Saved! (2004)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #78

Heaven Help Us.

Country: USA & Canada
Language: English
Runtime: 92 minutes
BBFC: 12A
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 11th June 2004 (USA)
UK Release: 29th October 2004
First Seen: DVD, 2005

Stars
Jena Malone (Donnie Darko, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire)
Mandy Moore (A Walk to Remember, Tangled)
Macaulay Culkin (Home Alone, My Girl)
Patrick Fugit (Almost Famous, Wristcutters: A Love Story)
Eva Amurri (The Banger Sisters, The Life Before Her Eyes)

Director
Brian Dannelly (Struck by Lightning, Scream: The TV Series)

Screenwriters
Brian Dannelly (He Bop)
Michael Urban (Who’s Afraid of Vagina Wolf?)

The Story
When teen Mary learns her boyfriend is gay, a vision of Jesus leads her to attempt to cure him through sex. Unfortunately for her, the only result is she gets pregnant, which she decides to keep secret from friends and teachers at her ultra-Christian high school. As Mary questions her beliefs, she falls in with the school’s misfits, while her former friends endeavour to aggressively restore her faith.

Our Hero
Mary has “been born again her whole life”, but has her eyes opened a bit when her attempts to cure her homosexual boyfriend don’t go as Jesus promised.

Our Villain
Hilary Faye, the ‘perfect’ Christian who mainly uses her devotion to God to be the school’s queen bitch.

Best Supporting Characters
Hilary’s wheelchair-bound brother, Roland, and the school’s only “Jewish”, Cassandra, who come together with shared cynicism, but at heart better embody Christian values than some of their more militant schoolmates.

Memorable Quote
“Why would God make us so different if he wanted us to be the same?” — Mary

Memorable Scene
At the first assembly of the school year, cool headmaster Pastor Skip flips onto stage (“Give it up to the Lord, Jesus is in the house! Let’s get our Christ on, let’s kick it Jesus style! … Who’s down with G-O-D? Alright! Jesus rules! Jesus rules!”), before prayer time gives an insight into what everyone’s thinking (“thank you for sparing me from the eternal hell fires of damnation, I’m sorry I let that Promise Maker guy touch me in the rectory”), and then Cassandra starts ‘speaking in tongues’ (“mah puhsah issa hot puhsow”), though Hilary Faye sees through it (“she’s saying she’s got a hot p—!”)

Awards
2 Teen Choice Awards nominations (Movie Hissy Fit (Mandy Moore), Movie Sleazebag (Mandy Moore))

What the Critics Said
“Dannelly and Urban, first-time filmmakers, don’t have the ruthlessness of dedicated satirists like the writer-director team of Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne, whose movies Citizen Ruth and Election are modern classics. But satire can sting without being ruthless. Saved! is a minor work, yet it has a teasing lilt to it, and to make it at all took courage and originality. […] Saved! is not an attack on Christianity; if anything, the movie wants to reassert the Christian spirit. But it goes after pious hypocrites, the kind of people who never stop speaking of love yet find an unaccountably large number of folks to hate.” — David Denby, The New Yorker

Score: 61%

What the Public Say
“many moments [are] screamingly funny but also sad in Brian Dannelly’s incisive, but not entirely irreverent, send-up of Christian fundamentalism. The title’s exclamation point isn’t for show, but questions Christianity’s constant urgency: Is salvation really unattainable for these kids if they’re not seeking it this second, every second, 24/7? […] Dannelly and Michael Urban’s script could’ve settled for empty-calorie satirical slapdowns, but instead posed thoughtful, challenging questions about the relative worthlessness of forced value systems.” — Nick Rogers, The Film Yap

Verdict

Mixing “mean girl” high school comedy with religious satire, which initially seems more cutting than it perhaps is, Saved! triumphs by having something to say but saying it very amusingly. Some criticise it for pulling its punches, not going all out in its damnation of religious types, but — conversely — that quality of mercy arguably makes it a better, more intelligent movie. It’s not saying having religious faith or sharing those values makes you inherently bad, but applying those beliefs hypocritically kinda does. Whatever your position on that matter, the screenplay’s gentle irreverence and the cast’s quality comic performances make it an often hilarious delight.

#79 will be… a lot of bother to rescue Matt Damon.

Donnie Darko (2001)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #26

Twenty-eight days, six hours,
forty-two minutes, twelve seconds…
that is when the world will end.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 113 minutes | 134 minutes (director’s cut)
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 26th October 2001
UK Release: 25th October 2002
First Seen: cinema, November 2002

Stars
Jake Gyllenhaal (Brokeback Mountain, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time)
Jena Malone (Saved!, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Ultimate Edition)
Noah Wyle (A Few Good Men, The World Made Straight)
Drew Barrymore (Never Been Kissed, 50 First Dates)
Patrick Swayze (Dirty Dancing, Ghost)

Director
Richard Kelly (Southland Tales, The Box)

Screenwriter
Richard Kelly (Domino, Southland Tales)

The Story
Troubled teen Donnie Darko is saved from a jet engine falling on his bedroom by a vision of a grotesque rabbit that tells him the world will end in less than a month. Over the coming weeks, more strange and possibly supernatural events occur, and it all gets quite complicated and stuff.

Our Hero
“Donnie Darko. What the hell kind of name is that? It’s like some sort of superhero or something.” “What makes you think I’m not?” The eponymous teenager is a troubled young man, possibly suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, who begins to perform acts under the influence of his imaginary rabbit friend.

Our Villains
Who’s the greatest evil: Frank, the six-foot imaginary rabbit who proclaims the world is going to end; Jim Cunningham, the motivational speaker with dark secrets; or moral-crusading gym teacher Kitty Farmer?

Best Supporting Character
New girl in town Gretchen may be the only person who ‘gets’ Donnie. Bonus points to Kelly for writing a geek-fantasy girlfriend character who doesn’t conform to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl stereotype.

Memorable Quote
Donnie: “Why are you wearing that stupid bunny suit?”
Frank: “Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?”

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion.” — Kitty Farmer

Memorable Scene
Donnie wakes up in the middle of nowhere at dawn, in his pyjamas but with his bike discarded nearby. As he rides home, we see snapshots of his small town and his family, all set to The Killing Moon by Echo and the Bunnymen.

Memorable Music
The film makes strong use of contemporary pop music. It all seems to sit perfectly, which is a little ironic as a good number of tracks were changed because they couldn’t afford the rights on such a low budget. The director’s cut restores some of the original choices, which was a mistake. The film’s soundtrack composer, Michael Andrews, and his chum Gary Jules recorded a cover of Tears for Fears’ Mad World for the film, which wound up being the coveted UK Christmas number one for 2003 (beating the likes of The Darkness’ Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End), and Bill Nighy’s Christmas is All Around from Love Actually).

Next time…
Whoever owns the rights attempted to cash in with sequel S. Darko, about Donnie’s younger sister. Richard Kelly wasn’t involved at all. It was not well received.

Awards
Toronto Film Critics Association Awards special citation for “the best film not to receive a proper theatrical release in Canada”.

What the Critics Said
“has a texture and tang all its own, despite its remarkable mixture of genres and expressive modes — horror, romance, science fiction, teen flicks, and Robert Bresson meets Generation Y, to name a few. There’s also a dry realism in its evocation of suburban life, which abrades nicely against the bouts of slow- and fast-motion photography that jiggle time and make the ordinary shiver. Kelly, who also wrote the script, has a great ear for family dinner-table arguments about politics, teenage debates about the sexual habits of Smurfs, and the quotidian absurdities of small-town colloquy. Local busybody Kitty Farmer’s near-hysterical complaint to Donnie’s mother, “Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion” (the name of their daughters’ dance troupe), is for some unfathomable reason my favourite line of dialogue this year.” — Leslie Felperin, Sight & Sound

Score: 85%

What the American Critics Said About the Director’s Cut
“First-time writer-director Richard Kelly’s breathtakingly ambitious Donnie Darko was one of the best pictures released in 2001. Now that it has returned in a 20-minute longer — and richer — director’s cut, it seems sure to be ranked as one of the key American films of the decade.” — Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times

What the British Critics Said About the Director’s Cut
“If it’s your first viewing, you should still be wowed by an astounding masterpiece. But this is undoubtedly the lesser of the two cuts, and since you have the choice, you should stick with version one. […] All this director has done is cut a star off his five-star debut.” — William Thomas, Empire

Score: 91%

What the Public Say
“Maybe Richard Kelly’s fate is to be the cult circuit’s Michael Cimino — forever admired for one great film amid subsequent missteps, including a director’s cut of the same movie. Kelly has yet to match the mysterious mood or magnitude of his filmmaking debut […] a collision of time-travel sci-fi, commentary on ’80s Reaganomics malaise and teen angst that’s simultaneously witty and poignant. Non-Darkolytes should start with the enigmatic theatrical cut and proceed further if curious.” — Nick Rogers, The Film Yap

Verdict

When it finally made its way to UK shores, about a year after its initial US release, Donnie Darko was something of a hit — it made more money here than Stateside, in fact. I know several people who stumbled upon it “just because it was showing”. Conversely, I made a special trip to see it at a distant cinema at an inconvenient hour, having heard about it from US reviews. I would’ve been 16, which is probably the best kind of age to become enamoured of its misunderstood teen hero and its complicated, semi-inexplicable sci-fi story. I haven’t actually watched it for years, and never made time for the divisive director’s cut, but (whatever I’d think of it now) it remains a key touchstone in my teenage film experience.

#27 will be…

Inherent Vice (2014)

2015 #113
Paul Thomas Anderson | 149 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Paul Thomas Anderson — the fêted writer-director of Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, The Master, et al — here turns his hand to adapting reclusive novelist Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 opus. It met with notably less success than most of his previous works. The Alliance of Women Film Journalists were one of few organisations to recognise it come awards season, with a gong for “Movie You Wanted to Love, But Just Couldn’t”. Apt.

The story — not that the story is the point, as aficionados of Anderson and/or Pynchon will happily tell you — sees stoner PI Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) receive a visit from an ex girlfriend (Katherine Waterston), who’s been having an affair with a real estate developer whose wife now intends to have him committed so she can inherit his estate. It only spirals from there, and I’m not even going to begin to get into all the different directions it shoots off into.

Really, the plot is a deliberate mess — it’s not the point, remember — but even allowing for that, it’s messy. How things are connected to one another is regularly unclear, subplots seem to take over for no apparent reason, and if there was a point to it all, it completely passed me by. Maybe I’m being cynical, but I get the impression it also sailed past those who would claim there was some point, as they scrabble around to justify one. Moments of amusement or filmic craftsmanship do shine out, but only occasionally. Chief among these is Robert Elswit’s cinematography. It’s understatedly wonderful, reminding you how great proper film stock can look, especially in HD. Digital photography has its benefits, but golly there’s something to be said for film.

Anderson chooses to realise the movie mostly in long, unbroken takes, which not only lets the photography shine, but also allows his cast free rein to construct their own performances. I’m not sure how much that pays off, but it’s certainly not a hindrance. Turns from the likes of Josh Brolin and Martin Short border on the memorable, though your mileage will vary on if anyone truly achieves it, with the possible exception of Katherine Waterston, who surely deserves more — and more prominent — roles. Other recognisable faces (Jena Malone, Eric Roberts, Reese Witherspoon) are wasted in one- or two-scene appearances, which I suppose we could kindly call cameos.

For a certain kind of viewer, Inherent Vice will be nirvana. Or possibly for two kinds of viewers. One: stoners, who can identify with the main character, and find the majority of life just as bewildering as this film’s plot. You don’t have to go far on the internet before you find, “dude, it’s a totally great movie to watch stoned, dude”-type comments. Two: some Anderson and Pynchon fans (though by no means all), as well as similar cinéastes, who I’m sure can find something in there because it’s by an acclaimed auteur so it must be worth re-watching multiple times, and if you re-watch anything enough you can find some deeper meaning to it.

I am in neither of those groups, however. The aforementioned fleeting aspects of quality weren’t enough to swing it for me either. Sadly, I’ll be chalking this up alongside Killing Them Softly and Seven Psychopaths as “neo-noirs from previously-excellent directors that seriously disappointed me this year”.

3 out of 5