Going blank again

THE SOUNDTRACK FROM Garden State  (Twentieth Century Fox Home Video, $29.98) has now infiltrated a healthy percentage of San Francisco’s cafés and boutiques. The country is a-flower with new Shins fans, while the coffers of Messrs. Simon and Garfunkel, whose "Only Living Boy in New York" surfaces in the film at a moment of rain-soaked poignancy, are no doubt ringing with the cl ink ing sound of incoming royalties on the latest round of reunion-tour and greatest-hits albums. And if anecdotal evidence of an emergent cult can be entered into the record, perhaps it means something that my housemate’s younger sister, a college freshman, came to visit over the Christmas holidays equipped with a suitably drab Garden State T-shirt the color of UPS workers’ uniforms (promoting itself via self-effacement in the spirit of the film); matching buttons for her handbag; and knowledge of the DVD’s imminent release date fervently beating inside her brain like an extra pulse.

I, too, was waiting, though I counted my lucky stars when she bought the thing, saving me the discomfort and embarrassment of a rabid early-morning appearance at the DVD store. I’d already trekked out to West Portal to see Garden State near the beginning of its big-screen release. And stood in line again toward the end of its lengthy run in a (successful) attempt to create a convert (my girlfriend). And had a temper tantrum when it came in 97th in the Village Voice’s film critics’ poll – below that life-eating waste of time Coffee and Cigarettes, far below Anchorman (!) and The Polar Express (!!). Really, what are the chances that a story about a numb, spaced-out human being reentering Earth’s orbit will have less going for it than the sight of a  bunc h of famous people chatting off-script about coffee?

Directed, written, and starred in by Scrubs’ Zach Braff, Garden State is sweet and clever and filled with the kind of tiny, lovable moments – the broken-off gas pump handle, the fast-food knight, the hamster mansion, any shot with Peter Sarsgaard in it – that help turn a movie’s audience into a medium-size cult. Many critics have acknowledged these truths, but also complained about the film’s slightness, about Braff’s characterless character: the affect-deficient, emotionally hobbled Andrew Largeman (a name straight out of AP English), who’s chosen a trip home for his mother’s funeral to jettison a 17-year lithium habit and the inappropriate ministrations of his psychiatrist father. It has been suggested that Andrew’s emptiness leaves the film without a center. Other cavils concern the stock quirkiness of love interest/lifesaver Sam (Natalie Portman), whose cute meet and subsequent interactions with Andrew help reveal what sort of person he’s managed to become – despite the meds, a fairly original childhood trauma, and the chilly region of familial dysfunction he’s been circling for years.

What kind of slight, stock, characterless person would enjoy, adore, or want to own this film, with all its flaws? Perhaps the sort who sees traces of familiarity in Andrew’s predicament of feeling  closed  off from the events of his own life, or enjoys watching him slowly work his way in from the perimeter (or just wants to see Natalie Portman go swimming in her underwear). At every moment of such a story line, there are gaping pitfalls, violin strings waiting to be plucked, but Braff, a first-time director, shows an admirable kind of reserve that somewhat mirrors the strangely seductive, quiet blankness of his character. As a director, he’s constantly rejecting the violins and finding something charming or funny or even emotionally moving to offer instead.

There are problems, mainly with the pacing of Andrew’s healing process, which for a while is enjoyably fractional and then starts to snowball toward film’s end – why are endings so perilous in moviemaking? The last few minutes also bear the inorganic stench of the test screening, whether because there was one, or because of some other external or internal pressure. Nothing much clears the air on that point in the DVD version’s deleted scenes, or the commentary by Braff and Portman. However, the latter offering is charming and droll like the film itself, and pleasantly informative – alongside the usual statements of the obvious and uncomfortable attempts to get through the credits, Braff offers blow-by-blow allusions to autobiographical detail, visual quoting, and anecdotes borrowed from the lives of f riends. O ther treats include your standard making-of doc, a restrained collection of bloopers, and more charming commentary by Braff, D.P. Lawrence Sher, editor Myron Kerstein, and production designer Judy Becker, who gets the lion’s share of Braff’s elated praise. In the end, the latter is one of the nicest elements of the extras: Braff’s pleased excitement about the film he and the others have made proves a sweet antidote to any wash of cross-marketing considered necessary to keep the cult’s membership numbers up. (Lynn Rapoport)

 
Chop shop

Frankly, I’ve always been partial to Freddy. But the five-disc DVD collection Friday the 13th: From Crystal Lake to Manhattan (Paramount Home Video, $79.99) – dubbed the "ultimate edition," though you’ll have to shell out separately for Jason Goes to Hell and Jason X – has given me a new appreciation for the man behind the hockey mask. A string of unlucky Fridays are charted in the series’ first eight entries (1980 to 1989), with future stars like Kevin Bacon and Tony Goldwyn, plu s countless unknowns, battling the cranky ex-camper. Parts one and two are fairly similar, though nothing in any future Friday would ever best Betsy Palmer’s turn as Jason’s maniacal mama.  Friday the 13th: Part Three is notable for its plunge into 3-D (coming atcha: snakes, sproi ng-ing eyebal ls, assorted weaponry), while the fourth film (ahem, The Final Chapter) boasts a herky-jerky dancing Crispin Glover and a monster mask-obsessed Corey Feldman. Parts five (A New Beginning), six (Jason Lives), and seven (The New Blood) are less distinguished, though the films bust out grave robbings, troubled youths, in-jokes (especially part seven), and inevitably at least one scene where Jason crashes through a wall like the Kool-Aid Man. Part eight (Jason Takes Manhattan) flaunts the best title, though most of the flick takes place at sea – the "money shot" of Mr. Voorhees stalking through Times Square notwithstanding.

Half of the films come with individual commentaries; the set also packs a bonus DVD with extras. Each film gets a featurette with directors, makeup experts like the great Tom Savini, and where-are-they-now cast members (lots of Feldman) enthusiastically reflecting on their Friday experiences. Fun trivia that emerges: the origins of Friday’s signature sound motif; the fake shooting titles that were often employed to keep rabid Friday fans at bay; and the director of Jason Lives still keeps Jason’s prop tombstone in his backyard, to the horror of at least one meter reader. (Cheryl Eddy)

 
Heartbreak motel

Wim Wenders’s melancholic ode to family – and th e barren, beaut iful American southwest – Paris, Texas (Fox Home Entertainment, $9.98), finally makes the leap to DVD, 20 years after its release. As Paris, Texas begins, a man (Harry Dean Stanton) dressed in a suit and a baseball cap trudges through the desert; after he’s found collapsed in an isolated watering hole, his brother, Walt (Dean Stockwell), is summoned from Los Angeles. It turns out that Walt hasn’t heard from his kin, who we learn is named Travis, in four years and that Walt and his wife, Anne (Aurore Clément), have been parenting Travis’s young son, Hunter (Hunter Carson, offspring of Karen Black and writer L.M. Kit Carson, who assisted with the Paris, Texas screenplay). The whereabouts of Hunter’s mother and Travis’s estranged wife, Jane (a luminously blond Nastassja Kinski), are unknown, other than the fact that she’s somewhere in Texas. Road trips dominate the movie, which was scripted by Sam Shepard, hauntingly scored by Ry Cooder, and lensed, all gorgeous skies and tricky scenes in cars, by Robby Müeller. Besides the film itself, the affectionate commentary by Wenders is the disc’s highlight. Unlike so many DVD commentaries, which feel either self-congratulatory or utterly pointless, Wenders’s track covers everything: casting and location choices, technical quirks (how do you shoot on a set built around a one-wa y mirror?), and  Kinski’s signature pink sweater, purchased at a garage sale hours before she wore it in a crucial scene. Less-essential extras include deleted scenes with optional commentary and a baffling bit of footage dubbed "Kinski in Cannes," presumably filmed during Paris, Texas’s Palme d’ Or-winning stint at the fest. The cast shuffles down the red carpet amid flashbulbs and cries of "Nastassja! Nastassja!" It’s worth a peek just to see Stockwell’s Colonel Sanders-inspired choice in ormal wear. (Eddy)