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DVD Review: Donnie Darko -- The Director's Cut

By Glenn Abel

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photo "The dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had," the man sings at the end of "Donnie Darko." It's an old Tears for Fears number, one of several major intersections of lyrics and storyline in the film -- guaranteed chills for admirers of this odd and addictive movie.

"Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut" had a brief run last summer in Los Angeles and New York, and now Fox has released it on a double-disc set (retail $26.98). To the studio's credit, and to cultists' delight, none of the extras were ported over from the original 2003 DVD. The extended film and bonus features create an alternate home video experience -- totally in the spirit of "Darko."

Writer-director Richard Kelly thought he'd have to wait a decade before getting the chance to do a director's cut, but distributor Newmarket was eager to capitalize on the 2001 boxoffice bomb's recent successes, largely because of the "Rocky Horror"-like cult that's grown up around alienated teen Donnie and his strange friend, a man in a 6-foot bunny suit.

"I'm just as proud of the first cut as of this one," Kelly says, admitting that the amount of footage he had to edit out of the original was "ultimately upsetting." He likens the new film to a remixed record. In the digital age, "There can hopefully be two versions of a film that exist."

Wiseguy director Kevin Smith, who guests on Kelly's commentary, says he figures the "Darko" phenomenon this way: It's the "you-gotta-see-this-factor. Everyone feels like they discovered this movie."

The plot isn't really explainable in brief, but here goes: Donnie, a decent but emotionally troubled teen, enters a "tangent universe" that parallels our own. A jet engine crashes into his room. Forces from the future use Donnie to try to save the universe from destruction in 28 days, on Halloween 1988. Their messenger is Frank, the bunny with the creepy mask.

"Why do you wear that stupid bunny suit?" Donnie asks. "Why do you wear that stupid man suit?" Frank responds.

Critics and film buyers had problems with the first "Darko's" muddled metaphysics. The director says clues now can be found in every scene. "I wasn't trying to really baffle people," Kelly says. "I was just trying to tell this big elaborate science fiction story." The new cut adds pages from a time-travel book as "a Cliff's Notes primer for the movie."

Smith admits to being lost while watching the original. "What are you, Kubrick?" he kids Kelly at one point.

Despite its weirdness, at heart "Darko" is a traditional teen crisis movie, with the usual high school archetypes. Kelly wrote the script at age 23, with fresh memories of his teens and the music of the '80s.

"It's like a John Hughes movie of the 21st century," Smith says.

The "Clerks" director and Kelly keep each other amused on the commentary, with Smith occasionally playing the interviewer. (He'd be a talented journalist, it seems.) They set off on some entertaining tangents of their own. More commentators should bring along their smart friends.

The director took deleted scenes from the first DVD's extras and returned them to the film. He added "comic book" visual elements like a giant eyeball. The audio was reimagined to heighten the supernatural vibe. A couple of songs were returned to their rightful positions, and an INXS tune now opens the film.

The new audio (Dolby Digital 5.1) proves a dramatic, subwoofer-smoking upgrade. Not so with the letterboxed images (2.35:1) -- reproduction is as soft and uninspiring as on the original disc.

The hourlong "production diary" is more a collection of on-location footage, with optional voice-over from director of photography Steven Poster ("Blade Runner"). Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his school-bully tormentor appear to be pals in real life. Producer Drew Barrymore, who made the project happen, lights up the set by her presence (she plays a hip teacher).

"Donnie is the embodiment of Jesus," a fan explains in the British docu "They Made Me Do It: The Cult of Donnie Darko." She's being interviewed by a man in a cheap bunny suit. The piece tells how "Darko" had its first successes in London, where marketers built an art show around the iconic bunny and plastered the city with hand-colored stickers featuring its demonic mask. "You guys got it immediately," a grateful Kelly tells his U.K. fans.

The highly interactive donniedarko.com found the "No. 1 fan" via a home-movie contest. In his short film, the beefy zealot shows off his "Darko"-infested bedroom and kisses Kelly, who is understandably alarmed.

There also are a good 8-minute storyboard-to-film segment and blazing trailer that makes you want to see it all again.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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