Eric Plaag and Matt Smith

Capsule Reviews, October 2011 (Matt)

In Film, Reviews, Television on October 25, 2011 at 1:00 pm

By Matt Smith

I have been absolutely swamped with reading and writing and screenings for school, but I have also been trying to keep up with things for the site as well. Atypically, a lot of my time not on campus is spent (this Fall, at least) watching television, which I’ve really grown to love, especially given my predilections for episodic storytelling. So, here you are, one little capsule of love for one of the most under rated films of the Aughts and a slew of reviews of some new TV shows.

Bug (William Friedkin, 2006)
Probably the most under seen and appreciated movie of the past five years that I can think of, Bug is a fascinating thriller that remains just as terrifying and haunting as the first time I saw it. It tells the story of Agnes, an alcoholic living in a rundown motel in the middle of nowhere who befriends a drifter named Peter who seems to be normal until he reveals he was the subject of experiments in the Army and was implanted with bugs – insects, aphids specifically – and that there is a vast conspiracy to release these bugs into the general population. At first skeptical, Agnes and Peter begin to fall into a shared psychosis that will ultimately result in a bloodbath come the film’s final act. Of particular interest is that the film remains ambiguous about the possibility that all of this might not be entirely made up by a crazy person. There are countless times when both the characters and the visual information on screen and the sound design lead the viewer to question what is real and what is not. Ashley Judd gives a brave, staggering performance that should have resulted in a ton of attention, and Michael Shannon started his mainstream rise with his amazing portrayal of Peter. It’s also a terrific exercise in form and structure from director William Friedkin, one of American cinema’s unsung heroes, due mostly to the fact that he made a transition from promising auteur to director for hire and STILL managed to turn out solid work that bore his distinct touch.

TV Special

New Girl
Bravo to Fox for giving the green light to a comedy with Zooey Deschanel, who is no stranger to weirdness and being portrayed as an oddball. Here she plays Jess, freshly dumped by her cheating boyfriend and rooming with three regular guys in a typically spacious loft in New York City. Been there, done that. Fox allows this standard sitcom premise to flourish though, by allowing Deschanel full reign, and she transforms Jess into a full-blown weirdo–singing her own theme songs, dressing in strange outfits, and acting generally clueless about how to conduct herself in public. She’s an emotional being, and all those emotions come right to the surface. In the pilot episode she spends an week after her break-up laying on the couch and watching Dirty Dancing on repeat. Her new roommates, all three males, make it their mission (begrudgingly) to get her back on her feet, and the result is a sweet and hilarious sitcom that manages to balance out to just the right amount of familiar format with off-the-wall behavior. The show’s greatest pleasure is being allowed to just take in Deschanel in all her glory. She’s a captivating star as she navigates the parameters of a traditional sitcom set-up, and though she may not be for everyone, I’m sold for as long as Fox decides to wait before tossing this off into the trash bin with so many other shows that network has canned.

Terra Nova
The other big new show over on Fox–the heavily hyped dinosaurs-and-time-travel series Terra Nova is just a slog to get through every week. I keep hoping things will pick up, but they never do. Part of the problem is that the show tries to cram far too much into it without managing to make me care about any of the characters or events happening to them from week to week. Stephen Lang is engaging as always, but that’s not enough when the series is much more worried about juggling a troubled father-son relationship (Spielberg’s a producer, surprise-surprise), possibly complicated love interests for multiple characters, and an overarching storyline involving some outlying colony’s war with the Terra Nova outpost that doesn’t seem to mesh well with the more episodic stories playing out in weekly episodes. Maybe by focusing on the serialized story and less on the week-to-week they could end up puling this one off, but any adventure show featuring dinosaurs that manages to be less engaging than a random BBC special isn’t worth the time.

I’m genuinely intrigued where this show is gonna go. By far the soapiest of the new hour-long dramas, Revenge follows Emily Thorne (Emily VanCamp)as she seeks vengeance on a tight-knit community of back-stabbing rich people in the Hamptons who are responsible for her family’s downfall and her father’s death. Madeleine Stowe is terrific as the series’ arch-villainess Victoria Grayson, and VanCamp is an intriguing lead. The pilot, directed by Philip Noyce (Clear and Present Danger, Blind Fury, Salt) features particularly lush, gorgeous photography, and gives the series a glossy visual style that seems to be continuing into the newer episodes, similar to how Frank Darabont’s style influenced the overall look of The Walking Dead on AMC. I’m going to stick with this one, but a lot like why I never watched Prison Break, my questions of plausibility surround how a show can continue after its eponymous premise has long been executed. There are only so many rich people in the Hamptons, after all.

Pan Am
Here is a show that takes nostalgia as its project and creates an engaging narrative around it. Part drama, part jet-set location of the week romanticism and part Cold War intrigue, Pan Am is a lot of breezy fun. It may ignore or gloss over some of the problematic issues of the Sixties that Mad Men confronts more directly, but the show is more about the adventures of a group of Pan Am stewardesses as they travel around the world. And even when these things do crop up–a recent storyline featuring Collette, a French stewardess whose family was killed in occupied France, dealing with the forgiveness of a country that killed her family and the crew’s trip to Berlin with the Kennedy press pool–are well thought-out and, even if played a bit more emotive than I would like, are still intriguing additions to who these women are. There are several ongoing threads involving different characters that I find interesting, particularly the two sisters’ strained relationship after one of them leaves her groom at the alter and the other becomes a CIA operative as well as watching Christina Ricci’s Maggie overcome some of the inherent sexism in the system and exercise a somewhat healthy dose of outspoken criticism and woman power.

Up All Night
This latest show from producer Lorne Michaels stars Will Arnett and Christina Applegate as a thirtysomething couple adjusting to their lives with a newly minted baby. Keeping up with these parents coming to terms with their adulthood is enjoyable, but the show’s writing remains a bit weak. I enjoy the episodic nature of the story, and with a little more direction or some writing that better serves to establish memorable side characters (Maya Rudolph is given almost nothing to do other than give a self-obsessed caricature of Oprah), it could really be something. The lead characters are fun and the actors are terrific, and it’s refreshing that a show about parenthood can wallow in and mock cliche so terrifically at the same time. We’ll see how this one turns out.

American Horror Story
I’ve only seen the pilot of this show, but I’m hooked. All style and scares, American Horror Story is a slow-burn that is genuinely creepy throughout. With a timeline juggling story that flits back and forth between present-day and various time periods thirty and forty years prior, the narrative coalesces very slowly. The basic thrust of the action is the Harmon family’s move into a house where things just aren’t quite right, and the supernatural entities within the house have free reign to terrify them in myriad ways. The plot developing between the reconciled couple, played by Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights, Spin City) and Dylan McDermott (The Practice), finds her pregnant with what may be the demonic offspring of one of the house’s spirits–a freaky S&M gimp-suited wall-climber that I find more than a bit unsettling. And I haven’t even mentioned what might be in the basement, and the connection it seems to have with their daughter Violet (a great Taissa Farmiga, younger sister of Vera). Check this out, especially this week, if you feel like it might be your bag.

Prime Suspect
NBC’s update of the British detective procedural Prime Suspect is my new favorite show. Maria Bello’s take on a role made famous by Helen Mirren over the course of 7 series from 1991-2006 is refreshing and energetic. She plays detective Jane Timoney, who faces an uphill battle in a department deeply entrenched in the good old boys school of thought, and when she starts asserting herself as an investigator, her unconventional methods turn some heads. One of the problems the show is still struggling to overcome is how to develop an hour-long show based on installments in a series that were largely episodic themselves, following a single investigation over the course of two or three episodes and totaling around three hours. The job so far has been undertaken admirably, with Timoney’s relationship with her recently divorced boyfriend Matt and his ex-wife forming a lot of the ongoing serialized story, and each episode focusing on a different murder investigation. It’s similar in execution to the handling of serial/episodic formats in last year’s The Chicago Code which never got the attention it deserved. I hope this one sticks around, because it’s a lot of fun, and Bello is terrific in a role that already had a lot of baggage tied to it for longtime procedural fans.

  1. Good stuff, although I am still enjoying Terra Nova.

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