Saturday, September 26, 2009

On DVD: "Thrilla in Manila"

A couple of days ago, I wrote a review of Monterey Pop in which I noted that, fair or not, it is simply impossible to view the film without comparing it to Woodstock; that’s just the barometer against which all 60s concert movies are measured. Similarly, anyone who makes a documentary about Muhammad Ali is going to have to understand that comparisons with the brilliant, Oscar-winning When We Were Kings are unavoidable—and, in the case of John Dower’s new doc Thrilla in Manila, slightly unfavorable. It is by no means a poor documentary, or a dull one. But it is (for most of its running time) much more of a traditional doc, conventionally structured and dutifully narrated by a Brit with crisp diction.

What is notable and new is the picture’s point of view—a less-than-reverential view of Ali, who engaged in some rather ugly (and now mostly forgotten) race-baiting language in his public battles with opponent Joe Frazier. Those cries of “Uncle Tom” and “gorilla” are all the more shocking on investigation of the two men’s personal history—Frazier had supported Ali (both morally and, at times, financially) during his draft-fueled exile from the sport, and fought hard to arrange a bout when Ali returned to the ring. The history of their rivalry is well-told and, frankly, rather more sympathetic to Frazier, who is now something of a tragic figure, living in a room over his Philadelphia gym.

His isn’t the only voice heard; several corner men, boxers, and friends of both men throw in their memories, though the most entertaining is Ali’s legendary doctor, Ferdie Pacheco. The chronology hopscotches between their back story and the run-up to their third face-off, the legendary 1975 titular bout.

The fight itself is masterfully cut and, much like in When We Were Kings, genuine suspense is preserved for those who don’t know (or who have forgotten) the outcome. Director Dower beautifully intercuts fight footage, insights from the corner men and ringsiders, and extraordinary footage of Frazier watching the fight tape (reportedly for the first time). In that sequence, Thrilla in Manila overcomes the trappings of conventional nonfiction storytelling and becomes something altogether engrossing and memorable.

"Thrilla in Manila" is available now on DVD.

In Theaters: "9"

Shane Acker’s 9 is an oddly beautiful film with a unique, specific look and style—I haven’t seen a film quite like it before, and in this era of remakes and sequels and sequels to remakes, that’s an accomplishment in and of itself. Its computer-animated vision of a dark, treacherous post-apocalyptic wasteland is striking, a kind of Mad Max by way of WALL-E, and the character design and animation is downright stunning. The visuals are so strong, in fact, that you wish they’d been more evenly matched with a compelling narrative (not surprisingly, one of the producers is Tim Burton, who's struggled with this problem throughout most of his career).

Pamela Pettler’s screenplay is a letdown—the overall concept (Acker gets the story credit) is intriguing, but the storyline proper is thin, a series of to and fro lumbering, and the dialogue consists primarily of short, dull declaratives. The voice cast (including Elijah Wood, Christopher Plummer, John C. Reilly, Crispin Glover, Jennifer Connolly, and Martin Landau) do their best to inject some personality into their characters, but those numbers on their backs end up pretty much being their defining traits.

There are scenes here that work—the celebratory sequence, with its smashing use of “Over the Rainbow,” is splendid, and the ending is rather wonderful, in its own haunting way. In that scene, 9 finally makes a connection with its audience that transcends mere aesthetics. That doesn’t happen before then, however. Ultimately, it’s a film where you admire the craftsmanship and the skill of the filmmaking, but you just can’t quite engage with it on an emotional or intellectual level.

"9" is currently in wide release.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Today's New in Theaters- 9/25/09

Surrogates: Remember back in 1995, when suddenly we had all those five-minutes-into-the-future, virtual-reality-will-doom-us-all movies like Virtuosity and Johnny Mneumonic and Strange Days? Surrogates looks like it was supposed to come out that summer too.

Fame: Because everything must be remade. EVERYTHING! DIDN'T YOU GET THE FUCKING MEMO?!? (Ebert's review is right on point.)

Pandorum: Man, wouldn't it be creepy if you were like, in outer space, but there was, like a monster or demon or something, and you couldn't escape, cuz you were like... in space? What, have you heard this one before? (AV Club gives it a D+ and notes, "In space, apparently, no one can hear you steal.")

Capitalism- A Love Story: I'll be part of the choir that Moore is preaching to. Look for my review later in the weekend.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men: John Krasinski (Jim from The Office) writes and directs this adaptation of David Foster Wallace's novel. I'm expecting that it'll be pretty good, provided it's not a whole movie of people doing bemused reaction takes, straight into the camera.

Coco Before Chanel: I sure do like Audrey Tautou, but this period biopic looks like a snoozer to me. That said, I may not be the target audience.

In Theaters: "Jennifer's Body"

If there’s a lesson to be learned from the summer of 2009, it’s that apparently only the bad horror movies can make money. It’s long been argued that the horror genre is “critic proof”—i.e., it doesn’t matter what critics say about them, audiences will turn out in droves anyway (a theory which has led to studios regularly declining to screen their horror pictures for critics in advance). But it’s starting to look as though it’s more serious than that, that perhaps horror is “critic resistant”; apparently, if fans see that a new scary movie is getting good reviews, they stay far, far away from it. In May, Sam Raimi made a triumphant return to genre filmmaking with the ridiculously entertaining Drag Me To Hell; critic were enraptured (92% on Rotten Tomatoes), but it stalled at the box office. Bookending the summer, we now have the peculiar bombing of Jennifer’s Body, a rare horror movie with genuine style and wit (thanks to Diablo Cody’s clever screenplay and Karyn Kusama’s nimble direction). But The Final Destination was a big summer smash, and the remakes of My Bloody Valentine and Friday the 13th did huge numbers earlier this year. WTF, horror fans? Are you purposely fleeing films that might not suck?

Which is not to imply that Jennifer’s Body is a great movie—far from it. But it’s got some brains rattling around in its pretty little head, and its tight, compact screenplay punches right along, a model of efficient genre storytelling. Screenwriter Diablo Cody (Oscar winner for Juno) has become a love-her-or-hate-her writer, and I’m not quite sure why; she certainly has a distinct, specific voice and style, sure, but so do Tarantino and Mamet and Kevin Smith, and they don’t get half the hate she does (I’d float a theory about sexism playing into it, but that’s for another time and place).

Cody spins the yarn of Jennifer (Megan Fox) and her best friend since childhood, the improbably-named Needy Lesnicky (Amanda Seyfried). Jennifer is the high school hottie, captain of the cheerleading squad, object of desire for all, while Needy hides behind frumpy sweaters and big glasses. One night, Jennifer drags Needy along to hear a band at a dive bar; the joint goes up in flames, the band’s skuzzy lead singer (an appropriately slimy Adam Brody) drags Jennifer off in the band’s van (Needy later guesses the year and model to be an “’89 Rapist”), and then things start to get weird. When teenage boys start getting dispatched in grisly fashion, Needy finds out the truth: that her best friend is, in fact, a flesh-eating demon.

The script is constructed in an intriguing, elliptical fashion, opening up with Needy in the nut house, explaining in voice-over, “I wasn’t always this cracked.” Cody’s screenplay comes off frequently as an affectionate homage to DePalma’s Carrie (down to its third-act prom scene), while possessing the knowing, caustic wit of Williamson’s Scream scripts. Regardless of its flaws—and there are many—it’s full of funny characters and quotable dialogue (“Can I borrow your English homework? I forgot to read Hamlet. Is he gonna fuck his mom?”).

Kusama’s direction (she helmed Girl Fight and the unfortunate Aeon Flux), is stylish and frequently inventive, and there are some welcome faces in supporting roles (J.K. Simmons and Amy Sedaris are both terrific). Megan Fox looked too old for high school in Transformers two years ago, but here, given her first real opportunity to, y’know, play a character and say complete sentences, she’s pretty good; it’s not a terribly complicated role, but her rat-tat-tat delivery and good humor are fairly winning. Seyfried does the heavy lifting, acting-wise, and she’s fierce and fabulous.

Some of the thrills are pretty cheap, and many of the jokes land with a thud (especially towards the end). And as hot as the momentary detour into Sapphic storytelling may be, one must admit that it not only comes out of nowhere but doesn’t lead to much of anything (yes, I’m afraid that the girl-on-girl kiss might be—gasp—gratuitous). And they sure as hell can’t seem to decide how they want this thing to end; there’s about three possible closing scenes, so they apparently just stacked them on top of each other and called it a day.

Those are the complaints. But Jennifer’s Body is still a wicked, sexy good time, and deserves better than the cold shoulder it’s getting from a moviegoing public that has lapped up far worse films with relish.

"Jennifer's Body" is now playing in wide release.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Backfilling: "Kramer vs. Kramer"

Welcome to “Back-Filling,” a (semi) regular feature in which I see movies that, by any reasonable measure, I totally should have seen by now.

Robert Benton’s
Kramer vs. Kramer won five Academy Awards in 1980, and it’s easy to see why: the performances are remarkable, the filmmaking is direct and efficient, and it tells the kind of intimate, familial story that tended to get Oscars in that era (the following year, Raging Bull was robbed of its Best Picture nod in favor of Ordinary People). It’s a very good movie, even if some of the storytelling is a little too convenient and the direction is occasionally clumsy (a continuity error here, some soft focus there, and a howler of a badly pantomimed “conversation” in a wide shot near the end).

What Kramer vs. Kramer does, better than any film I’ve seen, is to take basic domestic situations and make them so relatable and vividly drawn that they just knock the wind out of you. The organic escalation of the French toast preparation or the famous ice cream dinner has the natural tension of good documentary, Some of that is good writing, and some of that is expert playing—Dustin Hoffman is flat out terrific in one of his finest performances, and little Justin Henry (who, at eight years old, was the youngest actor ever nominated for an Oscar, and he deserved it) is every bit as good. Meryl Streep is also very strong, even if her cross-examination scene isn’t terribly credible. Some of the movie is a little too easy, and it might have been more powerful (though certainly more depressing) if it ended about two minutes sooner. But it’s mighty good all the same.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

On DVD: "The Complete Monterey Pop Festival"

When D.A. Pennebaker and his crew of “direct cinema” filmmakers (including Richard Leacock and Al Maysles) descended on Monterey, California in June of 1967 to shoot Lou Adler and John Phillips’ three-day pop music festival, they surely had no idea that they were basically creating (or, at the very least, redefining) the concert documentary film. Few others of note came before (Bert Stern’s Jazz on a Summer’s Day and Murray Lerner’s Festival! are about the only ones that leap to mind), but many more came after, including Maysles’ own Gimme Shelter and, of course, Michael Wadleigh’s immortal Woodstock—for this writer’s money, the greatest rock movie of all time, and one of the three or four best documentaries, period.

The misfortune of Monterey Pop (both the festival and the film) is that Woodstock (see pervious parenthetical) casts such a long shadow over its predecessor. Wadleigh (and editors Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese) were clearly influenced by Pennebaker’s film; its combination of event reportage and performance footage is mirrored, as is its structure (including the use of appropriate studio tracks during the opening footage of pre-fest preps). But Woodstock didn’t just ape Monterey Pop’s structural model—it exploded it, utilizing its expansive, thee-plus hour running time to place viewers right in the middle of that pop culture event, and using its large crew of cameramen (and Schoonmaker and Scorsese’s editorial genius) to create some of the most explosive music performance footage ever put to film. In contrast—and the fact of the matter is, most viewers today will view this new Blu-ray edition of Monterey Pop in confluence with Woodstock, particularly following the latter film’s 40th anniversary Blu-ray bow last summer—Monterey Pop runs a scant 79 minutes, and most of the few performers even glimpsed barely get in a full song.

So Woodstock it’s not. But this isn’t to imply that we shouldn’t celebrate Monterey Pop for what it is—an excellent, exciting film of an important, watershed moment in popular culture. There are some documentary interludes, in which we meet the people putting the fest together (primarily Phillips, seen enlisting the assistance of his wife and Mamas and the Papas bandmate Michelle to work the phones) and festival goers, but the primary emphasis is on the music (with some festival cutaways during the songs).

And the music is amazing. Canned Heat’s blistering performance of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” nearly equals their exhilarating performance at Woodstock two years later, while Jefferson Airplane’s powerful rendition of “High Flyin’ Bird” and Eric Burdon & The Animals’ passionate cover of “Paint It Black” are equally memorable. But Big Brother and the Holding Company’s performance, featuring a fierce, forceful Janis Joplin, just about stops the show (check out Mama Cass’ reaction from out front).

Likewise, if Otis Reddings’ appearance doesn’t wind you up, check for a pulse; he brings the (mostly white) house down with his energetic performance of “Shake” and the growling sensuality of “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” His set at Monterey suddenly made him a mainstream sensation; the same goes for Jimi Hendrix, whose barn-burning cover of “Wild Thing” is still a stunner. And the Mamas and the Papas’ “Got a Feelin’” provides a lovely score for a fine montage of all the beautiful people (this, sadly, was one of their last performances).

Not everyone is on their A-game, though. The Who’s set is legendary, but they’re just plain off at the top of “My Generation”; Daltry’s usual tinkering with the rhythm of the lyric gets out of his control, and it starts out as a bit of a train wreck—and, of course, ends like one, with a brute show of destruction (dig the frantic stage techs running around in a panic). And the brevity of the performances is somewhat problematic—we just plain want more, and some of the acts (most notably Simon & Garfunkel) are joined in progress, not even given a full number. The abbreviated (and excluded) acts are all the more puzzling considering how much of Ravi Shankar’s performance is left in; it’s good, don’t get me wrong, but it just seems odd that they turn over a good fifth of the film’s brief running time to it (even if much of it is used as accompaniment to documentary footage).

The direction by Pennebaker (who also helmed Bob Dylan’s Don’t Look Back and John Lennon: Sweet Toronto) is strong, an interesting melding of traditional concert filmmaking and the fly-on-the-wall, cinéma vérité style that he helped perfect. There may not be a wealth of variety to the photography, but the intimate, handheld style puts us up close to the performers, and the film is better for it. You just wish it went on a bit longer; it seems to end just as it’s getting started, and we leave Monterey Pop ultimately wanting more.

Pennebaker and collaborator Chris Hegedus eventually attempted to satiate that hunger with two accompanying featurettes, included by Criterion in this deluxe Complete Monterey Pop Collection: The 1986 Jimi Hendrix performance film Jimi Plays Monterey and the 1989 Otis Redding-centered follow-up Shake!: Otis at Monterey.

The 49-minute Hendrix film gets off to a bit of a rocky start, belying its 1980s origination with a goofy, three-minute intro in which artist Denny Dent paints a portrait of Hendrix on an alley wall. That’s followed by some rather turgid narration by John Phillips (“He was the hottest act around. Two years later, he was dead”) and archival footage of the Jimi Hendrix Experience performing in England (including his legendary cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”). But once it gets to the Monterey set, it is electrifying; his smoky, grinding performance of “Foxy Lady” is outstanding, as is his mellow, soulful take on “Like a Rolling Stone.” But one of its best numbers is one of Hendrix’s more obscure: the blues standard “Rock Me Baby,” which he plays, beautifully, as a good old-fashioned juke joint jumper.

Hendrix’s rambling, 90-mile-an-hour stage patter is a little bit disorienting (during one intro, pretty much all I could understand was “The Wind Cries Mary,” the title of the song), and if the end of the set is a bit anti-climactic, well, that’s because we’ve already seen much of the climax in the main Monterey Pop feature. But they certainly couldn’t have left out the iconic image of Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire, then smashing it to pieces; music writers smarter than I have compared the competitive stage-smashing of the Who and the Experience, and (correctly) asserted that the difference is an interesting commentary on their style: with the Who, it’s confrontational destruction, while with Hendrix, it’s damned near erotic.

Shake! is considerably shorter (only 19 minutes, a five-song set), so it thankfully doesn’t screw around with a lot of set-up: one shot of the Monterey coast, then straight to Tom Smothers introducing Redding, who is impeccably accompanied by Stax Records’ best house musicians, Booker T. and the MGs and the Mar-Keys. Resplendent in a lime-green suit, Redding and his powerhouse band get off to a rousing start—this is how you kick off a set, with a tremendous, crowd-pumping performance of the title song (seen, in part, in the main feature). Next up is the Redding-penned “Respect,” which he introduces by noting (with a grin), “this girl, she just took this song from me… I’m gonna do it anyway”; he sings that and his “Satisfaction” as if he’s taking them back. “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” is also heard in the main film, but it’s worth hearing again (if for nothing else, then for the series of four “one more time” hits he gets from the MGs). My only complaint with the film involves the end; the idea of letting “Try a Little Tenderness” score a montage of young lovers and lovely ladies in the audience is a good one, but they take too long to cut back to Otis, who is, after all, performing his last number. That’s a minor infraction, however; Shake! is twenty-or-so minutes of pure gold.

Monterey Pop is occasionally uneven, and leaves you wanting more, but it’s an essential documentary nonetheless, beautifully capturing one of the watershed moments of the “Summer of Love,” and of 60s rock in general. Criterion’s Blu-ray offers a wonderful overdose of bonus materials and outstanding audio and video; my quick, unscientific comparison of the Blu-ray to the 2003 standard-def discs showed negligible improvements to video quality, but a much richer, fuller audio presentation, so audiophiles should buy accordingly.

"The Complete Monterey Pop Festival" made its Blu-ray debut on Tuesday, September 22nd.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Today's New DVDs- 9/22/09

Observe and Report: Easily the ballsiest movie of the year-- Seth Rogen teams up with Foot Fist Way director/East Bound and Down co-creator Jody Hill to create a pitch-black, tartly flavored comedy that may very well make your skin crawl. But there's a twisted, inspired genius to the entire endeavor, and I'll be damned if it didn't make me laugh (and make me marvel at it's willingness to absolutely, positively see its batshit vision all the way through).

30 Rock- Season 3: Tina Fey's justifiably honored NBC sitcom just keeps getting better; if you're not watching it (and it's my understanding that most people aren't), it's time to sit down with some DVDs and catch up. (Extra points for Tina Fey's sly dig at The Jay Leno Show in the Emmy acceptance speech the other night.)

Lymelife: Derick Martini's smart, often uncomfortable tale of suburban ennui hasn't gotten much attention, which is surprising considering how many skilled actors populate it (Alec Baldwin, Timothy Hutton, Cynthia Nixon, Jill Hennessy, and not one but two Culkins). It's the kind of movie DVD was made for-- one that you throw in your Netflix queue and find yourself sucked right into.

Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead (Blu-ray): Writer/actor Simon Pegg and writer/director Edgar Wright's two cinematic collaborations to date both hit Blu-ray today; both are sharp, funny satires with style and laughs to burn (though I have to admit, contrary to popular opinion, that Hot Fuzz is my preference of the two).

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past: Hope you got your pre-orders in! THIS ONE WILL SELL OUT IMMEDIATELY.

On DVD: "High Crimes"

Carl Franklin is an indisputably talented director with a remarkably spotty filmography; it includes triumphs like his breakthrough film One False Move, Devil in a Blue Dress, and the phenomenal, underrated ticking-clock thriller Out of Time. But it would seem that he’s a filmmaker at the mercy of his material, so when he gets clunker scripts like the Renee Zellweger weepie One True Thing or the 2002 Ashley Judd-Morgan Freeman vehicle High Crimes, he can’t do much with them. High Crimes is like a JV version of A Few Good Men, shedding most of that picture’s wit and intelligence, but keeping the yelling.

The film begins with one of those portraits of upscale suburban bliss that can only serve as a predicator of bad times on the way. Claire Kubik (Judd) is a high-powered, high-profile San Francisco attorney who is on her way to a partnership and working hard to start a family with her husband Tom (Jim Caviezel), who is apparently some kind of furniture maker (he has a perfect, immaculate shop down the hill from their stately home). Then, one night, someone breaks into their house while they sleep, and when the police take prints, they get a hit on Tom. It seems he is wanted by the Marines, under a different name, for nine murders on a mission gone awry. When she finds out he has been assigned a rookie lieutenant (Adam Scott) with no wins, she tries to defend him herself; she ends up hiring an ex-Marine lawyer (Freeman) with a chip on his shoulder and a drinking problem.

Freeman doesn’t appear until about 26-minute mark, and boy are we ready for him by then. The first act of Yuri Zeltser and Cary Bickley’s screenplay is shockingly amateurish, filled with dopey, sign-posting dialogue, and even an actor of Freeman’s skill can’t do much with some of these lines—he announces, at one point, “I’m the wild card!” which is not something a character should just come out and say (though when Judd is striding through her office, accepting kudos and tossing out barbs, she may as well just announce, “I’m a high-powered attorney!”). When one of Freeman’s notions pays off, he grins and notes, “I love being the wild card!” That’s the kind of line that plays great in a trailer (as it did in this one) but stops a scene cold; it’s a wink to the audience, because real people don’t actually talk like that.

But Freeman is still the best thing in the picture; when (in a turn that will surprise absolutely no one) he falls off the wagon and disappears for a good chunk of the middle, our interest goes with him (though it is worth noting that he plays drunk quite well). Judd’s work is mostly phony and false, pounding the same note of shrill self-righteousness. She’s at her best in her scenes with Freeman, with whom she retains the easy chemistry of their 1997 collaboration Kiss the Girls. Caviezel is a cipher, but not in the good way intended for his enigmatic role—it’s a dull, whispy performance that ultimately adds up to a collection of tics and affectations. Reliable ol’ Amanda Peet’s role is a cliché, and fairly unnecessary to the story, but she does manage to play it with some juice.

Franklin’s direction is fairly undistinguished; he spends a good deal of the film whipping his camera around in a frenzied attempt to generate interest. It’s for naught. Aside from the occasional sharp scene (a brief appearance by Michael Shannon, later to co-star with Judd in the far superior Bug; her smart tough-girl bit with Bruce Davison), High Crimes is mostly inert, predictable, and cliché-ridden, and the big “surprise twist” before the generic action ending is nonsensical, sure to shock only those who have never seen a film before.

High Crimes feels like a movie made by a machine: take a mystery novel, add in an above-title pairing that’s proven to sell tickets, and pump it full of tired conventions and tin-eared dialogue, on the way to predictable ending that’s been done to death. I’m not sure how many fans the film has, or how many of them were clamoring for a high-definition release, but if you’ve avoided it so far, there’s no reason to change your course now.

"High Crimes" hit Blu-ray on September 1st.

Monday, September 21, 2009

On DVD: "My Name Is Earl: The Complete Fourth Season"

When My Name is Earl premiered in September 2005, it was immediately (and rightly) hailed as one of the funniest shows on television. It was also one of the slyest and most quietly innovative, a single-camera, laugh-track-free series that often didn’t get credit for its sideways wit and subtle social commentary—a smart show, in other words, about dumb people. In its style and form, it was less like a TV sitcom and more like a series version of Raising Arizona.

Kevin Smith favorite Jason Lee plays Earl Hickey, a two-bit thief and petty criminal stuck in a nowhere life: his cheating wife Joy (Jaime Pressly) is about to leave him for Darnell (Eddie Steeples), aka “crabman.” His slow-witted brother Randy (Ethan Suplee) still lives with him. And just when he has a stroke of luck and wins big on a scratch ticket, he gets hit by a car and the ticket blows away. While in traction, he sees Carson Daly on television talking about karma, and decides that bad things keep happening to him because of all the bad things he’s done to others. So Earl makes a list of all those bad things and starts taking care of them, one by one—an operation financed by that scratch ticket, which reappears after his first good deed.

During that first season, the series really was “must see TV”—series creator Greg Garcia (previously known only for the far inferior Yes, Dear) and his writing staff were able to get plenty of comic mileage out of their central cast (further augmented by the lovely Nadine Velazquez as good-hearted motel housekeeper Catalina). Those key players are surrounded by a truly inspired group of semi-regulars and bit players—the residents of Camden County, where the show takes place: Patty the Daytime Hooker, Kenny, Ralph Mariano,TV’s Tim Stack, one-legged Didi, Chubby, Little Chubby, and Earl and Randy’s parents (well-played by the beleaguered Beau Bridges and Nancy Lenehan). Earl’s adventures were good-natured and often laugh-out-loud funny, and while (like Scrubs) the wrap-up narrations were occasionally heavy-handed, the show’s underlying message of tolerance and doing unto others was rather wonderful.

However, the show started to go astray in season two, going too far afield of its original concept with extended story arcs about Joy’s criminal activities and Earl’s attempts to grow up; the fear of getting stuck in a rut is understandable, but as a general rule, this is show where the quality of the episode has a near-direct correlation to how much time Earl spends with his list in his hand. That was bad news for the show in season three, then, which found Earl in prison for part of the season and, most unfortunately, in a coma for much of the remainder (his comatose fantasy life, in the style of a 1950s family sitcom, marked the show’s creative ebb).

The good news about My Name is Earl’s fourth (and ultimately final) season is that Garcia and his writers seemed to see how they’d gone off the tracks, and did an admirable job of returning the show to its roots. Season four is the series’ most consistently entertaining and funny since season one, and while not every episode is a home run, it remains goofy, enjoyable fun.

Highlight episodes include “Monkeys Take a Bath,” a Garcia-penned episode in which the Hickey brothers accidently stir up some bad blood between their parents; “Joy in a Bubble,” which finds Earl filling in for Joy after his failed attempt to give her a hot tub results in her being stuck in a bubble, waiting out a flesh-eating infection; the flashback episode “Earl and Joy’s Anniversary” (particularly its ridiculous killer bees subplot); the surprisingly sweet tale of childhood romance, “Pinky”; and “Chaz Dalton’s Space Academy,” especially the scenes concerning Joy’s attempts to make friends on the social networking site “BuddyBook.”

As before, Lee is a sturdy, solid anchor for the show, sympathetic and likable while still landing enough laughs to keep from purely playing straight man to the far-out supporting cast. Suplee’s dopey Randy remains a valuable player (his clueless “romance” with a guy named Jim in the episode “Friends with Benefits” is written and played just right), though I still haven’t forgiven them for phasing out the Earl/Randy bedtime chats that played under the closing credits in season one. But Pressly’s Joy is the comic gift that keeps on giving; she’s slowly but steadily become the show’s MVP, imbuing her trailer trash mom with such a full and funny personality that even her throwaway lines get laughs (personally, I fell out each and every time she barked “Dummy!” at Randy).

The force of her comic persona helps sustain a fairly weak mini-arc, in which her on-again, off-again audition for Erik Estrada’s reality competition show show (“Estrada or Nada”) leads to her accidently outing Darnell, who has been hiding in federal witness protection. Their aborted attempts to blend into their new, relocated environments sound like a funnier concept than they end up being, and Danny Glover’s guest shot as Darnell’s dad doesn’t quite land like it should.

Another misfire is the two-part “Inside Probe” episode, in which a years-old TV news investigation of the death of Crab Shack owner Ernie (hosted by a game Geraldo Rivera) is finally aired; there are some good gags in it, to be sure, but the entire enterprise is far too reminiscent of the similar “Our Other Cops Is On!” episodes from season three, themselves a rehash of the “Our Cops Is On!” episode of season two. I’m sad to see My Name is Earl gone, but when they start reworking old ideas this frequently, it might be for the best. The show’s final episode, “Dodge’s Dad,” is funny but tremendously unsatisfying—the show’s writers were clearly unaware that they were on NBC’s chopping block, and ended the season with a “To Be Continued” cliffhanger. One wishes the network would have given the good folks at Earl a heads-up, so the series could have come to a more fitting conclusion.

Though it ends on an unfortunate, unanswered question, the fourth and final season of My Name is Earl provides an abundance of laughs and a long-overdue return to what the series does best. While it never tops the show’s first (and still best) year, it is certainly the show’s strongest season since then—a bittersweet victory, since the show may very well have been ended when it still had some life left in it.

"My Name Is Earl: The Complete Fourth Season" arrives on DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, September 22nd.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

In Theaters: "Extract"

Mike Judge is rather a peculiar comic filmmaker; he comes from a background of animation (he created Beavis and Butthead and King of the Hill) but his live-action films are notable not only for their flat, drab visuals, but for their less than animated style. He is fascinated by the banal lives of dull people, by the daily grind of clockwatchers and dregs and the stupid people who make them seem comparatively exciting. The Judge universe is filled with flavorless chain restaurants and depressing hotel sports bars and beige cubicles and gray assembly lines; even his sci-fi comedy, Idiocracy, imagined a future full of fast food restaurants and city-sized discount stores.

His new film, Extract, has been marketed as something of a follow-up to his 1998 cult hit Office Space, with one crucial difference: that film was about the drones battling management, while this new picture has, as its protagonist, the boss. Jason Bateman plays Joel Reynolds, owner of Reynolds Extract, a fairly successful small manufacturing company (their product, flavored extract, feels like a joke that never quite pays off). The business is on the verge of a profitable buyout from General Mills when an unfortunate workplace accident leaves would-be floor manager Step (Clifton Collins Jr.), well, somewhat less of a man. Step’s indecision about whether to pursue a buyout-killing lawsuit seems to occur right around the same time that the lovely Cindy (Mila Kunis) arrives as a new temp worker… which may not be a coincidence.

Joel’s life at home is about as messy as it is at work; he laments the dearth of sex with his wife Suzie (Kristen Wiig), and Cindy’s flirtations get him thinking affair, though he can’t pull the trigger out of guilt. His bartender buddy Dean (Ben Affleck) comes up with a solution: hire a gigolo to seduce the wife, and then he can have guilt-free extracurricular intercourse. Joel ends up going along with it, mainly because of the horse tranquilizer.

You get the idea. For a movie light on plot, there’s an awful lot going on in Extract, which propels itself from scene to scene more out of good-natured curiosity than genuine comic momentum. It doesn’t have the kind of motor that a great comedy requires, but it’s got enough funny bits and inspired (if occasionally underdeveloped) concepts to more than sustain viewer interest. If it clatters around and feels a bit rudderless, it’s hard to get too picky about movie with this many engaging performances and clever observational humor.

Bateman, of the still-lamented Arrested Development, continues to reign supreme as one of the best re-actors in the business; he’s got plenty of funny lines (“Are we still looking into replacing her with a robot?”), but his biggest laughs are prompted by a furrowed brow or a simple “Yep.” Affleck is funny as hell (he’s never quite gotten his due as a genuinely gifted comic actor), avoiding most of the clichés of the stoner buddy and still ably delivering the following defense of pot: “It’s not a drug, it’s a flower!”

Kunis, who showed heretofore unknown depths and charm in last year’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall, is mostly wasted in a role that doesn’t require much more than to look ridiculously hot (which, don’t get me wrong, she’s more than qualified for). But Wiig gets a couple of chances to shine, J.K. Simmons reaffirms his status as one of our most valuable utility players, and David Koechner’s dreary, monotonous neighbor is a running gag with a wonderfully unexpected punchline.

Extract arrives during a particularly solid year for mainstream studio comedy (in the wake of I Love You, Man, Adventureland, Observe and Report, Funny People, Bruno, and The Hangover, among others), and it places towards the back of that pack. But it’s still a good time, and offers some terrific moments, even if they don’t quite accumulate to a coherent whole.

"Extract" is currently playing in wide release.