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Reviews of Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut, Get Shorty, Malcolm X

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DONNIE DARKO: THE DIRECTOR'S CUT (2004). A cult film in the truest sense of the term, 2001's Donnie Darko was thrown away by its distributor but ended up finding its audience on home video and at midnight screenings (yes, some US cities still have 'em). Its audience base continues to grow, and not quietly, either: When Entertainment Weekly published its list of the Top 50 Cult Movies in 2003, scores of readers objected to the omission of Darko. Given its surge in popularity, writer-director Richard Kelly was encouraged to release the longer Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut, though a similar lack of support again meant that it went largely unseen in theaters. Like Being John Malkovich and 2001: A Space Odyssey and too few others, this is one of those mind-melting cinematic achievements, a movie that's meant to be absorbed rather than enjoyed in the traditional sense of following a linear plotline from Point A to Point B. To even attempt to describe the story seems like an exercise in madness, but suffice it to say that this trippy flick, set in October 1988 (when the airwaves were filled with Dukakis and Bush sound bites), centers on disaffected teen Donnie Darko (The Day After Tomorrow's Jake Gyllenhaal), whose suburban lifestyle is interrupted by frequent trips to a psychiatrist, a jet engine crashing into his house, and the disturbing presence of a human-sized rabbit who informs him that the world is about to come to an end. Drew Barrymore (also an executive producer), Patrick Swayze and Jena Malone are among the many actors offering sharply drawn characterizations in a brain-twister that holds up upon repeat viewings. The two-disc DVD set is a disappointment, however, as it jettisons the interesting extras found on the original Donnie Darko DVD (most notably the music video for Gary Jules' superior cover of Tears For Fears' "Mad World"). New extras include a shrug-inducing Production Diary, a storyboard-to-screen featurette, and (best of all) a short documentary by a guy who professes to be the film's number one fan.
Movie: ***1/2

GET SHORTY (1995). Released in the shadow of Pulp Fiction, Get Shorty - for all its critical and commercial acclaim - has never received its due as one of the funniest Hollywood films of modern times. It's hard to believe those wags who dubbed it Pulp Fiction Lite actually took the time to sit through the picture - the two films may share a certain freewheeling bravado and a stellar lead performance by John Travolta, but that's about it. Travolta, for his part, has never been better than he is here, while director Barry Sonnenfeld, careful not to get in the way of Elmore Leonard's dialogue (adapted for the screen by Scott Frank), employs an economical shooting style that's consistently hip without drawing too much attention to itself (another major distinction from the Tarantino flick). Travolta exudes movie star magnetism as Chili Palmer, a loan shark who heads out to LA on orders to collect a debt. Head-over-heels in love with the world of movies, Chili decides to pursue a career in the business; he hooks up with a dim-witted producer (Gene Hackman), a narcissistic film star (Danny DeVito, simply superb) and a savvy "B" actress (Rene Russo), but his efforts to get his project off the ground first depend on his ability to get various crime underlings off his back. Dennis Farina contributes several uproarious moments as a hoodlum incapable of uttering a sentence without injecting it with some choice profanity; he and DeVito almost swipe the movie from its leading man. Extras on the two-disc DVD set include audio commentary by Sonnenfeld, various featurettes on the movie's production, a deleted scene featuring Ben Stiller, and a peek at the upcoming sequel Be Cool.
Movie: ****

MALCOLM X (1992). You can't turn around without hearing some critic gush about how so-and-so is out there delivering "the best performance of the year." Well, allow me the opportunity to gush a step further by flatly stating that, in the leading man category, Denzel Washington in Malcolm X managed to deliver the best performance of the decade. Washington's work is so monumental, it seems like an especially cruel twist of fate that the Academy chose that year to finally reward perennial nominee Al Pacino... for the execrable Scent of a Woman. (In other words, the best performance of the 1990s loses to the worst Best Actor selection of all time. Go figure.) At any rate, Malcolm X is more than a one-man show: Writer-director Spike Lee is in complete control of this 200-minute epic, and he and Washington receive invaluable aid from a top-flight supporting cast and a crack team of behind-the-camera personnel (though the film deserved at least a half-dozen Oscar nods, its only citations were for Washington's performance and Ruth Carter's costume designs). Working from Malcolm's autobiography, Lee is careful to preserve the complete arc of the man's life, showing how he survived a troubled childhood and a prison stint to emerge as the powerful and feared spokesman for the Nation of Islam before his assassination. Washington's work here is amazing: He effortlessly adapts to the various canvases painted by Lee, swinging from deliriously reckless in the early scenes to passionate and incendiary in the middle ones and finally to pensive and worldly in the latter sequences. Extras on the two-disc DVD include the Oscar-nominated 1972 documentary Malcolm X, audio commentary by Lee, Carter, director of photography Ernest Dickerson and film editor Barry Alexander Brown, and deleted scenes.
Movie: ***1/2

- Matt Brunson

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