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VIEW FROM THE COUCH 

FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS (2004). A true-life yarn that was dubbed by Sports Illustrated as "one of the greatest sports stories of all time" instead morphed into one of the dullest sports films of recent years. Actor-director Peter Berg, long a deadening presence on either side of the camera, has adapted his cousin H.G. Bissinger's acclaimed novel but in the process stripped it of any complexity, leaving only a generic pigskin tale that predictably relies on a final push during the closing seconds of the Big Game to provide any semblance of a climax. Set in 1988, the story unfolds in the small Texas town of Odessa, where practically every resident is glued to the fortunes of the local high school team the Permian Panthers. It's assumed that the star player (Derek Luke) will take them all the way to the state championship, but an injury forces the coach (Billy Bob Thornton) to rely more heavily on the other members of the team, including a self-doubting quarterback (Lucas Black) and a fumble-prone tailback (Troy boy toy Garrett Hedlund). An underlying theme (more prominently presented in Bissinger's book) is that this cracker town's obsession with football is an unhealthy one -- the laser-beam focus is so intense that hardly anybody (on the team or off) seems to care much about bettering themselves -- yet Berg skirts around this important issue simply so he can spend more time on motivational speeches and gridiron heroics. In other words, the same-old same-old. DVD extras include deleted scenes, a look at the real Permian Panthers team from '88, and a featurette detailing co-star Tim MacGraw's transition from country music star to budding actor.

Movie:

Extras: 1/2

GARDEN STATE (2004). Zach Braff, known to TV viewers for his leading role on the sitcom Scrubs and known to movie watchers for absolutely nothing, used his minimal clout to secure financing for his first endeavor as a writer-director-star. He does more than knock it out of the park -- this one reaches all the way to the county line. Braff cast himself in the starring role of Andrew "Large" Largeman, a struggling LA actor who returns to his New Jersey hometown to attend the funeral of his mother. Large hasn't been home in nine years, which understandably leads to some tense moments with his authoritarian dad (Ian Holm); in an effort to maintain some distance between them, he decides to spend most of his few days in town hanging out with his old high school acquaintances. Yet Large's most significant relationship turns out to be with someone new to his circle: Sam (Natalie Portman), a vibrant life force who's the perfect remedy for an emotionally bottled-up guy trying to make some sense out of his muddied existence. Braff takes a chance with the tone of his picture, trusting that we'll follow him as he drastically switches gears from providing laughs to imparting poignant life lessons. It's a gamble that pays off, resulting in one of last year's finest films. The performances are uniformly fine, though it's Portman who shines brightest -- she's nothing short of sensational here, punching across the whiplash moods that Braff's script requires of her. DVD extras include audio commentary by Braff and Portman, 30 minutes of deleted scenes (including a couple that further deepen the movie's relationships), a promo for the strong soundtrack CD, and bloopers.

Movie: 1/2

Extras:

THE VILLAGE (2004). There's probably a reason Alfred Hitchcock didn't write the vast majority of his movies: He knew his forte was directing, and he left the scribbling to others more seasoned at putting pen to paper. M. Night Shyamalan, who has absurdly been compared to Hitchcock more than once, would do well to learn from The Master. As a director, Shyamalan has a distinct visual style, and there are scenes in The Village that shimmer with an eerie beauty. But as a writer, he's becoming a parody of himself: Eager to top the climactic twist of The Sixth Sense, he has masterminded three subsequent movies in which (unlike Sense) the "gotcha!" endings seem to be the only reason for their existence. The Village isn't really much worse than Unbreakable or the silly Signs, but Shyamalan's carny act already feels like it's decades old -- it's a shame, because some good ideas are squandered in a muddled thriller that ends up duping itself. William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver and promising newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard (Ron's daughter) are among those playing the residents of a 19th century burg that's surrounded by woods containing fearsome monsters. As long as the townspeople stay put, there's no danger, but one inquisitive citizen (Joaquin Phoenix) toys with the idea of overstepping the boundaries. The Twilight Zone did this sort of thing better -- and in one-fourth of the time, to boot. DVD extras include deleted scenes, various making-of shorts, and a cute Raiders of the Lost Ark knockoff Shyamalan made while still a kid.

Movie:

Extras: 1/2
-- Matt Brunson

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