DVD 12/28/10: Merantau, Archer S1, The American, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Merantau (R, 2009, Magnolia)
“Merantau’s” title refers to an Indonesian rite of passage in which a young man must temporarily leave his family completely behind and make it on his own without help. In Yuda’s (Iko Uwais) case, that means leaving his rural village for the bright lights and big crime of Jakarta, where he almost immediately finds himself an accidental observer — and consequential saboteur — of an attempt to kidnap an orphaned girl (Sisca Jessica as Astri) and sell her into sexual slavery. Unfortunately for Yuda, the exchange he undermines goes pretty far up an underworld ladder, and before the ink even dries on his arrival, he’s public enemy No. 1. Fortunately — for him as well as us — Yuda seems up to the task. “Merantau’s” story serves a purpose by taking a less-is-more approach to making Yuda, Astri, Astri’s young brother Adit (Yusuf Aulia) and their primary (Mads Koudal, Alex Abbad) and secondary pursuers far more interesting than their no-frills development would seem capable of providing. More than that, though, it provides the necessary excuse for scene after scene of absolutely top-flight martial arts action. “Merantau’s” choreography is incredibly fast and cleverly organic, its set pieces inspired on large (a nightclub) and small (a locked elevator) scales, and its final fight — a scaling, three-part showdown that uses every inch of a cargo yard — as good as payoffs get. In Indonesian with English subtitles, but an optional English dub is included.
Extras: Deleted scenes, video production diaries, three additional behind-the-scenes features, bloopers.

Archer: The Complete Season One (NR, 2009, Fox)
Unless a comedy about a spy agency run by people who are great at their jobs but a mess in every other regard is new to you — and if it is, Maxwell Smart and Austin Powers would like to have a word — “Archer’s” concept isn’t exactly fresh. In fact, almost everything about FX Network’s first animated series feels a little borrowed. The rapid rate of dialogue fire is a direct descendent of the wonderful “Home Movies” cartoon, which also lends one of its best voices (H. Jon “Coach McGuirk” Benjamin) to play Sterling Archer, a decorated secret agent with severe mommy issues and a disastrous penchant for dipping pen in company ink. Meanwhile, the animation style — high-quality graphic comic artwork set to a form of movement most commonly associated with Macromedia Flash projects — owes a debt of gratitude to countless Adult Swim cartoons that paved its way to acceptance on television. But all these crucial influences would go to waste if the show’s centerpiece wasn’t such a brilliant breath of its own fresh air. “Archer” packs an hour’s worth of comedy into every half-hour episode, stacking brilliant throwaway lines atop each other and just barreling through its clever storylines at a breathlessly funny pace. Turns out, the “Home Movies” method applies quite perfectly to adult situations and espionage thrillers when the writing is smart enough to keep up. (A special note for “Arrested Development” fans: If you can’t wait for the movie to get a reunion, “Archer” makes another brilliant borrow by pairing Jessica Walter, who stars as Archer’s mother and boss, with Jeffrey Tambor, who shows up over multiple episodes in a guest role.)
Contents: 10 episodes, plus the unaired original pilot, deleted scenes, six behind-the-scenes features and freebie pilot episodes of fellow FX shows “Louie” and “The League.”

The American (R, 2010, Focus/Universal)
We don’t know much about Jack (George Clooney), but we do know that he’s an American, he’s hiding, and when his hunters find him, he’s paranoid (or is it comprehensive?) enough to kill the woman he’s with as well as the men sent to kill him. When Jack relocates from desolate Sweden to a nondescript Italian village, we discover his incredible gift for weapon construction, a capacity for blending into the scenery despite hopelessly standing out, a love of women, and the ability to occasionally almost crack what might be construed as a smile. What we don’t learn, at least not definitively, is why Jack’s skill has made him a target, why he unconditionally trusts the few people he trusts, or why, despite being so thoroughly calculated, he can’t help but betray his paranoia in favor of self-indulgence. “The American” plays by an unconventional set of rules, and it plays well, meticulously setting up a very intimate cross section of a man and a job before finally tipping over the top domino. But if you swear the film feels like it’s designed to frustrate the reasonable and aggravate the impatient — if not because of the languid tone or refusal to let viewers into Jack’s mind, then perhaps because characters occasionally speak Italian and the subtitle font requires a telescope to read clearly — you might have a point. “The American’s” careful construction perfectly lends itself to discussion and perhaps a second watch, but one viewer’s exhilaration is bound to be another’s alienation or boredom.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (R, 2010, IFC Films)
You know what’s great about the millions of us who never achieve staggering heights of fame? We never have to watch our star slowly sink while age creeps forward and a nation of strangers — sometimes with gleeful derision — follow right along. That’s the present day-to-day life of Joan Rivers, a ground-shattering comic who now is better known for her excessive plastic surgery and unflattering stints interviewing the exponentially more famous as they try to avoid her barbs while walking down red carpets. But rather than play down the desperation and pain of fighting what appears to be a losing battle, Rivers does what she’s always done best and just stares the uncomfortable subject straight in the eye. “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” finds Rivers scrambling to kick-start a one-woman play and fill in some dates in her increasingly porous standup calendar, and in case you suspect the documentary itself is another potential comeback avenue in case all else fails, Rivers herself owns up to it without provocation. The frankness of that admission is refreshing, but it’s also to be expected while watching “Work,” which finds Rivers firing self-depreciating arrows at herself while assessing her current situation without any pretense whatsoever. This isn’t a pity play or a plea for sympathy, but simply a terrific display of a talent — unfettered, fearless, all-inclusive honesty — that never deserves to go out of style.
Extras: Rivers/filmmaker commentary, deleted scenes, Sundance Q&A.