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Every year there are a lot of small independent movies that are released; some are bad, some are good, and some are great. Occasionally, an independent movie shows up that is so unique, that it doesn’t immediately get the distribution or the audience recognition that it deserves… in other words, nobody knows how to market it. DONNIE DARKO ($35) was and is such a movie. Originally seen primarily at film festivals and in art house theaters, DONNIE DARKO did not gain notoriety until it was released on DVD, where it found terrific success via word of mouth, and over the course of years, garnered a sizable cult following. Heck, the surprisingly large success of DONNIE DARKO on DVD actually lead to the film being revisited in a Director’s Cut release, which is making its way to Blu-ray, along with the original Theatrical Version.

If you have never seen DONNIE DARKO, it may not be the film one initially expects. DONNIE DARKO is a deep, dark, unsettling and surprisingly philosophical movie that will leave its audience thinking about it, long after it has ended. The premise of DONNIE DARKO follows the strange odyssey of the title character, whose shaky mental stability may be the one thing that places him on a path to the end of the world… and back. DONNIE DARKO plays with the notion that mentally disturbed individuals have the tendency to hear and see things that the rest of us do not. However, what if these perceptions were something more than just mere mental illness? Well in the case of the film’s title character, they may well be… Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a troubled high school student, who is seeing a therapist on a regular basis and is be medicated for his impulse control issues, as well as schizophrenia. The effectiveness of of the therapy and medication are called into question, as Donnie still has a tendency to walk in his sleep, not to mention he converses with a hideous six-foot rabbit named Frank.

Actually, the sleepwalking turns out to be a blessing in disguise, because while Donnie is on a somnambulist trek across a golf course, when a jet engine falls out of the sky and crashes into his bedroom. However, Donnie’s encounters with his six-foot rabbit pal Frank are another matter entirely. As Frank gets deeper and deeper into Donnie’s mind, the rabbit causes him to perform increasingly destructive acts, not to mention that Frank informs Donnie of the exact date and time that the world is going to end… To give away anymore of the story would spoil the surprises and rewards of watching DONNIE DARKO for yourself.

Although made on a minuscule budget, DONNIE DARKO is a well-crafted film that benefits from the single-minded vision of writer/director Richard Kelly and first rate troop of actors. Jake Gyllenhaal successfully embodies the character’s teen angst and mental turmoil, yet he maintains just enough restraint to keep the performance from lapsing into caricature. Mary McDonnell is amazingly good as Donnie’s mother Rose; McDonnell takes a seemingly small role and makes it incredibly multifaceted. And at the time of the film’s original release, Patrick Swayze found himself with his best role in years, as self help guru Jim Cunningham. The cast of DONNIE DARKO also features Drew Barrymore (who executive produced the film), as well as Jena Malone, Holmes Osborne, Noah Wyle, Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Duval, Beth Grant, Seth Rogen, Ashley Tisdale, Jerry Trainor and Katharine Ross.

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment has made DONNIE DARKO available on Blu-ray Disc in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio presentation that has been encoded onto the disc with the AVC codec. As I stated above, the Blu-ray release offers both Director’s Cut, as well as the Original Theatrical Version. The 1080p presentation marks a definite upgrade over the SD DVD, but DONNIE DARKO is far from high definition reference material. DONNIE DARKO was made on a relatively small budget and the Blu-ray cannot offer anything more than what is contained in the source material. Image sharpness and detail are generally good, but compared to a big budget film; DONNIE DARKO comes across as mildly soft. Fine details appear best in close-ups, but there is also curious hazy quality to the cinematography that comes out in the daylight sequences. Additionally, dimensionality seems a little hit or miss. Colors are rendered with a strong level of saturation, but do not appear artificially boosted. Blacks are deep, while the whites are clean and crisp. Contrast is strong, as is the level of shadow detail. The elements from which DONNIE DARKO has been transferred are in very good shape, displaying only some minor blemishes. Grain is noticeable throughout; sometimes it is a bit heavy, sometimes less, always organic.

DONNIE DARKO is presented on Blu-ray Disc with a 5.1 channel DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. The lossless encode offers an extension and modest improvement upon the soundtrack contained on the DVD release, with the musical component getting the most significant boost. DONNIE DARKO does not feature an aggressive sound design, but the outlying channels are surprisingly effective at conveying an unnerving sense of atmosphere at key moments. Much of the film is dialogue driven, but it is reproduced with excellent clarity and intelligibility. The bass channel add weight to the sound, but the nature of the material does not lend itself to anything ground shaking. A French 2.0 channel Dolby Surround soundtrack is also encoded onto the disc, as are English, French and Spanish subtitles.

Full motion video, animation and sound serve to enhance the disc's interactive menus. Through the menus, one has access to standard scene selection and set up features, as well as the supplemental materials, which have been spread across both discs of this set. Disc one features three running Audio Commentary tracks. Two commentaries accompany the Original Theatrical Version; the first track features writer/director Richard Kelly and star Jake Gyllenhaal, while the second includes the director again, along with cast members Drew Barrymore, Mary McDonnell, Jena Malone, Beth Grant, Holmes Osborne, Katherine Ross, and James Duval, as well as producers Sean McKittrick and Nancy Juvonen. The Director’s Cut comes with a commentary track that features writer/director Richard Kelly, as well as fellow writer/director Kevin Smith.

Moving on to disc two (an SD DVD), one will find the remainder of the supplemental programming. Starting things off on the second disc is a Donnie Darko Production Diary, which runs fifty-two minutes and features an optional running Audio Commentary with director of photography Steven Poster. Other Featurettes include They Made Me Do It Too: The Cult Of Donnie Darko (twenty-eight minutes) and #1 Fan: A Darkumentary (thirteen minutes). Storyboard To Screen is fairly self-explanetory and offers an eight-minute comparison. A Theatrical Trailer for the Director’s Cut closes out the supplements.

I have been a fan of DONNIE DARKO since the first time I saw it and am glad the film has found an audience thanks to DVD. The Blu-ray presentation makes the most of the materials, but there is no denying that DONNIE DARKO is a low budget film and falls short of high definition demonstration material. Still, DONNIE DARKO comes highly recommended on Blu-ray.



Donnie Darko [Blu-ray] (2001)


DVD & Blu-rayDisc reviews are Copyright © 2009 THE CINEMA LASER and may not be copied or reprinted without the written consent of the publisher.
THE CINEMA LASER is written, edited and published by Derek M. Germano.



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