Movie Review ~ Fifty Shades Freed


The Facts
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Synopsis: Anastasia and Christian get married, but Jack Hyde continues to threaten their relationship.

Stars: Jamie Dornan, Dakota Johnson, Eric Johnson, Eloise Mumford, Rita Ora, Luke Grimes, Victor Rasuk, Max Martini, Callum Keith Rennie, Bruce Altman, Arielle Kebbel, Robinne Lee, Brant Daugherty, Kim Basinger, Marcia Gay Harden

Director: James Foley

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: For movies like Fifty Shades Freed, I find it best to take a Roger Ebert approach when developing a critique of the film. Ebert was great at, among other things, taking each movie he saw for the experience it was and offering a review that spoke to how that particular film and that particular encounter made him feel. That led to him liking some movies other critics hated and hating ones that are now considered classics.

While this one will never be measured a classic in any stretch of the imagination, the good news is that Fifty Shades Freed is probably the best of the trilogy. It’s also the shortest. Like the two previous films in the Fifty Shades franchise, Freed is cheerfully plotless, little more than an excuse for audiences to get some vanilla kink on. There’s something for everyone that plops down some cash for this, whether it be to drool over the lavish life led by the two main characters or delight in their frequent couplings.

If you’ve avoided the films until now, be warned that some spoilers are present for the rest of this review.

Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson, A Bigger Splash) and Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) have survived some roadblocks in their relationship that began in Fifty Shades of Grey. There was Anastasia’s initial shock at Christian’s S&M leanings and her adjustment into his pleasure and pain lifestyle. Christian had to acclimate to the headstrong Anastasia who proved to be a worthy equal to him only to nearly lose her to her sexual predator boss Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson). Then there was that whole helicopter in a volcano business from Fifty Shades Darker but the less said about that the better. By the end of the second chapter, Christian has distanced himself from the mysterious Elena (Kim Basinger, who I swear I saw in promotional ads for this but doesn’t appear at all) and proposed marriage to Anastasia.

As Fifty Shades Freed opens, the wedding of Steele and Grey has commenced and the newlyweds are off on their honeymoon. She wants to sunbathe topless like the locals but he doesn’t like other men laying their eyes on his new bride. She doffs her top anyway, leading to a disciplinary bedroom session administered with handcuffs and a lot of heavy breathing. When their honeymoon is interrupted by a vandal at Christian’s company, the two return to Seattle and settle into married life.

And they lived happily ever after…well, not quite.

Adapting his wife’s third novel, Niall Leonard has a real knack for tin-earned dialogue. There’s enough dopey repartee between the actors that the film veers dangerously close to lampooning itself. Leonard has fashioned a hopelessly quaint series of events (especially in this day and age of #MeToo and #TimesUp) that play like a Cliffs Notes version of a longer film. There seems to be a need to speed through everything, rushing through major events like marriages, pregnancies, adultery, and home remodeling to get to one more of the awkwardly enthusiastic sex scenes. Director James Foley (Fear) doesn’t offer much in terms of style, just gentle teases and lots and lots and lots of shots of Johnson topless. The double standard of the series continues here…Johnson is naked often while Dornan can’t muster more than pulling his pants down halfway over his bum.

Speaking of our leads, what began as questionable chemistry has blossomed into a cozy kind of familiarity. Both actors give it their all in their steamy moments but then seem like they are embarrassed to be acting opposite each other when they have their clothes on. Johnson fares better than Dornan for most of the film but both succumb to looking board when the movie becomes a soapy romance thriller in its final act. There’s a lot of people from the other movies listed in the opening credits but don’t expect to see them much, most are just seen at the wedding and then disappear forever. Only Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden (Magic in the Moonlight) gets a second scene late in the film and she doesn’t have much to do in the way of acting.

Yet I’m giving the movie a semi high rating. That’s strange, right? I can’t disagree that this is overall pretty lousy but I must admit to enjoying myself more than I had for the first and second films. There’s something appealing in a movie you know is bad and wasn’t made to cater to your interests that frees one to not be stuffy and just go with it. There are a few honest laughs to be had but more than a few unintentional funny moments that unfortunately happen during scenes that are supposed to be seriously sexy. By the time Dornan hops behind a piano and attempts a hysterically soulful rendition of “Maybe I’m Amazed” while others look on in awe the wheels are definitely off the bus and you just have to enjoy what you’ve gotten yourself into.

They say all good things must come to an end and that’s also true for bad trilogies. The final chapter of the tale of Anastasia and Christian manages to entertain more than what’s come before but the bar has been set pretty low. If you’ve trekked out to see the first two you kinda owe it to yourself to finish what you started.

The Silver Bullet ~ Fifty Shades Darker

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Synopsis: While Christian wrestles with his inner demons, Anastasia must confront the anger and envy of the women who came before her.

Release Date: February 10, 2017

Thoughts: Though 2015’s Fifty Shades of Grey was a sizable (if controversial) hit for Universal, even its most ardent supporters agreed there was something amiss in the big screen adaptation of the first book in author E.L. James’s trilogy. Perhaps it was the well-documented disagreements between James and director Sam Taylor-Johnson that left the the movie having no real voice.  Or maybe it was the rumored mutual hatred stars Jamie Dornan (The 9th Life of Louis Drax) and Dakota Johnson (Need for Speed) had for eachother, leading to questionable chemistry and giving Dornan pause to reconsider coming back for the final two entries.  The paycheck (or perhaps lawyers) prevailed and Dornan returns along with Johnson for Fifty Shades Darker which looks just as inscrutable and sudsy as its predecessor.  Adding Kim Basinger (Final Analysis), Hugh Dancy, Tyler Hoechlin (Everybody Wants Some!), and Bella Heathcote (The Neon Demon) and bringing in James Foley to relieve Taylor-Johnson of her directing duties, it will be interesting to see if this sequel can win back its target audience.  With the final movie almost completed, there’s no stopping this machine even if we wanted to.

The Silver Bullet ~ 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

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Synopsis: An American Ambassador is killed during an attack at a U.S. compound in Libya as a security team struggles to make sense out of the chaos.

Release Date:  January 15, 2015

Thoughts: It’s no secret that director Michael Bay has become a bit of a joke in Hollywood.  A profitable joke, but a joke nonetheless.  Honing his skills in a number of empty headed blockbusters (though The Island is his best work to date) over the years, he was resoundingly ripped a new one in 2014 with the release of Transformers: Age of Extinction.  While some heralded its release as if it were the end of the free world, I didn’t mind it half as much as my knife sharpening peers and think it was actually an improvement over the previous installment.

So it’s interesting to see Bay’s name attached to this war drama that tells the true story of a team of soldiers that defy protocol to save a group under attack in war-torn Libya.  The filming style is unmistakably Bay and the bro-tosterone practically overwhelms the viewer…but it could be a nice change of pace for the hotshot (and, reportedly hot headed) director.

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 ~ Captain Phillips

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The Facts
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Synopsis: The true story of Captain Richard Phillips and the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of the US-flagged MV Maersk Alabama, the first American cargo ship to be hijacked in two hundred years.

Stars: Tom Hanks, Catherine Keener, Barkhad Abdi, Max Martini, Yul Vazquez, Michael Chernus, Chris Mulkey, Corey Johnson, David Warshofsky, John Magaro, Angus MacInnes

Director: Paul Greengrass

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 134 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  For some reason, I resisted seeing Captain Phillips longer than I should have.  Though I had many chances to attend it during its advance screening phase I either found another screening to attend or came up with a reason why I didn’t want to sit through it.  I got the feeling this was one movie that you had to be in the right frame of mind/mood to see and I didn’t want to see it just because it was next on my list.

Finally, in the last few weeks it was the right time and after seeing it I wished I hadn’t waited so long.  Though I knew the basic plot of the film and how it was all going to turn out, I had deliberately distanced myself from further details so I could let the movie fill in the gaps for me as it developed.  I’m glad I did too because Captain Phillips turned out to be one of the more gripping films I’ve seen all year, housing two unforgettable performances.

The film begins with two men heading to sea.  The first man is Tom Hanks (Joe Versus the Volcano, Cloud Atlas, Splash!) in the titular role, an old school sea captain that finds himself taken hostage by Somali pirates when they make their way onto the cargo ship he’s piloting.  The second man is newcomer Barkhad Abdi as Muse, the leader of the pirates who makes a bold play for such a large ship and winds up increasingly over his head as his hurried plans go awry.  Though neither men know it at the outset, both are embarking on a trip that will alter their lives (and the lives of the men that serve under them) forever.

Director Paul Greengrass has staged his previous films (United 93, The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum) with a herky jerky handheld camera style that sent more than a few green faced audience members running for the bathroom but thankfully there’s precious little of that here.  The rugged camerawork of Barry Ackroyd perfectly captures the oncoming meeting of the two captains and Greengrass works with editor Christopher Rouse to amp up the tension slowly until the final act of the film turns into a total edge of your seat nailbiter.

Working with a script from Billy Ray (Color of Night, The Hunger Games) adapted from the book by the real Captain Phillips that wisely refuses to make the Somali pirates totally evil, the film gets more interesting as it goes along because we begin to understand why these Somali men have gone after the ship with such vigor.  We know they are in the wrong but without being overly sympathetic to the pirates there is empathy shown that makes the film that much more commanding.

I’ve grown accustomed to Hanks being solid in every movie he’s involved with.  Though I think his genial personality has given him a few more free passes on lousy films than the normal Hollywood star would get, there’s no denying that the man has charisma that only maturity in the business can bring.  I found him to be slightly miscast as Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks with too many aw shuck-y moments but as Captain Phillips he reminds us all why he’s won two Oscars and been nominated for three more.  I had been told that Hanks was particularly effective in the final ten minutes of the movie and while that’s definitely true, I found him to be locked and loaded for greatness from the moment he appeared on screen.

If Hanks hits a home run than Abdi knocks it out of the park.  A former cab driver in Minnesota, Abdi was picked along with three other Somali actors for roles in the film and Abdi delivers one of my favorite performances of the year.  In a role that’s equal parts bravura machismo and childish naïveté to the danger he’s making for himself, Abdi dissolves completely into the role at times alternating between fear and desperation in his quest.  Without giving too much away, I think there’s one decision Abdi’s character makes with the full knowledge of what the outcome will be…yet he makes it anyway because it’s the only choice his character can live with at that point in time.  It’s a haunting performance, totally captivating, and honestly unforgettable…writing about it now I still shudder at several passages of the film he has total ownership of.

This is a great film – don’t be a wuss like me and put it off for so long that your attention is clouded with other less worthy films.  Hanks and especially Abdi do incredible work and if I’ve failed to mention anyone else in the film it’s not because they aren’t great as well…it would just be unfair to single out any one of the talented ensemble that supports Hanks/Abdi deliver the performances they have.

Not to be missed.

Movie Review ~ Pacific Rim

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The Facts:

Synopsis: As a war between humankind and monstrous sea creatures wages on, a former pilot and a trainee are paired up to drive a seemingly obsolete special weapon in a desperate effort to save the world from the apocalypse.

Stars: Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Ron Perlman, Robert Kazinsky, Max Martini, Clifton Collins, Jr., Burn Gorman, Larry Joe Campbell, Brad William Henke, Diego Klattenhoff

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 132 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: So here’s a movie that had the potential to be a lot better than what it turned out to be. Director Guillermo del Toro has demonstrated over the course of his career that he’s a filmmaker truly interested in the heartbeat of a film.  Though his works have always been visually arresting and skillfully created (hello Pan’s Labyrinth, Cronos, and both Hellboy movies), he’s not afraid to take the time to let the underneath of it all show through.

Pacific Rim gets the trusted del Toro formula half right with some of the most impressively eye-popping visual effects you’re likely to see in theaters now.  Add to that a production design that is realistic but not overly fussy and you have a movie that would be a slam-dunk…if you watched it on mute.  The problem with Pacific Rim is that it has no heart, no brains, and leaves the viewer feeling as hollow as the mighty mechanical titans that are created to fight creatures from the depths of the ocean.

Credit should be given to screenwriters del Toro and Travis Beacham for devising a clever spin on the earth vs aliens formula that has been revisited by pictures big and small for over half a century.  The lengthy prologue of Pacific Rim brings us up to speed on the last decade of war that broke out when a seismic shift in the middle of the ocean unleashed terrifying creatures that go on to wreak havoc around the world.  Huge in size, our modern weapons were no match for their power so the world leaders created jaegers, battle bots that could stand tall enough to look these monsters in the eye and taken them down with a vast array of weaponry.

How these are operated from within by two humans is best explained by the film itself (it’s kinda a bunch of hooey) but soon these jaeger pilots are seen as rock stars until the creatures begin to adapt and render the program nearly obsolete after a tragedy calls into question their effectiveness.  Flashing forward several years, the program is re-started when a substantial threat of major invasion is predicted.

Idea-wise, the film is a winner.  Even writing about it here I had a small rush of excitement because it sounds like there is so much that a talented director like del Toro can do with it.  And del Toro delivers the visuals with awesome results.  The battle sequences (especially when viewed in IMAX 3D) are nearly overwhelming in their scope, size, and bravura.  Even though much of these sequences take place at night and in the rain you’ll be able to follow each powerful battle royale between machine and monster.

Unfortunately, the dialogue that strings these passages together and most of the  plot developments are bargain basement material with little to no surprise about what’s going to happen next.  Even a post credits scene is one you’ll be able to see coming if you are familiar with del Toro and his favorite actor to use (no spoilers here!)

It’s also a shockingly bad film for acting.  Let’s start with the best of the middling performances.  Idris Elba (Prometheus) is a solid actor tasked weak material.  I’m still waiting for Elba to be given the kind of role that will rocket him to the fame that he has the talent for.  As the jaeger program director he has little to do but growl when questioned and deliver a sound byte ready inspirational speech near the end that feels like a revised version of the what Bill Pullman rambled on about in Independence Day.

The rest of the international cast is a hodge podge that run the gamut from bland to sour.  You simply couldn’t ask for a more vanilla leading man than Charlie Hunnam, an actor with zero going on behind his eyes.  Paired with Rinko Kikuchi (a far cry from her Oscar nominated turn in Babel) the two are asked to create chemistry that not even the folks at MIT could assist in creating.  Both actors provide some truly embarrassing performances and you have to wonder what on earth del Toro saw in them to cast them as the leads in such an important studio picture.  As arguing scientists, Charlie Day (who comes off like the love child of Bobcat Goldthwait and Rick Moranis) and Burn Gorman seem like they’ve time traveled out of a sci-fi spoof of this film from the future.

Lousy performances aside, this is one film that will be best enjoyed in a theater when you can be totally immersed in the world that del Toro has created.  I can’t say the movie will work as well for home viewing so if you can overlook the disappointingly ordinary execution of a smart set-up and nearly an entire cast of poor performances you should try this one out when it gets to your bargain cinema.

The Silver Bullet ~ Captain Phillips

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Synopsis: The true story of Captain Richard Phillips and the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of the US-flagged MV Maersk Alabama, the first American cargo ship to be hijacked in two hundred years.

Release Date:  October 11, 2013

Thoughts: Maybe it’s just me but I think that at nearly three minutes this trailer is way too long and is heavy on giving away some major plot points right off the bat.  True, if you read the description or are familiar with the true life story you know what you’re getting into and what the resolution was but there’s something to be said for keeping your cards close to the chest.  Director Paul Greengrass (United 93) has the proven experience to be the right guy to helm a picture like this but I’m not yet sold on Tom Hanks (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Cloud Atlas, Splash) in a role that looks to be chosen mostly for Oscar potential (same goes for his other 2013 film, Disney’s Saving Mr. Banks).  Reservations aside, the final moments of this trailer did make me sit forward in my seat a little bit more…here’s hoping when Captain Phillips is released in October that it’s not waterlogged.