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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Abandon
Paramount // PG-13 // March 18, 2003
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted March 9, 2003 | E-mail the Author
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"...but what I really want to do is direct." Shouting out orders from a canvas chair is the brass ring seemingly everyone in Tinseltown inevitably reaches for, and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan was able to parlay his Academy Award-winning success with Traffic into a debut behind the camera in Abandon.

Inspired by Sean Desmond's novel "Adam's Fall", Abandon stars Katie Holmes as Catherine Burke, an ambitious senior at an unnamed Ivy League university. With the deadline on her thesis lingering, final exams looming on the horizon, and an interview with one of the country's most influential consulting firms lurking in the wings, Katie is feeling hopelessly burnt out. She's never quite recovered from her tumultuous relationship with Embry Larkin (Charlie Hunnam), a wealthy orphan with a flair for the theatrical. Embry vanished off the face of the earth two years ago, and recovering alcoholic Detective Wade Handler (Benjamin Bratt) has been assigned the lightweight task of investigating his disappearance. As the lives of Wade and Katie become intertwined throughout the course of his investigation, Katie finds the pressure, both academic and romantic, overwhelming. She's haunted by Embry, both in the form of distant memories and images that follow her wherever she goes. The apparition may be more corporeal than she believes, a fear that further manifests itself when another of Katie's friends disappears.

Abandon has so much talent both in front of and behind the camera that the movie seems like it couldn't possibly miss. Writer/director Stephen Gaghan carried home an armful of awards from every possible group that honors entertainment in the wake of Traffic. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique and composer Clint Mansell are both graduates from the Darren Aronofsky school of filmmaking, having contributed their talents to both Pi and Requiem for a Dream. On some technical levels, Abandon is wildly successful. Gaghan certainly selected the right men to join him in his directorial debut, as both the camera work and score are phenomenal. The cast, headed by Katie Holmes, puts in unilaterally solid performances. The dialogue is generally sharp, and even the most minor supporting roles are memorable. Unfortunately, these sterling elements fail to combine into an engaging, compelling film.

Gaghan jokes in the DVD's audio commentary about creating a new sub-genre, the "thrill-free thriller", and that's as accurate a description as any. His approach is different than that of most mysteries. The emphasis by design is placed more squarely on its lead character's nervous breakdown rather than following the well-trodden path of jump scares and other genre clich├ęs. Entries in the mystery/suspense genre generally present a clearly identified question in the first act, and the remainder of the film is spent unearthing its answer. Abandon doesn't provide either until late in the movie, culminating in a plot twist that turns the entire runtime up to that point on its head. Many critics claim to have seen it coming before Abandon was half over. I guess I'm a little dimmer than most; I didn't feel the surprise was telegraphed well in advance, though the possibility did enter my mind. The length of the film is spent slowly leading up to something, but the payoff just didn't seem worthy of the ninety minutes spent building it up. I also didn't buy the relationship that buds between Bratt and Holmes, as the chemistry just doesn't seem to be there. The movie is mired in backstory, flashbacks, and character traits that have little bearing on the movie as a whole. There's a good film to be had among the concepts of Abandon, and it's a disappointment that Gaghan left them largely unexplored in favor of ineffective suspense.

Abandon is a film with lofty aspirations, and perhaps Stephen Gaghan aimed too high for his debut behind the camera. Though the film didn't make much of an impact during its brief theatrical run, Paramount has lavished it with a very nice release on DVD.

Video: Abandon is presented in anamorphic widescreen at an aspect ratio of 2.35:1, and it's damn near perfect. The image is razor-sharp, and the level of detail is frequently striking, tapering off slightly only in the very dimly-lit climax. Stephen Gaghan was apparently intrigued enough with Steven Soderbergh's inventive use of color in Traffic that he took a similar approach for his first time behind the camera. Much of the film is drenched in one color or another, particularly various shades of blue and yellow. The remaining scenes feature a palette of decidedly less than vivid hues. The source material is, as to be expected from a movie so recently trotting out of theaters, not marred by any wear or damage. The number of specks did seem incrementally higher than I'd expect, but that's about as nitpicky as I can get. An excellent presentation free of any flaws of note.

Audio: The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio doesn't inspire quite as much glowing praise, though that's largely because it's not brimming with the sort of thunderous bass and whiz-bang surround activity that generally garners five-star ratings from online DVD reviewers. The surrounds do get a mild workout, reinforcing the score and providing general ambiance. The LFE too is often generally relegated to the music scattered throughout the movie, but the subwoofer kicks in nicely during a handful of other effects, such as violent pounding on Katie's door. It's a decent, respectable mix, but the audio isn't going to curl the toes of most home theater enthuasiasts.

Also included are an English stereo surround track, a French dub, English subtitles, and closed captions.

Supplements: First up is an audio commentary with writer/director Stephen Gaghan and cinematographer Matthew Libatique. As is hardly a surprise given the presence of a cinematographer, quite a bit of the discussion is technical in nature and revolves around the visual look of the film: sets vs. locations, use of practical light, handheld cameras, expressing isolation through cold colors, the golden tint of Katie's memories, the thesis-worthy topic of Abandon's use of metal blinds, rack focus, dollies, lenses, filters... Some of Gaghan's comments shed light on aspects of the film I didn't pick up on my first time around, such as an influence on Katie's flashbacks and the visual language of the scenes in which Katie and Embry appear on-screen together. Gaghan isn't above criticizing himself, and the director part of him seems to intensely dislike the screenwriter. He dislikes some of his choices, such as making Wade's day job so excruciatingly dull. Gaghan mentions that he wishes he'd accelerated the movie a bit, mulling over making the audience guess more throughout instead of surprising them at the last minute. The flow of discussion is non-stop, and there aren't any intrusive pauses. I'm not sure if this will be a commentary that appeals to everyone -- it's not riddled with the sorts of jokes and cute stories that are present in most commentaries -- but I've always had a soft spot for the more technical end of filmmaking, so I enjoyed it. Another nice touch is that the commentary is accessible both through the Audio Setup submenu as well as the expected Special Features selections.

"A Look at the Darkside - The Making of Abandon" is a lengthy featurette that offers more than the repurposed "HBO: First Look" promotional tripe. Stephen Gaghan is the dominant presence, though most of the main cast chime in with comments periodically. The fledgling director offers discussion on the film from concept to completion and most every step in between. Among the various topics covered are his specific goals for the film's score, his insistence that his dog play a prominent role in the movie, the presence of two Darren Aronofsky alums onboard, and how directing has shaped the way he approaches screenwriting. It's also worth nothing that there's very little overlap with the disc's commentary. Considerably longer than most featurettes, "A Look at the Darkside" runs just under twenty-two minutes, but I found it interesting enough that it seemed like only a fraction of that length.

Also of interest are six deleted and extended scenes, which can be viewed individually or consecutively. In "Pre-Interview Jitters" (1:14), Katie nervously picks at a finger before an interview, smearing blood on a hotel wall while she collects herself. A pair of clips of random guys hitting on Zooey Deschanel's character are featured in "Everybody Loves Sam" (0:39), and romance also takes center-stage in Katie's fantasies of "Sunset Kisses" (1:10). The next pair of clips follow Detective Handler and are titled after quotes featured within. "If She's Not in the Book, She's Not in the Library" (0:31) has Wade unsuccessfully trying to track down Katie, and Sam gives him a hard time in "...Find Any Clues?" (0:30). The final and most lengthy collection of footage is "Alternative Theater" (3:07), an expanded glimpse of Embry's Trip-Hop Inferno. The first five clips are letterboxed to 2.35:1 and aren't enhanced for widescreen televisions. "Alternative Theater" was shot on 16mm and is presented full-frame. Stephen Gaghan provides optional commentary, and his comments are more detailed and thorough than the usual repetitive "I wanted to keep this scene in, but we had to cut it for pacing"-isms generally present on other DVDs. I'm also fairly certain this is the first time I've heard the sentiment "When in doubt, always torture a mime" expressed on an audio commentary.

Finally, there are two trailers, presented in non-anamorphic widescreen and letterboxed to an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Abandon runs 2:15 and features Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, and the stereo surround The Four Feathers falls just shy of two and a half minutes in length.

Abandon features 16x9-enhanced menus, and the main menu is animated, featuring brief snippets from the film. The movie has been divided into twenty-four chapters.

Conclusion: Despite the presence of some intriguing ideas, a great cast, solid performances, and an Academy Award-winning screenwriter at the helm, Abandon didn't quite gel for me. I didn't dislike the movie, but I'm too indifferent towards it to recommend it with any enthusiasm as a sight-unseen purchase. I'd recommend renting Abandon first before plunking down twenty bucks. Rent It.

Related Links: The official Abandon site features a trailer and, if you can tolerate navigating through an annoying Flash animation, more about the movie.
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