Saturday, March 20, 2010

On DVD: "Poliwood"

Barry Levinson may very well have stumbled into a career renaissance, albeit in a slightly different career. He was one of the most consistently entertaining directors of the 1980s (his output that decade included Diner, Tin Men, Rain Man, and Good Morning, Vietnam). Then something went awry in the 1990s; he started turning out clunkers like Toys and Jimmy Hollywood and the criminally overrated Bugsy, and his last honest-to-God great film was 1998's Wag The Dog (and its greatness may have had more to do with its prescient timing and David Mamet's brilliant script).

But now, Levinson has made a personal documentary that's better than any narrative film he's done since. In fact, PoliWood reminded me, in many ways, of Sydney Pollack's final directorial effort; his 2005 film Sketches of Frank Gehry was also a very personal doc that proved a vast improvement over workmanlike but forgettable pictures like Random Hearts and his Sabrina remake.

Levinson wisely puts his cards on the table right up front; the opening credits don't include the customary "A Barry Levinson Film" but instead "A Barry Levinson Film Essay." There's something about that phrase, film essay, which changes our expectations; the last movie that I remember willingly embracing that label was Orson Welles' wonderful F For Fake, and it was a better picture for it. The connotation of that label is looser, more personal and freewheeling.

The film was inspired by Levinson's work with the Creative Coalition, a non-partisan (but, come on, mostly liberal) organization of entertainer/activists. It's loosely organized around the 2008 presidential campaign, as Levinson uses the group's visits to the Democratic and Republic national conventions to examine the role that mass media plays in present-day politics, and if actors and other entertainers should take advantage of their celebrity to voice their opinions and raise awareness about their causes.

He finds a good format for the film, alternating (often non-chronological) documentary footage and interviews with his own, straight-to-camera commentary breaks. Those bits are among the film's high points. In one, he talks about JFK's 1959 TV Guide editorial on the danger of allowing television to influence political campaigns; Levinson then notes how Kennedy's own campaign, and the subsequent Reagan administration, marked the beginning of the "television president." In another, he makes an interesting comparison between the story of "Joe the Plumber" and the classic film Meet John Doe, which turns into an incredibly insightful (and bruising) analysis of Joe's subsequent attempts to battle his own obsolescence.

The documentary footage is also well-cut and consistently interesting; it doesn't hurt that the celebrities involved in the Creative Coalition are mostly well-spoken, thoughtful, attractive people like Anne Hathaway, Ellen Burstyn, Josh Lucas, Tim Daly, and Rachel Leigh Cook. Conservatives like Stephen Baldwin, Charlie Daniels, and the late Ron Silver also get their say, as do politicians Arlen Specter, Dennis Hastert, David Paterson, and Blanche Lincoln; commentators Lawrence O'Donnell, Tucker Carlson, and Eric Alterman add probing insights as well.

What's surprising about PoliWood is that it turns out to be about more than we anticipated; yes, the issue of celebrity-as-pundit is addressed, and thoroughly, but Alterman makes such a compelling case for it early in the film that we don't require much more in the way of logical argument. What Levinson does that is so interesting and unexpected is his subsequent shift to a larger analysis of mass media and political discourse. There is some frank and astute discussion of how, in today's 24-hour news cycle, handlers must "create the character" of the politician, just as these actors create the characters they play in their films. From there, it's no leap to draw parallels between Hollywood and Washington, D.C.--and between the negative connotations of both cultures.

Late in PoliWood, the cameras follow Levinson to a "focus group with celebrities" that he has organized with the help of Fox News' Frank Luntz (who gained a bit of notoriety for his "independent" focus groups during the campaign, but never mind that). He and several other coalition members sit down with a group of regular folks, and for a while, it is tough and uncomfortable to watch--they let these actors have it with both barrels. And the actors take it, but then they all start to talk and listen to each other, to have an honest debate and an attempt to find some common ground. It's the closest thing to a happy ending that we could hope for in a culture this polarized, and Levinson's thought-provoking and entertaining film essay is a valuable part of that kind of conversation.

"PoliWood" makes its DVD debut on Tuesday, May 18th. For full A/V details, read this review on DVD Talk.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Today's New in Theaters: 3/19/10

The Bounty Hunter: "I saw the poster," writes Roger Ebert, "and had a sinking feeling the title gave away the whole story." Amen to that. I don't know about you, but the one thing I was really hoping to get my eyeballs on was a mating of Midnight Run and every bad action-comedy-romance of the last twenty years. Gerard Butler's got charisma to spare and Jennifer Aniston still looks great in a tiny black dress, but who really thought anybody would give a shit about a warmed-over story like this one?

Repo Men: The timing on this one is certainly intriguing (though surely accidental); the notion of a dark futuristic action/comedy about the "repo men" who repossess your ridiculously overpriced artificial organs hitting theaters on the weekend of the health care vote is pretty funny, ya gotta admit. It sounds like a cross between Repo Man, Blade Runner, and the "live organ donors" sketch in Monty Python and the Meaning of Life; as intriguing as that stew is, it also sounds like a rental for me.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Let's be honest--nobody cares what I think of this one; it wasn't made for me. It was made for pre-teen boys who like fart jokes. I'm sure it will do very well among that specific (but lucrative) demographic.

Greenberg: Noah Baumbach's latest is one of his best--the script is tight and quoatable, the direction is retro without being kitschy, and features a starmaking performance by Greta Gerwig in the female lead. It's prickly and occasionally infuriating (neither Baumbach nor Ben Stiller go out of their way to make the titular character easily engaging), but you can't get it out of your brain afterwards.

Mid-August Lunch: Gianni Di Gregorio's picture is a comedy in a deliberately minor key, a lightweight little piffle with some real warmth and, if not big laughs, than non-stop chuckles and smiles. It's not the kind of heavy foreign film that viewers are used to going to the art house for, but it's quite a bit of fun.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

In Theaters: "Greenberg"

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can watch someone become a movie star in a single scene—Al Pacino in the Solozzo assassination scene in The Godfather, say, or Tom Cruise sliding into his living room in Risky Business. For Greta Gerwig, that moment comes about 2/3 of the way through Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg. As Florence, a would-be singer and personal assistant to Phillip Greenberg (Chris Messian), an upscale hotel owner, she has spent most of the strangely circling her boss’s brother Roger (Ben Stiller), an aimless 41-year-old musican-turned-carpenter who is housesitting while Roger and his family are opening a new hotel in Vietnam. But in this key scene, we find Florence alone in her studio apartment, sloppily half-dressed and more than half-drunk, singing along uproariously to Paul McCartney’s “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”; she takes a phone call from Roger, humors him a bit, and then makes a stunning confession. In about three minutes, she does a full range of human emotions, and barely breaks a sweat. If her performance here is any indication, this girl’s gonna be a damned movie star.

Greenberg is a very smart movie, and a very tricky one—it is not, as we might suspect from its ads, merely another tale of an introvert who has lost his way, and is brought to his senses by the love of a good woman (cue the Garden State comparisons). It is more complicated than that—Roger Greenberg is not a loveable loner, nor an amusing malcontent. He’s got real problems, and they manifest themselves in ways that are not easy to get past. Florence is warned that Roger was recently released from a mental hospital, and we slowly piece together his back story; a good decade and a half ago, he was in a pop band, and he was the lone holdout when they were offered a record deal. In the years that followed, he moved to New York and went adrift. “Right now,” he tells an old girlfriend, “I’m really trying to do nothing.” She replies, “That’s a brave choice at our age.”

That girlfriend is played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, wife of writer/director Baumbach; she’s also credited with co-producing and co-writing the story. She only appears in two scenes, but they’re good ones, sticky and truthful. Particularly memorable is a painful coffee meeting between her and our protagonist—he’s clearly angling to get back in her life, but as they talk, she’s long forgotten even broad outlines of their time together, to say nothing of the specific details he keeps mentioning. It’s a relatable but wince-inducing scene, made even more painful by her blunt, immediate response when he takes the next step and asks her out on a date.

Her cold reception is a bit of a relief, as the film seems in danger of setting up a dull, familiar love triangle subplot; Baumbach has nothing so standard on his mind. He’s more interested in exploring the hit-and-run dynamic of Gerwig and Stiller’s characters; as the story begins, she seems a bit of a flake, and we’re not sure how strong her judgment is when she fools around with him during what must be one of the more awkward first dates ever committed to celluloid. Baumbach’s intelligent screenplay doesn’t make it easy for them—or for us, inasmuch as his peculiar flashes of temper and seeming insistence on being troublesomely mean to her doesn’t exactly set up the kind of rooting interest we’ve come to expect from our cinematic would-be romances. But the nuanced screenplay puts the onus for the relationship on her, and when she mumbles, at a particularly vulnerable moment, “You like me so much more than you think you do,” we know she’s right.

It takes a very good actress to pull off a role like this, and luckily, Greta Gerwig is a very good actress. She’s familiar from several so-called “mumblecore” pictures like Baghead and Hannah Takes the Stairs; cult audiences will recognize her as the obligatory wise-cracking best friend in The House of the Devil. She’s a got a great, open face, and a wonderful, natural quality; she can carry off the jokes without playing them for a laugh (like when she drolly informs him, “You can stay over, wink wink”), and can make potentially troublesome lines like “Do you think you could love me?” heartbreaking without sounding pathetic and whiny. Stiller, looking somewhat gaunt and aged, is admirably restrained (this performance recalls some of his more disciplined, honsest-to-God-actor work in films like Zero Effect and Your Friends and Neighbors), while still gracefully hitting the comic beats (particularly when paired with Ryhs Ifans as his former bandmate). He also knows when to turn on the slow boil; a long, strange party sequence towards the end of the film puts him through the acting wringer, and he pulls it off.

The script contains some of Baumbach’s most quotable dialogue since his debut film, the incomparable Kicking and Screaming (no, no, not the shitty Will Ferrell movie). When asked how he’s doing, Roger responds, “I’m fair-to-middling. Leonard Maltin would give me two and a half stars.” When Ifans accuses him of “pulling a Gatsby” by staying inside at his own impromptu pool party, Roger muses, “I don’t know that I need to document the reasons this isn’t a Gatsby.” And when holding court with a group of twentysomethings at a party, he insists, “I’m freaked out by you kids. I hope I die before I end up meeting up with one of you in a job interview.” But Roger doesn’t get all the good lines, either; Baumbauch is the rare male writer whose women are perhaps more interesting than his men.

His screenplay also takes some risks—he’s trying all sorts of interesting ideas and unusual approaches. Not all of them work, but the ones that do pay off in spades. Take, for instance, the long scene towards the end, where Roger opens up while leaving Florence a voicemail message; it should be completely dramatically inert, but the writing and playing is totally dynamic. He also takes on a fascinating look and feel for the picture, which seems, from its soft-rock soundtrack (“you have to look past the kitsch,” Roger explains) to the retro title font to Harris Savides’ subtly sun-kissed cinematography, to be a throwback to the cinema of the 1970s. Specifically, it plays as a quiet homage to Altman; there’s a masterfully constructed scene of uncomfortable party conversations that feels like something out of Nashville, a couple of his signature zooms, and a quirky-character appeal that calls to mind efforts like A Perfect Couple and Thieves Like Us. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not some empty tribute; Baumbauch melds those influences with his low-key style, and comes up with a nice hybrid of what he’s done and what he likes. Greenberg has its problems, yes—the pace is a little punchy, and Roger’s neurosis can try the viewer’s patience. But it is a smart and sensitive picture, engaging and compelling. And not to belabor the point, but seriously: keep an eye on Greta Gerwig. She’s the best thing in this lovely film.

"Greenberg" opens Friday, March 19 in limited release.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

In Theaters: "Mid-August Lunch"

The laid-back vibe of Mid-August Lunch is established early on, in the opening credits sequence, a long take of two middle-aged men sitting in the sun, drinking and chatting and kibitzing as people bustle past them. Gianni Di Gregorio writes, directs, and stars in the picture, and it’s just about the exact opposite of what you’d expect from a man who co-wrote the grim crime drama Gomorrah; it’s a fluffy charmer, light as air. It’s a sweet little comedy, light on plot (and on time—it runs a scant 75 minutes), but full of merriment.

Di Gregorio plays, coincidentally enough, Gianni, a good-natured middle-aged fellow who shares a Rome flat with his elderly mother. He’s an easygoing fellow, with no job or apparent source of income, so with the holiday of Ferragosto (on August 15) around the corner, opportunities begin to present themselves: his landlord and doctor offer him to forgive his debts if he will look after their aging mothers, while they flee the city for the holiday.

The series of events that leads Gianni to have an apartment full of cranky old ladies unfolds with absolute logic, particularly as we observe his desperate friends trying gamely to sell him on the notion that their mothers won’t get in the way (“She had hardening of the arteries?” Gianni asks, to which his landlord replies, “Sooner or later, we all do!”). His mother is as understanding as she can be, but is also set in her ways; guests are fine, but she wants her TV to herself for her evening programs. “We do this gladly,” she tells her son, “but gladly up to a point.”

As a writer, Di Gregorio shows admirable subtlety and restraint—if this were an American comedy, he’d have a crew of wisecracking Golden Girls clones on his hands. They’re given distinct comic personalities, yes, but none are overplayed (even the awkward scene with Marina, the landlord’s feisty mother, isn’t over the top). His directorial style is similarly unimposing, utilizing a simple, classical execution with lots of long takes, most of them in medium wide shots, letting the scenes play out and find their own natural rhythms.

There’s not a hell of a lot to Mid-August Lunch; it’s slight and perhaps a bit middling, and it favors chuckles and smiles over big laughs. But it’s got sun-kissed photography and a cheery score, and a low-key ending that’s admirable for its reserve. There are worse ways to while away an hour and fifteen minutes; the picture’s a piffle, but its heart is in the right place.

"Mid-August Lunch" opens today in New York City.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

On DVD: "Broken Embraces"

Pedro Almodóvar seems like a nice guy in interviews and personal appearances, jovial and likable, but he doesn’t seem like someone you’d want to ask for directions. As a filmmaker, he’s not terribly interested in getting from point A to point B in anything resembling a straight line; for some filmmakers, that would be a disadvantage, but with Almodóvar, it’s part of his charm. True to form, his new film Broken Embraces gives us an almost comically convoluted storyline, introducing a deliberately disparate group of characters and then hopping around a decade and a half, slowly drawing them together into a surprisingly cogent narrative. It’s a puzzle movie, and I don’t mind admitting to long stretches where I wasn’t sure where the hell he was going. But he always seems pretty confident, and with a director who’s as much a force of nature as he, that can be good enough.

We’re first introduced to blind writer Harry Caine (Lluis Homar), who explains that he was once a sighted director named Mateo Blanco, and Caine was a pseudonym, but then the second identity took over, and… yeah. When he is told about the death of wealthy businessman Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez), the film flashes back to 1992, when Martel seduces his secretary Lena (Penélope Cruz) by getting medical help for her dying father and then taking Lena on as his mistress. Back in 2008, Caine is visited by “Ray X” (Rubén Ochandiano), a young filmmaker who seems to know something about Harry’s past and his other identity, and…

Ah, to hell with it. A film like Broken Embraces laughs in the face of a one-paragraph summary, and frankly, that’s one of its best qualities; there is an “anything goes” quality to the storytelling, inherent in much of Almodóvar’s work. He stakes out his own territory, tonally speaking, with a bizarre but somehow effective mix of soapy melodrama and real, honest-to-goodness pathos and heartbreak.

This time (though there were hints of it in his previous picture, Volver), the filmmaker shows another influence, with several deliberate (and good-humored) homages to Alfred Hitchcock, from Alberto Iglesias’ occasionally Hermann-esque music cues and the Vertigo-inspired sequence of Cruz being dressed and molded (even trying on a platinum blonde wig) to the extended riffs on Hitch’s favorite theme of voyeurism. In a sly and inspired touch, Martel has his son spy on Lena as she stars in a film he finances, having him tape her every move in the guise of a behind-the-scenes documentary; he then hires a lip reader to decipher far-off conversations. The theme comes to a head with a mind-bending scene in which Lena, from the back of his screening room, watches and speaks along with her counterpart on screen.

Not all of the director’s contrivances work; several scenes don’t go much of anywhere (like a too-long brainstorming session about a vampire screenplay, which fits in about as well as it sounds like it would) and we just can’t take some of it seriously, even when we’re supposed to (Martel’s son’s bowl-cut wig and glasses are a reverse-aging costume that would get laughed out of an SNL dress rehearsal). But most of his risks play, and his teaming with the brilliant cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (21 Grams, Frida, 25th Hour) is inspired; the picture’s look is lush and luminous. Likewise, the director’s partnership with Cruz continues to be one of the most fruitful and fascinating filmmaker-actor collaborations of the current cinema. Following her Oscar-winning triumph in Vicky Cristina Barcelona and her show-stopping turn in Nine, it seems that she is only getting sexier, more confident, and more surprising with age.

Shockingly, Broken Embraces does all come together by its conclusion, and in a way that (mostly) makes sense, thanks to a series of completely unexpected and effective plot turns (there’s only one third-act revelation that’s anticipated, and it’s as obvious as the rest of the film is unpredictable). But the sheer emotion of Almodóvar’s narrative keeps it grounded; he may never find a more heartbreaking image than the destroyed man’s hands on a TV screen, asking one favor: “Play it frame by frame, so that it lasts longer.”

"Broken Embraces" hits DVD and Blu-ray today.

On DVD: "Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story"

Like most American comedy fans, I was first introduced to Eddie Izzard when HBO aired his brilliant Dress to Kill special back in1999. It was an immediate word-of-mouth smash in comedy circles; everyone seemed to be asking, Who is this incredibly funny British man, and why is he wearing all that make-up? His style is a keen mix of high intellect and robust silliness (somewhat in the style of his admitted influences the Goons and Monty Python), a free-form bouillabaisse of social commentary, historical satire, and uproarious tangential storytelling. When that special hit our shores, Izzard was a comedy rock star, it would appear, overnight—he had seemingly bounded out of the ether, fully formed and all-out brilliant. But he was 37 years old when that breakthrough occurred, and behind him lay years of hard work and dispiriting failure. Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story tells the tale of those years.

The documentary, directed by Izzard’s ex-girlfriend Sarah Townsend, follows two narrative tracks. We tag along with the comedian in 2003, as he does workshop gigs and early dates for his Sexie tour, culminating in a performance at Wembley Stadium. That material serves as the framing device for his biography, which is told mostly in his own words (through interviews, voice-overs, and stand-up material) and illustrated by a remarkable assortment of archival footage.

We see Izzard visiting his childhood home, and discussing the death of his mother when he was quite young (which provides some heartbreaking moments, particularly towards the end, which hints that her death may well be his ‘Rosebud’). The film then tracks his evolution as an artist, from stage actor to troupe comedian to street performer and then, finally, to solo stand-up comic. He speaks plainly about those early years of struggle, explaining his method of perseverance: “You’ve got to believe. You’ve got to imagine yourself in the situation.”

We see Izzard (and some of his comic contemporaries) explain how he developed his particular, specific voice as a stand-up comedian. Those years of fighting indifferent audiences and club owners came to an end with his breakthrough gig in 1991, performing at the “Hysteria 3” benefit at the London Palladium. From there, he made the risky move of renting a West End theater and developing his first one-man show; multiple successes followed, as did his decision to come out as a transvestite (though, once he did, he seemed to feel freer to use more elaborate staging for his bigger gigs).

The film is most interesting, however, as a look at the life of a stand-up, and the process of how they do what they do. There’s some fascinating footage of him on stage (and not always doing well), and plenty of backstage material, as he gets ready for shows, works through material, and explains his methodology—and how it’s different for this tour. For most of the 1990s, it seems, he worked in a manner similar to countless other comics (George Carlin springs to mind); he would start a tour mixing in new material with bits from the last one, and then slowly work the old material out through the course of the tour, which would consist of all-new stuff by the end. But this led to some controversy for the comic in 2000; the BBC program “Weekend Watchdog” made hay of a mistake by a venue early in the Circle tour (they trumpeted the gig as “all new material,” when he was still early in the process) and accused him of ripping off the public. So when he hit the road again in 2003, he went out cold, all new stuff, and had to work it through (“Well, that wasn’t very good!” he cheerily notes after an early gig).

These peeks into the process are always fascinating (similar material in Jerry Seinfeld’s film Comedian had an equally intriguing quality). Some of the conventional bio-doc tropes, however, are a little tiresome; I, for one, could go the rest of my days without seeing a picture that stars with people on the street being asked about the comic in question. But the inventive animated transitions are nice, and some of the steps outside the form (like a funny analysis of the evolution of his on-stage looks) are clever.

Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story isn’t terribly innovative, and there are some holes in its story arc—since the bulk of the material was shot on that 2003 tour, much of his recent activity (both onstage and off) is rather glossed over. But his story, with its false starts and stumbles, propelled by the sheer force of his will and determination, is an interesting one, and there are enough sprinkles of his stand-up act to provide laughs throughout.

"Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story" is available now on DVD. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

On DVD: "Breaking Bad: The Complete Second Season"

I suppose there are some that would argue that the act of watching a television show shouldn’t be a stressful one—that it should be an escape to entertainment, the release of a pressure valve rather than the compacting of one. Breaking Bad, on the other hand, functions in such a constant state of dread, permeated by a sense of bad things right on the verge of occurring. It operates at a fever pitch; it keeps ramping up, higher and higher, increasing the intensity to such a degree that you’re not sure how they can possibly sustain it. But they do, and then they top it. It’s a masterful program.

The second season begins with the menace and tension so carefully worked up to in season one firmly entrenched—indeed, it begins with the previous season’s last scene, and then a terrifying extension of it. Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is a high school chemistry teacher who finds out at the beginning of the first season that he has inoperable lung cancer, and scant months to live. It’s terrible news on several levels, particularly financially: his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) is pregnant, and his son Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte) has cerebral palsy, so they’ve barely gotten by on his public school paychecks. In order to provide for his family in his absence, he enters the lucrative field of meth production; his partnership with Jesse (Aaron Paul), a meth-dealing former student, is an odd one, but Walter’s chemical brilliance results in a pure product that is highly in demand. So the two men find themselves in business with Tuco (Raymond Cruz), a tweeked-out kingpin on a hair triggered—as the duo finds out when he puts their drug-and-money exchange on hold for a moment to beat one of his underlings to death for a perceived (and minor) slight. Suffice it to say, Tuco’s not the kind of guy who you want to witness committing a murder.

With that jolt of narrative adrenaline, we (and our “heroes”) are plunged right into the lion’s den, and the show hurdles us headlong into its dark, strange world. The series is wildly unpredictable, but not in an irresponsible or gimmicky way—in fact, it is notable among crime dramas for being a show that thinks things through, that follows storytelling threads and considers their consequences. Creator Vince Gilligan and his skilled writers keep throwing turns at you, but they’re logical and inevitable, built upon the domino effect of bad decisions and rotten luck piling up like something out of a Scott Smith novel.

Those turns work because of the bedrock of realism that the show is built upon—even when the situations are far flung from what most of us consider “normal life,” we buy into it without hesitation. Much of that is the skill of the writing and the direction; the season is full of killer set pieces and brilliant sequences. In the second episode, “Grilled,” there’s some business with Walt and Jesse trying to sneak Tuco a snort of spiked drugs that is unbearably tense; the unexpected accumulation of events at the end of that episode is shocking, but also tight, clean, and precise. The sixth episode, “Peekaboo,” finds Jesse at a pair of meth-heads’ house, trying to collect a debt—it’s a jittery, chilling hour. Episode eleven, “Mandala,” ends with a ticking clock that is downright nerve-rattling, while the penultimate episode, “Phoenix,” has a closing scene that is a fucking jaw-dropper. The closing scenes of the season’s final episode, “ABQ,” may hinge on a coincidence that perhaps a bit too nice and neat, but nevertheless, they’re like watching the wheels fall off the wagon—in slow motion.

The pace of the season is driving, relentless—one thing right after another, with barely time to catch your breath in between. Some of that is thanks to Dave Porter’s score, which sounds like a refugee from a spaghetti western; some is due to the show’s continued use of out-of-left-field gore (the head on the turtle, and the moment that follows, is stomach-churning). But much of the show’s power is rooted in the brilliant performances. The desperation of extended secrecy is one of the series’ more compelling themes, and Gunn, as the wife who doesn’t know what Walter is up to (but becomes certain, over the course of the season, that he’s up to something), continues to work her role for every nuance it’s got. Speaking of desperation, Paul’s Jesse goes through his share of bumps in the road during season two (episode four, “Down,” is centered mainly on his epic string of bad luck) and he continues to find new angles on the character, particularly his muted pathos at the end of the line. Dean Norris, as Walt’s DEA agent brother-in-law, gets several memorable scenes as well, and the writers smartly color outside his first-season lines of blowhard macho shithead; come to find out, he’s actually good at his job, which raises the stakes considerably. In smaller roles, Krysten Ritter (formerly of Veronica Mars and Gilmore Girls) shines as Jesse’s romantic interest, a literal girl next door hiding darker tendencies within, while Bob Odenkirk (of Mr. Show) adds some welcome levity as skeezy attorney “Better Call” Saul Goodman (looking over a pre-dug grave, he muses, “I’m gonna keep a happy thought and assume this is just a negotiating tactic”). Good ol’ Danny Trejo even pops in for an episode, showing that the series’ guest-star cachet is on the rise (though one key episode is stifled by the casting of Giancarlo Esposito, who is very good but clearly not the background player the script wants us to think he is).

Make no mistake, Breaking Bad isn’t just a meth-fueled magic carpet ride. The season takes a turn at the 2/3 mark that is like a kick in the kidneys—emotional, and then one beat past that. From that point, it delves into sticky themes of guilt and entitlement; we think we’ve come to a place where we can feel a certain way about Walt, and then they yank the rug out. That’s the way it goes—nothing is easy on a show like this. God forbid.

Breaking Bad is deeper, thicker, and stronger in its second season, handily topping the seven-episode warm-up and ascending to a perch as one of television’s finest hours. It is tough and it is grim and it is, without question, tense and difficult to watch in places. But it is also a thrilling, voyeuristic peek at the dark side of human nature, and those who exploit it.

"Breaking Bad: The Complete Second Season" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, March 16th. For complete A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.