Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Movie Reviews: 'Pi' and 'Night of the Living Dead'

I recently saw these two successful, inventive, independent, low-budget films.  Aside from the details of their production, they may seem completely unrelated, but they share some notable similarities.

I will not discuss the plot details of either movie.  If you have seen them, it would be pointless, and if you have not seen them, it would be a spoiler.

As an action or horror movie, 'Night of the Living Dead' was slow and boring.  It is really of no interest to modern audiences, except as a cultural and historical document.  However, from that standpoint, it is good to see.

For example, I noticed that all of the characters placed a lot of importance on keeping a working television and radio so someone could tell them what to do.  They all had an amazing, naive, faith that following whatever instructions were given to them would be the right thing to do.  I do not know if the filmmakers intended this as a deliberate comment and satire on contemporary society, or if they simply reflected the current social norms, but it was noteworthy.

The violence was also amazingly tame, by modern standards.  I could not see how anyone could get upset by it, until I saw on the Wikipedia page that it was shown, unrated, in the matinee hour, where it was watched by little children.  Now I understand the reaction.  I would not want pre-teens to see that.

I will take this as an opportunity to say that, unlike many Libertarians, I strongly support labeling laws of all kinds, from movie ratings to food packaging labels.  You should be able to make and sell almost anything you want, as long as the contents of your product are clearly and honestly labeled on a universally understood standard.  There would be a lot less political pressure for restricting things if we had better ways of communicating product characteristics to consumers.

I also find it noteworthy that dozens of filmmakers copied the 'zombie' aspect of the film, which was the worst part, rather than the interpersonal conflict, character studies, and psychological tension, which were quite well-done.  After this movie, people tried to break into the film industry by making low-budget horror films, and mostly failed.  This is an example of 'cargo-cult' thinking, where people copy only the superficial aspects of something successful, and ignore the underlying causes of the success.

Pi, however, was a good film, because it succeeded in being inventive and engaging.  It was everything that an independent film should be.  Despite the name, it is not really about math or science.  It is basically an exploration of a strange kind of mysticism and its consequences.  It does a very good job of portraying the Lovecraftian idea that there are Things Man Was Not Meant To Know, that mere knowledge can warp both reality and your brain.

I will note that, in terms of blood, gore, and shock, 'Pi' was actually more intense than 'Night of the Living Dead'.  It was also scarier and more disturbing.  And yet it is not labeled as a 'horror' film, nor should it be.

There were a lot of things in 'Pi' that I did not really understand.  Maybe there was some deeper meaning behind them, but the cynic in me thinks that a good way to fake intelligence and depth would be to do odd and interesting things at random in order to trick people into looking for a hidden meaning, 'finding' it, and then congratulating both themselves and the filmmakers for intelligence and sophistication.

Both films were successful because they did things that were not being done by mainstream production companies.  They explored new ideas at a time when most mainstream entertainment was based on a predictable formula.

The science and logic in both movies was equally bad.  If you are looking for a coherent or believable story, go elsewhere.  But of you are looking for things to ponder and thing about, there are worse ways to spend a couple hours than to watch these movies.

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