Movie Review ~ Fifty Shades Freed


The Facts
:

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

fifty_shades_darker_ver2

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.

Hasta La Vista…Summer (July)

arnold-terminator-almostdidnotstarHasta

We did it! We made it through another summer and while the outdoor heat wasn’t too bad (in Minnesota, at least) the box office was on fire.

I’ll admit that I indulged in summer fun a bit more than I should, distracting me from reviewing some key movies over the last three months so I wanted to take this opportunity to relive the summer of 2015, mentioning my thoughts on the movies that got away and analyzing the winners and losers by month and overall.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride read.

JulyI just wasn’t prepared for July. It hit me like a ton of bricks, a wave of cinematic excursions that made my head spin. So many movies were released that it was hard to keep track from week to week what was arriving and what was still waiting for its release date. As you can see below, I had a lot of catching-up to do

The month began with the disappointment of Terminator Genisys. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting from the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger but it for sure wasn’t the muddled misfire that was supposed to reboot this franchise. Badly cast with shoddy special effects, this was supposed to be the beginning of something but should likely be the end (though it did do well overseas so we may yet get another one of these in a few years).

A few summers back I lamented how bad the original Magic Mike was. Trading eye candy entertainment for any semblance of watchable narrative, it was another dud (for me) from Steven Soderbergh. So you’d understand why I wasn’t keen on Magic Mike XXL because I felt we’d already been there done that. Much to my delight, the sequel was much better than its predecessor, maintaining the fun frivolity of the world of male strippers while injecting some personality into the proceedings. Quite possible the biggest surprise of the summer for me.

I learned a lot from the wise documentary Amy, chronicling the rise and fall of Amy Winehouse, the singer with the bluesy voice and broken butterfly backstory. She had a lot to overcome and the film made a compelling argument that she would still be here today had she had a better support system.

Though I loved the Minions in the Despicable Me films, I didn’t care for their solo outing with its half-baked story and less that inspired vocal work. It felt like a quick cash-grab and it looks like it accomplished its goal. Hopefully next time they’ll come back with a better story and more convincing actors.

The found footage horror movie had its death knell with The Gallows, a brainless exercise in tedium peppered with cheap scares and lousy acting. Could have (and should have) been much better.

Now we approach a stretch where I checked out for a bit – but I’m atoning for it now with these mini-reviews.

                                                        Movie Review ~ Batkid Begins
batkid_begins_the_wish_heard_around_the_world_ver2The Facts
:
Synopsis: On one day, in one city, the world comes together to grant one 5-year-old cancer patient his wish. Batkid Begins looks at the ‘why’ of this flash phenomenon.
Stars: Miles Scott
Director: Dana Nachman
Rated: PG
Running Length: 87 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Can I admit something to you and not have you hate me?  When I first saw the media frenzy around this back in 2013 I remember rolling my eyes are the saccharine nature of the whole endeavor.  Why would an entire city be brought to a screeching halt because of one kid’s wish to be Batman for a day?  Well, the documentary Batkid Begins showed me why and by the end I was feeling like a lout for my initial feelings and wiping away the happy tears the film easily brings forth from the viewer.  Following the planning and execution by the Make-A-Wish Foundation to give a 5 year old leukemia survivor the day of his dreams, viewers get a glimpse at what goes into even the smallest wish granted by the organization.  While it at times comes off like a big advertisement, it’s heart is most certainly in the right place and I found myself getting choked up with each good deed and promise fulfilled by a host of people involved in making the day come off without a hitch. An audience-pleasing winner.

                                                        Movie Review ~ The Overnight
overnight_ver2The Facts
:
Synopsis: A family “playdate” becomes increasingly interesting as the night goes on.
Stars: Adam Scott, Jason Schwartzman, Taylor Schilling, Judith Godrèche
Director: Patrick Brice
Rated: R
Running Length: 79 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: There and gone in an instant, The Overnight is a film better suited for home viewing anyway.  A couple (Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling) new to the area meet Jason Schwartzman at a local playground where both of their children are playing.  Their kids have hit it off so Schwartzmann invites the family over for more fun, but when the kids go to bed Schwartzman and his wife Judith Godrèche have more interesting games to play for the unsuspecting couple.  Saying more would spoil the fun but it’s an adults only evening with oodles of twists and turns as both couples bare their secrets (and their bodies) before the night is over.  Already famous for its full frontal shots of Schwartzman and Scott (sorry, both are wearing prosthetics), at 79 minutes the movie is short but does start to feel long in the middle section.  It helps immensely that all four actors are competent and comfortable with the material…the story doesn’t hold back and neither do they.

                                                              Movie Review ~ Ant-Man
ant_man_ver3The Facts
:
Synopsis: Armed with a super-suit with the astonishing ability to shrink in scale but increase in strength, con-man Scott Lang must embrace his inner hero and help his mentor, Dr. Hank Pym, plan and pull off a heist that will save the world.
Stars: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Michael Pena, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, David Dastmalchian, T.I. , Judy Greer, Bobby Cannavale, Martin Donovan, Wood Harris, John Slattery, Gregg Turkington, Abby Ryder Fortson
Director: Peyton Reed
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 117 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: Early troubles with the start of production with Ant-Man and some seriously questionable teasers/trailers didn’t get me very excited for this mid-summer superhero movie.  I think Marvel was hoping that Ant-Man would score along the lines of last summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy but it’s sadly missing the humor that made Guardians so much fun.  It’s not a total wash though because for every 10 minutes of standard origin-story developments, there’s a solid 5 minutes of exciting action sequences to wake audiences up from their slumber.  I know that with an origin story you need to cover a lot of ground and Ant-Man, to its additional credit, doesn’t waste much time in getting to the goods…but it’s a cheap-o undertaking and one that feels like a second-string entry in Marvel’s blockbuster universe.  Paul Rudd makes for a surprisingly solid action lead as does Corey Stoll as Rudd’s nemesis, but Evangeline Lilly labors too much under her severe wig (that seems to change lengths multiple times, in the middle of scenes) and isn’t a good enough actress to carry some weighty responsibilities.  A decent entry as far as Marvel films go…but I’m not clamoring for a sequel any time soon.

                                                         Movie Review ~ Irrational Man
irrational_manThe Facts
:
Synopsis: A tormented philosophy professor finds a will to live when he commits an existential act.
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey, Jamie Blackley, Betsy Aidem, Ethan Phillips, Sophie von Haselberg
Director: Woody Allen
Rated: R
Running Length: 96 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: It happens every year and every year you never quite know what to expect.  I’m speaking, of course, of the annual Woody Allen release and like many of the directors works, it’s a hit or miss affair.  I’m constantly in awe that Allen has churned out a film a year (sometimes two a year) for the last three decades and even the really bad ones aren’t as terrible as the other dreck dumped on us during the summer.  Last year Magic in the Moonlight was dismissed as too slight even for Allen but I enjoyed its frothy charm…something that was missing from the more serious-minded Irrational Man.  As a boozy professor that gets into hot water in his New England college town, Joaquin Phoenix was perhaps the wrong choice because the actor plagues himself far too much for Allen’s light material. At least co-star Emma Stone helps keep Phoenix from the quicksand of his own creation but she can’t be in every scene and it’s when Phoenix is on his own that the film goes slack.  Then there’s Parker Posey who I’m becoming convinced is simply not of this earth and doesn’t try to hide it anymore.  Bizarre line readings and the tendency to let her mouth hang open are only the tip of Posey’s strange acting iceberg. Very much in line with the dark humor of Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, Irrational Man should hold your interest for a time but it’s quickie ending feels like Allen was ready to move on to his next film rather than put a period at the end things.

                                                            Movie Review ~ Trainwreck
trainwreckThe Facts
:
Synopsis: Having thought that monogamy was never possible, a commitment-phobic career woman may have to face her fears when she meets a good guy.
Stars: Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson, Mike Birbiglia, Colin Quinn, Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, John Cena, Vanessa Bayer, Jon Glaser, LeBron James, Method Man
Director: Judd Apatow
Rated: R
Running Length: 125 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review: One of the true success stories of the summer has to have been Amy Schumer, not so much for writing and starring in Trainwreck but the collective impact she’s had on the comedy scene.  Unapologetic in her crassness and wise in her observations, Schumer is a comic moving like a shooting star and it’s nice to report that I think she’s a pretty decent actress as well. As much as I enjoy Schumer I was nervous that she was attaching herself to director Judd Apatow because Apatow, as we all know, has a way of turning in muddled work.  Unfortunately, Apatow’s influence led the film to be about 20 minutes longer than it needed to be and ultimately overstaying its welcome.  I don’t care what anyone says about the appearance of LeBron James as a bona fide supporting player, his entire storyline should have been excised and the film wouldn’t have suffered at all.  The problems get worse because Apatow likes to cast non-actors in his film and put in cameos when you least expect it…to the detriment of the flow of the narrative.  He stumbles badly in several places here but is saved by Schumer and Bill Hader as the opposites attract duo that confidently lead the film.  Special mention must, again, be made to Tilda Swinton for disappearing within her role as Schumer’s glam yet grim boss.  Worth it for Schumer, Swinton, and Hader…but watch it at home so you can fast forward through the slow Apatow-ish parts.

                                                           Movie Review ~ Mr. Holmes
mr_holmes_ver2The Facts
:
Synopsis: An aged, retired Sherlock Holmes looks back on his life, and grapples with an unsolved case involving a beautiful woman.
Stars: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Hiroyuki Sanada, Roger Allam, Frances de la Tour, Hattie Morahan, Patrick Kennedy, Philip Davis, Milo Parker
Director: Bill Condon
Rated: PG
Running Length: 104 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  In reality, I probably should have given Mr. Holmes a more thorough review than I’m about to give here…but I have a feeling I’ll have a chance to discuss it more over the next few months because if all is right with the world Ian McKellen will find himself nominated in a few Best Actor categories during the end of the year awards round-up.  McKellen plays an aged Sherlock Holmes living in the country, attended to by a no-nonsense housekeeper (Laura Linney) and entertained by her young son. There’s actually three Holmes on display here as the present Holmes recalls two previous cases he was involved with that had an impact on his life.  With a smart script from Jeffrey Hatcher adapted from a popular novel, it’s directed with a mellow grandeur by Bill Condon.  Condon and McKellen scored before with the fascinating Gods and Monsters and here’s hoping they go the distance with this one too.  An interesting tidbit, at one point Holmes ventures out to see a Sherlock Holmes movie…and the actor playing Holmes on screen (Nicholas Rowe) played the detective in 1986’s fun frolic Young Sherlock Holmes.

                                                            Movie Review ~ Paper Towns
paper_townsThe Facts
:
Synopsis: A young man and his friends embark upon the road trip of their lives to find the missing girl next door.
Stars: Nat Wolff, Halston Sage, Austin Abrams, Cara Delevingne, Justice Smith
Director: Jake Schreir
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 109 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  After The Fault in Our Stars became a runaway hit last summer movie studios were looking for the next big alt-teen romance that could lure YA audiences away from summer action flicks.  Turns out they didn’t have to look far because Paper Towns was adapted from the novel by the same author as The Fault in Our Stars.  While Paper Towns doesn’t center around a disease that threatens to tear our lovebirds apart, it has its own mystery about it as Nat Wolff goes looking for his recently vanished neighbor (Cara Delevingne) that he’s been enamored with (or more like fascinated by) since they were children.  Following the clues she seemingly left for him, Wolff and his friends embark on a journey of discovery where they Learn Life Lessons.  The film kept my interest for most of the running length and it’s only in the final passages when all is explained does it feel a little like a letdown.  Still, there’s a smart air of riskiness that elevates the film and more often than not it lands on the good side of taking that risky step.

 

                                                                 Movie Review ~ Pixels
pixelsThe Facts
:
Synopsis: When aliens misinterpret video feeds of classic arcade games as a declaration of war, they attack the Earth in the form of the video games.
Stars: Adam Sandler, Brian Cox, Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan, Peter Dinklage, Josh Gad
Director: Chris Columbus
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review: A movie where everyone involved should hang their head in shame.  There’s actually some semblance of a good idea here with aliens attacking earth with classic arcade games but unfortunately it gets trampled by Adam Sandler’s lazy acting, Kevin James bad acting, and Josh Gad’s awful everything.  Michelle Monaghan looks positively embarrassed to be sharing scenes (especially romantic ones) with Sandler and only Peter Dinklage comes out relatively unscathed in a campy, mullet wearing performance.  For fans of ‘80s nostalgia there are some pleasant diversions as video game characters pop up in (supposedly) comical ways and I think that director Chirs Columbus really did give the material a chance to be something interesting…but Sandler and his crew suck the life out of everything and are so devoid of any vested interest that you wonder why you should care at all either.

                                                            Movie Review ~ Southpaw
southpaw_ver2The Facts
:
Synopsis: Boxer Billy Hope turns to trainer Tick Willis to help him get his life back on track.
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Clare Foley, Miguel Gomez, Victor Ortiz, Rita Ora, Naomie Harris
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Rated: R
Running Length: 123 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review: By now, we know that Jake Gyllenhaal is a smart actor.  With role after role from Prisoners to Nightcrawler to End of Watch we’ve seen that he’s up for most any challenge and likes to dive deep into his roles.  So it’s not surprising that he was drawn to this tale of redemption concerning a famous boxer at the top of his game dealt a series of terrible blows (in more ways than one) and his eventual path back to himself. What is surprising is that while the performances are very good you can’t get away from the fact that the story feels recycled and originally intended for a different set of lower string stars.  I’m always on the fence regarding Forest Whitaker but as the wise boxing manager that grudgingly comes to Gyllenhaal’s aid, the actor reminds us why he so deserved his Best Actor Oscar for The Last King of Scotland.  Also turning in a great performance in Rachel McAdams (The Vow) as Gyllenhaal’s high school sweetheart, mother of his daughter, and the only one that seems to have his best interest at heart.

Southpaw was also at the center of some controversy that arose this summer about movie trailers that give away too much of the film.  If you have seen the trailer for Southpaw you know what I’m talking about…if you haven’t, please go into the movie blind.  I had a faint idea what the spoiler was and even that made the first ¼ of the film much less involving.  Worth it for the performances but gets knocked out by an also-ran plot.

                                                              Movie Review ~ Samba
samba_ver7The Facts
:
Synopsis: Samba migrated to France ten years ago from Senegal, and has since been plugging away at various lowly jobs. Alice is a senior executive who has recently undergone a burn-out. Both struggle to get out of their dead-end lives. Samba’s willing to do whatever it takes to get working papers, while Alice tries to get her life back on track until fate draws them together.
Stars: Omar Sy, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Tahar Rahim, Izia Higelin, Isaka Sawadogo
Director: Olivier Nakache, Eric Toledano
Rated: R
Running Length: 118 minutes
TMMM Score: (5.5/10)
Review: Of all the movies I’m talking about in this wrap-up this is one I’d bet dollars to donuts that you’ve never heard of.  And you couldn’t be blamed because this barely made a blip on the usually forgiving art-house circuit.  From the star and directors of 2012’s dynamite The Intouchables comes this story of an immigrant man living in France who crosses paths with a burned out executive when the man is discovered to be an illegal alien.  Omar Sy (Jurassic World) and Charlotte Gainsbourg don’t have that much chemistry but in a weird way it works for the oddball romance that develops over the course of the film.  I never could get a real feel if the movie was a comedy, drama, or something in between…and neither could most of the people involved.  Slightly recommended but only if the plot or stars appeal to you.

That almost did it for July…but there was still one weekend to go!  Moving up several months from its planned December release, the fifth installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise had its brains in the right place but at times forgot to bring its brawn.  I still prefer Ghost Protocol to Rogue Nation but as long as star Tom Cruise keeps making these films interesting I’ll keep accepting future missions. Here’s hoping he brings along Rebecca Ferguson again because finally there is a female that is every bit a match to Cruise’s daring agent.

I wasn’t sold at all when I heard that Warner Brothers was planning on remaking National Lampoon’s Vacation but as time went on I heard more that it was more of a sequel than a reboot (resequel?) and I started coming around to the idea of a new Vacation.  I enjoyed Ed Helms and Christina Applegate as the hapless couple traveling cross-country with their children…but audiences and most critics didn’t.  It wasn’t a great movie and was probably too crude to be part of your Vacation marathons…but I have to say the worst part about it was when original stars Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo showed up.  Still, I’m hoping it made enough money to warrant a holiday themed sequel.  In any event…it’s a damn sight better than European Vacation.

Wow – July didn’t skimp on variety, did it?  Arguably the hottest month for releases, it carried over the promise of May and June and laid a path for August to do quite well…but could it top the three months that came before it?

STAY TUNED FOR AUGUST

CHECK OUT MAY & JUNE!

Movie Review ~ Fifty Shades of Grey

FS

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

fifty_shades_of_grey

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.