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DONNIE DARKO: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT

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When “Donnie Darko” was released in 2001, it was dismissed by some important mainstream reviewers and largely ignored by audiences. It was embraced by other critics and many of the viewers lucky enough to have seen it, though, and in the intervening three years it’s become a cult classic–a fixture at midnight screenings and a success on video and DVD. Now Newmarket, which rather bungled the original marketing of the picture, has allowed writer-director Richard Kelly to assemble a “director’s cut” of “Donnie Darko,” at 133 minutes nearly twenty longer than the original version.

In this expanded form it’s still an exceptionally challenging film, amazingly assured for a first feature–a haunting, hypnotic mixture of black comedy, domestic drama, coming-of-age story, mystical science fiction and psychological study. But it’s not quite the equal of the one some of us found so extraordinary in 2001. The added narrative footage consists of most of the deleted and expanded scenes already found on the DVD issue, now inserted within the picture rather than simply given as appendices; presumably many, if not all of them were present in the print shown at the Sundance Festival early in 2001, which was trimmed to get the picture under the two-hour mark for fall release. (Happily, not all of the material on the DVD has been used; the final shot of Donnie in his bedroom remains, wisely, unseen.) Some of the new footage is amusing, but none of it is really necessary, and it does make for slow going at times. Still, by itself that wouldn’t seriously impair the picture. The problem is that Kelly has also attempted to clarify the story by adding what amounts to explanatory linking matter, in the form of brief excerpts from the book on time travel penned years before by Rebecca Sparrow, the woman now known as Grandma Death, and repeated shots of a huge eye apparently reflected on some sort of computer screen and, in turn, reflecting other images. This is problematical, first of all, because it makes too explicit the secrets that remained marvelously ambiguous in the original release, turning a deeply enigmatic fable into something much more direct. But beyond that, the means Kelly has chosen are weak. The book excerpts, with their talk of tangent universes, receptors and manipulated dead, read exactly like the pseudo-scientific babble they are, and the computer-screen stuff is all too reminiscent of the repeated shots of Dave Bowman’s eye witnessing the journey beyond the infinite in “2001: A Space Odyssey” (and of HAL-9000’s gleaming red eye, too). Ordinarily I’m as much in favor of a Kubrick reference as anybody, but this one was a mistake.

Of course none of this diminishes the brilliance of Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance as Donnie, or the fine turns by Maggie McDonnell, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, Katharine Ross, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Noah Wyle, Holmes Osborne, Patrick Swayze, Beth Grant and James Duval. (The last-named deserves special credit for playing a six-foot rabbit so well.) And the widescreen cinematography of Steven Poster, the score by Michael Andrews and the pop songs used to complement it remain stunningly effective. Even in this expanded form “Donnie Darko” stands head and shoulders above most other movies, and the opportunity to see in a theatre shouldn’t be missed. But like so many directors’ cuts, it’s not an improvement. (A clue: when such cuts are longer than the original–the usual case–it’s ordinarily a problem.) My advice? If you’re a afficionado of the film, or never had the opportunity to see it on the big screen, by all means check out this new version. But be sure to acquire a copy of the DVD with the original film as well; one never knows whether it will remain in circulation after a new one of the director’s cut is inevitably issued. Whatever Kelly might want you to believe, that’s still the true “Donnie Darko”–and a great film it is.

TOUCHING THE VOID

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Part documentary and part re-enactment, Kevin Macdonald’s account of a near-fatal attempt by two young Englishmen to scale a forbidding Andean peak in 1985 makes for absorbing, moving viewing. Both accomplished filmmaking and powerful human statement, “Touching the Void” makes Hollywood attempts to capture the climbing experience–pictures like “Cliffhanger” and “Vertical Limit”–look like the cheap melodrama they are. It’s a compelling and strangely beautiful piece of work.

Based on the book by Joe Simpson, the film relates the effort by him and Simon Yates to scale the treacherous Siula Grande mountain in the Peruvian Andes. The duo manages to reach the summit, but during the descent Simpson shatters his leg. Though Yates tries to lower his disabled friend down the treacherous slope, Simpson is eventually trapped danging above a gorge, and Yates is left with no choice but to cut the rope that connects them to save himself. Believing his friend to be dead, Yates makes his way back to their base camp, exhausted and grieving. But unknown to him, Simpson has made his way out of the chasm and struggles his way painfully toward the camp as well. Much of the latter portion of “Touching the Void” recounts his tortured effort to cross the first icy, then rocky landscape, and his trek is so stunningly realized that a viewer can almost feel his agony.

The “you-are-there” effect, in fact, permeates the film, beautifully shot using actors Brendan Mackey and Nicholas Aaron on locations in the Andes and the Alps. No other picture has so brilliantly caught both the exhilaration and the sheer physical brutality of the climbing experience. But it goes beyond that to present what is also a story of great courage and tenacity. By punctuating the narrative with observations by the real Simpson and Yates recalling their feelings and thoughts as the events actually unfolded, Macdonald raises the emotional tension of the piece. One can hardly fail to be moved by Simpson’s thoughts on religion and the afterlife–not at all the ones you might expect (and would certainly find in a fiction film)–when he thinks himself doomed, or by Yates’s still-raw explanation for his decision to cut the rope. (Simpson’s book was, in fact, intended in part to refute later criticism of his friend for having left him on the mountain.) There is a third person involved, though peripherally, in the events–Richard Hawking, a young man whom the climbers hired to man their base camp during their assault on the peak. His role is dramatized too, though only incidentally, and he also records his reminiscences.

There are points in “Touching the Void,” especially toward the close, when Macdonald miscalculates slightly. The recreation of Simpson’s hallucinatory final night on the way back to camp, complete with ghostly music and double exposures, goes overboard; it’s simply out of place against the more straightforward approach taken elsewhere, however much based on reality it might be.

Overall, however, this is a non-fiction film of rare impact. It easily takes its place among the succession of imaginative, powerful documentaries that have reached theatres over the past couple of years. Like mountain climbing itself, it’s both thrilling and rather terrifying.