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Donnie Darko Limited Edition (Blu-ray Review)

Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?  Fifteen years before Stranger Things combined science-fiction, Spielberg-ian touches and 80s nostalgia to much acclaim, Richard Kelly set the template – and the high-water mark – with his debut feature, Donnie Darko.  Initially beset with distribution problems, it would slowly find its audience and emerge as arguably the first cult classic of the new millennium.  Donnie is a troubled high school student: in therapy, prone to sleepwalking and in possession of an imaginary friend, a six-foot rabbit named Frank, who tells him the world is going to end in 28 days 06 hours 42 minutes and 12 seconds.  During that time he will navigate teenage life, narrowly avoid death in the form of a falling jet engine, follow Frank’s maladjusted instructions and try to maintain the space-time continuum.  Described by its director as “The Catcher in the Rye as told by Philip K. Dick”, Donnie Darko combines an eye-catching, eclectic cast – pre-stardom Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, heartthrob Patrick Swayze, former child star Drew Barrymore, Oscar nominees Mary McDonnell and Katherine Ross, and television favorite Noah Wyle – and an evocative soundtrack of 80s classics by Echo and the Bunnymen, Tears for Fears and Duran Duran.  This brand-new 4K restoration, carried out exclusively for this release by Arrow Films and MVD Entertainment Group, allows a modern classic to finally receive the home video treatment it deserves.  Extras on the Donnie Darko Limited Edition Blu-ray include both the Theatrical Cut and the Director’s Cut, plus full-length Making of’s, Commentaries, Vintage Interviews and more.  

Donnie Darko – Theatrical Cut 

Once in a great while a film will come along that even though it has a definitive through line story wise also has a myriad of other fantastical elements going on that are heavily left up to interpretation.  It’s the genius of such a cerebral set up that makes Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko such a clever, fascinating and utterly five-star film experience – getting to help steer the cinematic ship alongside a captain who has serious skills makes for some memorable movie time.

Donnie Darko is a teenage boy with some problems.  He’s quiet, introverted, sleepwalks and has regular sessions with his psychologist to work out his issues.  But one night Donnie finds himself outside, sleepwalking again and comes face to face with a monstrous bunny creature named Frank who tells him the world is about to end soon.  He returns home to find that his bedroom has been completely destroyed by a piece of jet engine that has come off an airplane.  Starting to see signs of alternate dimensions, weird visions and coming face to face with both love and evil in various guises, Donnie must ultimately decide what’s most important to him…and act.

Above is a very short generalizations of one of the most complicated films ever made, but it’s important to remember that the basic story grounding of Donnie Darko is just as key as the over-the-top themes and theories that run rampant throughout.  Every story, no matter how complex, must have a driving force and it’s the inclusion of such a simple idea that gives Kelly the ability to make all other elements in his weird world so utterly interesting.  The film dips its feet into everything from time travel to parallel universes, but all the while never skimps on emotional aspects of the story. Love, hate, fear, jealousy and even sacrifice are all present within the framework of the films’ tall tale – there’s little surface stuff in this story.

In fact it’s frankly hard to say, beyond the helming by Kelly, what exactly makes Donnie Darko such a masterwork.  The cast, from a young low-key Jake Gyllenhaal to insightful doc Katharine Ross (icon alert!), the camerawork (cinematographer Steven B. Poster definitely brings some of his Someone to Watch Over Me style to this one!), the costumes (Frank The Bunny is both disturbing and captivating to look at – a true scene stealer!) and the utterly affecting music (Head Over Heels, Under the Milky Way and the Mad World cover are used with terrific tear inducing effectiveness!) all work in tandem with the films many other odd and amazing elements to create a raw movie experience that demands multiple viewings. (Bet you see something new every time!)

Donnie Darko is not for everyone – those who demand to be spoon fed their cinema will likely be turned off.  But in a movie era where every cinematic story, character and nuance is explained and sanitized for an audiences’ convenience its films like Donnie Darko that remind us how engaging and entertaining original unfiltered films can be.  Following in the footsteps of flicks by the likes of Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch and Atom Egoyan, Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko is a fantastic film that ultimately needs no explanation – just enjoy.

Video 

Encoding: MPEG-4

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1

Clarity/Detail: Steven B. Poster’s work has never been so lush.  Seeing new side and background items are only some of the benefits of the 4K scan.

Depth: The spacing is glorious – especially during group scenes.

Black Levels: Again fantastic work in the low light here – Frank’s teeth look like they’re moving!

Color Reproduction: Blue’s and darks pop so much here!

Flesh Tones: A tad muted at times – but that’s fully Kelly’s doing and works wonders!

Noise/Artifacts: Clean.

Audio 

Audio Formats(s): English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (only having one format does take this one down a dog!)

Subtitles: English SDH

Dynamics: Crisp and clear – especially the masterful musical scene sequences.

Low Frequency Extension: With the low Frank the Bunny base there’s a full chill up the spine effect.

Surround Sound Presentation: Not really designed for that – not needed though.

Dialogue Reproduction: So audible that even Frank’s muffled voice becomes clear.

Donnie Darko – Director’s Cut 

The above review suffices for the Theatrical Cut aspects of Donnie Darko, but what of the Director’s Cut?  I’m of the firm belief that any film taking on such a moniker should be doing so to rectify the wrongs brought upon a director during the initial film release or at the very least to make the film better and more to the filmmakers original vision.

The main problem with Donnie Darko – Director’s Cut is that it not only feels wholeheartedly unneeded, but actually works as a detriment against the already existing fabulous original film.  Sadly coming off like a lame double double dip to get more moola from the fans, all the additions within be it new scenes or extended ones are overly complicated while at the same time being obnoxiously obvious.  The inclusion of actual pages from The Philosophy of Time Travel book are especially pure ‘hit the nail on the head’ time and firmly take previously entertaining ambiguousness and give unnecessary explanation.  Not to mention that some scenes now drag, previously effective music has been moved and replaced and the film feels downright bloated – like finishing a perfectly fantastic meal only to find there’s another gut-busting course.

It could be that this cut was released way too soon after the first version or that in interviews and commentaries (this disc’s one included!) even Richard Kelly seems to not have his full heart in it, but this particular Director’s Cut is a big endorsement for embracing limitations.  Sometimes time, budget, set complications and studio interference can come together – and not just in a tangent universe – to make a five-star flick that needs no improvement.

Video 

Encoding: MPEG-4

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1

Clarity/Detail: Same as Theatrical.

Depth: Same as Theatrical.

Black Levels: Same as Theatrical.

Color Reproduction: Same as Theatrical.

Flesh Tones: Same as Theatrical.

Noise/Artifacts: Clean.

Audio 

Audio Formats(s): English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Subtitles: English SDH

Dynamics: Good stuff, though the inclusion of extra sounds for this cut prove distracting.

Low Frequency Extension: See dynamics.

Surround Sound Presentation: Same as Theatrical.

Dialogue Reproduction: Same as Theatrical.

Extras 

Both Donnie Dark – Theatrical Cut and Donnie Darko – The Director’s Cut in the Donnie Darko Limited Edition Blu-ray feature brand new 4K restorations, come with both High Definition Blu-ray and DVD presentations of both cuts, feature a reversible sleeve with original and newly commissioned artwork by Candice Tripp and comes with an exclusive illustrated collector’s book containing new writing by Nathan Rabin, Anton Bitel and Jamie Graham, an in-depth interview with Richard Kelly, introduction by Jake Gyllenhaal and contemporary coverage, illustrated with original stills and promotional materials.

Disc 1 – Donnie Dark – Theatrical Cut

Audio Commentary

  • With Writer/Director Richard Kelly and actor Jake Gyllenhaal (A decent if not uber-low key listen as Kelly and Gyllenhaal have a monotone delivery that can put one to sleep.  But there’s tons more Kelly explanations, a good Christopher Walken impression ala Gyllenhaal and a story of kid firing from Kelly – lots to absorb!)
  • With Writer/Director Richard Kelly, producer Sean McKittrick and actors Drew Barrymore, Jena Malone, Beth Grant, Mary McDonnell, Holmes Osborne, Katharine Ross and James Duval (A total mess of a track with far too many people in the room and Kelly a sad excuse for a moderator – only for those who live, eat, sleep and crap all things Darko!)

Deus ex Machina: The Philosophy of Donnie Darko (SD, 1:25:23) – A full-length kick ass doc that has a lot of interesting insight (Jason Schwartzman was attached as Donnie early on!), tales of woe (the whole up then down Sundance experience is detailed!) and even history of champions (Chris Nolan threw some love the films’ way!) from those who lived it.  The only down side – Gyllenhaal aka Donnie Darko himself is nowhere to be found in this one.  (Shame on you dude!)

The Goodbye Place (SD, 8:43)This is Richard Kelly’s 1996 short film which shows that the filmmaker had issues even back during film school days – good show!

Deleted and Extended Scenes (HD, 31:54) – There are twenty scenes with optional Richard Kelly commentary (separate from the film – as they should be!) which are interesting but not needed.

Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2:29)

Disc 2 – Donnie Darko – The Director’s Cut

Audio Commentary

  • With Writer/Director Kelly and filmmaker Kevin Smith (Sadly the inclusion of the normally amazing Kevin Smith proves a detriment to that track with smith talking about himself and playing the goof, which takes Kelly’s focus away from the new footage which is hardly ever explained.)

The Donnie Darko Production Diary (SD, 52:54) – For the avid fan this massive behind the scenes of everything from the sparkle motion scene to more Swayze will be the holy grail.  The only thing that tops it is the optional commentary by cinematographer Steven Poster who is candid and honest and even gives away some DP secrets.

Archival Interviews (SD,14:19) – All fifteen cast folks give a few one liners on the flick – man Gyllenhaal looks young!

They Made Me Do It (SD, 4:48) – This is a quick musical montage of a UK Canvas contest where artists had to build a picture in the films’ doomsday time frame – love the one with the Beth Grant!

They Made Me Do It Too (SD, 30:17) – More a look at the cult fandom in the UK – for fanatical fans only.

#1 Fan: A Darkomentary (SD,13:18) – Disturbing video made by the winner in a contest to prove he’s the #1 Donnie Darko fan.  Creepy music in the car (with even weirder sing along!), room artwork, the stalking of Duval and even a comic con Kelly kiss – wow.

Storyboard Comparisons (SD, 7:58) – A nifty visual that pits lush storyboards atop the scenes themselves.

B-Roll Footage (SD, 4:37) – This one says B-roll but feels more like a behind the scenes camera – cool though.

Cunning Visions Infomercials (SD, 5:42) – The Swayze segments with optional annoying commentary (who the hell is that?!) that should be avoided at all costs.

Music Video (SD, 3:21) – The ever effecting Mad World by Gary Jules – I bow.

Image Gallery (SD, 0:48), Director’s Cut Trailer (SD, 0:55) and five TV Spots (SD, 3:18)

Summary 

Quite a mixed bag on this set to say the least.  (Though any Darko fan will get this one no matter what!)  What is good is not only the film of course, but the lush transfers of both and more extras then you can wield a knife at.  Even depending how you feel about the various versions, this set is a solid Frank the Bunny approved bet.

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I'm a passionate and opinionated film critic/movie journalist with over 20 years of experience in writing about film - now exclusively for WhySoBlu.com. Previous sites include Starpulse.com, before that as Senior Entertainment Editor for The213.net and 213 Magazine, as well as a staff writer for JoBlo.com. My other love is doing cool events for the regular guy with my company Flicks For Fans alongside my friend and partner James "Jimmy O" Oster. Check us out at www.Facebook.com/FlicksForFans.

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