Breaking Bad: The Complete Second Season (Sony) – The second season of the skewed cable crime drama about a meek middle class high school chemistry teacher who takes up a new career as a crystal meth cook and aspiring drug kingpin shakes up his life—and his moral equilibrium—even more. Walter White is one of the most fascinating characters on television, a once-promising research chemist who gave up his Nobel Prize dreams and ambitions to take care of his wife (Anna Gunn) and son, mired in the disappointments of his unfulfilling career as he fights terminal lung cancer and throws caution to the wind to build up a financial stake for his family before he dies. Now this one-time retiring fellow faces violent drug dealers, rivals and an investigation by the FBI (led by his own brother-in-law), not to mention the fatal inexperience of his drug-addict partner (Aaron Paul), a small-time dealer trying to play in the big leagues.
Written and created by X-Files veteran Vince Gilligan, the show has a wicked sense of humor and a bleak sense of disappointment. In a strange way, this dangerous new lifestyle gives White an indomitability and daring that he never had before and his new life burns with an intensity that he’s missed all these years. All it costs him is an ethical equilibrium. Bryan Cranston won Best Actor Emmy Awards for the second year running as White, making the character both vulnerable and fearless as he crosses moral lines with every step up to the big time. The transformation riveting and haunting: we can’t help but like and care for this guy, thanks to Cranston’s very human and at times comic performance, even as he loses his humanity and becomes less sympathetic to the lives that get chewed up in his wake. 13 episodes on four DVDs or three Blu-ray discs, each with commentary on four episodes (including the first and final episodes of the season), plus deleted scenes, webisodes and a lot of short promotional featurettes. Exclusive to Blu-ray is “The Writers’ Lab: An Interactive Guide to the Elements of an Episode.”
I suppose that the studios have reasons for their releasing patterns, but it’s beyond me why so many major New Releases – from Oscar nominees and critical favorites to mainstream successes to notable foreign dramas – are getting poured into the DVD marketplace on March 10. It’s so busy that I bumped two of the foreign releases – Ben X and Claude Miller’s A Secret – to my March 17 column on MSN just so they wouldn’t get swamped in the deluge. And still there were so many that I was unable to fit in reviews of many interesting film that deserved coverage. I didn’t even get a chance to see Cadillac Records, the dramatized story of Chess Records starring Adrian Brody as Leonard Chess and a great supporting cast playing R&B legends (Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters, Cedric the Entertainer as Willie Dixon, Eamonn Walker as Howlin’ Wolf, Mos Def as Chuck Berry and Beyoncé Knowles as Etta James), which I missed in the theaters. And Synecdoche, New York and Battle in Seattle have been relegated to mere listings under the reviews.
So that’s what isn’t covered this week at MSN. What is? Gus Van Sant’s Milk, which won Oscars for Sean Penn’s inspiring performance as Harvey Milk and for Dustin Lance Black’s (for more conventional) screenplay. Their Harvey Milk is not a crucified messiah but a flesh-and-blood human being who rediscovers himself and his potential when he moves to San Francisco and comes out as a proud gay man. Penn plays Milk as a goofy, gay nerd who wins folks over with his sincerity, his passion and his complete lack of self-consciousness and the film focuses less on Milk’s triumphs than on his activism, how he shaped a movement and showed gay men and lesbian women all over the country that they could stand up for their rights as a political force.
Jonathan Demme’s marvelous Rachel Getting Married, which earned an Oscar nomination for Anne Hathaway and delivers one of the great ensemble performances of the year – Demme creates an incredible community/extended family and pulls it together with a great use of music. (I reviewed the film for the Seattle P-I here.)
Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, which earned star Sally Hawkins a basket full of awards but no Oscar nomination, and stands out as gloomy Leigh’s most genuinely and honestly optimistic film ever.
Weeks after taking home Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director(s) and Best Adapted Screenplay, No Country For Old Men arrives on DVD.
(T)he Coen Bros.’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel is their masterpiece, a perfect match of story and storyteller. Josh Brolin stars as an easy-going Vietnam Vet poaching in the Texas desert who stumbles into the wreckage of a drug deal gone ballistic and ambles off with a fortune in drug money. Javier Bardem won an Oscar playing methodical mercenary Chigurh, a relentless killer with an indeterminate accent and the creepiest haircut ever allowed in a movie out to recover the money. But the story is really about Tommy Lee Jones’ laconic Sheriff Bell, a dedicated lawman following the trail of the corpses left in Chigurh’s wake and becoming more disillusioned with the world with every death he’s unable to prevent. The Coens don’t explain, they show in meticulous detail with evocative and creative flair, slowly unraveling a story that seems to be spinning out the control of everyone but the filmmakers. Their methodical deliberateness tracks every detail of the story. There are no random elements, just those details we don’t yet know, and that’s far more dangerous. Cinematographer (and Oscar nominee) Roger Deakins gives it the feel of a primeval frontier with his simple, stark images, a world neither compassionate nor cruel, simply harsh and indifferent and unforgiving of stupid mistakes and overweening arrogance.
The film is accompanied by three featurettes. The 24-minute “The Making of No Country For Old Men” is the most interesting, thanks to interviews with (among others) Tommy Lee Jones and the Coen Bros., who sum up their cinematic approach with classic understatment:
“A lot of it is very procedural, people doing things to cover their tracks…,” begins Ethan in a thought completed by Joel with, “It’s about physical activity in order to achieve a purpose, which honestly we’ve always been fascinated by.”