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Darren Aronofsky uses a familiar plot with a new twist in his debut film, '¹.'

by Jim Wunderle

"Your Friends and Neighbors"

Directed by: Neil LaBute

Starring: Ben Stiller, Jason Patric, Nastassja Kinski, Aaron Eckhart

Rated: R

If you saw Neil LaBute's first film, "In the Company of Men," you might be understandably wary of putting yourself through the emotional wringer again and you might tend to avoid his latest effort, "Your Friends and Neighbors."

While he hasn't lost his somewhat cynical bent and will never be accused of making "the feel-good movie of the season," LaBute's new film is not so wrenching as his debut. It does take an unflinching look at the sexual mores of 1990s America, and sometimes the scenes aren't at all pleasant.

The pivotal point in the film comes when the three main male characters, who all seem obsessed with sex, have a "locker room" talk about their best sexual experiences. We learn that one of the men still relishes a high school homosexual gang rape.

The most subdued of the trio sheepishly says his wife is his best. Then, dropping the bomb, the third man admits that the second man's wife is also his best. It's an emotionally taut moment, and LaBute uses the scene to set the tone for the rest of the film.

While "In the Company of Men" was nearly all one-sided in portraying male sexual cruelty and misogyny, the women in "Your Friends and Neighbors" are nearly as conniving and cruel as their male counterparts. None of the characters is very likeable, and there is nothing that can be construed as lovemaking in their sex lives.

The six main characters, too, at one time or another, become involved with each of the others, in various degrees of intimacy and brutality.

After reading reviews of LaBute's work, one might wonder why anyone would want to sit through this sort of bleak storytelling. Suffice to say that while LaBute's tales are decidedly dark, even bordering on the uncomfortable, his cinematic style, reminiscent of French director Jean-Luc Godard, is quite rich.

Sometimes the movies, even the Hollywood kind, aren't supposed to be all sweetness and light. Last year's most popular movie, after all, featured a rather immense shipwreck, and this year's blockbuster opens with a half hour of brutally accurate scenes depicting the Battle of Normandy.


Directed by: Darren Aronofsky

Starring: Sean Gullette, Mark Margolis

Rated: R

Although the official title of this film is the symbol, to facilitate typing, I'm going to refer to it as "Pi." I wonder how music critics feel when forced to deal with that little symbol that everyone knows by now means "Prince."

Darren Aronofsky's debut as a writer/director uses a classic horror story device popular from "Frankenstein" to "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." The "scientific genius drives himself mad trying to prove his theories" plot is by now familiar, but still engaging.

Aronofsky's twist on the formula is his main character's particular scientific bent. Max Cohen is a man obsessed by numbers. He's gone beyond searching for repeating patterns in the value of pi, being convinced that everything, including the stock market, is influenced by this magical series of numbers.

While doing research, his homemade super computer (named Euclid) spits out a series of 216 numbers that arouse interest in everyone from Max's mentor to a group of cut-throat business folks to (I'm not kidding) a sect of Jewish mystics.

The story is engaging: We see Max struggling with his theories, but we also see a man who has driven himself to a state of abject paranoia and ill health. Many times in the film Max is s popping pain pills, only to wake later with a bloody nose and and other physical signs that all is not well.

What makes "Pi" rather uncomfortable to watch is the hand-held camera, the blotchy black-and-white film stock and the purposefully grating soundtrack.

All in all, though, "Pi" is quite an accomplishment for Aronofsky, who made the film for the unheard of bargain basement price of $20,000

(Jim Wunderle works at Associated Video Producers and is a Springfield free-lance writer and musician.)

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