack,” which also contains the borderline weird Kung Fu Arts and 48 other silly butt-kickers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…simply one of the most insane so-called ‘movies’ that I’ve ever seen.”–Keith Bailey, The Unknown Movies (DVD)

366 EXCLUSIVE: “9″

We are pleased to debut Alfred Eaker and Robbin Panet’s short film film “9” on the web.  This is the movie they made for the 2009 48 Hour Film Festival.  The rules of the contest festival are simple: every team has only 48 hours to complete the film, and each must incorporate three elements given by the festival : a character name, a line of dialogue, and a prop.  Look for a character named “Professor Sherman Kane,” a ball, and the line “I’m not talking to you.”

Rather than making a straightforward short that looked like everyone else, “9” takes an experimental approach, becoming a sepia-hued exploration of domestic abuse through the generations, in a Western setting.  The bizarre free-association poetry of John M. Bennet replaces traditional narration.  It runs approximately seven and a half minutes.

Alfred’s description of the making of the film can be read in his Reflections on the 48 Hour Film Festival and the “9” Diary.

9

[Our license to display “9” has expired.  We will inform you if this film is released, on DVD or otherwise, in the future.]

At the producers’ request, this film will not be released to YouTube or other video hosting sites, and will be available here for one month only.  UPDATE: Because this film was reviewed and linked from Rogue Cinema, we are leaving the film up for another week, until October 12, 2009.

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: HAPPY HERE AND NOW (2002)

Review writing contest #1 winner, by Pamela De Graff.

DIRECTED BY: Michael Almereyda

FEATURING: Clarence Williams III, David Arquette (who also co-produced), Ally Sheedy, former super model Shalom Harlow, model Gloria Reuben, Karl Geary, rhythm and blues star Ernie K-Doe

PLOT: Happy Here and Now is a surrealistic satire in which a young woman tries to find

Still from Happy Here and Now (2002)

her missing sister by investigating eccentric New Orleans characters who are entangled in a web of cyber-intrigue.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Happy Here and Now is a dream-like atmosphere piece which artfully combines unusual visual and acoustic elements. This movie is unusual in its story telling structure. It guides us through a netherworld of oddball people, their cryptic actions and strange gadgets via a series of vignettes that are ultimately connected.

COMMENTS: In this quirky odyssey, Canadian actress Liane Balaban plays Amelia. She has come to New Orleans to locate a missing sister who has erased every trace of herself. Clarence Williams III plays a limping ex CIA agent with an unexplained leg wound that just won’t heal.

Williams forensically dissects the sister’s laptop hard drive. He finds traces of cryptic conversations held online with a poetic but sinister misfit (Karl Geary). The stranger uses a special technology to change his real-time appearance and country of origin on webcam-conference.

Amelia attempts to determine the presence of a connection between the late night Internet chats and her sister’s disappearance. She does so with Thomas’ assistance by contacting Geary’s puzzling character and conducting a fresh set of webcam conversations. What are his motives, what is he truly capable of? Why does he change his appearance and answer questions with questions?

Did this enigmatic stranger lure Amelia’s sister to her fate in a snuff film? Amelia must figure out how to trace and outwit him by playing a game of deception online.

Throughout her quest for answers, Amelia encounters a cascade of artistic dilettantes. One of several exceptions is the real-life Ernie K-Doe, famous for his 1961 number one hit, “Mother-in -Law,” who appears as himself in his actual New Orleans club.

Nearly all of the characters are in some way unknowingly interconnected via a subplot orchestrated by David Arquette’s character, Eddie Mars. Mars is a creatively misguided, self-employed exterminator who entwines the protagonists via a film project. It is a soft-porn, direct-to-digital Internet film about a time traveling Nicola Tesla. (And there might be some termites and a spherical fire breaking out in a space station, he hasn’t decided yet.)

Happy Here and Now is a dream-like atmosphere piece which artfully combines unusual visual and acoustic elements. It highlights a smattering of New Orleans lore and culture. Thomas’ character weaves a narrative of local lore as the camera pans by local cemeteries, barbecue joints, The Napoleon House, and a few other unconventional landmarks. We get a nice sample of New Orleans homes and interiors, blues clubs, fauna, and steamy avenues by streetlight. Odd characters such as man wearing Napoleonic clothing wander the streets.

The film is open-ended as to its message. Enthusiasts of movies that conclude with a concrete sense of finality should look at Happy Here and Now as being a piece that is intended to inspire the imagination.

The film features musician, performance artist and electronics whiz “Quintron” (Robert Rolston’s stage name) as himself. Quintron has distinguished himself in arcane circles for, among other things, inventing clever but peculiar electronic musical instruments. One of his Tesla coils is featured in the film.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Strange by even its director’s ultra-eccentric standards, Happy Here and Now takes Michael Almereyda’s usual reality-blurring, video-mediated experimentation to new what-the-f*** levels…” -David Ng, The Village Voice (2005)

WHAT’S IN THE PIPELINE

Here’s what’s coming up on the site next week…

The exclusive web debut of Alfred Eaker and Robin Panet’s short film, “9” (no relation to the Tim Burton feature).  This is the movie they made in two days for the 48 Hour Film Festival, as described in the article Reflections on the 48 Hour Film Festival and the “9” Diary.  This is the first exclusive video we have ever hosted, and we’re excited about it!  It will only be available for streaming for one month.

Also, reviews of Darren Aronofsky’s paranoid experimental debut, Pi (1998), and Godfrey Ho’s nearly nonsensical kung-fu pastiche, Ninja Champion (1985).

Weirdest search term used to locate the site this week: “nuns movies with the cross in the cover.”  Winner, brutal honesty division: “stalker 1979 wtf?”

Here’s the ever-growing reader suggested review queue to give you an idea what will be coming further down the road: Nekromantic (still looking for a copy), Pi (next week), Angel’s Egg, Institute Benjamenta, Pan’s Labyrinth, Ex Drummer, Waking Life, Survive Style 5+, The Dark Backward, The Short Films of David Lynch, Santa Sangre, Dead Man, Inland Empire, and Monday (2000).

READER RECOMMENDATION: AFTER HOURS (1985)

The “Reader Recommendation” category includes films nominated by our readers as deserving of consideration for the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time.

by reader “Rajiv”

DIRECTED BY: Martin Scorsese

FEATURING: Griffin Dunne, Rosana Arquette, Catherine O’Hara

PLOT:  One night, Paul Hackett ( Griffin Dunne), New York computer word-processing consultant, is trapped in SoHo because his last dollar has flown out of the cab window on his way to a late night date with a woman he’s just met. His dream to score with a pretty woman ends up to be a waking nightmare when one mishap after another strands him in a hostile neighborhood in his quest to return home before morning.

Still from After Hours (1985)

WHY IT DESERVES TO MAKE THE LIST: From the plot description itself, we should aware that this is a weird film. The execution is also very weird. This is technically a black comedy, but it plays like a suspenseful thriller. A lot of surprisingly unpredictable things happened to force Paul Haggis, who just wants go home that night, to stay in SoH.

COMMENTS: A strange, original, and totally underrated movie from Mr. Scorsese. This film is a little bit ‘Coen brothers-ish,’ full of fantasies and surprises. This film proves Scorsese is a master filmmaker. He can create a moments with any subject matter, and make the audience feel certain feelings. Watch out especially for the ending of After Hours, it will make your feelings turn 180 degrees, it’s a shock! After Hours really deserved more attention as one of Scorsese’s best works.

SATURDAY SHORT: BETTY BOOP IN SNOW-WHITE (1933)

Firstly, I’d like to thank Ayla (of Twisted Celluloid) for the idea of this week’s short, “Betty Boop in Snow-White”.  The change over the past seventy-five years has been a big one, and it is very evident in this cartoon.  In this short you will find some very out of the ordinary dancing and singing (featuring Cab Calloway), a brief mention of alcohol, and no morals to end on. Enjoy!

WEIRD HORIZON FOR THE WEEK OF 9/4/09

A look at what’s weird in theaters, on hot-off-the-presses DVDs, and on more distant horizons…

Trailers of new release movies are generally available on the official site links.

Sadly, there’s nothing of even marginal weird interest debuting in American theaters this week.

NEW ON DVD:

TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Horror—House of Wax (1953) / The Haunting (1963) / Freaks (1932) / Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941):  All good movies, but it’s Freaks, Tod Browning’s one-of-a-kind disquieting exploitation fable, that catches our attention here.  Weird freaks might also get a kick out of seeing Ingrid Bergman’s head used as a champagne cork in Dr. Jekyll. This two double-sided disc set is an interesting way to start a high-end horror DVD collection if you’re not interested in the extras you would get from buying each individual film (all of these films are out on single disc DVDs in more lavish editions). Buy from Amazon.

TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Science Fiction2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)/ Soylent Green (1973)/ Forbidden Planet (1956)/ The Time Machine (1960): All good films, but the obvious weird draw here is 2001, Kubrick’s trippy and ambiguous sci-fi parable about… well, there are lots of theories as to what it’s about.  Apply the same caveats about this set as about the Horror collection above—no extras here, in case you want a definitive edition of a particular movie, but a good way to start a collection of smart science fiction films.  Buy from Amazon.

Not weird, but potentially of interest to some, is TCM’s collection of classic murder mystery/film noir movies including the beloved The Maltese Falcon (1941) along with The Big Sleep (1946), Dial M for Murder (1954), and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Buy from Amazon.

NEW ON BLU-RAY:

Fire and Ice (1983): Seldom seen animated sword-and-sorcery fantasy by weirdish Rotoscope auteur Ralph Bashki (Coonskin).  Animation fans may want to check out the Rotoscoping, which is said to be much better than the story.   Poster/book cover artist and chainmail-bikini fetishist Frank Frazetta was involved in some capacity. Buy from Amazon.

NEW FREE (LEGITIMATE RELEASE) ON YOUTUBE:

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953):  A boy dreams that his piano teacher is enslaving children on surrealistic sets in this classic weird children’s musical movie with nonsense lyrics by Dr. Seuss.  Show your kids at a young age to ensure they grow up weird.  Too good to watch on YouTube, but if you can’t resist… Watch The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T free on YouTube.

Freakmaker [AKA The Mutations] (1974):  A scientist experiments with mixing human and plant DNA in this bizarre grindhouse wonder that’s almost a remake of Tod Browning’s FreaksWatch Freakmaker free on YouTube.

The Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield (1968):  The most exploitative biopic ever made, mixing Jayne’s most salacious footage with the slanderous sexcapades of a “lookalike,” ending with totally tasteless footage of Jayne’s fatal car crash and grieving family.  Incoherent and unbelievable; will leave you feeling fascinated but very dirty.  Watch The Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield free on YouTube.

What are you looking forward to? If you have any weird movie leads that I have overlooked, feel free to leave them in the COMMENTS section.

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: JANNIE TOTSIENS [JOHNNY FAREWELL] (1970)

The “Reader Recommendation” category includes films nominated by our readers as deserving of consideration for the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time.

by Trevor Moses, film archivist at the National Film, Video and Sound Archives (South Africa)

DIRECTED BY: Jans Rautenbach

FEATURING: Cobus Rossouw, Jill Kirkland, Hermien Dommisse, Phillip Swanepoel, Katinka Heyns, Don Leonard, Lourens Schultz, Patrick Mynhardt, Betty Botha, Sandra Kotze, George Pearce, Jacques Loots.

PLOT: A catatonic mathematics professor with an Oedipus complex (as if the poor man didn’t have enough hassles already) is committed to an asylum which is a microcosm of South African society, circa 1970.  The inmates band together to attempt to restore him to life once more and when one of their number commits suicide because of him, they then attempt something more on his behalf: murder.

Still from Jannie Totsiens (1970)

WHY IT DESERVES TO MAKE THE LISTJannie Totsiens is rather like Milos Forman’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, only far, far more weird, disturbing and funny than that Oscar winning film.  Jans Rautenbach’s film is a microcosmic view of South Africa circa 1970 and an indictment of the blinkered Afrikaner Nationalist enforced attitudes and very dubious morals of the time.

COMMENTS: Allegedly autobiographical in tone, this was South Africa’s first film in the avant-garde genre, one of its very few horror films, and also its first black comedy.  It is now known to be an allegory about the South African situation in 1970 – showing said situation and the country’s inhabitants in the milieu of a home for the insane whose inmates’ lives are flipped by the arrival of a catatonic, mute mathematics professor, the “angel of discord”, as he is referred to by one of the loonies.  Among this merry little band, we find a jilted bride (Hermien Dommisse) whose wedding portrait depicts her holding the hand of a faceless man who locked her up in this house until she went insane, a knife wielding nymphomaniac with Bible thumping parents (Katinka Heyns), an ex Ossewabrandwag soldier with an uncanny resemblance to John Vorster (Don Leonard), a judge (Jacques Loots) who went mad (and consequently hangs up the plants in the asylum’s hothouse in a makeshift gallows) after his daughter’s killer was let off scot free, and a psychotic, lovesick woman (Jill Kirkland) who continuously writes unsent letters to her dead daughter.  Other characters include the sane, disabled artist Frans (Phillip Swanepoel) whose parents locked him up in the asylum because they were ashamed of him, and the Director of the asylum (Lourens Schultz), a weak-willed, gambling, drinking good-for-nothing, almost as mad as those he cares for, whose only purpose in life is to give injections and make his inmates swallow pills.  The seemingly mad and mother-fixated Jannie Pienaar  was supposedly based both on director Jans Rautenbach’s treatment by the critics and some of the more sensitive sections of the South African community, and Rautenbach’s experiences as a clinical psychologist.  He finds himself restored to life because of two major factors: a love triangle which involves him and two of the inmates and the horrific finale when, on the suicide of one of those inmates, Jannie is condemned to death by hanging.  For real.  Not by his neck, but by his feet.

One would have to go very far back or far forward into the future of the South African film industry’s history to find a film as horrific, comic (yes, it is very funny in parts) and perfect as this, with brooding photography (courtesy David Dunn Yarker and Koos Roets, ACS ), an eerie credits puppet show in which the spectre of death intrudes and is frightened away, haunting music by Sam Sklair and oppressive, claustrophobic set and art design.  To unsuspecting first time viewers, this film’s impact is still felt months and years later.  Judging by its’ initial reception in 1970, it is clear that the movie going public in South Africa did not know that they were actually looking into a mirror with themselves as the subjects, notwithstanding the fact that each viewer of this film feels like they have just been dinged on the head with a very large, heavy board when the film ends.

Bruce Lee says in Enter The Dragon, “Boards….. don’t hit back.”  This one does.

This film is available solely in the Afrikaans language and can be purchased from kalahari.net.

REVIEW WRITING CONTEST #1 WINNER

The winner of the review writing contest, and the A Clockwork Orange Blu-ray, is Pamela De Graff for her review of Happy Here and Now (2002).  Ms. De Graff’s review will be published on these pages on Sunday, September 6.

Thanks to all who contributed!  We will also be publishing the other entries we received under the category “Reader Recommendations.”  Look for a new reader review contest in the future.

Celebrating the cinematically surreal, bizarre, cult, oddball, fantastique, strange, psychedelic, and the just plain WEIRD!