Movie Review ~ Fifty Shades of Grey

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Literature student Anastasia Steele’s life changes forever when she meets handsome, yet tormented, billionaire Christian Grey.

Stars: Jamie Dornan, Dakota Johnson, Victor Rasuk, Marcia Gay Harden, Callum Keith Rennie, Jennifer Ehle, Max Martini, Luke Grimes, Eloise Mumford, Rita Ora

Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson

Rated: R

Running Length: 125 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Sex sells. Period. End of story. The enormous (and enormously baffling) success of the Fifty Shades trilogy of novels has proved that statement to be true since its wide-spread release in 2012. The books became a worldwide sensation, with mass-market paperbacks being passed from friend to friend who would then discreetly devour the lascivious tale of S&M eroticism between a virginal naïf and her darkly troubled business magnate of a boyfriend during their work commutes.

Originally conceived as, get this, Twilight fan fiction, author E.L. James split her 1500 page (!) opus into three books. One genius move of self-publishing later and James is sitting on the kind of lighting in a bottle literary goldmine usually reserved for boy wizards and heroic female survivalists. The trouble with this, though, is that James’ prose is so clumsy and interminable that I spent more time rolling my eyes at the overuse of words like “medulla oblongata” and “inner-goddess” than I did trying to reverse the effects of a flush faced over the absolutely filthy sex scenes.

It seems that James had a mission to have at least one female orgasm per chapter (which comes close to pushing the novel into the sci-fi/fantasy genre) and though early encounters between Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey admittedly have an occasionally effective erotic spark to them, the couplings soon turn into standard trash lit. We haven’t even discussed the S&M aspect of the story and by the time the riding crops, leather cuffs, flogging devices, and various other toys I just can’t bring myself to write about, the novel goes to a dark place that feels deliberately discomforting.

So…needless to say the filmmakers behind the big screen adaption of Fifty Shades of Grey had a challenge on their hands. How do you take NC-17 material and coax it into a more marketable R rating? The answer is simple – cut 2/3 of the sex scenes, soften the S&M elements, and don’t require the leading man to get fully naked.

The biggest compliment I can pay to Fifty Shades of Grey is that director Sam Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks) have elevated the material from goofy smut to classy trash. Taylor-Johnson’s direction isn’t fussy and she gets good performances out of her cast…even if our leading man feels like the second choice for the job that he was. The screenplay from Marcel is a nicely condensed version of James 514-page novel, keeping some of the ludicrous exchanges between Steele and Grey while removing most of the ghastly bits of dialogue James had her characters blurting out. While the movie covers all the bases of the novel and audiences will get introduced to nearly every character mentioned within (even casting horribly wigged singer Rita Ora for a two line cameo as Grey’s sister), there’s more focus onscreen than there ever was on the page.

Casting the film was no easy matter and when original Christian Grey Charlie Hunnam (Pacific Rim) got cold feet (er, sorry…developed “scheduling conflicts”) Irish actor Jamie Dornan took his place. The whole film I was struck by how much Dornan looked like other actors (Eric Bana, Ryan Phillippe, Joshua Jackson, Colin Firth, depending on the angle/lighting) and that’s problematic because as written the character should be a singular vision. Desperately trying to hide his accent while relaying his bondage proclivities to his wide-eyed potential sex slave, there’s an overall side-stepping feel to Dornan’s performance…right down to the actor’s well-documented contract clause nixing full-frontal nudity which would seem to be necessary for the film/character.

Dakota Johnson (Need for Speed, The Five-Year Engagement, 21 Jump Street), however, has no such problems with the nudity and it should be noted that the actress handles herself and the role with more professionalism than it deserved. When I first heard Johnson had beat out the likes of Shailene Woodley, Imogen Poots, Felicity Jones, and Elizabeth Olsen (if you can believe the rumors) I was curious to see how the relative unknown would work out. True, Johnson has been the star of her own television show and had several movies to her credit but did the progeny of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson have the star quality to pull it all off?

To that question I’d give an unqualified “yes”…because Johnson takes a frustrating literary character and brings her to life with believable earnestness. As written, Anastasia Steele is all gee-whiz and golly-gee but in Johnson’s hands there’s now reasonable merit to her naiveté so much so that audiences can understand why she’s drawn back to a man that seems to take realistic pleasure in her literal pain. Johnson channels her mother’s sex-kitten soft speak when necessary but overall makes the character just green enough so that by the time she utters the phrase “What’s a butt plug?” (in the film’s best scene, a sexual contract negotiation) we just want to give her a hug.

Director Taylor-Johnson works well with her leading lady to make the explicit sex scenes (totaling about 20 minutes of the 125 minute film) not seem like the scuzzy sludge they could have been under the eye of a different director or had the production company let the film fall into NC-17 territory. Though frequently in her birthday suit, Johnson’s body isn’t objectified in any seedy way…unlike the absolute humiliation Katherine Waterson was subjected to in Paul Thomas Anderson’s awful Inherent Vice.

Just like the book, the film will come under fire from violence against women groups and those that can’t get their minds around people living the S&M lifestyle. Personally, the world of dominants and submissives is so far away from any reality I can imagine I don’t feel I can fully lodge an opinion on it. Those that do practice BDSM have condemned the book as unsafe and I can’t say I blame them because the movie doesn’t concern itself with the lasting consequences of what Grey is asking of Steele. I guess I’m just trying to take the movie for the experience that it was and, save for a horrifying sequence at the film’s climax, I wasn’t as outraged as many will be.

Could they ever have made a great movie out of a bad book? Probably not. How about an ok movie out of a bad book? Now, that’s a goal more attainable and for the most part it succeeds. Our screening audience balked at the abrupt ending but likely these were people that didn’t read the book as evidenced by the elderly grandmother next to me that asked her companion if “the author will ever write a sequel”. All involved are already on board for the follow-up should the film be the boffo success many believe it will be – I say go for it…but please, don’t split the last one into two parts.

The Silver Bullet ~ Fifty Shades of Grey

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Synopsis: Literature student Anastasia Steele’s life changes forever when she meets the handsome, yet tormented, billionaire Christian Grey.

Release Date: February 13, 2015

Thoughts: Unless you’ve been in a comatose state for the past few years, chances are you’re familiar with the global phenomenon surrounding E.L. James’ steamy trilogy of self-published novels. My half-read copy has been on my nightstand for some time and I better get to reading because the first of said novels is arriving for Valentine’s Day 2015 after creating buzz with choosing its director (Sam Taylor-Johnson, a relative unknown and a far cry from the A-List names bandied about) and announcing its casting (Jamie Dornan & Dakota Johnson, possessing decidedly less razzle dazzle resumes than what fans were expecting). The trailer for Fifty Shades of Grey sure looks mighty sophisticated for a film based on novels containing lots of spelling errors and lascivious S&M eroticism. I’m interested to see if the film can rise above its smarmy source material and bring the erotic drama back into focus.

Movie Review ~ RoboCop (2014)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In 2028 Detroit, when Alex Murphy – a loving husband, father and good cop – is critically injured in the line of duty, the multinational conglomerate OmniCorp sees their chance for a part-man, part-robot police officer.

Stars: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams, Jay Baruchel, Jennifer Ehle, Marianne Jean-Baptiste

Director: José Padilha

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 108 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Even uglier than the recent trend of Hollywood eating its own by remaking many a film barely 30 years old is the nasty critical backlash lobbed at these remakes.  While some of this ire is warranted (I’m looking at you 2012’s Total Recall) there seems to be efforts that become collateral damage,  wrongly tossing commendable efforts like José Padilha’s update to RoboCop into the junkbin.

Listen, Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 RoboCop is a not-minor classic but one that I wasn’t overly attached to, so treating it like a precious property isn’t going to allow anyone to really enjoy the 2014 remake.  The thing that made the ’87 sci-fi action film so razor sharp was its cynicism toward violence and the media, a concept reaching its peak in the final years of the advent of the “me” generation.  The digs taken at the alarming change in what was considered entertainment came at the right time and right place. 

That same approach wouldn’t have worked for this update;  after all we live in a time when stardom can be achieved for doing nothing so Padilha and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer wisely jettison that impossible to match angle for something admittedly less special and memorable…but one that provides the kind of entertainment that is engaging, if altogether fleeting.

The structure of this RoboCop is largely the same: in the not-too-distant future robotic technology has become more advanced and popular opinion is that it’s still too early to embrace the benefits of a robot protected society.  The head of tech giant OmniCorp (Michael Keaton, Gung Ho!, a welcome presence) decides that the public needs to be shown the light and wonders what would happen if there was a beating heart in one of his robot warriors.

That’s where Detroit cop Alex Murphy comes in.  As played by Joel Kinnaman (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), he has that same blandness that worked for previous star Peter Weller…though Kinnaman has significantly more “face” time in this film allowing us to see the man inside the machine.  Injured in the line of duty while investigating an arms dealer and police corruption, he’s saved by OminiCorp technology and becomes their RoboCop.

I’m not sure if adding more heart to the film is what audiences expected or wanted but if the cynicism was lost in the reboot there had to be something to fill the gaps.  This means Murphy’s wife (a non-presence in the first film) has more to do…even if Abbie Cornish winds up delivering most of her lines like she’s shivering in sub zero temperatures.  Where the previous film introduced the refurbished Murphy as an emotionless drone that gradually remembers his humanity, the new Murphy wakes up with the memories of his past, only to see them next to erased by corporate bottom-lining that ordered a machine without scruples.

Rounding out the quite well acted ensemble of performers are a kindly Dr. Frankenstein-like character played with dimension by Gary Oldman (Lawless) and a blowhard political reporter etched out by Samuel L. Jackson (Django Unchained) on a CGI-graphic heavy set that looks remarkably like the one Jackson shoots his credit card commercials on.  Hints at the dark comedy of the original film come through Jackson’s character and he’s given enough free rein to be over the top while eschewing winking knowingness.

Had the film cannibalized the original loyal fans would have gone crazy (and rightly so)…and I find it a bit unfair critics have knocked the film for not going that direction…maybe it was a lose-lose situation for all involved with updating this story.  For me, I was able to keep the tonally different film from ’87 at enough of a distance and take this revamp for ’14 for what it is – handsomely rendered entertainment that’s serviceable at its worst and involving at its best.

The Silver Bullet ~ RoboCop (2014)

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Synopsis: In 2028 Detroit, when Alex Murphy – a loving husband, father and good cop – is critically injured in the line of duty, the multinational conglomerate OmniCorp sees their chance for a part-man, part-robot police officer.

Release Date:  February 7, 2014

Thoughts: I’m not usually one to get behind remakes of films that were just fine to begin with.  My biggest problem is the more often than not these remakes/reboots do very little to make any strong case that the film needed to be revisited in the first place (case in point…2012’s Total Recall).  Still, I must admit that I was intrigued by the prospect of a re-envisioning 1987’s RoboCop.  Though by no means a classic, it’s still a genre favorite of mine thanks to its clever take on the future of law enforcement and its copious amounts of violence (that originally earned it an X rating before director Paul Verhoeven went back and made some trims).  While the just released trailer is interesting enough to not make me roll my eyes totally out of my head, it’s distressing to hear that the filmmakers are aiming for a PG-13 rating…something that just doesn’t work for this character or the series which was all about a next generation weapon being used to combat decaying violence.  Delayed for release several times doesn’t bode well but February is a long way away…I’m open to seeing where this one goes.

Movie Review ~ Zero Dark Thirty

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A chronicle of the decade-long hunt for al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden after the September 2001 attacks, and his death at the hands of the Navy S.E.A.L. Team 6 in May, 2011.

Stars: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Ehle, Jeremy Strong, Kyle Chandler, Edgar Ramirez, Mark Strong

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Rated: R

Running Length: 157 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Ever since September 11, 2001 there has been a dark cloud over our country as we continue to rebuild our body, minds, and spirit after the devastating attack on our freedom.  Over a decade later, we’re a more aware society, less likely to go through our lives with blinders on having been forced to wake up that real evil does exist in our world.  The man responsible for the attacks was public enemy number one, a sign and signal for evil and his death in May of 2011 at the hands of a Navy S.E.A.L. team allowed a small exhale from a country that had been holding its breath for ten years.

How this man was killed and how he was located is the subject of Zero Dark Thirty, a film that has arrived with a fair share of controversy and end of the year award recognition.  It’s an intelligent movie for adults that asks its audience to snap to attention and come along for a real life manhunt as it teeters between globe-hopping intrigue, government double talk, and questions on the price of justice.

The film rests on the very capable shoulders of Chastain (who won a Golden Globe for her work and is nominated for an Oscar and SAG Award as well) as CIA analyst Maya that becomes obsessed with her decade long search for the man known as UBL (Usama bin Laden).  Like a bumper car, with every dead end she reaches she changes course without losing sight of what’s at stake.  As the years go by and multiple set-backs (some of them deadly) occur, Maya uses considerable intelligence to piece together the puzzle until everything falls into place in a fashion that doesn’t feel too forced or too cinematic to be believable. 

Oscar winning director Bigelow teams again with her The Hurt Locker collaborator Mark Boal to direct his well researched script with a strong arm.  Bigelow has never shied away from making what many would consider “male” films and with Zero Dark Thirty she again doesn’t make the film about gender roles but focuses on the subject at hand.  It would have been easy to inject some misogynistic scenes to further burden Maya with not only doing her job but proving she’s worthy of it in the first place.  Bigelow keeps the nearly three hour movie trucking along until an outstanding finale shot in near real time as the team of S.E.A.L.’s descended upon the compound where they will eventually eliminate one of the biggest threats ever in the war on terror.

I admit I didn’t read too much about this strike on UBL’s compound when it happened so was surprised at some of the details that were new to me.  I, like many, assumed that it was a blitz of bullets that was over quickly but the film takes us through every second of these 20 some odd minutes with painstaking tension.  Aided by Alexandre Desplat’s eerie music, I’m not sure I breathed much in the final thirty minutes of the movie…it’s hard to say it was “entertaining” but my attention was raptly devout to what Bigelow and cinematographer Greig Fraser put together.

The film has taken a lot of hits for its sequences showing the various torture methods used by our intelligence agents to extract information on the location of UBL.  To leave these scenes out would be inaccurate and the director herself said it best that “depiction is not endorsement”.  Torture happened, we know it did and we all have to have our own internal discussions on how far is too far – to fault the movie for these scenes would be doing a disservice to the story it’s highlighting.

Along with Chastain there are strong performances from Clarke (Lawless) and Ehle as colleagues of Maya…both of whom could have easily landed on nomination list in the Best Supporting Oscar category.  It’s mostly Chastain’s show and she executes her role with an assurance that never feels false.  It’s a restrained, intelligent portrayal of a restrained, intelligent woman that believes in her heart she is the one that must be responsible for finding this man. 

Zero Dark Thirty refers to the very dark hour before dawn – a metaphor not lost on audiences for the extreme darkness that was felt by many before the man responsible for it was wiped out.  It didn’t back bring the lives that were lost on that day or in the war that has been raging on for a decade but, speaking for myself, the elimination of UBL offered a small glimmer of hope that justice had been done.  How we came to that point is a very debatable issue but Zero Dark Thirty is a fascinating and involving film that makes the conversation timeless.

The Silver Bullet ~ Zero Dark Thirty

Synopsis: The Navy SEAL Team 6 tracks down wanted terrorist Osama bin Laden.

Release Date:  December 19, 2012                          

Thoughts: After becoming the first female ever to win an Academy Award for Best Director, Kathryn Bigelow knew that all eyes would be on her when she selected her next project.  With the release of the trailer for Zero Dark Thirty, it looks like Bigelow has stayed close to her Hurt Locker wartime influences with the dramatization of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.  Bigelow has always more than held her own with the big boys so I’d expect nothing less than a gruff, no holds barred examination of the tactical individuals involved whether they be on the ground or behind the scenes.  It’s a teaser trailer and count me expertly teased by Zero Dark Thirty.