Reviews

Grimm (seasons 1-2)

For imaginative retelling and moody, dark atmosphere alone, Grimm is worth a casual viewing.  The show has a few key weaknesses, however, that prevent it from becoming truly noteworthy. To briefly recap the show’s premise: Nick Burkhardt, a Portland police detective, discovers that he is a Grimm, one of a line of supernatural crime-fighters gifted with the ability to see Wesen, beast-human hybrids. These Wesen are the nightmarish creatures of fairy tales, the wolf in Red Riding Hood, the Wendigo of the American plains, and pass as human until they reveal themselves. Nick, however, can see them if they let their disguise slip for the slightest second. In addition, his normal fighting skills are boosted almost to supernatural levels. Given his job and his new-found abilities, the show follows Nick through a combination of weekly police procedurals as well as his new place as a Grimm in an shadowy international power struggle.

From the premise alone, it’s easy to see how Grimm has sizable potential for not only complicated storytelling and world-building, but also a rich source of folklore to draw from. And draw from that source it does, with creatures from not only familiar German and Norwegian mythologies but also African, Japanese, and Native American. It also does a credible job of establishing the rules of this world, while leaving international conspiracies fairly shadowy and unexplained (which is good, because to explain the conspiracies would be to burst the bounds of belief).

That world-building is mainly successful due to Silas Weir Mitchell as Monroe, a Wesen wolf-human who aids Nick and embodies the Portland native characteristics of organic food, local coffee, and even car quite well. Bree Turner as Rosalee, Monroe’s paramour, Claire Coffee as a malevolent Hexenbiest, and Sasha Roiz as Captain Sean Renard of the Portland PD all do excellent turns as the local Wesen and players in Nick’s life.

And with those closing two words lies the problem of the show. Nick is the leading man, ostensibly, though the show pays close attention to Russell Hornsby as his partner Hank and his girlfriend Juliette, played by Bitsie Tulloch. But David Giuntoli as Nick Burkhardt isn’t quite good at the range required. As a sharp, conflicted and deadly detective and Grimm, Giuntoli is very good, with steely determination and palpable anger hinting at a dark side. As a devoted boyfriend and even a charismatic, enjoyable friend who can build the friendships that he appears to have, Giuntoli doesn’t quite come across. His acting is understated and restrained well in his professional roles, but this hinders him somewhat in the depiction of Nick’s personal life.

That’s the major flaw of the show, and one the show seems to be addressing with increasing proficiency as it puts Giuntoli where he seems most comfortable, as the badass Grimm/detective, equally comfortable with operating within the law or without if need be. Other weaknesses are also resolved steadily: at first Nick appears to be absurdly gifted in hand-to-hand combat, but the show clarifies a few times this is due to his Grimm nature coming out. Perhaps I missed something in the first season, but his prowess did seem to come from nowhere. Claire Coffee as Adalind Shade, the malicious and seductive Hexenbiest, also does adept work in tying together the international intrigue and Portland plot ties.

And that’s honestly where I’d like the show to go more. Police procedurals are rarely without their lapses in logic, but in Grimm, detectives take 75% of an episode to realize that a family member is in danger, when a credible source states in the first 10 minutes that this particular Wesen often returns to attack family members in their sorrow. The routine police work is less and less the focus of the show, and is used more as a starting point for worldwide Wesen conspiracies. That is where the show breaks new ground, and can have its cake and eat it too, by combining Nick’s purview as a detective with setting up international assassins and local criminals as patsies and victims. The show tries to mix both, but if it tilted the balance away from the routine, much like Fringe did in season 3, it could go much further. Perhaps instead of fairly disposable Wesen sent after Nick to murder him, a Moriarty-boss could be sent to Portland to unite local sullen Wesen in a widespread conspiracy against Nick. Now, a plot like that could power an entire season of Grimm. Let me go put my script-writing hat on.

The Cabin in the Woods

I’m not usually a fan of horror movies, but enough Cracked articles and jokes have lent a fair understanding of the genre’s cliches and tropes. And, as a fan of everything meta, the way Cabin in the Woods triple-layers its plot and themes in order to employ, expose, and critique horror tropes is probably what makes it excellent.

A plot summary is better found elsewhere, as are more general comments about film-making details such as set design, cinematography, and so on (although visually and atmospherically, Cabin was quite impressive). As for acting, it’s already hard not to love Richard Jenkins, but he makes it truly impossible with another great turn as an old, hard-bitten administrator. The only other true standouts were Fran Kranz and Kristen Connolly, both of whom possess excellent comic timing as well as the chops to convey pathos and grim survival instinct believably. It’s not that the rest of the ensemble wasn’t fine, it’s that although they played to stereotype quite well, they didn’t seize a chance to transcend the writing as well as Kranz and Connolly. Although, of course, that’s more the fault of the writing than anything else.

But what makes Cabin in the Woods particularly great is its triple layer of analysis, like a delicious three-decker cake or sriracha-guacamole-chipotle dip (good heavens, dibs on that idea). It’s no coincidence the poster and title are stacked cliches; the film is out to subvert and use every trope it can lay its hands on. It’s too easy to parody horror movie cliches, as the Scary Movie series shows, so Cabin in the Woods goes after the truth at the heart of the genre: blood, terror, sex and punishment lurk elementally within all of us. The adrenaline is addictive…and so we keep going to horror movies, even when we know exactly what’ll happen.

So Cabin in the Woods shows us trope after trope, and ingeniously tugs us into uncomfortably realizing that we are the demanding audience greedy for suffering through showing the weary old-timers manipulating behind the scenes. And then, after ensuring we are aware of our own complicity in the horror movie genre (why, after all, do we enjoy watching palpable suffering?), the film goes one step further, and reverts into the final archetype. Our own psyches are to blame, in the end. The stereotypes of jock, nerd, virgin and temptress are far more ancient than we could imagine; they hearken back to our primeval and primal past. Why those particular stereotypes evolved is not something the film delves into, which is for the best, since folklore and myth are best left to Joseph Campbell.

Mild spoiler alert: The catalog of monsters best illustrates this, toward the end of the film, a horde of creatures and fears from every culture and fairy tale emerge. The omnipresence and recurrence of human fears and stereotypes are blatantly emphasized by the sheer scale of unleashed demons.

In summary, Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard pull off an ambitious and sophisticated analytic film, while having a ridiculous amount of fun on the way.

P.S. I honestly thought Kristen Connolly was in her early 20s, even though I have seen House of Cards (which she is fantastic in as well). Apparently she is actually 33, to which I only have to say that tennis careers must lend you special age-defying powers.

The Score

(When I don’t even bother to upload an image, it’s kind of a bad sign.)

The Score is an interesting crime caper that flew well under my radar for quite awhile given its cast: Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Angela Bassett, and Marlon Brando. I eventually split it into two different viewing sessions to see how I felt about it, and I realized why it flew under my radar. It is the closest cinematic equivalent I have ever watched comparable to 9am oatmeal without any sweetening. It may be solid, substantial fare, but it is without any flash or style or anything notable.

The plot is fairly standard: an aging safecracker (De Niro) aims to pull off one last heist for his fence (Brando), almost as a favor but also as a way to finally escape the game and live in comfort with his paramour (Bassett). Of course, complications are introduced with a flashy hotshot (Norton) who has the inside knowledge of this last mark. And from there, regular as clockwork, the predictable plot unfolds with almost surprisingly ordinary results.

The performances aren’t weak, but they aren’t particularly strong. De Niro is almost bland and world-weary, but doesn’t lapse into self-caricature, staying restrained and quiet throughout. Norton and Bassett are probably the best performers in the flick, the former enlivening scenes with an urgency De Niro rather deflates and the latter charming with virtual scraps for lines. Brando emotes slightly in one scene such that I felt somewhat attached, but I was more concerned for his health than anything else. A few clever ruses, standard camera-work, and generic music don’t help matters much. But it doesn’t fall into self-parody, nor does it take too long in any particular scene that you realize nothing of note or any surprise will occur. (One exception is a fairly grueling, hackneyed portrayal of a computer hacker who lives in his mom’s basement.) Overall, it’s remarkably how well it treads the line of complete mediocrity.

Don Jon

With a free perk from Klout*, I got into an advance screening of Don Jon, written and directed by Joseph Gordon Levitt. The ads pitched it as a romantic comedy of sorts, with a strong dramatic, or maybe even tragic streak. But while it is a bit unformed and underdeveloped in parts, the mark of a directorial debut, overall the themes it grapples with are most striking.

The setup may seem familiar to anyone who has seen the trailer; a lothario must grapple with his porn fetish in order to truly connect romantically. I don’t need to go into more detail or spoil the plot for anyone, but what I would like to point out is how far Don Jon carries the implications of that somewhat novel premise.

Sex addiction and the overt sexualization of women have been dealt with before, and will be seen again soon in theaters, but what impressed me about Don Jon was that it specifically pointed out (even if a tad heavy-handedly) how that particular issue can ruin relationships. It’s not often a markedly mainstream movie criticizes porn abusers and objectifiers explicitly, placing the blame where it belongs, with the consumers.

Some have already pointed out this same disturbingly misogynistic trend, and it’s a given that religious groups bewail the desensitizing and dehumanizing effect porn can have on watchers, but I’d like to salute Mr. Gordon-Levitt for addressing it. That theme is spelled out clearly, but the film also implies further with Ms. Johansson’s character, hinting that film in general (although it zeroes in on romantic comedies and porn) distorts reality, specifically relationships. This distortion makes it easy to get lost in pursuit of unreal perversions of love. Granted, this critique is not exactly revolutionary, but it’s made in a humorous, non-too-serious manner, which renders it enjoyable.

The performances embodying that pursuit are the film’s strongest aspect. Mr. Gordon-Levitt turns in a committed and decent performance as the titular Don Jon, a Jersey type familiar nowadays: gelled hair, gym-frequented physique, and muscle car. He isn’t afraid to be unsympathetic, yet still maintains a charismatic connection with the audience. Scarlett Johansson, equally committed, is his main romantic focus, skilfully exploiting her oft-ogled image. Julianne Moore also impresses as Jon’s classmate, maybe more than either of the main leads (but given her talent and experience, that’s hardly surprising).

The rest of the cast turn in good performances as well, all hitting the normal, expected Italian-American, Jersey, Catholic family stereotypes, along with what I like to call douche-male ‘rating’ of women, macho posturing, and more. One of the more glaring, uneven notes in the film is the discrepancy between the stereotypes and actual dramatic import. Doubtless Mr. Gordon-Levitt may have meant to employ stock stereotypes to echo the stereotypes seen in romantic comedies and porn, but the film overuses them. In fact, given how ignorant one character is of computers in general, I think it’s meant to be more of a fable than anything else. Other people have pointed out (spoilers in the link) the one-dimensional female characters, which opinion I agree with to some extent, but perhaps Mr. Gordon-Levitt also meant to echo the one-dimensional characters in romantic comedies. One can’t be sure.

(In addition, maybe it’s the fact I’m Catholic that made this part of the film particularly ridiculous to me, but a repeated montage of confessions eliciting nothing more than commands to pray mindlessly only contributed to unreality. It was still humorous, it was merely cheaper and lazier than it could have been.)

Overall, however, Don Jon was quite entertaining, and is well worth a watch. Firm if unspectacular set design (the film is highly collaborative in nature, given the production company hitRecord’s method) mainly highlighted character traits and cinematography captured the douche-male perspective, ogling any and all women freely (once again, Gordon-Levitt seeking to ape porn?). The weight of employing while trying to lampoon stereotypes to point out the similarities and harmful depiction of relationships in romantic comedies and porn may be too much at times, but overall, Don Jon pulls it off.

*As long as I get free movie passes, I’ll happily shill for a company or two.

P.S. One of the most hilarious parts of the movie was a fake romantic comedy, with Channing Tatum, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Anne Hathaway showing up in bit parts as the leads. For that bit alone, Don Jon is worth a watch.

P.P.S. The Reddit thread linked above has some spoilers, but most interestingly, some users commented on how perhaps the movie is too overtly from a male perspective; this I agree with wholeheartedly, but I think that Mr. Gordon-Levitt is both male and can’t really help that and also thinks the male side of the problem, aka porn, is much more troubling, hence his focus.

Manborg

Manborg may be the greatest horror movie I have ever seen. I’m not including any links because you should not research this movie whatsoever. You should just obtain it and watch it with at least two other people. Experience it with no prior knowledge whatsoever (except that one caption below, I guess). Like a fresh, pure snowfall, it’s a truly wondrous moment that is only improved by a mind unbiased by any preconceived notions.

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2 Comments

  1. I think you mean the opposite of “improved” in this sentence: it’s a truly wondrous moment that is only improved by a mind biased by any preconceived notions.

    right?

    1. Good catch! I did mean that…but I rather would change the biased…so that’s what I did. Thanks mate!

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