Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Down the Rabbit Hole: Welcome to Utopia

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on January 29, 2013. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Fiona O’Shaughnessy as Jessica Hyde, in Channel 4's Utopia

A mysterious and possibly prophetic graphic novel, two brightly-dressed killers armed with small gas canisters and bottles of bleach, the suggestion of an ever-diminishing global food supply, four unlikely allies thrust into a worldwide conspiracy because of an online comic book forum: welcome to Channel 4’s Utopia – a pre-apocalyptic conspiracy thriller from the pen of playwright and TV writer Dennis Kelly.

Writing about television comes with its own unique challenges: the best TV shows tell long, even open-ended stories, and it is often difficult to assess them while they’re still in progress.  As I sit down to write this, I’m still questioning whether it would perhaps be better to wait until Utopia’s full season has played out in its entirety. (It’s now aired only two of its promised six episodes, after all.) Waiting however comes with its own risks: I already regret, for example, not writing immediately about the first episode of ABC’s now-cancelled Last Resort. (To be candid, I have also regretted weighing in too soon. See A Gifted Man, where almost everything that was so impressed me in the pilot episode made the series frustrating and tedious by the middle of its first, and thankfully only, season.) Sometimes, as with Last Resort, a first episode is so unprecedented, so “fall off your seat” shocking, that you can’t stop talking about for the rest of the week. Visually arresting, unrepentantly violent, and darkly funny, Utopia is like nothing else currently on television. From its opening scene, you already know you’re seeing something entirely new.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Stepping Forward into the Past: Safety Not Guaranteed

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on January 8, 2013. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Mark Duplass and Aubrey Plaza star in Safety Not Guaranteed

                                    “…. if there were a devil he would not be the one who decided against God, 
                                      but he that in all eternity came to no decision.”  
                                                                                                               – Martin Buber, I and Thou

Surprise, Joss Whedon once said, is “a holy emotion.” Surprise “makes you humble…shows you that you’re wrong, the world is bigger and more complicated than you’d imagined.” It is also becoming scarce on television (the subject Whedom was discussing) and even rarer in film. Every once in a while, however, a movie comes along and does just that. And Safety Not Guaranteed isn’t merely surprising: it is also, in a very real way, about surprise – about why we need it and about everything that conspires to make us unable to experience it.

Safety Not Guaranteed screened at Sundance last January, was in the theatres this past summer, and came out on DVD in the fall. I knew of it – mainly because of Susan Green’s interview with the film’s director Colin Trevorrow for Critics at Large in June – but I finally sat down to watch the film last week. Though I knew the plot’s launching points (a mysterious classified ad) and that it boasted the stars of two of my favourite sitcoms (Aubrey Plaza from Parks and Recreation, and Jake Johnson from New Girl), I went in with few if any expectations. Three parts rom-com and one part science fiction, Safety Not Guaranteed starts small and grows, slowly and surely, through its 86-minute running time – ultimately telling a story that does justice to the intelligence of its characters and its audience. Neither sickly sweet nor mockingly cynical, the film is still sincerely romantic; for all its ambitions, it remains structurally and self-consciously informed by the established rules of romantic comedy. The first feature by independent filmmaker Trevorrow and screenwriter Derek Connolly, Safety Not Guaranteed has three charming lead actors, a deceptively simple plot, and a marvelously constructed script. Even as the final credits were rolling, it made me want to generate a “Most Underrated Films of 2012” list just so I could put its name on it!