Sunday, August 24, 2014

Dexter (Seasons 6-8)

Creator: James Manos, Jr.
Starring: Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Carpenter, Desmond Harrington, David Zayas, C.S. Lee, Aimee Garcia, Geoff Pierson, Lauren Velez, James Remar, Colin Hanks, Edward James Olmos, Josh Cooke, Mos Def, Jason Gedrick, Katia Winter, Ray Stevenson,Yvonne Strahovski, Charlotte Rampling, Sean Patrick Flanery, Bethany Joy Galeotti, Darri Ingolfsson
Original Airdate: 2011-2013

Season 6: ★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
Season 7: ★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
Season 8: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

                                    Spoiler Warning: Following Review Contains Major Spoilers for the Entire Series

It was with great apprehension I recently resumed my viewing of Showtime's Dexter after a nearly three-year hiatus, during which time the series reached its highly controversial, much malig conclusion. It was time well spent, discovering Breaking Bad and Mad Men, the former being its closest thematic competitor in terms of featuring an anti-hero engaging in criminal activity that destroy the lives of those closest to him. It's a comparison that would seem to do Dexter no favors, despite it actually premiering first in 2007, since settling into a satisfying, if slightly predictable routine for its next five seasons, its quality remaining relatively consistent throughout. But whatever surface similarities may exist, Breaking Bad is the pinnacle of television drama. Dexter is Dexter. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Dexter opening title card
Having now actually binged it, it's a pleasure to declare that the final three seasons are as good (if not better) than much of what came before and the inexplicably reviled finale is a more than worthy show closer, ranking amongst the more intriguing dramatic finales of recent years. It's as gutsy as it is tragic, capping of a spectacular run of episodes under new showrunner Scott Buck, who followed through on promises to take the series in a different direction and shake things up. The series digs as deep as it ever has into Dexter's past and the creation of his Dark Passenger. With the big secret finally exposed to his sister and the introduction of some pivotal new faces, the lid gets completely blown off the series, resulting in a bloodbath that alters (or in some cases ends) characters' lives. This is what fans wanted, so it only figures once they get it, the complaining starts.

What really scared me away was all the internet bellyaching about how the show took a creative nosedive in its final seasons, a claim proven to not only be false, but littered with spoilerish details (i.e. lies) reconfigured to fit that very argument. It was impossible to avoid them all, but I should have known better than to even listen. An incest storyline. The Miami Metro Police Department not catching Dexter. Deb dying. Dexter as a lumberjack. And let's not forget a series finale many have already proclaimed the "worst ever." It's a a phrase we heard before when Lost concluded and again this year when How I Met Your Mother wrapped. Hyperbolic statements like that immediately kick my skepticism into overdrive, and for good reason this time.

An entire year has passed for Miami Metro's blood spatter analyst/part-time serial killer of killers, Dexter Morgan (Hall) since the events of Season 5. He's looking into schools for infant son Harrison while sister Debra (Carpenter) is promoted to Lieutenant, which is due less to an endorsement of her abilities than the fact she's caught in the middle of a political tug-of-war between Captain Maria LaGuerta (Lauren Velez) and superior Tom Matthews (Geoff Pearson). As her relationship with detective and former partner Quinn (Desmond Harrington) collapses and she deals with reluctantly accepting a promotion originally reserved for friend and mentor Batista (David Zayas), Dexter has a pair of new enemies to take care of.

"Doomsday Killers" Travis Marshall and Professor Gellar
Say what you will about Season 6 (a questionably scripted premiere sees Dexter taking inexplicable risks for mere shock value), but it is one of the more focused, thematically coherent seasons. That theme centers around religion and spirituality, with Dexter investigating a pair of ritualistic "Doomsday Killers" (guest stars Edward James Olmos and Colin Hanks), whose murders are drenched in apocalyptic symbolism and cryptic tableaus, just as he starts examining his own spiritual convictions. With his Dark Passenger guided by the hallucination of late father Harry (James Remar) and a new confidante in murderer-turned-minister Brother Sam (Mos Def), Dexter attempts to curb his urge to kill, or at least tries to make sense of its origins. He isn't successful, but it sets the stage for the succeeding seasons.

No sixth season episode better illustrates this moral conflict brewing inside him than "Nebraska," which sees him driving cross country to investigate the mysterious deaths of the wife and daughter of the Trinity Killer. Guided not by the hallucination of Harry, but of his late brother, Brian Mosier AKA The Ice Truck Killer (Christian Carmago), it's a detour, but an important one as he continues to infuriate Deb with his secrets and wrestle with his past. While the sixth season does hue closely to the series' familiar format and is slightly hurt by a twist that could adversely effect rewatch value, it's better than most give it credit for and features a genuinely creepy performance from Colin Hanks that's anything but a throwaway.  But this season is mostly remembered for one moment that in hindsight divides the entire series into two parts: Pre-reveal and post-reveal.

How Deb would eventually uncover Dexter's secret life and what her reaction would be was already intensely speculated on by fans years before it happened. And the writers really couldn't have waited any longer before finally pulling the trigger since doing so freed them up to deviate from the show's format and start telling a different story. Would she turn him in and leave a son without his father? Help cover up his murders? How can she she go to work each day as a police Lieutenant knowing her brother's a serial killer?

Dexter's secret is finally uncovered by Deb
Of course, few could have guessed all these questions surrounding Deb walking in on a Dexter kill would have been preceded by the realization (prompted by her psychologist) that she had fallen in love with her own brother. Other than to hammer home Deb's sordid history of falling for damaged men like him, I'd agree with those unsure what the writers were trying to accomplish with this, but we can least give them credit for backpedaling fast and not following through with it. Occupying only two or three episodes and presented as a more of a psychological undercurrent, it's hardly the "incest storyline" it's been referred to as, almost immediately pushed aside in the wake of Deb's discovery.

Already having growing pains in her new position as Lieutenant, it's fair to say she doesn't take the news that her brother's a serial killer all that well, naively thinking she'll be able to rehabilitate him and help control his urges. Despite worries they wouldn't go through with it, the writers don't hedge their bets and go all the way, fully incorporating Deb into Dexter's dark universe. She knows everything, even as he tries to placate her with his explanation of Harry's Code and defenses that those plastic-wrapped victims who end up on his kill table deserve their what's coming, having evaded the law and prepared to kill again. The scariest part of the series has always been how true Dexter's defense is, but what it doesn't explain is why he enjoys killing so much, or even at all.

There's a lot going on Season 7 between the big reveal, Dexter tangling with the Ukranian mob and LaGuerta closing in on his crimes, as Deb still struggles to come to terms with it all herself. His ongoing feud with crime boss Isaak Serko (guest star Ray Stevenson) would feel like filler as we wait for the other shoe to drop with LaGuerta, if not for Stevenson's cool and cunning performance, but the entire story arc still brings back unfortunate memories of Miguel Prado from Season 3. But the  mob storyline does provide an excellent showcase for the continued downfall of Quinn, who must break some kind of record in terms of how much drinking, corruption, tampering and sleeping with witnesses one officer can engage in while not only keeping his job, but eventually being up for a major promotion. Whether he's taking payoffs from a strip club owner (Jason Gedrick), stealing evidence, or sleeping with a stripper (Katia Winter), you're aghast at how this guy is even still alive and not in rehab, much less following leads on big cases. He can thank Deb, Batista and eventually even Batista's sister (and Harrison's incredibly patient nanny), Jamie (Aimee Garcia) for keeping him on the straight and narrow.              

Yvonne Strahovski as spree killer Hannah McKay
With already enough plot for multiple seasons, it's the introduction of another killer, Hannah McKay (Yvonne Strahovski) that ends up shaping the remainder of the series and Dexter's emotional development. Finding the perfect match in a like-minded psychopath, he appears to have found the one person who finally understands his urges and accepts him for who he is. Unlike Julia Stiles' Lumen from Season 5, this isn't the single season, "one and done" guest arc we've gotten used to and those only familiar with Strahovski from Chuck will be surprised how chillingly she exudes a vacant,  cold detachment in the role, while still keeping Hannah stable enough to remain a viable long-term candidate for Dexter's affections. The only question is whether he's willing to risk the safety of his sister and son to enter a serious relationship with someone as potentially dangerous as he is.

The bumbling ineptitude of the Miami Metro police department has always been the show's creative Achillies' heel, as it was always tough to buy that they wouldn't have figured it all out by now, especially considering Dexter's increased sloppiness in covering his tracks. And it's that carelessness that points a suspicious LaGuerta in his direction.The image of Dexter being brought into Miami Metro in handcuffs as the Bay Harbor Butcher with his dumbfounded colleagues looking on ranks up there with the shocking moment John Lithgow casually walked into police headquarters to pay someone a visit. Of course, it doesn't take long for Dexter to play the victim card, successfully painting LaGuerta as a raving lunatic trying to frame him. But she won't give up that easily. While the seventh season finale could easily double as a series finale with Deb literally forced to choose between her brother and the life she's built for herself. Of course, she'll always choose Dexter.

Having Deb kill off LaGuerta was one of the best creative decisions they made, eliminating a character who had outstayed her welcome while sending Deb down a self-destructive rabbit hole for which Dexter's responsible. Season 8 belongs to Jennifer Carpenter, with the actress giving the performance of her life as Deb's self-loathing and seething resentment toward Dexter pushes her off the deep end. Regardless of what's been said about the final season, there's no way around the fact Carpenter was robbed of an Emmy nomination, even amongst the stiffest of competition. She's asked to play an entirely different character than previous seasons, so stung by her own actions that she's descended into an abyss of drugs, murder and sex.

Deb and Elway on the job
This all occurs under the guise of her new career for Elway Investigations, run by former detective Jacob Elway (Sean Patrick Flanery), who at first seems to merely be a slick used car salesman type. It's a surprise when he turns out to actually be a cool guy and an extremely fair boss, but a bigger one when Deb's allegiance to Dexter starts getting in the way of business, both personal and professional.  Bounty hunting and skip tracing would seem to be quite the fall from being Lieutenant of Miami Metro, but it fits Deb, a tough, foul-mouthed cop who was always more comfortable with the grunt work of active duty than dealing with red tape and politics. But this is really to escape, from Dexter and her guilt over killing LaGuerta to protect him.

The writers' willingness to reveal exactly how Dexter came to be at the risk of demystifying him elevates the final season into its strongest since the fourth. And it makes sense that there's no better person to do this than a criminal psychologist. Played by Charlotte Rampling in one the series' most rewarding guest arcs, Dr. Evelyn Vogel is initially brought in to help Miami Metro catch the "Brain Surgeon," a new serial killer removing pieces of victims' brains and leaving them at her doorstep. But she's really there for Dexter, as his surrogate mother figure who had a hand in creating him and the infamous Code. Now she desperately needs his help and protection.

Dexter's complicated relationship with Vogel hinges on her frequent inability to see him as anything more than a lab rat or a Frankenstein's Monster she created as the "perfect psychopath," unable to control his urges, but fine tuned to channel them in a direction that would cause the least amount of collateral damage.Her insistence that he's incapable of empathy, love, remorse or any other feelings associated with a normal, functioning human being is tested with Hannah's return and the responsibility he must take for essentially destroying Deb's life. For the first time, the siblings are at each others throats, with Dexter seriously contemplating his future as he plays a cat-and-mouse game with the mysterious Brain Surgeon, who proves to be his most dangerous adversary since Trinity.

Dexter confronts Dr. Vogel
Coldly robotic and almost Terminator-like in his presence (while being deeply obsessed with Mama Cass' "Make Your Own Kind of Music"), the reveal of who the Surgeon actually is and his purpose proves to not only be an absorbing look into the mind of a stone cold killer, but a bona fide shocker that actually makes sense in the context of the narrative. Besides leaving a trail of deaths, who he eliminates is important and personal, calling Dexter into action for reasons beyond merely the thrill of the kill. This time it feels like his moral duty. We also get the opportunity to see Dexter as a mentor, attempting to take a troubled young man under his wing afflicted with the same dark demons as he. But that project is short-lived, in more ways than one.

With LaGuerta gone and Batista, Quinn and Matthews taking on more prominent roles, Miami Metro isn't portrayed as incompetently as before, with even resident laughing stock Masuka (C.S. Lee) being given a somewhat serious sub-plot that subverts and challenges the character's loony reputation as a perverted horndog. And the writers knew something we didn't, as a long-term term plan was apparently put in place for Quinn that only comes into full view when the series concludes, as he becomes a rock for Deb when she needs someone most. Aside from Carpenter, Harrington's the actor who's grown the most in the series, ending his run ten times the performer than when he started.

Too often, series finales are judged by what fans believe THEY want to see or think should happen based on their expectations, rather than what serves the characters and story. Perhaps in their ideal finale, Dexter would be fully exposed for his crimes, caught by the police and sentenced to death. That's the only explanation I can think of as to why so some were disappointed by "Remember The Monsters?," which not only serves as a fitting final chapter, but one those rare finales that deserve to be considered amongst the series' best episodes, closing the door, yet leaving it cracked open enough to contemplate future possibilities. Some finales tie a series up neatly in bow. Others shock and polarize. There's no question which category this falls into. Dexter technically "survives," but the spiritual death he suffers is far greater punishment than his actual demise would have been.

Dexter says goodbye to Deb
The bond he and Deb share has always been the glue that holds the show together and in the last episode it's permanently torn apart. Him being thrown in jail or even sent to the electric chair for his crimes would have been too easy. Having seemingly rid himself of his Dark Passenger and need for Harry's advice, he's prepared to start a new life with Hannah and Harrison, at least until the full magnitude of his actions finally catch up with him.

With a potential escape from Miami cleverly juxtaposed with the landfall of Hurricane Laura (Mosier?), Dexter's final scenes with Deb where he's forced to pull the plug on his sister are the most emotionally devastating of the series, only magnified by the fact few saw her death coming, especially given her state at the beginning of the episode. And it's all his fault. He knows this, which is why he has to protect Hannah and Harrison from this monster. His Dark Passenger. As long as that side of him exists, he knows they're not safe. Just as Debra wasn't.

Seeing Dexter Morgan as a bearded Lumberjack having faked his own death and living under an alias in an Oregon cabin, it's hard not to be reminded of the penultimate episode of Breaking Bad, "Granite State," in which Walter White is hauled up in a New Hampshire cabin dying of cancer. But even he got to put things right to an extent. We leave Dexter trapped in his own personal hell, staring vacantly into the camera knowing he'll never see his son and sister again. Without them and Hannah, he's nothing.

Lumberjack Dexter in "Remember The Monsters?"
The ending is more poetic and ironic than it's gotten credit for and doesn't feel manufactured so Showtime can milk more Dexter with a spin-off. For all we know they eventually might, but it sure doesn't feel like the motivating factor for a creative decision that more than holds up under logical scrutiny. And Michael C. Hall probably has enough offers on the table that the idea revisiting a character he's just played for the past eight years wouldn't be enticing. Could it happen? Absolutely, but it would take a lot of ingenuity to make it work.

That any continuation of the series is even being speculated is proof enough how compelling an end this was for the character and should silence dissenters claiming everything that came after Season 4 was "worthless." One can only hope the cast and crew tuned it out, especially Hall and Carpenter, who for 8 years carried this show on their backs. Everyone can agree their work never wavered. But   they couldn't have done it without an equally strong story driving them.              

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Under the Skin

Director: Jonathan Glazer
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Joe Szula, Kryštof Hádek, Paul Brannigan, Adam Pearson
Running Time: 108 min.
Rating: R

★★ (out of ★★★★) 

Every once in a while, an artsy, adventurous film no one can seem to agree on or make any sense of comes out and sparks debate. Such a movie divides critics while completely frustrating mainstream audiences gutsy enough to see it. It then starts showing up on year end lists, before eventually being discussed in the years ahead as some kind of "overlooked masterpiece," remembered long after the nominated features of that year have faded from memory. Other than alienating audiences (while actually focusing on an alien), Jonathan Glazer's bizarrely repetitive and dopey Under the Skin isn't one of these. Not even close. It isn't about anything. It has nothing important or even unimportant to say, save for a few gripping sequences that provide a temporary high. That it's well made and carried by a somewhat mesmerizing lead performance, is its saving grace. But let's be honest. It has to be carried by such a performance because, well, what else is there? When big name actors or actresses engulf themselves in edgy, artier fare it's usually in order to gain street cred or challenge themselves as a performer. Such a move is commendable, assuming said project also exists for reasons beyond that. purpose. I'm not sure this one does despite living up to its title by getting under my skin. In all the wrong ways.

Loosely adapted from Michel Faber's 2000 novel, the film is more of an atmospheric tone poem than a fully realized narrative, opening in Scotland as a motorcyclist finds a young woman's body by the side of the road. It's difficult to even describe what happens next other than saying this woman's skin is shed to reveal another nameless woman (Scarlett Johansson) who we can assume from events that follow, is an alien. And not just any alien, but one that's very seductive and overtly sexual, driving around Scotland in and and picking up men on the street via a selection process we're not quite privy to. These are her prey, whom she's easily able to lure back to her place, a black, vacant void where they find themselves submerged in a gooey liquid before meeting their demise. She continues to search for potential victims and finds them, all while the mysterious biker (real pro motor racer Jeremy McWilliams) follows her, retrieving bodies along the way. Becoming increasingly comfortable asserting control in an environment she knows little about, the hunter will soon become the hunted.

With a dialogue-free prologue and even very little spoken during the entire film, Glazer (who previously directed 2004's almost equally confounding Birth, with Nicole Kidman's dead husband reincarnated as a little boy), draws it's atmospheric inspiration from minimalist sci-fi head trips like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Man Who Fell To Earth, while matching neither in terms of content or ambition. But he deserves credit for trying, especially in terms of the imagery and visual effects, which were achieved practically and look all the scarier and more realistic because of it. The death scenes are mesmerizing the first few times, until you realize their conclusion will inevitably lead to her prowling the streets for men again and long, drawn out stretches of banality as she chooses her victims, and then, perhaps more painfully, engages them in what this movie considers conversation.

The only exception to the narrative's cyclical structure is alien woman's encounter with a lonely, disfigured man (played by actual neurofibromatosis sufferrer Adam Pearson) who's briefly enlivened and confused by her sexual advances in a scene that recalls the classic Twilight Zone episode, "Eye of the Beholder" in how we see how someone with no reference point for society's definition of physical beauty would view a disfigured person. Momentarily, the script has something important to say, making it easier to imagine the film earning all the wild praise it received had it focused exclusively on the ideas contained in that relationship.

That the cast consists mainly of unprofessional actors speaks to its authenticity and realism, even if they're trapped in a universe that doesn't do much with them and isn't all that interesting. But everything revolves around Johansson, who's appropriately seductive while also conveying the confusion and wonder of an woman dropped in an unknown world her character is struggling to understand. That said, you don't cast a big, recognizable star like her in something this weird unless you're trying to make a statement, and since we have no idea what that it is, at times her mere presence resembles a stunt. The most frustrating thing about the film is that she must have been cast for an obvious reason and we're left scratching our heads as to exactly why, besides providing male audience members the opportunity to see her strip down. She's effective in the part, but I never lost sight of the fact I was watching Scarlett Johansson in every scene since there's really no role for her to truly disappear into.

It's easy to understand why so many critics would embrace this risk-taking diversion, especially considering every other movie released these days seems to be a carbon copy of the next, more dependent on building a brand than creating a work of art that's unique or compelling. But this is an offender at the opposite end of that spectrum, trotting out highbrow arty fartsy nonsense at the expense of potentially intelligent observations about life and humanity, which is sci-fi's bread and butter. And that's coming from someone who loved Southland Tales, Synecdoche, New York, Enter The Void and Beyond The Black Rainbow, all movies perhaps even stranger than this, but containing real ideas. While it's problems don't seem likely to be remedied with a second viewing, you never know. If nothing else, Glazer deserves credit for infuriating me twice, and I hope he keeps doing it since the worst thing that could happen is his right to keep making bizarre movies being taken away. This is a bad one, but at least he had the talent and wherewithal to fail interestingly. That's more than you can say for most.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Director: Wes Anderson
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Saoirse Ronan, Edward Norton, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Léa Seydoux, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson, Bob Balaban
Running Time: 99 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)
One thing Wes Anderson's never been accused of is his films having an overabundance of plot and action. Even his best work is thought of as primarily aesthetic achievements, his stories serving merely as backdrops for highly stylized costume and production design and visual flourishes. In some ways, the highest grossing and most favorably reviewed film of his career, The Grand Budapest Hotel, doesn't represent a deviation from that classic Anderson template. And yet it also somehow does. This is the closest he's come to directing a screwball action comedy and it contains more story and characters than most would know what to do with. For the first hour I thought I was watching a masterpiece, but by the second he kind of lost me, before recovering and delivering something that's still special. There's a nostalgiac sadness hiding under the humor  that stays with you, as the many colorful characters populating the hotel mourn an era that's rapidly slipping away, or in the case of some, slipped away a while ago. But at the same time, the whole thing still manages to be a lot of fun.

Featuring a story within a story within a story, the film opens in the present day with a teenage girl reading the memoir of an unnamed "Author" (Tom Wilkinson), who narrates the book from his office in 1985, recalling his stay at Europe's Grand Budapest Hotel in 1968. It was then, with the hotel clearly in decline, that the young Author (played by Jude Law) encountered its elderly, reclusive owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Over dinner, he tells him the incredible story of how he took ownership of the hotel. We flash back to 1932 when young Zero (Tony Revolori) worked as a lobby boy under the Grand Budapest's eccentric concierge, Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), running errands and tending to the guests.

It's when one of Gustave's many older, wealthy mistresses, Madame D (Tilda Swinton) dies under strange circumstances and she leaves him a valuable painting, he finds himself at the center of a murder investigation and the target of her son Dmitri's (Adrien Brody) hired assassin, J.G. Jopling (Willem Dafoe). With the help of Zero and hotel baker Agatha (Saorise Ronan), he must evade capture and clear his name, even as war breaks out in their Republic of Zubrowka, signaling a cultural shift that will heavily impact all their futures.

I want to live in this hotel. That was my first thought upon seeing the majestic structure, which is rendered not by some fake looking CGI in wide, exterior shots but an actual handmade miniature model. Remember those? But it's what happens inside that ends being more impressive, with some jawdropping production design that makes you anxious to discover what secret or character is hiding behind every corridor, room and crevice of the building. The atmosphere may draw you in, but it's the story that keeps you there, as there's this pervading sense of melancholy that distinguishes it from Anderson's other work, despite still being very recognizable as such. The story's not only bigger than usual for him, but broader in scope and crossing over multiple timelines.

While Anderson's a filmmaker almost compulsively obsessed with the past, he's at least now found the ideal outlet by creating a story where all his characters are equally obsessed. Nearly every recognizable name in this fully stacked cast is given at least a moment or two to shine, but the the movie really hangs its hat on the friendship that develops between Ralph Fiennes' witty, somewhat delusional Gustave and his impressionable young lobby boy, Zero, played by newcomer Revolori. Not necessarily known for his comedic skills, Fiennes gives what may be his most memorable performance since his very different one in Schindler's List, while Revolori makes the perfect straight man to his zaniness. Of the rest, Goldblum and Ronan each make valuable contributions, while Jude Law and F. Murray Abraham breath real life and history into roles that could have come off as expository or mere bookenders. The rest of the cast have what amount to cameos, checking the usual boxes of Anderson's favorite actors. If pressed, the section during which Gustave and Zero find themselves on the run from authorities is the weakest, before the story regains its footing in the last third.        

This is actually one of Anderson's messier films, but that's of little consequence considering how ambitious the undertaking is and the ease by which it would rank amongst his most visually daring. He really swung for the fences this time and there's explanation as to why it all works other than the fact that he's become a brand unto himself, with no other filmmaker viewing the world quite like he does. As usual, his whimsical style perfectly suits oddball material, but it isn't calling as much attention to itself as it is reflecting the story's darker themes. And this is all about telling stories, to the point you could easily categorize it as a great epic novel put to film, right down to the impeccably realized hotel of the film's title, which seems as much alive (or in some cases as dead) as those inhabiting it. The more you start considering how much he accomplished here, the larger it looms.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014


Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Starring: Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Michelle Dockery, Nate Parker, Linus Roache, Scoot McNairy, Corey Stoll, Lupita Nyong'o, Anson Mount, Shea Whigham
Running Time: 106 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)
"Taken on a plane." That was the most popular description being thrown around for the Liam Neeson action thriller Non-Stop after getting a glimpse of its trailer. No one is kidnapped in the movie, unless you count the 145 passengers held captive aboard a non-stop Boening flight from New York to London by a crazed, anonymous hijacker, but I get the comparison. It does feature the actor in yet another ass-kicking action outing, in this case one of his most enjoyable yet. But what's so remarkable is that on paper the plot is far sillier and more prepostrous than that of both Takens, Unknown and The A-Team combined. And that doesn't matter one bit. In fact, it works to its benefit. The whole thing plays more like Clue or Scream with just a dash of Speed and Flight Plan thrown in for seasoning. So few action movies are capable of gluing you to your seat that when the rare one comes along that does, it's impossible to pick apart the little details that eventually become irrelevant in the face of such mind-blowing fun.

Neeson is Bill Marks, an alcoholic U.S. air marshal and former police officer aboard British Aqualantic Flight 10 who starts receiving text messages on his phone midway through the flight that someone will die on the plane every 20 minutes unless $150 million is transferred into an unspecified bank account. With the help of the other air marshal on the flight, Hammond (Anson Mount), sympathetic passenger Jen Summers (Julianne Moore) the pilots and flight attendant Nancy (Michelle Dockery), he must vet all the passengers and crew to determine who's texting him and threatening the lives of those on board. As the clues pile up and his interrogation tactics become more volatile, Bill starts to realize the perpetrator has set up most of those clues to point in his direction, with a checkered past and troubled present making him the primary suspect. At odds with the TSA and most of the passengers and crew, the clock is rapidly ticking to uncover the mystery hijacker who's plan is more involved than Bill, or anyone else on board, could have suspected.

What's most surprising is how well the film uses modern technology to set up and pay off the story. You'd figure few modes of communication would be more cinematically uninteresting than texting, especially in an action thriller. But director Juame Collet-Serra makes clever use of it, as Bill must use every resource at his disposal to determine which passengers are sending texts when he's receiving them. While we've already seen quite a few movies and TV shows incorporate texting into the narrative, this plot hinges on it and the visual representation of the messaging onscreen is a step above the usual and never bores. As someone who's not a fan of the technology and worries it will date every movie in which it appears, this was a pleasant surprise. The actual murders are also handled in an inspired way that has the viewer on edge guessing the means and methods by which the next unsuspecting passenger or crew member will meet their eventual demise.

In an unusual occurrence for this genre, you can actually claim "everyone's a suspect" and mean it, as it's deliriously fun seeing just how far the screenplay pushes that notion. Even before the plane takes off we're given passing glimpses of the passengers and crew boarding the flight, with subtle hints dropped as to the likelihood of them being this mystery terrorist just based on their personalities. Aside from big stars Neeson and Moore, most of the cast is peppered with talented character actors, any of whom could be playing the perpetrator. Because each slide so easily slide into their roles, our suspicions waver by the minute. There's Anson Mount as the air marshal clearly hiding something, Michelle Dockery as the determined and resilient flight attendant, Corey Stoll as an angry cop and Scoot McNairy as a nerdy, bespeckled schoolteacher who could easily double for Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo. Recent Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o has a tiny role as another flight attendant, providing a sobering look at the direction her career could have gone had she not been cast in 12 Years a Slave.

Setting this apart from most of the other Neeson action vehicles is the claustrophobic location of a commercial airplane. One of the biggest thrills is seeing a towering Neeson squeeze through the aisles manhandling passengers, any one of which could be the hijacker. And that includes him. I was sure from the start exactly who it would be only to find that when the reveal came, I couldn't have been more wrong. Many more will have the same experience, as their identity is very well protected right up until the final moments, at which point the movie does start to resemble something closer to Taken, or more accurately, Die Hard. Even still, all of this is handled exceptionally well. How favorably viewers judge the eventual outcome and the clues leading up to it will ultimately determine how much rewatch value it contains. As we know, movies like this go down like a great Big Mac at the time, but aren't frequently revisited later.  

Audiences got it right by embracing a smart action movie with an ingenious set-up, and barring a few hiccups, just as clever an execution. Carrying it all is the authoritative Neeson, who further solidifies his status as maybe the only believable action star we have. When he says or does something, you know it's true and it's time to get down to business. There's a lot of potential absurdity to sell and he gets away with all of it, turning our attention to a compelling aviation mystery milked for all the suspense it's worth.

Sunday, July 20, 2014


Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Melanie Laurent, Isabellla Rossellini, Sarah Gadon
Running Time: 90 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

“Chaos is merely order yet to be deciphered.”

It's often said that everyone has a double. In the psychological thriller, Enemy, that idea is pushed to the breaking point with a set-up that dares to go further than just merely acknowledging the occurrence. It's interested in how someone would react and what they'd do if they ever discovered it. At least that's the literal interpretation of the film, and the one I prefer to go with since it's the only aspect of the story that can be proven for sure while watching. And then it works on a whole other level, where you can start to peel away layers on top of layers of information and clues that suggest it's an allegory about identity and how we battle ourselves in both our lives and relationships. Aside from the tense mood and claustrophobic atmosphere created by Prisoners director Denis Villeneuve, the big takeaway is Jake Gyllenhaal's brilliant performance in a dual, complex role that showcases some of his best acting work.

A premise like this is difficult because the film's entire success can hinge on an explanation, and if one isn't given or it's unsatisfactory in the context of what's come before, the whole thing can collapse under the weight of its own ambition. Villeneuve scoots around this nicely, realizing no explanation could possibly suffice. Those who want answers and want them yesterday will only be satisfied if they adjust expectations to appreciate the unique experience on the level it's delivered.

Gylenhaal plays Adam Bell, a kind of sloppy, depressed college history professor who gives lectures talking about how "History repeats itself twice. The first time is a tragedy, the second time is a farce.” He's about to find that out first-hand when a colleague recommends he rent a movie called, There's a Will There's a Way from the local video store. While watching Adam notices an actor in a bit role who looks exactly like him. Both equally troubled and fascinated by the discovery, he does some internet research to discover the man's name is Anthony Claire (acting under his stage name Daniel St. Claire). Despite his growing obsession with this newfound doppelganger concerning his girlfriend Mary (Melanie Laurent), Adam begins stalking him, eventually catching Anthony's attention and that of his pregnant wife, Helen (Sarah Gadon). Their two worlds are about to collide, as both physically identical but fundamentally different men attempt to get to the truth of what's happening.

Prior to his discovery of Anthony, Adam's existence wouldn't be mistaken for anything other than dark and depressing. In fact, our introduction to him in both his apartment and classroom becomes almost uncomfortable to watch in how far the film goes in establishing a man who has completely given up on life, recalling the similarly depressing set-up to John Frankenheimer's 1966 cult classic Seconds. In that film an unfulfilled man trading in his life and physical appearance for an identity upgrade, only to later discover the decision carries dire consequences. Whether that's happening here is a more loaded question, but the protagonist definitely has a "second" whose life he envies, and uncovering his existence is only causing him more emotional pain.  He even seems to be putting himself to sleep during his own lectures, shuffling out of the building with his head down when he's through. His apartment is so dimly lit and desolate it's almost surreal.

The Toronto we're used to seeing depicted in movies (too often as merely a cleaner stand-in for NYC) is boldly reimagined by cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc as a cold, bleak dystopia with danger lurking along the edges in the form of intimidatingly towering skyscrapers and giant insects. Yet, this isn't a sci-fi or horror movie, at least in the traditional sense. It's more of an existential nightmare made all the more frightening because Villeneuve plays everything completely straight, treating the bizarre situation as if it were real without wavering once. Some may say Adam's reaction to discovering his own double is too over-the-top. But is it really? He seems to go through the investigative steps anyone else would looking for answers, only in a slightly more panicked state. It's hard to believe anyone wouldn't be freaked out over it, but for him it only magnifies all his existing fears and insecurities. 

Despite Anthony only being a bit actor he still seems ten worlds away from Adam, as the happier, more confident of the two. But that doesn't mean he's without his own personal demons, struggling mightily to make his marriage work, with apparently little success. Without revealing whether the two eventually meet, the mind of the viewer still races to solve the mystery of how they're physically identical. Are they siblings, the same person, or is this whole thing something else? My biggest concern was the script suddenly turning supernatural, a betrayal that thankfully doesn't occur. It's never presented as anything other than what it actually is right until the end. And about halfway through the suspense is such that you're not sure you even want to know since it could spoil the fun.

Gyllenhaal's real feat isn't that he's playing two characters that look identical yet act wildly different, but that there's never any confusion as to who's on screen at the moment. And he accomplishes this all through body language and mannerisms, which physically make Adam appear smaller in stature to his counterpart, reflective of his depressed state of mind. Appropriately, he plays Anthony much bigger and more charismatically, but without stretching it so far that it feels like a parody. If a half-year Oscars were held right now, he'd be nominated.

The real victims are the women shell-shocked by a development that defies human explanation. Both  are a bigger part of the puzzle than it first seems, with Sarah Gadon making a memorable impression as Anthony's ignored and very pregnant spouse, Helen, who comes face-to-face with a man who looks just like her husband, while possessing none of his qualities (which could be a good thing). That the downtrodden Adam has a girlfriend, much less one played by Melanie Laurent, is probably the most surprising thing about him. But even she seems to have one foot out the door, given how distracted he's been. These aren't sub-plots. The movie is as much about these two relationships than the doppelganger plot, if not more so. You could even argue they're one in the same, transforming this into an erotic, psychosexual thriller of sorts.

When things get really weird there's still this feeling that what we're watching is strangely plausible within the universe Villeneuve loosely adapted from Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago's novel, The Double. It's true even right up until the terrifying final scene set to the Walker Brothers' "After The Lights Go Out", which is likely be deconstructed and extrapolated for symbolic meaning whenever discussion of the film comes up. That it comes from the same man who brought us last year's unexpectedly gripping Prisoners (also starring Gyllenhaal, but shot after this) makes sense when considering this could be described as a more challenging low budget, indie version of that, doing less plot-wise to accomplish more, leaning more on mood than mystery to tell its story. But it's a mind-blower, deliberately paced and excruciatingly suspenseful, at times combining elements of Hitchcock, Fincher and Cronenberg. It should really come with a warning: Multiple viewings required.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Director: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jena Malone, Sam Caflin, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer
Running Time: 146 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★) 
Having never read The Hunger Games series on which the films are based, the big question I had going into its first sequel, Catching Fire, was exactly how Hunger Games co-champions Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Malark (Josh Hutcherson) would end up competing again. I mean, they won, right? Isn't it over? This installment spends the good part of an hour explaining how that's possible, setting up the circumstances surrounding her forced return and giving much needed attention to fleshing out the dystopian society mostly ignored in the preceding installment.

After seeing the original, I remember having a conversation with someone more familiar with the franchise and asking what was up with all those ridiculous costumes. "It was in the book." "It's the future." Those answers sum up my problems with the first film in a nutshell. This one has a scene where a female tribute, sick of all the pageantry, just strips naked in an elevator. That's the difference. All I asked of the first film was that it take seriously its premise of a reality game where contestants are fighting for their lives and that it not take concessions to get a PG-13, needlessly sanitizing the material so it plays better for the masses.

While this still certainly isn't a bloodbath, it's a big improvement that actually contains some ideas. For all I know they could still be watering everything down, but at least it doesn't FEEL that way this time and those compromises aren't as noticeable on screen. There's a concerted effort to explore the moral implications and fallout from the first film to reach beyond the usual YA audience. Francis Lawrence takes over for Gary Ross as director and while he's a workmanlike filmmaker without a particularly distinctive cinematic voice or visual style (probably a plus for tackling a tentpole franchise), he nonetheless does a excellent job bringing this world to life, proving himself worthy of an encore.  

A year removed from being declared co-winners of the 74th Hunger Games, District 12 golden girl Katniss and baker's son Peeta must now embark on the victor's tour across Panem's districts, as per the orders of President Snow (Donald Sutherland), still enraged over the fact they both outsmarted him, escaping the games with their lives. But now Katniss' job is simpler: Show the world her staged romance with Peeta wasn't a televised ruse to defy the Capitol, but real relationship that will continue long after the games have ended. For him, that's clearly true. For her, it's a little more complicated, as her boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is patiently waiting for her back home, even as both their families' lives continue to be threatened by President Snow.

With Katniss and Peeta joined again by dissheveled mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and kabuki-like chaperone Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) on their victory lap, the one thing they can't do on this tour is give the districts hope, which could rally the already disgruntled citizens into rebelling against the Capitol. Fearing that's exactly what's happening, Snow enlists newly appointed Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to destroy Katniss. His master plan: Hold another Hunger Games.

The idea that there would be an "All-Star Edition" of the games that include previous winners from all the districts just so Katniss and Peeta could be thrown to the wolves (or in this case, killer baboons) in the arena again is inspired. Why they're being forced to compete again and how it ties into their influence as celebrities inciting a social rebellion is certainly more compelling than anything in the first film, where it seemed as if there was no danger or stakes at all. Much more than before, they're targets that Snow wants killed or at least made into examples to crush the public's spirits.

It helps that this time there's an hour of build-up getting to know this world and dealing with the fact that these two competed on a reality show where kids killed each other for entertainment. They must have opinions and feelings on that, so it was nice to finally get them. And see legitimate threatening danger in the form of Peacekeepers (basically stormtroopers with flamethrowers) led by a scary Commander Thread (Patrick St. Esprit) baring down on the districts to "keep order." We even see a public lashing. The actual Hunger Games mean nothing without context or a sense of why they're happening. In the first 60 minutes the material finally earns its popular comparisons to Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" while strangely invoking new ones like Fahrenheit 451 in its depiction of a politically oppressive dystopia. Too much set-up? Maybe, but it's time well spent considering how little we got in the first film.

That the possibility exists that Woody Harrelson's drunken Haymitch, a former winner, could again be competing if called as tribute speaks to the unpredictability surrounding this outing. A key difference this time around is that they're not battling each other, but a government forcing them to go at it again despite promises to the contrary. Some new faces include the cocky Finnick (Sam Caflin) and District 7's outspoken, but dangerous Johanna Mason (Jena Malone). And due to the new format there are middle-aged tributes (played by Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer) and even a senior citizen (Lynn Cohen) competing, all of whom have every right to be more furious than before at being there.

While the games itself was the highlight of the last film, but they're improved upon here with crisper CGI and the absence of a shaky cam that previously defined the action sequences, making many of them difficult to decipher as Ross went out of his way to avoid showing any kind of graphic violence. And considering this outing isn't helmed by a director known for visual wizardry, everything still looks much better than its predecessor, as the booby trapped tropical setting for the arena is staged well, but more importantly, feels dangerous. Katniss and Peeta have no idea who they can trust or what's lurking around the corner and that the screenplay (co-written by Slumdog Millionaire scribe Simon Beaufoy) has some thematic meat on its bones this time around only bolsters the suspense.

Now entering this installment with the "Academy Award Winner" title in front of her name, Jennifer Lawrence manages to give a performance that far surpasses her stellar work in the previous entry, only this time doing it in a really good movie. Freed from the shackles of having to carry sub-par material on her back, she now shows us what she can do with Katniss when she's written well and a meaningful story surrounds her. Unsurprisingly, the results are astounding, especially in that opening hour as she experiences a painful internal struggle about what she's done and its implications for Panem. If Lawrence is this good now and the franchise many worried would imprison her career and waste her talent has just turned the corner creatively, how much better can she get? It's almost a scary thought. Here there's much less to elevate, and yet, she still elevates it.

In the face of Lawrence's acting dominance, it's almost a backhanded compliment to say Hutcherson seems more assured as Peeta with each passing minute in the franchise, but he is. That they're taking a slow burn approach to his relationship with Katniss is a relief to those worried that narrative aspect would move to the forefront. It's even more subtle and restrained this time, carrying none of the YA baggage you'd associate with movies of a similar ilk and permanently killing all comparisons to garbage like Twilight. Liam Hemsworth still feels like the third wheel as Gale, but the cliffhanger ending hints that's soon about to change. More impressive is newcomer Caflin as Finnick, whose allegiance to Katniss and Peeta is constantly in doubt, even when his bravado isn't. Jena Malone, makes a tough, sexy Johanna, with the aforementioned elevator introduction perfectly setting the stage for a bold character whose intentions are also up in the air.

That The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 2 will be the final listed screen credit of Philip Seymour Hofffman no longer feels like the travesty many have feared, as he gives a smart, subtle performance as Gamemaker Plutarch that's obviously a major upgrade from Wes Bentley's Seneca Crane from the previous installment. What's funny is how it seems like he just rolled out of bed and is put in no effort at all, until you realize it was a very deliberate choice for him to play it this calm and collected, further solidifying his ability to invisibly slide into any character. What was initially deemed a "sellout" role is instead revealed as an opportunity to appreciate whatever screen time remains of our greatest actor.

Elizabeth Banks still annoys as Effie, as I've come to terms with the fact that I'll just never care for this character or the actress's over-the-top approach to her, especially sticking out as a nuisance in this more serious entry. The opposite is true of Stanley Tucci's manic TV host Caesar Flickerman, who again is a highlight and a comic diversion that works because Tucci makes sure something twisted and sadistic breaks through. The script should also be credited for finding pupose for Lenny Kravitz's Cinna this time out, making his brief role count for something that reflects the themes of the story.

The first film may have been a slight misfire but it was never dull and a joy to assess because of its potential. And now that potential comes much closer to being completely fulfilled here. In an era where big money franchises don't have to creatively deliver to make bank, this one does and has ideas to go along with its action.  Movies are only getting unjustifiably longer and more bloated, so the fact this one is 146 minutes and doesn't waste any of them shouldn't be taken lightly. I'm still curious what would happen if the creative handcuffs were totally removed but they go as far as they can within the confines of a PG-13, recognizing and correcting nearly all of the previous film's problems. The only remaining concern is that movies like this tend to have a ceiling of quality and this may have hit it. Let's hope not. That it's been called The Empire Strikes Back of the series may be slightly overstating matters, but I get it. Catching Fire leaves us hanging and wanting more.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Orange is the New Black (Season 2)

Creator: Jenji Kohan
Starring: Taylor Schilling, Michael J. Harney, Kate Mulgrew, Jason Biggs, Uzo Aduba, Danielle Brooks, Natasha Lyonne, Taryn Manning, Yael Stone, Samira Wiley, Dascha Polanco, Adrienne C. Moore, Nick Sandow, Lorraine Toussaint, Laura Prepon, Pablo Schreiber, Matt McGorry, Alysia Reiner, Kimiko Glenn
Original Airdate: 2014

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

With its second season, Netflix's most successful foray into original programming, Orange is the New Black, breaks through into the upper echelon of great TV drama. Or is that comedy? Probably a bit of both, but genre confusion aside, there's so much to appreciate about their first four-star season, it's hard to know where to start. Showrunner Jenji Kohan takes a big risk in taking the focus off the series' protagonist and turning it on its wild cast of supporting characters we'd only just gotten to know a season earlier. That's a creative gamble when you already have a strong protagonist whose story we were so invested in, and still are. Only now, everything doesn't always revolve around her,  which is an irony considering how she seems to think it always does.

This season is really centered around a villain that shakes up the series in a major way, even if calling her a "villain" seems too constricting a term, failing to do justice to the character's complexity in both writing and performance. She brings a sense of legitimate danger and mayhem that was strangely somewhat lacking in a series set in a women's penitentiary, even one that's part-comedy. That a second season this strong is delivered after a somewhat shaky premiere makes it all the more satisfying when it all comes together in the end.

Piper takes an uncomfortable flight
Everything seems more purposeful this time around, as the writers brilliantly maneuver around the absence of a major series regular, invisibly weaving it into the narrative to the point that you hardly notice she's gone. The prison politics deeply delved into, with the guards and administrators motivations more fully fleshed out.  And with few exceptions, the flashbacks are also more meaningful, carrying greater impact on present events and giving us more insight into the characters, a couple of which pay off in surprising ways. The episodes just keep gathering steam until the last, which puts the perfect exclamation point on a season where we view every character differently than when it began. Despite some concerns at the beginning, there's no sophomore slump here.

In last season's shocking cliffhanger, we saw newbie Litchfield inmate Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) deliver a brutal beating to mentally unhinged religious zealot Tiffany "Pennsatucky" Doggett (Taryn Manning) as Counselor Sam Healy (Michael J. Harney) did nothing. As this season begins, there's a lot less fallout from that event than you'd expect, and while we do find out its outcome, the show moves on to other business fairly quickly, with Piper being transferred off the radar to a Chicago prison. It's there where the show attempts to wrap up her storyline with former lover Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), whose drug smuggling landed both in prison, where their reignited affair eventually destroyed Piper's relationship with her now ex-fiancee Larry (Jason Biggs).

In hindsight, it seems ridiculous that we all thought Prepon's departure as a series regular would be some kind of death knell for the show, since the only episode primarily focusing on that arc (as all of last season did) ends up being relatively the weakest of these thirteen. It's unfortunate that it happens to be the Jodie Foster-directed premiere (Ep. 2.1, "Thirsty Bird"), but at least it's out of the way early, and plays much, much better once you've seen the entire season. Needless to say, the Piper/Alex saga still feels far from done since Piper has proven herself to be an co-dependent addict when it comes to this woman, still allowing herself to be manipulated and lied to in order to gain her affection.

"40 OZ of Furlough"
The premiere is the most we get of Piper until she starts a prison newsletter (Ep. 2.7, "Comic Sans") and a family crisis affords her an opportunity to be granted furlough in an episode that examines the change she's undergone behind bars (Ep. 2.9, "40 OZ. of Furlough") and how it's affected her relationships on the outside. She's not the same entitled princess she went in as but the show cleverly posits the theory that this may not be such a great thing. Now she's the one being judged as a failure and there's no turning back or reversing the clock. She's a convict and everyone couldn't be more disappointed, including her own ashamed parents and her jilted, opportunistic ex-fiancee Larry who continues to use her incarceration as a vehicle to further his journalistic career. A strong argument can be made that he's the most selfish character on the show.

This new Piper and Larry very far apart and a development with Larry only serves to separate them even more, and finally giving viewers full permission to hate a guy who's been on a slippery slope since last season. That so many can't stand Biggs in this role is only a credit to just how well he's playing it. Neurotic and disingenuous at every turn, any fans the character may have had vanish by the end of the season. Piper also vanishes for much of the rest of the season too, but that Schilling is still impressive enough to never make the character seem sidelined is noteworthy in itself. In a welcome change, the show's biggest moments involve everyone else.

It's the arrival of drug dealing sociopath Vee Parker (Lorraine Toussaint), foster mother to Taystee (Danielle Brooks) and former nemesis of Red (Kate Mulgrew) that shakes things up at Litchfield. It wouldn't be inaccurate to say she takes over the entire season, making the series considerably darker, dangerous and more unpredictable as a result. She's even at the center of three (!) flashbacks fleshing out her backstory, marking the only time in the show a major flashback player suddenly shows up in the present.

"Crazy Eyes" finds a mother figure in Vee
How quickly Vee's able to exert power and control over all the inmates is terrifying, sucking them in like a mother figure before manipulating them to do her dirty work. The most vulnerable are those who don't have anyone, and since it's prison, that would be just about everyone. She runs the guilt trip over Taystee to bring her back into her fold and is even able to drag "Black Cindy" (Adrienne C. Moore) and Watson (Vicky Jeudy) along for the ride with empty promises and more deceit. She's evil, but also incredibly smart, which is a mix we're not used to seeing in this environment, giving her a definitive edge over everyone.

While the wedge Vee drives through Taystee's friendship with Poussey (Samira Wiley) is reprehensible enough, her absolute worst, most bottom of the barrel action is manipulating the mentally unstable "Crazy Eyes" (Uzo Abuda), who's willing to do just about anything to fit in and be loved. Vee casts such a large shadow over the season and Toussaint's work so quietly gripping that at points the series feels like it's channeling Oz or The Wire. And the intensity only keeps escalating to the level where you badly want to see this monster get hers, even if you know the show may suffer without her around. There's no way Toussaint isn't riding this chilling performance to an Emmy nomination next year, as she puts you on pins and needles waiting to see the depths her character sinks to next.

The long awaited backstory of "Crazy Eyes" is given time in Episode 2.3, "Hugs Can Be Deceiving"  and it doesn't disappoint, depicting events in her childhood already powerfully hinted at in Uzo Aduba's performance. Always a lonely outcast ridiculed and mocked, the flashback provides an greater context to her current situation with Vee, as well as revealing some surprising details about the struggles her well-meaning parents faced raising her. But the strongest flashback comes in what's possibly the season's best episode (2.6, "You Also Have Pizza"), as we learn the recent history of Samira Wiley's Poussey.

Poussey gets some awful news in a gripping flashback 
Whereas an argument can be made even the most surprising flashbacks flesh out details already hinted about these women, everything about Poussey's is revelatory, completely changing our perception of the character. I didn't expect her to have the upbringing she did, get caught in the dilemma she was, and her situation elicit nearly this much empathy.  It really stands out from the rest not only because of an extremely heated lesbian sex scene (maybe the first of the show's many that actually does feel necessary), but because of Wiley's heartbreaking performance, which insures she leaves this season one of the most beloved characters.

Another fan favorite, Red, struggles after the kitchen (and basically her whole prison identity) was taken from her by the Latinas last season. The return of Vee only causes more problems for her, and as we find out via flashbacks, their history is violent and complicated. New Jersey native Lorna Morello (Yael Stone) also gets one of this season's more revealing flashbacks, dispelling all myths that she's the most normal, well-adjusted inmate at Litchfield when we learn the details of exactly what she's in there for (Ep. 2.4, "A Whole Other Hole"). That this revelation hardly changes our opinion of Morello speaks to how likable Stone (now bumped from recurring to series regular) continues to make the character in the face of some really dark material.

Previously a background player, cancer patient Miss Rosa (Barabara Rosenblat) steps to the forefront as her history as a big time bank robber is unspooled as she currently receives treatment alongside a teen chemo patient in one of the more moving story arcs. At first, you wonder why the show's spending so much time on a bit player, until realizing: A) She's no longer a bit player B) It's a classic case of the writers knowing something we don't. The new face at Litchfield is hippieish inmate Brook Soso (Kimiko Glenn), who besides crying herself to sleep out of fear, not showering and generally annoying everyone, clumsily protests prison conditions with Sister Ingalls (Beth Fowler) in a storyline that dominates the back half of the season. It's clear she'll be around a while so it's a good bet her story will be explored further moving forward. That should be interesting considering that, of everyone, she seems the most out of place in a women's prison. She's practically the new Piper, only weaker and more irritating.

A low turnout for Healy's "Safe Place" support group.
This season pulls back the curtain on prison politics amongst the administration, starting with Counselor Healy, who last season went from inmate advocate to sexist, homophobic pig. The more we learned about him, the less there was to like, but he kind of finds some form of redemption in these episodes, starting a prison support group and becoming an unlikely mentor to Pennsatuckey. After years of feeling beat down by the system (and his mail order bride at home) he finally starts taking baby steps toward making a difference for the prisoners and himself.

Similarly, Assistant Warden Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow), who after being portrayed as somewhat of a perverted creep, is revealed to actually care about these prisoners, even if his hands are tied by beaurocracy. They really start to explore his character, revealing personal details (like him moonlighting in a band or his ongoing crush on Officer Fischer) that cause us to look at him in a whole new light, as Sandow shines in a role that's expanded in both depth and screen time. But he's undermined at every turn by corrupt, arrogant Warden Natalie "Fig" Figueroa (Alysia Reiner) who's not only more concerned with the prison's reputation than the health and safety of its inmates, but running an embezzelment sheme in the midst of her husband's political bid.

Litchfield's biggest scandal continues as Officer Bennett (Matt McGorry) and pregnant inmate Daya (Dascha Polanco) attempt to implicate hated guard Pornstache (Pablo Schreiber) as the father of her baby. What's surprising is how far they get with it and the eventual outcome which highlights the price that comes with doing the "right thing," a theme repeated often this season. Thinking along these lines, it wouldn't be a bad idea to add flashbacks for the guards and administrators next season, developing them even more. Healy seems to be the best candidate for this, as his backstory could help shed light on how this formerly idealistic counselor transformed into a woman-hating curmudgeon with no friends or personal life.   

Miss Rosa takes the wheel in the season finale
Whereas last season's finale ended with a cliffhanger, this nearly feature film length one (Ep. 2.13, "We Have Manners, We're Polite") appears to wraps things up neatly in a bow for the time being. It's telling that that in the sensational final scene, Piper is nowhere to be found. It comes down to a battle of good and evil between the two characters most deserving of appearing in it, bringing their arcs full circle.

For a series not praised enough for its soundtrack selections, they save a couple of the best ones for this episode, including an out of left field use of Deep Blue Something's 1995 pop classic "Breakfast at Tiffany's and a note perfect incorporation of Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear The Reaper." And I'm not ironically using the word "classic" for the former. It's no wonder many have misread its objective in that scene, choosing instead to take more cheap shots at a song that's too earnestly infectious and nostalgia-inducing to ever rag on. It makes perfect sense a character on this show would love it, as most of their musical tastes were left in the past when they entered Litchfield. 

Superior in every way to its inaugural season, this one manages to be much grittier and darker without losing any of the entertainment value or warmth and humor that initially made it such a success. And for those already sick of Piper and wanting the supporting players spotlighted instead, 12 of these 13 episodes surpass those expectations.When OITNB first started few could have guessed it would be this insightful about the prison system and how often society can fail those who end up a part of it, whether they're inmates or administration. That story isn't exclusively Piper's. But when you watch the flashbacks of these characters with their current struggles, you realize it almost doesn't matter what crime put them there. Sometimes we see it, but oftentimes not. Most of the damage was done before that, making their eventual incarceration an inevitability. The series can easily go a few more seasons as long as there are still stories to tell, even if we might eventually have to find out just how difficult it'll be for them to adjust once they're out.