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Arts & Culture

Midnight Madness: Donnie Darko, Army of Darkness and 12 Monkeys

Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly (along with producer Sean McKittrick and actors Beth Grant, James Duval and Stuart Stone) came to the San Diego Comic-Con in 2004 to discuss the Directors Cut of the film with an adoring crowd of 1500 fans. Unfortunately, the film opened in San Diego with no advance warning, and consequently no local press coverage. The San Diego Film Critics Society gave Kelly their Best Original Screenplay Award back in 2001 for his maiden screenwriting effort, and brought the filmmaker to San Diego for a screening of his film. The upcoming midnight screening will allow fans another opportunity to see this remarkable film on the big screen.

Shown at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, Donnie Darko became a favorite at the festival and won praise for its then 26-year-old director. The film was released theatrically but with little fan fare. Yet it still found a passionate and ever-expanding cult following for its trippy tale of time travel, adolescent angst, suburbia and social satire. A splendid Jake Gyllenhaal plays the title character, a troubled teen and unassuming superhero. Yes, a superhero. Maybe not in the Batman/Spider-Man mold but rather a superhero who saves the world in a refreshingly original manner. Donnie also has a bit of J.D. Salingers Holden Caufield in him as he rails against the hypocrisy and B.S. of the adult world.

Donnie Darko


Set in 1988just before the presidential election that would bring Bush Senior into the White Housethe film opens with a freak accident. An airplane engine has fallen from the sky and landed in Donnies bedroom. Fortunately, Donnie was out on one of his late-night walkabouts and escaped death. This leads him to start contemplating his life from a new perspective. He begins to consider concepts of time travel, alternative universes and the manipulation of fate. Donnie is prompted on his explorations by Frank (James Duval), a six-foot rabbit with a strange metallic face, like a horror version of Harvey. Frank looks evil but he turns out to be more of a guide leading Donnie on a bizarre journey. Along the way Donnie also falls in love with Gretchen (Jena Malone), a new girl with troubles of her own.

In the years since Donnie Darko came out, Kelly has made only one other film, Southland Tales, which has still failed to find a distributor . So its rare for a director like Kelly to get an opportunity to revisit his debut film and have a chance to revise it. But New Market, the company that released Mel Gibsons The Passion of the Christ , decided that it would be worth the gamble. And Kelly jumped at the opportunity.

Even though I am proud of the theatrical version of the film, Kelly says in the press materials, Ive always felt that the story was somewhat compromised in order to come in under two hours. With this version I feel like Ive finally been able to complete the film. There is a lot of new content that has never been seen before."

Filmmaker Richard Kelly

And what Kelly has done is to subtly and elegantly improve on the original. He has not simply added back chunks of footage but rather hes extended shots, added small scenes, redone the audio, enhanced the effects and put in pop songs that he couldnt afford in the original. The resulting film reveals an artist who has seriously reflected on his work and carefully considered what to add, what to alter and sometimes what to remove. No one change is earth shattering but the small adjustments add up to a film that plays more richly and effectively. The time travel elements are much clearer, Donnies behavior seem more deliberate especially toward the end, and we feel a greater sense of how the actions of this one teenager can have a ripple effect through the universe.


Donnie Darko is like a Chinese puzzle boxit's complicated, intricate and full of surprises. There are a number of ways to look at it, and different ways to unlock its secrets. But Kelly leaves clues throughout. Some are fairly obvious like the literary references to Graham Greenes The Destroyers and Richard Adams Watership Down (the latter new to the Directors Cut). Other clues to unraveling the film are subtler, like the addition of the song Stay in the background of a scene set just before Donnie makes a fateful decision about leaving, or the advice given by Donnies psychiatrist about the way we choose to touch others lives. The insertion of pages from The Philosophy of Time Travel book provides information about whats going on in the plot and proves effective without being too blatantly explanatory. The information from these pages allows Kelly to remove some voiceover elements from the end of the film where he had to hurriedly try to explain what was going on.

But while the sci-fi/fantasy aspects of the film reveal a wildly creative imagination, Donnie Darko also reveals a savvy sense of the real world. Kelly captures, better than any film in recent memory other than Election , what it feels like to be in high school. In capturing the pain and trauma of high school, both films provide insights into what could lead young people to commit acts of violence against their peers. In Donnie Darko , Kelly shows the casual cruelty of other kids, the cliques, the kids who dont fit in, the drudgery and the occasionally inspiring moments of getting an education.

Donnie is a wonderful character and Kelly makes him someone who is truly terrifying to adultssmart and rebellious. Gyllenhaals performance is smart-alecky, sensitive and ultimately, achingly sweet. Kelly adds in a scene of Donnie reading aloud in class a poem he wrote about saving the children. This casts him more clearly as a descendant of The Catcher in the Ryes Holden Caufield. It also plays up on the idea that hes a superhero saving the world from destruction.

Kelly also accurately conveys Donnies family life. The scenes between Donnie and his sisters (one of them played by Jakes real life sister Maggie Gyllenhaal) come across as very real. The parents are genuinely loving but sometimes at a loss for how to deal with their son. A new scene with the fatherwhere he condemns most people for being full of B.S. and commends his son for challenging thatis welcome and gives a little more depth to the older character.

Donnie Darko: The Directors Cut (rated R for language) improves on the original without making changes that will offend die-hard fans. Even in 2001, Kelly proved that he had a mature filmmaking talent. With his Directors Cut , he reaffirms that assessment and proves that he has an even more meticulous sense of detail than first thought. The small, subtle changes he makes reveal the care and seriousness he devotes to his craft. Donnie Darko remains one of the best films of recent memory and hopefully this re-release will allow more people to see it and become fans. Below is Richard Kellys statement about the Directors Cut , for anyone whos interested.

Richard Kellys Directors Statement reprinted from the press materials:

Donnie Darko is a film that I have lived with for seven years. The journey that my good friends and I have taken to bring this film to the screen has been a roller-coaster ride through production, film festival hype, backlash, disappointment, cult revival and now rebirth. There were many moments along the ride when I felt I was on the brink of losing it all. I remember days when I was sure that I would end up as yet another casualty of the Hollywood system. Echoing in my head was the sound of some high school gym teacher from my adolescence, telling me the same thing over and over again: Youre not allowed to do this. You have to conform to the system. The system tells us that a twenty-nine year old filmmaker is not allowed to assemble a directors cut of his maiden voyage at a running time of two hours and fourteen minutes. This does not happen. Not in Hollywood. We are living in a Tangent Universe. This is the only logical explanation. The Manipulated Living have allowed me to re-assemble the film with some deleted scenes familiar to fans, and others that have been kept secret. They have allowed me to completely re-master the sound and picture, with new visual effects sequences resurrected from blueprints only dreamed of years before. I am a lucky bastard. I do not deserve this luxury. But youd better believe that I am going to take this gift and run with it. After all, an opportunity like this only happens once in a lifetime. And in a Tangent Universe, a lifetime only lasts twenty-eight days and change. Time is running out. It is with great pleasure that we present Donnie Darko: The Directors Cut to our fans all around the world. It is because of their dedication to this film that it exists. I hope that I have not misled them. There are surprises in store for everyone; even to those most familiar with the film. The mysteries of the Tangent Universe are about to be unveiled. Sit back and prepare for one final roller-coaster ride through the fourth dimension. What you might find is the little science-fiction epic that could. And if we make it to the end of time together, may we be rewarded with a summer fireworks display to end it all, once and for all.

Army of Darkness plays on April 14

Among the upcoming Midnight Madness: An Adventure through Time films will be Sam Raimi's outrageously funny Army of Darkness on April 14. Raimi may now be known to the masses as the director of the Spider-Man films but he has his roots in low-budget genre filmmaking. Army of Darkness was Raimi's second sequel to his cult hit The Evil Dead. Once again the series highlights the brilliant Bruce Campbell as Ash. The film is wildly anachronistic and over the top. It's also a blast, full of one-liners that Campbell nails.

Also on the slate of midnight offerings is Terry Gilliam's underappreciated 12 Monkeys on April 21. Gilliam may be best known for his work with the British comedy troupe Monty Python but his solo work-- beginning with Time Bandits and continuing through 12 Monkeys -- reveals an ever darkening tone.

Inspired by Chris Markers 1962 short La Jetee, 12 Monkeys opens in a bleak and not too distant future when 99 percent of the earths population has been wiped out by lethal virus. Those few who remain must live in an underground hell ruled by a group of scientists. The scientists decide that if they can send someone back in time, to before the virus, then maybe they can save the human race. The volunteer they select for this experiment is James Cole (Bruce Willis), a man haunted by a memory from his childhood before the apocalypse. Cole succeeds in traveling back in time but his apocalyptic predictions cause him to be locked up as a madman. In the asylum, he meets the truly deranged Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt) who may be connected to the mysterious army of the Twelve Monkeys that the futuristic scientists are interested in, and the sympathetic psychiatrist Kathryn Railly (Madeline Stowe) whose specialty is madness and prophecy.

12 Monkeys plays on April 21

As Cole tries to unravel the mystery of how the virus spread, he begins to question his own sanity. Is he really a time traveler or has he invented a surreal parallel universe? We feel compassion for his anguish and want him to be triumphant in proving his sanity, yet if he is sane than the whole world is doomed. In one sadly sweet scene, Cole watches Hitchcocks Vertigo (another film about perception and reconciling the past and present) and with childlike simplicity wonders if the past is like a film-- we can see it again and again but are powerless to change its outcome.

The film deals with what Gilliam describes as time, madness and a perception of what the world is or isnt-- all of which are themes that have beguiled him in earlier works. In Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Fisher King, Gilliam dealt with protagonists who struggled to reconcile their view of the world with reality and who often found themselves up against a repressive society. 12 Monkeys Cole is in much the same position and the resolution of his dilemma makes for a disturbing ending.

Gilliam is one of the few truly visionary filmmakers working today (Martin Scorsese, the Coen brothers and the team of Jeunet and Caro are others in this elite rank). He endows 12 Monkeys with a powerful visual sense. He makes us feel the oppressiveness and stale air of the underground world then shows us the world through the distorted and disorienting perspective of the asylum inmates. Yet within this dark world, Gilliam still finds irreverent humor, a ray of hope, a brief romance and a shred of humanity. But the film falters in its casting of Willis who may be able to handle one dimensional action roles but who lacks the subtle skills to make Cole a truly moving character. The films final scene needs a poignance that Willis simply cannot provide and without that emotional depth the film fails to resonate as fully as it should. Stowe, on the other hand, has an ethereal beauty thats fittingly haunting. She also endows Railly with an appropriate sense of growing panic as she begins to believe the rantings of her patient. And Pitt (who seems to be tripping on Dennis Hoppers lunacy in Apocalypse Now ) turns in a frenzied, over the top and creepily funny performance.

12 Monkeys is not your standard Hollywood fare despite the presence of its trio of bankable stars. Its ironic that its bleak ending has arrived intact since the films distributor, Universal, is the one that tried to butcher Gilliams disturbing ending for Brazil (their happy ending appears in some TV versions of the film). 12 Monkeys , like most of Gilliams directorial works, challenges viewers in ways that most mainstream films avoid. Hes a daring, visionary filmmaker and even a flawed work such as this one makes for provocative cinema.

For more information go to the Landmark Theaters website .

Companion viewing for Donnie Darko : Election, Welcome to the Dollhouse, Heathers

Companion viewing for Army of Darkness: The Evil Dead, Evil Dead II, The Day the Earth Stood Still

Companion viewing for 12 Monkeys: Time Bandits, Brazil, La Jetee -----