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 ~ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A growing nation of genetically evolved apes led by Caesar is threatened by a band of human survivors of the devastating virus unleashed a decade earlier.

Stars: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Enrique Murciano, Kirk Acevedo, Judy Greer, Karin Konoval

Director: Matt Reeves

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 130 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Okay, so we’re halfway through the summer movie season and, like every May-early August that has come before it, I think we’ve had our shares of high highs (Godzilla, Edge of Tomorrow, The Fault in Our Stars) and lowly lows (Jersey Boys, A Million Ways to Die in the West, Blended).  Some have incorrectly scoffed that Transformers: Age of Extinction will bring about the end of humanity but I say those critics just forgot to change out of their fuddy duddy pants.  Then there’s Tammy, the worst of the worst…the bubonic plague of the summer.

Don’t retreat to your lake cabins yet or focus solely on training for a fall marathon because July is just getting started and if Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is any indication, summer is about to heat up.  The sequel to 20th Century Fox’s 2011 surprise hit franchise reboot manages to be a hell of a good ride, emerging as a film that knows what it wants to achieve and uses it’s talent, budget, and running length wisely.

Three years ago I didn’t get much of a rise out of Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  Though the motion capture technology produced some impressively lifelike rendering of apes, it was bogged down by saggy leads (James Franco and Freida Pinto) and focused too much time on the human side of things.  It’s when the apes took center stage that the movie found its shape…but by that time the movie was nearly over.  Luckily, director Matt Reeves (Let the Right One In, Cloverfield) came onto the project wanting to make it an apes-first film so the sequel jettisons what didn’t work previously and gives us more time with the simian nation.

I’ll admit that the first 20 nearly wordless minutes of the picture had me squirming in my seat.  See, I’ve been trained so far in 2014 for my summer action flicks to come out swinging so it was jarring (but welcome) for a film of this magnitude to make the bold choice of starting off quiet, letting the audience get used to a world ravaged by disease where apes are the dominant species.  The beginning of the sequel re-introduces us to several hairy friends we got to know back in 2011, finding them communicating mostly in sign language (over half the film is subtitled) until they learn to literally raise their voices.

Caesar (performed by a flawless Andy Serkis, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) is king of the colony of apes that escaped to the California forests 10 years ago.  In their getaway a deadly virus was unwittingly released, ravaging the majority of humanity that wasn’t genetically immune.  After a decade of toil, human and ape meet up once again when a small band of survivors led by Jason Clarke (Lawless, The Great Gatsby, Zero Dark Thirty), Gary Oldman (RoboCopThe Dark Knight Rises) & Keri Russell (Austenland) venture into the forest in hopes of using technology inside an abandoned dam to help power their dying city.

Meanwhile, Caesar battles rebellion within his own tribe as those less trusting plot to launch a deadly strike at the humans before they can destroy the apes.  With his scarred body and milky eye, vengeful rebellion leader Koba looks straight out of a nature run amok horror movie, which makes sense because he’s the scariest villain I’ve seen in quite some time.  Like Caesar, Koba is no ordinary ape and his subversive rampage is more Shakespearean in nature than paint-by-numbers evil-doer.

What I enjoyed most about the film wasn’t the nearly seamless blending of visual effects and live action but in the way it found room for good storytelling as well.  If we’re being honest, the plot isn’t much more than the oft-told mutinous parable of dissention within but it’s in the way that screenwriters Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Mark Bomback (The Wolverine) weave parallel themes of family, trust, and honor throughout the film that makes it more than your standard action sequel.

The motion capture technology has come a long way in the past three years, allowing Serkis and a full range of gifted performers free range to flesh out their primate characters.  While Serkis’ Caesar and Toby Kebbell’s Koba sometimes look a tad too animated, there are moments when the visuals are truly astounding and you start to wonder how Reeves directed two wild animals to perform with such vigor.  Best of show goes (once again) to orangutan Maurice who is not only amazingly played by Karin Konoval but rendered with 100% believability by the gigantic visual effects team.

If I’ve left out talking about the humans, it’s only because reviews sometimes have to leave out secondary characters which Clarke, Oldman, Russell, et. al certainly are.  Not knocking their talent or value to the overall effect of the picture but Reeves and his screenwriters have purposefully kept all humans on the sidelines and I’m positive that’s why the film works as well as it does.

Packed with action sequences that will keep you on the edge of your seat (check out the bravura and dizzying 360 degree shot on top of an armored tank and a high wire battle late in the film) and with an assured eye on the prize attitude from all involved, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is another step in the right direction for this happily burgeoning franchise.  I’m interested to see what’s next…as long as the future chapters keep those damn dirty humans at bay.

The Silver Bullet ~ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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Synopsis: A growing nation of genetically evolved apes led by Caesar is threatened by a band of human survivors of the devastating virus unleashed a decade earlier. They reach a fragile peace, but it proves short-lived, as both sides are brought to the brink of a war that will determine who will emerge as Earth’s dominant species.

Release Date:  July 11, 2014

Thoughts: I find that my fear of primates grows with each new “crazy ape” film I subject myself to.  Officially gone are the days when I cried at the end of King Kong Lives and wished that Project X had turned out differently.  Though I think 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes was notable mostly for the amazing motion-capture work from Andy Serkis as smart ape Caesar, there was enough decent material remaining to warrant a sequel now three years later.  James Franco and the awful Frida Pinto are thankfully gone, replaced by new leads Jason Clarke (The Great Gatsby, Lawless) and Keri Russell (Austenland) with some added support from Gary Oldman (The Dark Knight Rises).  This first teaser may not make you pound your chest in ecstasy but it’s a nice whetting of your whistle for more ape antics coming in July.

Movie Review ~ The Wolverine

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Summoned to Japan by an old acquaintance, Wolverine becomes embroiled in a conflict that forces him to confront his own demons.

Stars: Hugh Jackman, Will Yun Lee, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Hiroyuki Sanada, Hal Yamanouchi, Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima, Brian Tee, Famke Janssen

Director: James Mangold

Rated: PG-13

Running Length:

Trailer Review: Here and Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  It’s hard to imagine it now but audiences very nearly had a different actor playing Logan/Wolverine when the original X-Men movie was released back in 2000.  Though several A-List stars were sought for the role, their fees provided intimidating and newcomer Dougray Scott was cast as the mutant hero with the Adamantium claws.  When Scott’s work on Mission: Impossible 2 ran long he was swapped out for total unknown Hugh Jackman and the rest, as they say, is cinematic history.

Thirteen years later Jackman (Les Misérables) has suited up again, marking his sixth appearance as the man with the questionable sideburns and some serious anger issues.  Though he stumbled with 2009’s misguided X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Jackman isn’t one to throw in the towel easily so it was back to the drawing board.  After several stops and starts his mea culpa is here, simply called The Wolverine and it’s a much more enjoyable outing, taking the character into some needed dark territory which gives Jackman a chance to infuse a fair amount of gravitas to a character born from a comic book.

Still…a little bit of brooding goes a long way and ever since Christopher Nolan re-invigorated the Batman franchise by giving The Dark Knight a dark arc it seems like every superhero action film since feels the need to follow suit.  That resulted in a troubling Man of Steel but The Wolverine just makes it out from the heavy pathos unscathed…though often times the Man with the Iron Claws gets dangerously close to being dragged down alongside the Man of Steel.

What helps the movie immensely is the nice amount of distance from everything else in the world of X-Men.  Though I love a good mash-up of characters as much as the next geeky fanboy, Jackman’s haunted character needed some room to stretch his claws.  Taking place largely in Japan, the script from Mark Bomback and Scott Frank feels more like a moody crime drama than it does a large-scale action film – don’t be scared by that statement because trust me, the film works more often than not.

That’s mostly thanks to Jackman who also seems more invested in the film this time around. Jackman is an engaging presence both on and off screen but in this film he doesn’t shy away from letting his dark side show, especially as Logan continues to be haunted by memories of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen).  When he’s located by a mysterious woman (plucky newcomer Rila Fukushima) and brought to Japan, he gets neck deep into trouble over unsettled scores and family secrets that turn out to involve him more than he thinks.

Aside from Jackman, the women in the movie are the most memorable.  I was pretty fascinated with Fukushima as well as model-turned actress Tao Okamoto as the daughter of a man from Logan’s past.  Though both actresses are very early in their careers, they acquit themselves nicely…even if Okamoto is somewhat clumsily thrown into a “I saw that one coming” romance with Jackman.  As a viper-like villainess, Svetlana Khodchenkova (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) looks the part right down to her perfectly placed evil mole but her voice is unfortunately awkwardly dubbed.  This makes most of her work fairly distracting and one wonders why director James Mangold couldn’t have figured out a better solution.

Perhaps a tad overlong and lacking the larger than life action sequences that the franchise would seem to dictate, The Wolverine begins to run out of steam around the 90 minute mark.  With about 40 minutes left, that isn’t great news but thankfully several batteries are recharged near the end and through a not-to-be-missed-if-you-know-what’s-good-for-you credits sequence.

If I’m being honest, I didn’t really mind the last stand-alone Wolverine film.  Yes, it wasn’t the right movie for anyone involved but it wasn’t a disaster like many that have come before and after it.  I know that Jackman wanted to get it right this time and for the most part the film accomplishes what it wanted to.  It corrects some past mistakes and sets up future installments for not only more Wolverine films but other X-Men adventures in the years to come (X-Men: Days of Future Past is set for release in May of 2014).  Is it the best film that could have been made…no, it’s not.  Still, it’s an entertaining entry that rates high on the popcorn scale.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Wolverine – Trailer #2

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Synopsis: Wolverine makes a voyage to modern-day Japan, where he encounters an enemy from his past that will impact on his future.

Release Date:  July 26, 2013

Thoughts: While some wrote off 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine completely as a missed opportunity, I did enjoy parts of the film but not enough to have made a return visit to the movie since I saw it in theaters.  Going back to a story that’s been floating around star Hugh Jackman’s wheelhouse for a while, this new film featuring the adamantium clawed anti-hero is supposedly a darker affair than we’ve seen before.  Consciously moving the action forward to a time when Wolverine is all alone the filmmakers have given Jackman (Les Miserables) and company the chance to right some past mistakes and make the first step in really moving this character and franchise forward.  Let’s see if a refreshed story and directing from James Mangold will do the trick.

                                                                                        View Trailer #1 here

The Silver Bullet ~ The Wolverine

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Synopsis: Wolverine makes a voyage to modern-day Japan, where he encounters an enemy from his past that will impact on his future.

Release Date:  July 26, 2013

Thoughts: After 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine failed to ignite the kind of box office that Marvel Studios and Twentieth Century Fox had hoped, plans were scrapped for future installments of similar X-Men Origin films.  But you can’t keep an appealing superhero down and of all the X-Men that have graced the screen, Hugh Jackman’s haunted hero Logan/Wolverine has always been the most appealing to me.  After the huge success of 2011’s X-Men prequel, Fox decided another go ‘round was worth it.  With gritty director James Mangold (Cop Land, Knight and Day) on board and coming off of Jackman’s Oscar nominated turn in Les Miserables, expectations are once again high for the franchise.  I didn’t mind the previous stand-alone Wolverine film but did find it a tad uninspired…so I’m curious to see where this film will take us.  It certainly looks to hit all the right notes for a successful run but if it doesn’t another X-Men prequel is on its way in 2014.