***½/**** Image A Sound A Extras B
starring Katie Holmes, Benjamin Bratt, Charlie Hunnam, Zooey Deschanel
written and directed by Stephen Gaghan
DAWSON'S CREEK: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON
Image C+ Sound B- Extras B-
"Pilot," "Dance," "Kiss," "Discovery," "Hurricane," "Baby," "Detention," "Boyfriend," "Road Trip," "The Scare," "Double Date," "Beauty Contest," "Decisions"
by Bill Chambers Abandon is a damn good movie detested in some quarters because, he hypothesized, it's not very comforting, because it subverts the entrenched John Landis approach to depicting college life, and because it's determined to be meaningful within the framework of a supernatural potboiler. The film stars Katie Holmes, whose career has caught its second-wind with the near-simultaneous DVD releases of Abandon and the first season of "Dawson's Creek", in addition to the title role in 2003's Sundance favourite Pieces of April and upcoming appearances in Keith Gordon's The Singing Detective and the Joel Schumacher thriller Phone Booth. She's also seeing the end of her aforementioned TV series "Dawson's Creek", which sails into the sunset this May after five years on the air. It will leave her more time for movies, and with her remarkable taste in film projects (see also: The Gift, Go, and The Ice Storm), I'm anxious to see where that freedom takes her. Especially if it's anywhere near the territory of her poised work in Abandon.
Directed by Stephen Gaghan, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Traffic, Abandon tackles a prickly subject with direct insight: the idea that Katie (Katie Holmes), a "coltish" finance major with a brain in evidence (she's an honours student at an obviously Ivy League school), could fall for Embry (Charlie Hunnam), her intellectual and moral inferior, because he is good-looking and boisterous, challenging every established concept to appear as though he has ideas of his own. Gaghan contrasts Embry with the more boyish Harrison (Gabriel Mann), an eco-twerp whose passion seems no less disingenuous; Katie rejects Harrison because it would not take courage to date him--this is never clearer than when she begins to develop affection for the cop (Benjamin Bratt) probing Embry's unceremonious disappearance after she goes to his house, notices that Albert Camus and Graham Greene books line his shelves (though we know he saves them to read for show), and learns of his potential for an alcoholic relapse.
The film is the rewrite that 2001's The Hole wanted for. It takes a similar plot (a girl's inexplicable obsession with a jerk as the crux of a police investigation), similar structure (flashbacks and an unreliable narrator expose the truth of the jerk's vanishing act), similar setting (a gothic academy), and even a similar conclusion (Abandon's is a million times sadder, if atonally winking in and of itself), but Gaghan, besides sparking with his characters in a way that is foreign to the makers of The Hole (there, director Nick Hamm is less interested in compulsion than in repulsion), has no use for sensationalism--The Hole is a piece of tabloid reportage next to Abandon, which wallows humanistically in the epidemic of loneliness. Katie is an overachiever of the sympathetic kind as Charlie's desertion manifests itself in fear--that he'll return, that he won't, that his leaving is the truth of her worth--she finds difficult to manage; Bratt's Wade Handler lies in the dark every night, hearing his past life being lived across the street in bars and in clubs, waiting in vain for the rewards of giving up the drink to kick in. The epitome of the film's melancholy is an early, strobe-lit scene of aesthetic sumptuousness to rival Michael Mann, in which Katie, high and loving it, asks herself a question that speaks to masochism, her true encumbrance: "Why don't we feel this way all the time?"
Holmes's performance on "Dawson's Creek" is less removed from Abandon now than it was at the beginning of the series, when her nose was constantly to the ground and her shoulders were turned so sheepishly inward you worried for the future of her posture. Her Joey Potter began the show as a wallflower given to articulate outbursts, but as physically adorable as she was that first season, the character didn't flatter her. Revisiting "Dawson's Creek"'s freshman year with a new-to-DVD set is something of a chore in light of Holmes, James Van Der Beek (starry-eyed Dawson), and Michelle Williams (New York transplant Jen, a former minx) having shed so many of their most grating mannerisms thereafter.
It's just too bad the concept didn't mature with them. The strength of that initial thirteen-episode run is crisp writing from the likes of Mike White--late of The Good Girl and Chuck & Buck--and series creator Kevin Williamson, who unfortunately takes the self-referentiality of his Scream script into the realm of self-promotion with pervasive mentions of the Scream films and I Know What You Did Last Summer. (White authored what remains "Dawson's Creek"'s finest hour, a riff on John Hughes's The Breakfast Club (1.7, "Detention") that manages to capture a little of its forebear's magic, leading one to believe that Hughes stumbled upon a timeless, almost mythic, premise.) Another highlight of "Dawson's Creek: The Complete First Season" is Joshua Jackson (Pacey Witter), the only cast member to start out strong and become insufferable in subsequent seasons. Jackson plays class-clown endearingly, yet Pacey was eventually transformed into the show's conscience, a position that saw Jackson adopting an off-putting self-righteousness (and a Clooney-esque swagger) full-tilt boogie.
"Dawson's Creek" is laughable and repetitive (Dawson and Joey's constant coming together/coming apart is each season's ruling throughline), but the stupidity gets addictive, the running-in-circles can take on an old shoe's comfort, and the series is not without virtues. It's still the only teen- themed/aimed weekly drama that has discussed sexuality from nearly every angle (as Williamson observes on one of the DVDs, the dichotomy of the Dawson-Joey-Pacey-Jen quartet gave them the luxury of taking four unique stands at the start) without becoming salacious, and I can't help but see my washed-up self in Dawson's eagerness to become a filmmaker, from Dawson's home videos in which Joey is attacked by a lagoon creature (as you may surmise from its title, the series is set in a sun-dappled New England inlet) to his Spielberg fixation--although even as a teen, I recognized that 1941 is a better film than Hook. Alas, too much of Dawson's cinematic dogma is populist opinion: Are we supposed to be impressed that he can identify a moment from and the director of Psycho?
"Dawson's Creek: The Complete First Season" is just that: complete, self-contained. Although feigning a cliff-hanger, the finale (1.13, "Decisions") definitively addresses the show's raison d'être, Dawson's slow awakening to Joey's crush on him--if you've never seen an episode, you'll feel any itch to sample the series fully scratched by a viewing of these DVDs. This was a show that never progressed beyond its hook of a debut season despite changes and additions to the ensemble; despite two major deaths, two major births, and numerous "you hurt me" monologues; despite inaugurating gay kisses for television; and despite relocating Dawson to Los Angeles and handing him the reins to a low-budget commercial feature! While "The more things change, the more they stay the same" is a truism that certainly factors into "Dawson's Creek"'s appeal, knowing what I now know, I wouldn't do it all again--and the same goes for "Dawson's Creek".
Abandon arrives on DVD in separate 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and fullscreen editions from Paramount. The widescreen transfer deftly handles the cold/warm shifts in the film's colour palette with consistently excellent shadow detail and controlled saturation. The image is more often than not lip-smackingly gorgeous, and well paired with a rambunctious 5.1 Dolby Digital mix that brings out the best in the soundtrack's techno tunes and composer Clint Mansell's stimulating music. (Oddly enough, Pop Will Eat Itself frontman Mansell also scored The Hole.) A fan of Requiem for a Dream, Gaghan cribbed that film's composer as well as its cinematographer, Matthew Libatique; joining Gaghan for a screen-specific commentary track, Libatique is not afraid of alienating the viewer in name-checking development techniques--as a "Dawson," I found myself transcribing terms like "cross process" for future reference.
Gaghan eventually comes around to relating the personal significance of Abandon, a lonesome childhood that led to a blemishing act of rebellion illustrated in "Abandon: A Look at the Dark Side", a better-than-average 22-minute making-of headlined by the Bon Jovi-haired hyphenate. Here also, Bratt says he felt a part of "a new cinematic movement" filming Abandon (referring mostly to the brilliant Libatique), and a peculiarly excitable Gaghan tells an anecdote regarding his dog's cameo that perhaps ought to have finished with someone throwing a butterfly net over him. Mr. Gaghan returns for six deleted or extended scenes, the only one of note in my opinion involving Katie's loss of composure before a job interview, symbolized with eloquence by a bleeding finger. Also among these omissions is the full 16mm version of the ridiculous "Trip Hop Inferno" sequence, which Libatique shot on blotchy reversal stock. Trailers for Abandon and The Four Feathers round out the platter.
"Dawson's Creek: The Complete First Season" presents all thirteen episodes in their original full-frame aspect ratio and Dolby Surround. Get ready for grain: these were the 16mm days of the show and as such the image always looks cheap and gritty, contradicting the idyllic intent of "Dawson's Creek"'s team of visualists. (The picture quality fares better in outdoor daylight passages.) Audio, focused on the forward soundstage though it is, is crisp and dynamic. Extras include two fan-friendly commentaries featuring Williamson and producer Paul Stupin--one for the pilot, the other the season-ender. (The latter yak-track is incorrectly listed as a cast session within the sub-menu and on the packaging.) The premiere's yakker concentrates on the presentation reel submitted to The WB (and Spielberg, for clearance on the use of E.T. and posters for his films) and items specific to the pilot, such as Steve Miner's direction and Williams's sundress pulling a Seven Year Itch. Rowr. The second commentary is half as reverential: Stupin and Williamson, properly reacquainted with "Dawson's Creek" by this point, mock a subplot about Jen's dying grandfather and express embarrassment over the laid-on-thick "chick rock"--observing simultaneously that male singers tend to drown out dialogue.
Williamson and Stupin resurface in "Dawson's Creek: Day One", which is not just the commentaries in digest form. Individually, the men recall Fox passing on Williamson's outline for episodes one through six, the audition period (almost 500 actors tried out for Dawson), Joey's real-life counterpart "Fanny," other elements of the show autobiographical to Williamson, and the hype leading up to the series' launch; as you may surmise, this is a breathless and edifying eight minutes. Other supplements: a 7-minute promotional featurette containing interviews with Van Der Beek, Holmes, Jackson (describing himself and Pacey as "the guy [in westerns] who rides on the donkey"), and Williams circa 1997 called "Season One: Time Capsule", plus trailers for Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, Go, Dick, and Lone Star State of Mind. The three-disc set is packaged in a gatefold-slipcase combo. Originally published: March 27, 2003.
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