Monday, May 30, 2011


Director: Sofia Coppola
Starring: Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning, Michelle Monaghan, Chris Pontius, Simona Ventura
Running Time: 98 min
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

With fewer and fewer stories left to tell, there's thankfully still many ways left to do it if you're skilled enough. Sophia Coppola's minimalist approach isn't for everyone, as single scene or shots can linger endlessly, making even the most patient viewers wonder if the film was edited at all. And that's the thing with mood pieces: You have to be in the mood to watch them. With Somewhere, Coppola favors the stripped down, bare bones style she employed in her three previous features but manages to drop the volume down even lower. Those who didn't care for The Virgin Suicides, Lost Translation or Marie Antoinette will find this even more frustrating but it deserves mention alongside them, which is to say it's very good and will likely age well. And like those, it's equally brilliant and infuriating at the same time, its flaws as endearing as its strengths. Think of it as Lost in Translation meets The Wrestler meets The Brown Bunny meets an art house version of Entourage or Californication. While she's yet to release a work as impressive as peers like Fincher, P.T. Anderson, or Aronofsky and her output's more polarizing, she's been nothing if not consistent, extracting unexpected career peak performances from the likes of Kirsten Dunst (twice), Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray. She does it again here this time with another even more unlikely suspect and again proves few are as capable of using visuals and music in a movie as effectively. All-around, it's very similar--some would say too similar--to her previous efforts, but that's fine by me.

The film follows, at least for the first couple of minutes, a black Ferrrari as it continuously laps a racetrack. Its driver is famous actor Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), whose solitary excursions in that car represent the only forward momentum in his life.  Hauling himself up at the famed Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, where he's nursing an arm injury and doing press interviews for his latest action film with an unhappy co-star (Michelle Monaghan), we can assume from their brief, awkward interactions, he slept with at some point. Despite having booze, pills and women at his beckoned call at seemingly every hour of the day and enjoying unparalleled professional success, he's an emotional zombie giving the term "going through the motions" a whole new meaning. Bored, absent and detached, he actually falls asleep twice during his interactions with women, the first time almost inexcusably during a twin strippers' pole dancing routine set to the Foo Fighters' "My Hero" that's so compellingly, brilliantly awful it could probably wake a corpse. The unexpected arrival of his 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) changes his plans, as her mother, with whom he shares custody, disappears without giving an indication as to when or if she'll return. With little choice but to bond with her, they grow closer and he must decide whether this lonely, empty lifestyle is really for him.

The startling similarities between this and Coppola's previous two films won't be lost on anyone. Once again, she returns to the central theme of loneliness and isolation in the face of fame that characterized Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette. Admittedly, the hard knocks that come with being rich and famous isn't exactly the kind of topic that gets audiences on your side, but that's not her job. If this is what she knows and wants to explore then by all means she should. If she didn't actually explore it that would be a problem but this isn't a carbon copy of Lost in Translation, despite them both sharing a hotel setting and the plot of a depressed actor at a crossroads. There's actually a lot less going on here. From the opening scene right up until the end, not a lot is said, but somehow you're keyed in to exactly what's going on from moment to moment. The film's style encourages its characters, the visuals and the two central performances plenty of room to breathe, very often mimicking the aimless, trance-like state of its protagonist. Yet despite being told nothing and having to figure out this guy for ourselves, it's a strangely pressure-less experience to sit through, offering relief from the burden of being inundated by too many details. If Coppola's an expert at anything, it's letting the visuals, music and acting speak for itself. Unafraid of letting scenes linger past the point they typically should (or we're used to) to convey a mood, a practice session at an ice rink goes on twice as long as you'd expect and is all the more memorable for it.

Stephen Dorff is the perfect empty vessel, as Coppola tries to do for him what Aronofsky did for Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler (this film's working title could have easily been The Actor) by taking an actor's personality (or maybe lack of it) and wrapping everything else around it to fit. Maybe that wasn't the intention but Dorff's passivity is so convincing it could have fooled me. It's only speculation how much personal experience he channeled to get inside Johnny's head and while Dorff's career or life, from what we know, isn't in the dire shape Rourke's was, an artsy, meditative character study still isn't something we'd usually associate with the B-list star of Blade and Cecil B. Demented.  He ends up being pretty good at it. Elle Fanning (now a threat to surpassing her older sister as the family's breadwinner) gives Cleo a poise and intelligence beyond her years while still maintaining the naivety of a little girl faking obliviousness to her father's severe shortcomings, chipping away at his indifference. She knows what's up, and how Fanning subtly shows it is what makes the performance. The final scene is a keeper and well-earned, telling us all we need to know while leaving enough behind for us to fill in the rest.

Movies like Somewhere are the ones to watch out for because they seem at first to be inert, or worse, about "nothing," but have this way of staying with you because they end up being about much more than just their plot, which in this case is familiar.  I hate judging a director's current work against their previous efforts but it's almost impossible to view this film in any way but through the prism of her others, completing a quadrilogy of loneliness that started with The Virgin Suicides. Strangely, despite coming really close, she hasn't made a movie as compelling as that one again, but is instead effectively carving out career that builds on the themes she introduced in it in memorably divergent ways. Say what what you will about Coppola, but she's as one of the few filmmakers working today whose new releases are, for better or worse, accompanied by an "event" feeling because of their distinctive style. Somewhere meets that expectation, which is really the most that could have been asked of it.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

No Strings Attached

Director: Ivan Reitman
Starring: Natalie Portman, Ashton Kutcher, Greta Gerwig, Cary Elwes, Mindy Kaling, Kevin Kline, Lake Bell, Olivia Thirlby, Ludacris
Running Time: 110 min.
Rating: R

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

If you're counting, No Strings Attached is the second of about 75 Natalie Portman movies released within the past three months. But that's okay. While most other actors or actresses' careers would greatly suffer from such overexposure (see Jude Law circa '04), Portman's an exception. I'm not sure it's possible for her to be overexposed given how much goodwill she's built up with moviegoers who seem to feel she can do no wrong. In my mind though, she actually needs to clock in all this work to justify the massive hype that's surrounded her for years. That's why taking a formulaic romantic comedy like this doesn't feel like a step down, if only because it's something different and presents the opportunity for her to stretch in a way she hasn't previously. Unlike others, it's advisable for her to "sell out" a little.

It's a credit to Portman that my expectations for what would normally be a fluffy, throwaway chick flick were somewhat high going in. Mostly, I was curious if she'd be able to strike while the iron's hot and capitalize on her recent Black Swan Oscar win, showing she's finally turned a corner and evolved into the multi-faceted actress her fans have often incorrectly asserted she's been throughout her career. Based on the evidence here, she's at least on her way. Natalie has a spark to her in this I've never seen. And she's actually funny. In fact, I was so taken by her she almost tricked me into thinking the movie works. It doesn't. At least not completely. Parts of it do and there are these little moments that are really smart and nail what it's like to be single in your late twenties-early thirties. But it starts off on the wrong foot and has a tough time recovering after that, as the script tries to jam in to many characters and do too much when it only really needs to focus on one thing.

Emma (Portman) and Adam (Ashton Kutcher) are childhood friends from camp who keep bumping into each other every few years. They reconnect again as adults when Emma is a resident at a local hospital and aspiring screenwriter Adam works as an assistant on a Glee-like TV show. When his father, famous former sitcom star Alvin Franklin (Kevin Kline), steals his girlfriend a drunk Adam goes through his cell phone looking for any one night stand he can find before waking up naked in Emma's apartment which she shares with three roommates. Both agree to an arrangement where they meet and have casual sex with no strings attached. As long as they're clear on the rules and it can't lead to anything more, then no one gets hurt. Interestingly, Adam is the one interested in taking things to the next level while the fiercely independent Emma is terrified of anything even slightly resembling a relationship and says she doesn't believe in love. The more Adam tries the more she pushes him away. If you've seen any romantic comedy you know where this is going, and more or less exactly how long it'll take to get there. Longer than it should.

The film makes its first mistake early in how it presents the "friendship" between its two lead characters. Needlessly skipping through time with three flashback sequences in a span of only a few minutes, they meet up, lose touch, meet up again, lose touch then finally meet up again for the story to start. As a result they seem more like acquaintances than friends, occasionally bumping into each other every five years or so. When they do sleep together and begin their arrangement we hardly care since they're essentially strangers. The opening minutes would have been better spent with one brief flashback sequence establishing them as friends since childhood so when they do hook up as adults it means more and the stakes are higher. It's a clumsy decision that seems minor on the surface but it affects the rest of the narrative, preventing me from fully engaging in the premise. It'll be interesting to see if the upcoming Friends With Benefits with Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis makes the same crucial error. This takes a page out of the book of the recent, very similar Love and Other Drugs in that we have a jaded, cynical lead female character afraid to take the plunge into a relationship, a popular plot device lately and a reversal from the days when movies taught us that only guys can't commit. And like Love and Other Drugs, it tries to shoehorn an R-rated sex romp into a fluffy rom-com, though this doesn't have that film's heavy, depressing sub-plot and the tone doesn't fluctuate as wildly.

Looking as relaxed and comfortable on screen as she ever has, Portman knows the kind of movie she's in and isn't asked to do anything too crazy, which suits her just fine. A far cry from the manic pixie twerp she played in Garden State, Emma is a confident, intelligent woman realistically struggling with doubts and insecurities and Portman brings a certain warmth and sophisticated humor to the role. It won't go down as a great performance per se since she isn't asked to do anything incredibly taxing, but it may be more important than that in showcasing a different side to her as a performer we haven't seen. Who knew she could not only star in goofy chick flicks with Ashton Kutcher and actually enhance the material? As for Kutcher, the recent Sheen surrogate is like a bump on a log in this, failing to transmit even so much as a trace of charisma. A male model could have stood in for him and it probably wouldn't have made much of a difference in the film's overall quality, and that's coming from someone who doesn't actively dislike him as an actor and was curious how he'd fare opposite her. It still takes two to create chemistry and there's only so much Portman can do without any help. The decision to focus on both characters rather than take a point of view and present the far more interesting Emma as the true lead is a mistake, so we're left with a bunch of your typical supporting story threads, slightly more entertaining than usual due to the talent involved. Kevin Kline is funny as the philandering TV dad while the delightful Greta Gerwig and Mindy Kaling, both of whom could easily be headlining their own movies instead of supporting Portman, get a few moments as the underwritten friends jammed in for comic relief. Lake Bell plays Adam's boss, or the "other woman" brought in at the eleventh hour to cause a relationship rift, but bonus points for casting her against type as a socially inept geek. In an even weirder bit of casting, a nearly unrecognizable Cary Elwes shows up every now and again as a doctor whose function to the story is ridiculously unclear. His appearances are so randomly pointless they're almost a distraction, as if an entire sub-plot involving him was left on the cutting room floor, maybe next to the foot he sawed off the last time he played a physician.

Lost in all the hoopla surrounding the odd Portman/Kutcher pairing is the fact that this was directed by Ivan Reitman. Whether this bit of information was downplayed to salvage his reputation or not is irrelevant since it isn't that bad, thanks mostly to a glowing Natalie Portman, who gives this character a life far more interesting than the one supplied by the script. Despite its "R" rating this project was supposedly much edgier when it made the rounds in pre-production so I'm curious if concessions were made to appeal to a broader audience once the two stars jumped on board. You can feel a less formulaic rom-com struggling to break through, most notably when the two characters go on a miniature golf date that leads to the film's funniest moment. Then everything settles back into a predictably mainstream groove, dragging to its wimpy finish. No Strings Attached may be a slight misfire, but it's a brilliant career move for Portman, who shows her range and deserves credit for trying to challenge herself with a part you'd think would be outside her comfort zone.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Switch, Unstoppable, It's Kind of a Funny Story, How Do You Know

You may have noticed I've fallen a little behind lately. I figured this was the best solution. Below are a few capsule reviews of the movies I've been catching up on.

The Switch

Directors: Josh Gordon and Will Speck
Starring: Jason Bateman, Jennifer Aniston, Patrick Wilson, Juliette Lewis, Jeff Goldblum
Running Time: 101 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

The theory that Jason Bateman's capable of saving anything in which he appears is put to its biggest test yet in The Switch (originally set to be released as The Baster, a far better title). The good news is it's not nearly as awful as you've heard and isn't exactly the goofy rom-com it was advertised as, at least partially. The bad news is sadly once again Jennifer Aniston texts in another lifeless "Rachel from Friends" performance, causing the romance at the film's center to fall-flat while many other elements work surprisingly well. The premise is original and clever and if only a major portion of the plot didn't depend on the romantic chemistry between the two leads, it would be a success. Even as is, it's only a slight miss thanks to Bateman and a slightly smarter than usual script.

Stuck in the "friend zone" with best pal Kassie (Aniston), the neurotic Wally (Bateman) is horrified at her plans to have a baby by being artificially inseminated by sperm donor Roland (Patrick Wilson). After a drunk Wally pulls replaces Roland's sperm with his at her "insemination party" we fast forward 7 years as Kassie returns to New York with son Sabastian (an adorably precocious Thomas Robinson), who's basically a mini-me version of his real dad. Wally and Kassie reconnect and he not only has to come to terms with his true feelings for Kassie, but also find a way to drop this bomb of a secret, just as Roland re-enters her life.

The script excels when focusing entirely on the relationship that father-son relationship that develops between Wally and Sabastian and both learning to deal with their anxieties rather than the tired love triangle, third act reveal and inevitable fake break-up and make-up we now know to expect in these movies. While it's executed a little smarter than usual here it still doesn't help that Aniston (her face now unrecognizably botoxed) is a blank slate, offering absolutely nothing in the role and forcing Bateman to do all the heavy comedic lifting, of which he's more than up to the task. Any laughs come from him, but that this plays as a coming-of-age dramedy for middle-aged adults rather than a typically tired rom-com counts as a plus. Going into The Switch with low expectations helps, but not enough. Here's hoping Bateman moves on to better projects. That he almost single-handedly saves this says a lot for him.


Director: Tony Scott
Starring: Denzel Washington, Chris Pine, Rosario Dawson, Ethan Suplee, Kevin Corrigan, Kevin Dunn
Running Time: 98 min.
Rating:  PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Director Tony Scott and Denzel Washington's latest mindless, but pretty damn fun, action collaboration Unstoppable could easily be described as "Speed, with a train," and that's a compliment. Armed with a really engaging, pulse-pouding premise, I was still surprised just how much suspense the film was able to muster up and credibly sustain over the course of its running time. Washington is reliable in basically the same action part he's been playing for his past ten movies with Scott but this ranks as their best work together in a while. The real star though is the train and the Scott deserves credit for knowing that, often ominously shooting it in slow motion and fast forward as if it were a fire breathing dragon careening down the tracks to claim its victims.

As the unmanned, half-mile long runaway locomotive barrels toward Scranton, P.A. due to a railway employee's error it's up to veteran West Virginia engineer Frank Barnes (Washington) and his new rookie partner Will Colson (Star Trek's Chis Pine) to stop it. At the station yard Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson) calls all the shots but must contend with "corporate," as slimy railway head Galvin (Kevin Dunn) seems more concerned with cutting costs than an entire city being wiped out. The script presents it all really believably and solves problems logically (Dawson's character is especially well written) before the unrelenting suspense kicks in for the final 40 minutes.

Attempts to flesh out these guys' personal lives seem thrown in but that hardly matters since Washington and Pine play off each other so well. That said, I was kind of disappointed that the movie didn't seem to know how good it was and felt the need to tack on a final "where are they now?" music video style montage that better suits a lesser film. For a while it was approaching the quality level of Speed in that we cared and were invested in the characters, but Scott apparently thought he was making something goofier than that. Sure, it's goofy, but not THAT goofy. I was hoping he'd take it to the next level, but there's this nagging feeling that he felt the need to remind us, "Hey, I directed Deja Vu and Man on Fire. Cut me some slack." If there was ever a time for him to aim higher, it was here. Either way, Unstoppable is a must rent and a technically sound action spectacle that at times flirts with greatness. You'll forget about it an hour after you've seen it, but it's sure fun while it lasts.

 It's Kind of a Funny Story

Directors: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
Starring: Keir Gilchrist, Zach Galifianakis, Emma Roberts, Viola Davis, Zoe Kravitz
Running Time: 101 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

It's Kind of a Funny Story kind of lives up to its title, though it's more dramedy than comedy. Marching proudly through quirky indie tropes (depressed emo teen, manic pixie dream girl, voiceovers, hip soundtrack) some will find grating, the movie works anyway, but the big story coming out of it is the supporting performance from Zach Galifianakis, who proves if he could have a career as a dramatic actor if he ever wants one. Revealing a dark side we've never glimpsed, he could have had a shot at a nomination if the film wasn't so small and unseen, and it were a less crowded year. What this script does understand to a tee is what it's like to be a teenager and how everything feels like an overwhelmingly huge deal as it's happening.

Our main character, 16-year-old Craig (Keir Gilchrist), kind of a kinder, gentler Holden Caufield, is depressed and suicidal, ready to jump off a bridge when the movie opens. Immediately regretting the idea, he checks himself into a mental institution much to the surprise of his parents (Lauren Graham and Jim Gaffigan) who don't have a clue what's going on in his life. That life includes being enrolled in a school he hates and obsessively crushing on best friend Aaron's (Thomas Mann) girlfriend, Nina (Zoe Kravitz). Upon admittance for a five-day observational period he strikes up a friendship with bearded misfit Bobby (Galifianakis) and potential love interest, Noelle (Emma Roberts), both of whom struggle with emotional issues arguably more serious than his.

Craig's storyline with Bobby works better than the romance because of Galifianikis, who's his usual funny self but then has these moments where he snaps, going to this dark, angry place that feels completely real. The performance seems almost Belushi-like to me as we have a comedic actor giving off this unstable vibe that's he capable of handling grittier material if necessary. Gilchrist is perfect as the the shy, awkward Craig even if the romance between him and Noelle feels a little too convenient to pack the punch the filmmakers want it to. Roberts does fine with the role even she's still playing a variation on a character we've seen before under different guises in various films.

There are some interesting dream and fantasy sequences, specifically a major one centering around Queen and David Bowie's ubiquitous "Under Pressure," and others involving Craig seeking refuge in his artwork with drawings that coincidentally(?) resemble Tom Hansen's architectural designs in (500) Days of Summer.  There isn't a lot that's original here but the most impressive feat that directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck pull off is delivering an uplifting coming-of-age tale in a mental ward, balancing comedy and drama without the clashes in tone you'd expect. Craig isn't suicidal and never was. He's just a teenager. That the movie understands and acknowledges this is the best thing about it.

How Do You Know

Director: James L. Brooks
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson, Jack Nicholson, Kathryn Hahn
Running Time: 116 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ (out of ★★★★)
How do you know you're watching something awful? In this case, it's definitely not by the credits since the talent both behind and in front of the camera have about ten Oscar nominations between them. That's why it's so surprising that James L. Brooks' How Do You Know is as uninspired as it is. And overlong. Clocking in at an excruciating 116 minutes that feels more like three hours the film starts running on fumes before the first is even up, filling time with who knows what. Only mildly humorous in spots and making poor use of talented actors, the script tries to juggle two storylines, neither with much success at all.

The best that can be said is that Reese Witherspoon (who deserves better) is credible as Olympic softball player Lisa Jorgenson, who gets cut from the Team USA for being over-the-hill at the age of 30.  She starts dating womanizing Washington Nationals pitcher Matty Reynolds (Owen Wilson) and as believable Witherspoon is as an Olympic athlete,Wilson isn't as a pro baseball player. I know this is a comedy, but the sight of him in uniform couldn't have been intended to get the laughs it does. Matty's kind of a jerk but a likable one and she must choose between him and goofy blind date George Madison (Paul Rudd), an executive who's the target of a criminal investigation in his father's (Jack Nicholson) company and could be looking at jail time.

The boring details of George's alleged corporate malfeasance is sadly what eats up most of the film's running time. You'd be forgiven for wondering what it even has to do with Lisa's relationship with Matty and George and how it's even pertinent to the plot, which is all over the place. It's purpose seems to be to give Nicholson his most embarrassing role in years, overplayed and underwritten as if he were appearing as a favor. Rudd, usually gold in everything, is wasted since George spends most of the film neurotically whining. The script accidentally presents him as a creepy stalker rather than a viable candidate for her affections.  Only Witherspoon escapes from this unscathed since she's so ridiculously likable and can do this in her sleep, but we're left wondering how her character could even consider being with either of these guys, if that's even what this story's supposed to be about. I'm still not sure. A mess from top to bottom, How Do You Know is so lazy it didn't even bother to put a question mark at the end of its title. If only that were the worst of its problems.

Friday, May 6, 2011

TV on DVD: Californication (The Complete Third Season)

Starring: David Duchovny, Natascha McElhone, Pamela Adlon, Madeleine Martin, Evan Handler, Peter Gallagher, Eva Amurri, Embeth Davidtz, Diane Farr, Kathleen Turner, Rick Springfield
Creator: Tom Kapinos
Original Airdate: 2009

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

"The idea came out of my own misery of working on Dawson's Creek. I came out here to write screenplays, and I ended up on Dawson's Creek, which was very lucrative and fun, but it was not what I wanted to do. The experience was miserable."
 -Creator Tom Kapinos

You learn something new everyday. As big a Dawson's Creek fan as I am (no joke, it's true) I still had no idea the same person responsible for running that show (into the ground some would say) in its final two seasons wrote and created Californication. And how would I? Could two shows possibly differ more? Contrary to popular opinion, I don't think he ran that series into the ground and would rank the final two seasons he presided over as its strongest, breathing new life into a stale show before it signed off for good. You can only imagine how handcuffed the mind behind a show as smart edgy as Californication must have felt overseeing a teen drama on the WB, but it's still kind of funny the experience traumatized him enough to create this. And it's a good thing it did.

Now in its third season, the misadventures of sex addicted writer and mid-life crisis sufferer Hank Moody not only shows no signs of losing steam, the character's emerging as almost a tragic figure of sorts. The series has always been unusually skilled at mixing comedy and drama, but most of this season feels exclusively like pure screwball comedy. It isn't until the final episode you realize that there was a concrete plan in place the entire time and just how well written the entire story arc was. The finale also marks the first time during the course of the series where star David Duchovny, seemingly so effortlessly laid back and cool in this role, is called upon to play angry and miserable. It's strange to think that for a long period of time in the '90's that's all we thought he could do, or at least all he was allowed to. Now as he just keeps getting better and revealing more with each passing episode, he's surprisingly evolving into one of the best dramatic actors on television.

After last season's enormously successful guest turn from Callum Keith Rennie as wild music producer Lew Ashby, Kapinos had probably hoped to recreate that magic by stacking Season 3 with as many guest stars as possible, to the point that they basically take over the show, even pushing some of the series regulars to the side. It's a big risk, but one that works because of who they are and the thought that went into how they'd be incorporated into the narrative. The on again off again on again off again relationship between Hank and Karen (Natascha McElhone), his womanizing, and inability to be the father and husband he needs to be is still at the crux of the series, only this time the game has changed slightly. With Karen off to New York at the end of last season, McElhone appears only sporadically throughout the season until the final few episodes while previous regular Madeline Zima returns in only a single (but very memorable) guest starring appearance as the conniving Mia. It's a credit to how exciting the season is that the absence of two main characters is barely noticeable and when they finally do return, the impact they make is huge.

Hank already has enough going on between increasingly troubled teenage daughter Becca (Madeleine Martin) rebelling like she never has before and his new gig as a college professor, which not surprisingly supplies the season's most entertaining moments. Just the idea of Hank being let loose on a college campus as a writing professor is filled with all sorts of crazy potential and this doesn't disappoint since he doesn't just stop at sleeping with the Dean's wife (Embeth Davidtz), but also goes after his T.A. (Diane Farr) and one of his students, (Eva Amurri), who happens to be a stripper. His attempts to juggle these women and keep his job provides the narrative for most of the season, but this might be one of the few occasions where the women he beds on the show are presented as being smarter and more interesting than he is, as opposed to the latest notches in his belt they've been treated as in the previous two seasons. That, the superb performances from those three actresses (especially Amurri) and Hank being dropped in a fresh setting make most of these episodes soar, with impending return of Karen always on the horizon, along with the chance she could take Becca back with her to New York if he doesn't get his act together. Of course, if he does, there's still that possibility he could be transplanted with them, which would be bad news for a series so dependent on its west coast setting and atmosphere. Plus, Newyorkifornication just doesn't have the same ring to it.

The series' weak link is still the character of Charlie Runkle (Evan Handler) who's seemingly never-ending divorce saga with wife Marcy (Pamela Adlon) continues to play out in a somewhat tiresome fashion. But at least this time Charlie's finally given a storyline that comes closest to working when he gets another shot as an agent working for the brash, hilariously vulgar, sex obsessed Sue Collini (Kathleen Turner) and overseeing the potential comeback of 80's music superstar Rick Springfield (playing a version of "himself"). Turner's performance is practically surreal in terms of the explicit dialogue that comes out her mouth and how she so casually delivers it. It's rare you can say something's done entirely for shock value and mean it as a compliment, but Turner's an exception, excelling at her best role in years. Rounding out the guest-filled season is Peter Gallagher, great as the clueless Dean Stacey Koons, Pineapple Express' Kevin Corrigan as Hank's loserish childhood friend, Gossip Girl's Ed Westwick as a troubled student. and in a brilliantly bizarre crossover cameo, Ken Marino briefly reprises his role as Professor David Wilder from Dawson's Creek nearly a decade later. Given there's probably very little audience overlap between the two shows, I'm likely one of the few who noticed the shout-out to the Creek, but it isn't exactly everyday you get to see a familiar character from a long defunct show resurrected years later in a totally different series. Yet with all that works, this still isn't quite a perfect season, making me wonder what it'll take to get there. I'd say getting rid of Charlie Runkle would help but so much time and effort has been invested into the character it would almost be a disastrous decision to write him out now (plus I have this awful feeling I'd actually miss the dope, which is a credit to Handler's performance if nothing else).

So much happens during this season it almost feels like the action hits its peak before the finale, but that finale ends up being one of the strongest episodes of the series, with Hank's plight connecting in a way it hasn't before in the final few minutes, bringing new meaning to the term "hitting rock bottom." An issue we thought had died resurfaces for him at the worst time, threatening to rip his family apart for good. Everything always comes back to Hank and Karen and what's so interesting about the series is that we know already how it has to end: With Hank's redemption. Yet that still doesn't diminish any of the anticipation in getting there and what it'll mean when that eventually occurs.

With the quality of writing on even the best shows fluctuating wildly from season to season, this series has accomplished something rare. Its Showtime stablemate Dexter will always get more accolades and attention simply because when it hits its mark, it hits it hard, and the bar is raised so high. That happens less frequently with Californication and when it really delivers it falls shorter than that show, but over the long haul consistency has been its trademark, delivering three seasons in a row of nearly equal quality, each providing a different viewing experience. Someone could just dive into this season cold having never seen the show before and still enjoy it. That says a lot. The possibility that it hasn't hit its peak yet as it enters its fourth season and there are more avenues to explore with these characters is reason enough to keep tuning in.