The last week of the year is never a busy one for new DVD releases. With shoppers preoccupied returning unwanted presents and everyone else looking for ways to spend their Christmas cash, studios generally slow up just a bit and wait until the calendar year changes before releasing a regular stream of new titles. There are, however, a few discs The Aisle Seat has to cover before the end of 2004, and the final reviews of the year follow below.
As always, I'd like to thank everyone for their continued support, from the many friends who email with comments and suggestions, to the countless PR and studio folks who are essential to the vitality of this column. Be sure to drop by my official Aisle Seat site at www.andyfilm.com for additional reviews, columns, and a Message Board filled with craziness. May your New Year be merry and bright, and we'll see you on the other side in 2005!
GARDEN STATE (***, 2004). 102 mins., R, Fox, Aisle Seat DVD Pick of the Week. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: 16 Deleted Scenes, Two Commentary tracks, outtakes/bloopers, Making Of featurette; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.
"Scrubs" star Zach Braff's directorial debut is a charming, low key character study of a twentysomething, ex-child star (Braff himself) who returns home for his mother's funeral in New Jersey. There, he tries to come out of his medication-induced haze, reconcile with his father (Ian Holm), hang out with pal Peter Saragaard, and find romance with a young, college age girl (Natalie Portman) with issues of her own.
"Garden State," like a lot of first-time filmmaker features, is a bit disjointed and uneven in its pacing, but Braff has crafted a handful of memorable characters and sprinkled alternately comedic or moving moments throughout his film. Lawrence Sher's widescreen cinematography is a major asset to "Garden State," giving the film a polished visual presentation that nicely punctuates the wide array of people Braff's character comes in contact with.
With its offbeat humor and keen eye for human relationships, "Garden State" is an impressive debut for Braff, who also makes his on-screen character a likable protagonist just coming out of the fog he's been in for years. Unlike some of Wes Anderson's off-the- wall comedies, "Garden State" is honest in its observations and thoroughly amiable, and well worth a view.
Fox's DVD, out this week, includes a superb 2.35 widescreen transfer with a polished 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. Though I'm usually not a big fan of song-compilation soundtracks, "Garden State"'s is one of the best, sporting an eclectic array of rock tracks (and Chad Fischer score) that effectively enhances the drama. Special features are numerous, including a pair of commentary tracks with Braff (one with Natalie Portman alongside, another with several members of the crew), 16 deleted scenes culled from a workprint, outtakes and bloopers, and a Making Of featurette.
Jean-Jacques Annaud's latest film is a moving adventure tale of Kumal and Sangha, two young tiger cubs who grow apart in 1920s Indochina, and later find themselves pitted against one another as adults. Guy Pearce is the Big White Hunter who changes by the end into a protector, while Freddie Highmore plays a young French boy who raises the cubs after they're separated from their mother.
Like many of Annaud's previous works, "Two Brothers" is an exciting wildlife tale that should enchant children as much as adults. Unlike "The Bear," however, there's some noticeable use of CGI that detracts a bit from the use of actual tigers, who are magnificently photographed in the lush jungle surroundings by Jean-Marie Dreujou. The sometimes-pedestrian Alain Godard script is also more fanciful than the less-sentimental "Bear," yet I was entertained and enthralled by the performances of the tigers (less so by Pearce and the human cast) in "Two Brothers," and would recommend the picture as a strong family film with an important pro-ecological wildlife message.
Universal's DVD is light on supplements, including a commentary from Annaud and a pair of Making Of featurettes that highlight the real tigers utilized in the filming. The 2.35 transfer is spotless, and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is strong, featuring a nice score by Stephen Warbeck.
Last summer's epic "Troy" provides an unusual viewing experience: Wolfgang Petersen's film is entertaining, visually enticing, and hardly boring. At the same time, it never draws you in emotionally, and the relationship between the two characters who instigated the whole Trojan War (fey Paris [Orlando Bloom] and bland Helen [Diane Kruger]) is a dud.
Speaking of Kruger, she's the weakest link in a film that offers several fine performances (particularly from Eric Bana as Hector) and a handful of strong scenes. The battle sequences are impressive and Brad Pitt's Achilles is surprisingly well crafted in the David Benioff script. Rose Bryne also gives an appealing performance as Briseis, while Peter O'Toole and Julie Christie appear briefly in support.
Still, throughout the movie, I kept thinking that there was something missing -- you never really care about the plight of the characters, with Petersen favoring epic spectacle in favor of human drama.
As far as the music is concerned, James Horner's much-discussed score works well in "Troy." While it's not one of Horner's best (and I could have lived without Josh Groban crooning the end credit song), the score is still effective and Horner's battle music fits the action perfectly. By comparison, Gabriel Yared's much-discussed unused score is superb, yet it's almost too operatic for the confines of the finished film. His love themes are gorgeous, but I can understand why his music was discarded -- it's just a bit too melodramatic, and would have likely called attention to itself.
While "Troy" won't remind anyone of "Ben-Hur," it's a passable entertainment that's visually pleasing and, at least, never dull.
Warner's two-disc DVD edition of "Troy," due out January 4th, offers a solid 2.35 widescreen transfer and a healthy 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack nicely layered with sound effects and Horner's score. Special features, though, are curiously minimal, comprised of three featurettes totaling under an hour. While the Making Of segments are interesting, one can sense that there are more special features out there that may be held over for another DVD release in the future.
Paul Bettany plays a down-on-his luck tennis star about to play in his final tournament, while Kirsten Dunst is the brash young American on the rise, ready to compete in her first Wimbledon, in last fall's romantic comedy of the same name.
Director Richard Loncraine's film is reasonably well-made and boasts an appealing turn from Bettany (he's more versatile than fellow Brit Jude Law but seems to continually be flying under the radar), but "Wimbledon" is a severely under-written project that never seems to get on track. The relationship between Bettany and Dunst isn't overly believable, and there are plenty of supporting characters that never pay off, from Sam Neill as Dunst's domineering father to Jon Favreau's comic relief sports agent.
One can sense all the elements in place for a solid sports film that looks and feels authentic (kudos to cinematographer Darius Khonji for his colorful, atmospheric lensing), but the script (credited to Adam Brooks, Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin) is so under- nourished that it seems Loncraine cut the film down to a manageable 98 minutes just to get it over with.
Universal's DVD, out this week, sports an excellent 2.35 widescreen transfer with a truly fantastic 5.1 DTS mix: like a tennis match, the sound effects bounce from one rear speaker to another throughout (making it, shockingly, one of the better sound mixes on DVD this year!). Special features include commentary from Bettany and Loncraine and a handful of Making Of featurettes.
Josh Hartnett stars as a young advertising executive who gets involved with a mysterious woman (Diane Kruger) who mysteriously vanishes off the face of the Earth. Perhaps her brunette roommate (Rose Byrne) has something to do with it...or does she?
It's interesting to see the two female leads of "Troy" here in a contemporary setting, but both play well off Hartnett in this intriguing American version of Gilles Mimouni's "L'Appartement." Director Paul McGuigan has fashioned a moody and atmospheric, if somewhat improbable, romantic suspense picture, which thankfully doesn't culminate in another car chase or a plethora of dead bodies, but rather uncomfortable conversations between its lead characters. "Wicker Park" isn't altogether satisfying, but it's not just another "Single White Female"/"Fatal Attraction" variant, either, as its advertising campaign would lead you to believe.
MGM's DVD includes a commentary track with McGuigan and Hartnett, deleted scenes, a gag reel, photo gallery, music video (a cover of the title track from "Against All Odds"), and the original trailer. The 2.35 transfer is just fine, as is the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, sporting a typically moody score from Cliff Martinez.
Terrific French drama stars Sandrine Bonnaire as a young wife who decides to open up to "therapist" Fabice Luchini -- only he's an accountant who finds Bonnaire's life and failing marriage to be infinitely more interesting than his own everyday existence.
From there, Patrice Leconte's film studies the personalities, lives and loves of these two people, who form a bond even though their relationship is initially based on a case of mistaken identity. "Intimate Strangers" is a probing human drama that's alternately funny and sad, but refuses to turn into a melodramatic mess like so many Hollywood films do (in fact, one can see this film being remade in the U.S. and becoming overly sappy and maudlin in the process).
Paramount's DVD includes a fine 2.35 transfer enhanced for 16:9 TVs with 5.1 Dolby Digital and 2.0 surround tracks. Note that the yellow English subtitles are burned into the actual picture area (as opposed to running under the frame, in the letterbox portion of the screen) and are NOT removable.