Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff) returns to his hometown for the funeral of his clinically depressed mother, a journey that reconnects him with some of his past friends. Because the trip coincides with his decision to stop taking his powerful antidepressants, he also begins to reconnect with himself. A chance meeting with Sam (Natalie Portman), a girl also suffering from various maladies, opens up the possibility of rekindling emotional attachments, confronting his psychologist father, and perhaps beginning a new life.
'Garden State' was the very first film that I ever reviewed. Knowing that I was obsessed with it, a friend who worked as an editor for my university's newspaper asked me to review the DVD because she was in dire need of one more article to fill the entertainment section. Without any experience at all, I wrote my first review. Reading it now, I find it to be quite an ugly review, so I'm excited for the opportunity to review it again - this time on Blu-ray. I see it as a mulligan, a chance to correct an amateur mistake. My first-ever review didn't do the film much justice, so – nine years later – I'm going to attempt to pursuade you that 'Garden State' is just as fantastic as it was then by telling you the impact it's had on me over the last decade.
I'm a fan of Zach Braff. Before seeing 'Garden State' in 2004, the only thing that I'd seen him in was a solitary episode of 'Scrubs' (my undying love of 'Scrubs' started there). After seeing a dialog-less trailer for 'Garden State' (which is included as a special feature on the Blu-ray), I had to find a way to see 'Garden State' as soon as possible. While visiting my old man in Southern California, I realized that its limited release had kicked off and that I could catch a showing at the Ontario Mills AMC. The next morning, I made the 45-minute drive and saw the film all by myself. The trailer caught my attention with its aesthetic, but the film itself won me over because it literally spoke to me and my (then) current situation. I completely connected with its main character because I perfectly understood the conundrum that he was in. I was in my mid-20s and didn't know what the hell I was doing or what in the world I was going to do with my life. I know it sounds cheesy, but 'Garden State' set me off in the right direction. After the film, I walked out of the theater and right into the Virgin Records store that stood no more than 100 yards from the theater to pick up the film's soundtrack. As I made the drive back to the house I grew up in, with the album playing loud and the windows rolled down, I started analyzing and making decisions – many of which I'm still living by.
Writer and director Zach Braff leads the film as Andrew Largeman, a 20-something living in Los Angeles and trying to get his big break as an actor. The film opens with him getting a message from his father (Ian Holm) explaining that his paraplegic mother had died the night before. Heavily sedated on emotion-numbing drugs prescribed to him by his psychiatrist father, there's no reaction. Andrew Largemen, ofter referred to as "Large," has been suppressed by prescription drugs since he was a child. His family's home life was never great, so his father thought the prescriptions would make things better. Instead, Large has never known was it was like to feel anything.
Having not been home for nine years, Large returns to the Garden State for his mother's funeral. Leaving the pills behind, it's there that he's able to start living life. Before, he coasted through life in an ignorant state, blending into the background like a being with no identity. Now, he's about to start feeling again. Thanks to friends, new and old, he's at a crossroad in life. For the first time, he's making decisions and living his own life.
I particularly enjoy how Braff is able to not only make a film that includes beautiful visuals – like those that hooked me with the trailer – but make a film of true quality. It has style and substance. The music is perfect, positively setting the necessary tones for specific sequences. (For those who place value in accolades, Braff went on to win a Grammy for the compiled 'Garden State' soundtrack. That's how good it is.) The acting, including his own, is top notch. By the way, how do you land Natalie Portman and Ian Holm in your first film? The script is natural and smooth, all the while including plenty of connected and symbolic meat for the chewing, should you decide to take a large bite. Aside from the flaws found in any low-budget indie film – continuity, production value etc. – I don't have a single complaint with 'Garden State.'
I didn't have an oppressive father or a slew of prescriptions that left me emotionally dead, but at the time that I first watched 'Garden State,' I too was at a point in my life where I needed to start making decisions. I'd been going with the flow and occasionally following the crowd, but after seeing the film, I started examining myself. What did I like? What did I want to do? What made me happy? I felt a push to find the answers to those questions and pursue my own interests. That's how I got into writing. When I started college, I didn't know exactly which aspect I wanted to get into, but I knew that film had to be part of my life. After writing my first review for 'Garden State,' I realized that I liked writing, that it was something I could see myself not only doing, but enjoying. Like the lyrics in Frou Frou's closing song state, I learned to "let go" of everything holding me back and live life the way I wanted to. Things haven't been perfectly easy, but it's worked out for me ever since.
Just like Braff's character in 'Garden State,' despite the accolades and success of his first film, it's taken him years to return. I was fortunate enough to catch a screening of his Kickstarter film 'Wish I Was Here' at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Now far removed from the position in life where I stood when I first watched 'Garden State,' I was surprised to find that his new picture spoke directly to me again, this time speaking about the elements that are relevant with the new phase in life where I currently reside - career decisions, wife and children, juggling family life, and work etc.. In both films, Braff has proven to have a knack for accurately portraying real life while tossing in subtle humor and the cure for some of life's troubles. He does it through story, text, acting, directing, imagery, and music. If you're not familiar with his work, considering 'Garden State' is now available in HD, all nine seasons of 'Scrubs' can be streamed from Netflix and 'Wish I Was Here' will be distributed by Focus Features later this year, it's the perfect time to get started.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Fox has placed 'Garden State' on a Region A BD-50 that's housed in an Elite keepcase with the universal recycle symbol cut into the inside covers. The cover art, disc art and special features are identical to its original DVD counterpart, but the 1080p transfer is a nice new addition. The only thing to play when you insert the disc is a Fox vanity reel. While the main menu features the same score from the DVD menu, the Blu-ray menu only carries a non-animated static image background.
'Garden State' (finally) arrives on Blu-ray with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that's not flawless, but still very good considering it's a 10-year-old low-budget indie film. The video quality is hard to rate, because a three-and-a-half star rating is too low and four stars might be too many. If the rating existed, I'd give 'Garden State' a 3.75-star review.
While the current economical indie trend is to shoot digitally, 'Garden State' was shot on 35 mm film stock, so it carries a nice dusting of grain and the flaws that come with it – scattered specks of debris here and there and the occasional small scratch. A few scenes feature blocking and movement that cause the focal point to slip out of focus, a few are tainted by digital noise, but those are the only flaws to be found within the transfer. Artifacts, aliasing and banding are absent.
The sharpness of the transfer is much higher than I expected it to be. Aside for the previously mentioned background noise and specks, there's a nice overall clarity to the picture that allows for small details to be seen. On the DVD, when Large is pulled over by police friend Kenny, a blur of lightly sprinkling rain can be seen. On Blu-ray, lit up by the bright cruiser lights, you can see the individual droplets of rain fall through the darkness. Clothing textures are apparent and many shots reveal defined individual hairs on the actors' heads. The film starts off with a cold and dreary palette that gradually warms up as the medications leave Large's body. Before long, the once-distant colorization becomes inviting and desirable. Even the fleshtones – especially Large's – go through this same transition.
As much as I'd like it to be, 'Garden State''s transfer isn't perfect – but it's completely passable and much better than most aged indie catalog titles.
'Garden State' now carries a lossless 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that, much like the video quality, is stronger than expected. The film kicks off with a slow motion dream sequence of Large riding a plane that's about to crash. We're shown several production credit title cards prior to the scene. Forward-confined music softly plays over those credits, but just before we cut to the scene, the sounds of spastic and struggling jet engines seamlessly roar from the front channels to the rears. I was immediately impressed not only by the imaging effect, but by the activity of the rear and surround speakers. If the scene calls for it, effects are nicely mixed in 'Garden State.' As Large passes through the kitchen of the up-scale restaurant in which he works, sizzling sounds and pouring water come from the left side of the theater. The overall loud-ness and mixing of effects is stronger than anything I expected.
Mind you, there aren't many instances in 'Garden State' that call for such effects, so the most common element to emit from the rear and surround speakers throughout the film is music. Knowing how much Braff loves music and how crucial it is to his desired tone, it's no surprise that it's surgically mixed. By far, the best-sounding track in the whole film is Simon and Garfunkel's "The Only Living Boy in New York."
The vocal track also sounds great, but the audio's sole flaw can be found within it. During a few scenes, the raw nature of indie audio is apparent. The bed-side chat in Sam's room carries stereotypical flawed flat indie movie audio. A few times, the vocal levels sound slightly blown out and distorted.
Please note that all of the special features found on the original 'Garden State' DVD release have been brought over to the Blu-ray. Despite being the film's tenth anniversary, Fox failed to take advantage of the timing and add new features.
It's about time Fox gives us die-hard 'Garden State' fans the Blu-ray that we've been asking for. (There's been a petition floating around online for some time.) Living in a conservative part of the country, it was surprising how much of a splash Zach Braff's directorial debut made even here when it opened 10 years ago. Who knew that "the guy from 'Scrubs'" had it in him? Also written by Braff, the film should be required viewing for directionless 20-somethings. It did well for me, but its greatness isn't limited to just that demographic. Watching it now, it's just as powerful, entertaining and aesthetically pleasing as it was when I was 23-years-old. Despite being a small indie film, the Blu-ray transfer is surprisingly good. The video flaws are small and the audio really pushes the picture's emotionally driving force – the music. Fox hasn't given the disc any new special features, but they've brought over those from the DVD release – all of which are very good. Loving 'Garden State' as much as I do, I'm thrilled that the Blu-ray is as good as it is.