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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Garden State

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Garden State
2004 (2004) - Fox Searchlight/Miramax (20th Century Fox)

Film Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B/C+

Andrew Largeman (Braff) is your typical struggling actor in L.A.. He's cruising on autopilot through an emotionally empty life, having spent most of his youth in a haze of mood-stabilizing medication thanks to his psychiatrist father (played by Ian Holm). He's returned home to attend his disabled mother's funeral, and in the process catches up with a motley assortment of friends he hasn't seen since high-school. His visit is typically sterile and uninteresting... until he has a chance meeting with Sam (Portman), a charming young epileptic girl, who also happens to be a not quite pathological liar. They quickly find common ground with one another, and embark upon a series of unlikely adventures. Sam makes Andrew feel for the first time in his life... and he accepts her for who she is, including her rather offbeat life and family. Together, they discover their true selves... and quickly fall in love.

Written and directed by first time filmmaker Zach Braff (best known as J.D. from TV's Scrubs), Garden State is a surprisingly personal tale - not literally Braff's own story but culled from some of his own experiences growing up in New Jersey, and also from stories he's heard from home. It's also a surprisingly sweet, funny and offbeat love story, with wonderful performances by Braff and particularly Natalie Portman, who consistently steals every scene she's in.

Fox presents this film on DVD with video in solid anamorphic widescreen. Color, clarity, contrast... they're all very good. Audio is present in an equally good Dolby Digital 5.1 mix (Spanish Dolby 2.0 Surround is also available, with optional subs in English, French and Spanish). The A/V quality isn't reference level or anything, but the viewing experience is every bit appropriate to the film.

The disc delivers a nice batch of bonus material - again nothing really outstanding but enjoyable and well worth your attention at least once. The extras start with a pair of audio commentary tracks, both featuring Braff. The first, and most interesting, is Braff with Portman (in what I believe is her first commentary experience). It's a very laid back track, and while it isn't the most unique, there are some sweet moments that are well worth listening for. The other track features Braff with the film's D.P., editor and production designer. Both have a very "first filmmaker" feel that's sometimes a little boring, but is also occasionally quite refreshing. Other extras on the disc include 16 deleted scenes (with optional filmmaker commentary), an outtake reel and a charming behind-the-scenes featurette, The Making of Garden State, which runs about 30 minutes. There's also a promo for the film's soundtrack and previews for other Fox Searchlight films. All the extras are full frame.

Garden State is a bit uneven at times, but still manages to be almost completely engaging. It's a good and welcome filmmaking debut for Braff. I'm looking forward to seeing what he does next. If you like charming and somewhat eclectic love stories, Garden State on DVD is just the ticket.

Napoleon Dynamite

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Napoleon Dynamite
2004 (2004) - MTV Films/Fox Searchlight (20th Century Fox)

Film Rating: B-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B-/B-

Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder) lives a odd little existence in a odd little Idaho farm town. He manages to plug along day-by-day, suffering through school at Preston High and living with rough-edged grandmother and his creepy, Internet-addicted, stay-at-home older brother. Napoleon does his best to entertain himself by creating his own off-beat, semi-imaginary world.

One afternoon, a new kid named Pedro shows up at school, and Napoleon suddenly finds a kindred dreamer, lonely spirit and new best friend. When a shy girl named Deb shows up on his doorstep later that afternoon, selling her own glamour shot photography service (75% off... along with a fine assortment of hand-woven handicrafts and boondoggle keychains), Napoleon finds potential romance as well.

That's pretty much all you need to know. To tell you anything more about Napoleon Dynamite would simply ruin the experience.

Once again, Fox delivers the DVD in solid video and audio quality - nothing to write home about but nothing to complain about either. The film is presented in both anamorphic widescreen (on one side of the disc) and full frame (on the other side, for those odd souls who prefer it). Like Garden State, the audio is available in English Dolby Digital 5.1 and Spanish Dolby 2.0 Surround (with optional English, French and Spanish subtitles).

The extras are decent, if not outstanding. There's an audio commentary track (with director/co-writer Jared Hoss, producer Jeremy Coon and Heder) that's available on both versions of the film. One side of the disc has 4 deleted/extended scenes with optional commentary, as well as a gallery of production photos and previews of other Fox Searchlight films. The other side includes Pelluca (the original short that inspired the film, also with optional commentary), a set of MTV TV promos for the film, the Wedding of the Century production featurette (some of the actors play it in character) and promos for the soundtrack CD and Fox's Arrested Development on DVD.

Napoleon Dynamite is a genuinely strange and funny piece of work. If you grew up in ultra-rural, ultra-small town America, as I did, well... let me just say that there's a lot here that's disturbingly familiar. The FFA kids, the local thrift store, the school dance where most of the kids can only do that shy and stiff little shuffling two-step, the crusty old farmer who mumbles unintelligibly... it's not as far from reality as you might expect. Heder's character schtick gets a little old occasionally, but this film remains a bizarre and entertaining little gem.

Last Exile: The Complete Series Box Set

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Last Exile
The Complete Series Box Set - 2003 (2004) - Gonzo/Victor/GHD (Geneon/Pioneer)

Program Rating: B

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B-/D+

Claus Valca and Lavie Head are the teenaged pilot and navigator of a Vanship (a sort of flying fighter/hot rod/courier vehicle) that was left to them by their late fathers. Food, fresh water and other precious resources are scarce on their world (called Prestale), so its two great kingdoms (Anatore and Dusis) are locked in a state of perpetual war. The kingdoms are separated by a violent and dangerous weather phenomenon called the Grand Stream (it's a river-like hurricane in the sky), and the world is overseen by the mysterious Guild, which dwells in the air and controls all high technology.

Claus and Lavie dream of one day completing the mission that their fathers could not - crossing the Grand Stream. In their continuing effort to become the best Vanship crew in the skies, the pair quickly finds themselves caught up in the conflict raging around them, forcing them to choose sides in the dangerous game. Soon after, they learn of the mysterious Exile - a powerful force that threatens not only their own lives, but could jeopardize the very future of their world.

I can't say I'm a huge devotee of anime, but I do like some of it quite a bit... and Last Exile fascinates me. It's one of those things I sort of stumbled on - Genon sent me the first couple of discs and on a whim I gave them a spin. The story of Exile is rather difficult to make sense of at first - what's happening, why it's happening, etc. The geography and history of the world the story takes place in seems to make little sense initially. If you stick with it, however, you'll soon start to piece things together (although uncovering the true nature of the story world is actually one of the series' payoffs in the final episode). Two things quickly become apparent even before you do start to really make sense of it all. The first is that the production design is incredible. Last Exile is infused with a strange hodgepodge of styles. You'll find a little bit of everything here, from Art Deco to Victorian to traditional Japanese. The technology also seems like a mismatch from different eras, some highly advanced, some more quaint. For example, the battle fleets of the two kingdoms are basically massive, levitating airships. Imagine World War I battleships floating slowly across the sky like zeppelins and you're on the right track. The other thing that will grab you are the characters. They're surprisingly accessible and compelling. You'll quickly grow to like Claus and Lavie, and you'll want to know what happens to them next.

There are seven DVD volumes in the Last Exile series - you can buy them individually or as a complete series box set. Each volume contains 3 or 4 episodes (they run about 25 minutes each - there are 26 episodes to the entire series). The video on each disc is presented in very good quality anamorphic widescreen. Last Exile is brimming with stunning imagery - an interesting combination of traditional hand-drawn and CG animation - and it all looks gorgeous. The audio is available in Dolby Digital 2.0, in both the original Japanese and dubbed English, with optional English subs. The dubbed English is the default, but I strongly encourage you to view this series in its original language. A good deal of the subtle nuance and depth of meaning can often be lost in dubbed tracks, and the replacement cast is rarely as good as the original voice performers.

Extras on these discs are very limited, but a few of the volumes have galleries of production artwork, production staff interviews and other brief bonuses, like the series' original Japanese opening and closing sequences. A couple of them also include art card inserts, and one has a paper model of a Vanship that you can assemble. If you buy the series as a complete set, the box also includes a mouse pad and a figurine of one of the characters.

If you're fairly new to Japanese anime - particularly the TV series variety - Last Exile is a pretty good place to start. The show is visually impressive and the overall story is fascinating and compelling. If you watch the first few episodes, I have a sneaking suspicion that you'll be hard pressed to stop there. Exile's is a surprisingly fun journey, and it's a great way to kill a Saturday afternoon.

Bill Hunt
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