Monday, January 28, 2013

A Frank Review of S. Darko (2009)

The Short Version? Darker, but full of S.
What Is It? Indie drama with some sci-fi/horror elements.
Who Is In It? Lilo, Sol Star, Nomi Malone
Should I See It? Maybe.

As of today, I still haven't reviewed Donnie Darko for this blog because of my ambivalence towards it. I rented it a few weeks after it turned up on the new release rack at the ratty local video store without any foreknowledge, drawn to the intriguing cover art and cast. I was fascinated by it, seeking out answers to the many questions it posed. I evangelized for it in the early years, and still have a framed poster up on my wall. However, the more I learned about the picture, the more it tainted my enjoyment. It went from the puzzling little flick no one had heard of to enough of a favorite of the Hot Topic crowd that Gary Jules' cover of "Mad World" got radio play. The film's official website and commentary track contradicted my personal interpretation of the movie. The Director's Cut proved that George Lucas isn't the only creator oblivious to why his movie resonated with audiences. Richard Kelly's follow-up film Southland Tales was a debacle, his script for Domino was shitty, and I never even bothered with The Box. I'm sure I've sat through Donnie Darko into the double digits, and virtually no film could survive that much analysis by a hypercritical asshole like me in just barely a decade.

On the plus side, I approached S. Darko with a relatively open mind, rather than as the gutting of a sacred cow. This is after all a sequel disavowed by all but one party involved with the original production, arriving direct to DVD eight years later. One should probably lower ones expectations, given the optimism necessary to walk in with the hope this thing would be bearable, much less any good. S. Darko is, in fact, any good. Not great, not even good, but decent enough to not shame the original or be any sort of trial for the viewer. Like most DTV sequels, S. Darko reverse engineers Donnie Darko, then attempts to rebuild it with sufficient enough differences to appear to be something new. Screenwriter Nathan Atkins clearly has love for the original, but no actual insights into it, or interesting tangents to spin off from it. Instead, he just redresses it in the clothing of a bumfuck noir with a bit of Run, Lola, Run spliced in.

A text scroll in a cursive font straight from some store bought editing software announced that this film would take place seven years after the first. Tough to tell, because aside from a gender change and severe lack of Echo & The Bunnymen, the films open exactly the same. Like fifty quintillion other movies, a road trip through the desert leads to a steaming radiator and folks getting stranded in a small town. Donnie Darko was a troubled youth too smart for his own good with geeky friends and a quirky relationship with his family. Younger sister Samantha Darko is a sort of hippy pixie blank with a bitchy, semi-slutty best friend, the sort of odd couple rarely seen outside of movies, in a very movie setting, written by a man who has likely seen more movies than life. Where Donnie Darko bathed in its period setting, S. Darko offers obligatory nods through references to O.J. and a few unfortunate fashion choices. Donnie had a killer mixtape soundtrack with an equally affecting score. This was one area where S. at least tries, with a solid if repetitive score by Ed Harcourt. After a lackluster source track or two, I started thinking of some period singles minor enough to be affordable, and was pleased when I nailed Whale's "Hobo Humpin Slobo Babe." The new stab at The Church was Catharine Wheel, reasonably enough. The cinematography is pretty nice, as well.

Daveigh Chase as Samantha Darko is very pretty, looks creepy in make-up during some green screen sequences, and I suppose does what she can with the character. Briana Evigan is wonderful at channeling the shitty add-on characters in '90s sequels to horror franchises, recalling Rocky in Phantasm III, Julie Walker in Return of the Living Dead 3, and the filmography of Kelly Jo Minter. I seriously mean that as a compliment, because the daughter of B.J. of "the Bear" fame looks hot in short shorts, plays her character type pitch perfect, and is the most legitimate '90s element. The biggest names in the supporting cast include a commendable if minor performance from John Hawkes and a sound Elizabeth Berkley. Not a single character has a fraction of the life of those featured in Donnie, they're all stock taken wholesale from other films, and their stories aren't layered throughout the plot so much as globs of undissolved packaged mix. It's hard to tell if the acting is terrible, or the characters are horrendous on the page, but it's usually a bit of both.

In commentary, the creators tried to lay claim to intentional incomprehensibility. Since they recycle so much from Donnie Darko, if you halfway figured out one, it explains the other. Since the characters are so obvious, the perceived bad guys are, the perceived good-hearted crazies are, and the "left field" turns of a few characters come with a GPS. There are no mysteries here, because your first impressions should bear out. Rather than perplexing, it's plodding, because you're waiting for these nothing characters to get to places you saw coming immediately.

You may get a sense of great disappointment or anger from this review, but neither is true. The film is samey samey, like an album by an okay band full of rewrites of other band's hits. Dido's "Don't Think of Me" isn't Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know," but I don't mind listening to it. If you really, really loved Donnie Darko, and it isn't enough to watch other mindfuck pictures-- you need something approaching a carbon copy, S. Darko might be just the tribute bar band for you. That, or you'll shave your hair into a mohawk and roam the studio grounds with an assault rifle.


  • The Making of S. Darko This is great! Fifteen minutes of filmmakers trying to make themselves believe that this was more than a naked classless cash grab, all while produced by "Darko 2 LLC." Vindication through the actress behind the least interesting, most sold-out member of the Darko clan agreeing to reprise her role. Another highlight includes pointing out that "The Director's Cut" sucked, too. Plus, profuse apologizing and hand wringing toward Richard Kelly and his fans.
  • Commentary with Director Chris Fisher, Writer Nathan Atkins, and Cinematographer Marvin V. Rush Less defensive than the "making of" doc, but still refreshingly candid/deluded. How many direct homages do you need in a movie that is already wholly dependent in style and substance on another movie? Considering some of the best things about this movie were source tracks from Dead Can Dance and Cocteau Twins, don't slag on the music of '95 just because you can't afford 1988 Duran Duran.
  • Utah Too Much Behind the scenes and a music video for a surprisingly alright country novelty tune.
  • Deleted Scenes You don't tend to have a lot of material left on the floor in a four million dollar production, so these are brief and few. The cuts are understandable, but more because they belabor points made elsewhere in the film, rather than any deficit of quality in comparison to the rest of the flick.
  • S. Darko Trailer and additional random trailers, although Notorious featuring the rap sampling of Sparkle Motion's signature song is tres apropos.

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