Fifty Shades of Grey


I have not read E.L. James’ book “Fifty Shades of Grey,” but I have yet to hear anyone I know say a good thing about it. But after watching Sam Taylor-Johnson’s cinematic adaptation, I think I understand why it became such a literary phenomenon. It allows its readers to visualize sexual fantasies they don’t get perform in their own lives as the two main characters engage in a sadomasochistic relationship which appears alarmingly pleasurable. The question, however, is this, can the individual erotic desires James’ book conjures up come even close to equaling what we see in this long-awaited film adaptation? The answer is no, not even close, and I’m certain you don’t have to have read the book to confirm this.

Fifty Shades of Grey” is essentially a big tease of a movie which promises so much naughty stuff but instead ends up giving you very little if anything. It’s like the girl who kept teasing you in high school, and of course, you fell for her charms when you should have known better (don’t ask me how I know this). I came in with low expectations, and it proves to be a hilarious comedy for all the wrong reasons. But long before its climax or lack of one so to speak, I found myself becoming increasingly bored and started to wonder if this movie would ever end. When it finally did, I found myself breathing a huge sigh of relief.

We come to meet college student Anastasia Steel (Dakota Johnson), an English literature major on the verge of graduating when she is offered the opportunity to conduct an interview with the infinitely wealthy business entrepreneur Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). Sparks end up flying for them instead of the audience, and while it takes far longer for them to kiss for the first time, it eventually allows Christian to bring Anastasia into his inner sanctum which includes a room filled with all the BDSM equipment you could ever hope to find or see so beautifully maintained.

Does Anastasia end up becoming the submissive to the dominant Christian? The answer seems fairly certain, but the movie takes forever to get to that point as Christian keeps encouraging Anastasia to sign a contract which will allow him to do the craziest things to her. It got to where I wanted to yell at the screen, “SIGN THE DAMN CONTRACT ALREADY!!!” Granted, Anastasia’s hesitation to do so is understandable and smart, but it just makes her inaction all the more tedious to endure. To encourage her, Christian does several things like buying her a new computer and a new car, selling her old one off in the process, and showing off the cars in his building’s garage. I kept waiting for Christian to reveal himself as a serial killer, but to do so would have threatened to make this movie interesting.

Perhaps it’s a mistake to come into “Fifty Shades of Grey” expecting anything truly realistic as it seems to exist more in a fantasy world than the real one. Still, I can’t help but wonder how Christian Grey finds the time to engage in any kind of sadomasochistic activity when he runs the kind of business which should keep him fully occupied 24/7. Then again, he does have plenty of time to work out at the gym so he can show off those six-pack abs you know he has hidden underneath his shirt.

Regardless of how I feel about Anastasia as a character and of her foolish descent into Christian’s twisted lifestyle, Dakota Johnson, the daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith, proves to be quite a good actress. I liked how she was able to convey a variety of emotions without having to say a word, and she is able to show her character’s longing while her co-star is unable to do so, which is putting it nicely. With the right role in the right movie, she may end up with quite the career as an actress, and she looks to be capable of doing so much better than appearing in this piece of dreck.

As for her co-star, Jamie Dornan who plays Christian Grey, watching him reminded me of a scene in “The Shawshank Redemption” when Red described Andy Dufresne as a guy who “looked like a stiff breeze would blow him over.” Watching “Fifty Shades of Grey,” I can’t help but think Dornan was cast just for his good looks. From start to finish, he comes across as so emotionally vacant to where I wondered if he was capable of exhibiting any kind of emotion at all. His face looks like it is frozen in place, and not even sex can seem to thaw it. Dornan does, however, have the best line when he says he’s “fifty shades of f**ked up,” and that line effectively sums up this whole movie.

Among the other things which cripple “Fifty Shades of Grey” is the fact that Johnson and Dornan don’t have much chemistry. Romantic relationships in movies thrive on the stars having some form of it, and this isn’t the case here. Rumor has it that they didn’t get along behind the scenes, and this shows here regardless of the studio’s efforts to hide the truth. Then again, it must be somewhat difficult to have chemistry when one lover punishes the other lover physically in order to feel anything.

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson only has one previous credit which is “Nowhere Boy,” a film which chronicles the childhood experiences of John Lennon. I haven’t seen it, but I’m certain my friend Trevor, a huge John Lennon fan, has many great things to say about it. But whatever great things she was able to accomplish with “Nowhere Boy” is not on display here as she succeeds in making the most sleep-inducing erotic movie ever. The sex scenes come way too late and are very unimaginative. Christian running an ice cube down Anastasia’s stomach? We’ve seen that before. As for Taylor-Johnson’s song selections which include “I Put a Spell on You” and “Beast of Burden,” they are far too obvious even if the former is sung by Annie Lennox.

“Fifty Shades of Grey” marks the first erotic studio movie Hollywood has released since “Unfaithful” which came out back in 2002. This movie represented a chance for Hollywood to deal with sexual relationships more frankly than others have in recent years, but it instead proves to be an astonishingly chaste motion picture which seems stunning considering the source material. Late night movies on Cinemax and Showtime have far more erotic power than this one (don’t ask me how I know this either), and the sex scenes are so sterile looking that it feels like they were shot in Irvine, California. The marketing department did a brilliant job in titillating moviegoers into thinking they were getting some sexy stuff they won’t find on the internet (unless they look in the right places, of course), but we went through the same thing with “Showgirls” and look what happened there. “Fifty Shades of Grey” ends up making Paul Verhoeven’s camp classic look like “Vertigo.”

Seriously, there are so many other movies that are far better than this piece of crap and which deal with sadomasochistic relationships in a healthier and far more sensual way like “Secretary” which starred James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal, and “The Duke of Burgundy” which is from the director of “Berberian Sound Studio,” Peter Strickland. What depresses me is audiences are going to flock out to this adaptation than they will to other movies far more worthy of their time and money. Some books translate well to the silver screen, but this one should have stayed on the written page. Then again, when a book like “Fifty Shades of Grey” sells an incredible amount of copies, why stop there?

* out of * * * *

Universal Pictures Unveils First Trailer for ‘Fifty Shades Darker’

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the movie theater on Valentine’s Day, another E.L. James novel is about to make its way to the silver screen. The cinematic adaptation of “Fifty Shades of Grey” was not well-received critically and was a big winner at the 36th Golden Raspberry Awards, but it still made over $500 million dollars worldwide, so a sequel was destined. Now Universal Pictures has unveiled the first trailer for “Fifty Shades Darker,” and it promises to be more of a thriller as well as something sexier and more obsessive than its predecessor.

Despite Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) leaving Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) at the end of the first movie, this trailer shows neither have yet to call it quits on their relationship. Anastasia, a picture of youthful innocence previously, looks much more mature this time around while Christian, as usual, remains engulfed by demons. We see them go to a masquerade party which makes one wonder if the filmmakers are looking to outdo a similar sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” as that movie almost earned an NC-17 rating.

The passion between Anastasia and Christian appears a little healthier this time around as she makes clear there are to be no more rules or secrets between them. As the trailer reaches its midpoint, they certainly look to be having more fun than ever before. But soon Anastasia starts seeing other women looking back at her menacingly even while she sleeps in bed, and it becomes clear there are still many things Christian has to talk to her about.

The “Fifty Shades Darker” trailer is dominated by Miguel’s version of the song “Crazy in Love,” but while Beyoncé sang it to where her uncontainable joy was more than infectious, Miguel makes his interpretation of the song dark and very obsessive as if this love affair is heading to a very dangerous place. Indeed, Miguel’s song may be the most memorable thing about this trailer as he succeeds in making this song his own, and the result is haunting. As we watch Anastasia and Christian come together and fall apart in rapid succession, the song illustrates just how crazy their love affair is and how much crazier it is going to get.

Stepping into the director’s chair for this “Grey” movie is James Foley, the same man who directed one of greatest acting ensembles ever in the cinematic adaptation of David Mamet’s play “Glengarry Glen Ross.” Writing the screenplay is Niall Leonard, husband of E.L. James. Is Leonard a better writer than his wife? Well, here’s hoping. Among Johnson’s and Dornan’s co-stars here is Kim Basinger who plays Elena Lincoln, Grey’s business partner and former lover, and while we don’t see much of Basinger in the trailer, she has its last line which hangs over everything we have seen like the ominous of shadows. Keep in mind, Basinger’s character is also referred to as Mrs. Robinson (hint, hint).

Well, for better or for worse, “Fifty Shades Darker” will be arriving in theaters on February 14, 2017. Check out the trailer above.


The 9th Life Of Louis Drax


The 9th Life of Louis Drax” is a seriously confused movie. It is billed as a supernatural thriller, but it also contains elements of horror, fantasy, and it also has the essence of children’s movies in its DNA. Watching it was the equivalent of playing with a Transformers toy as a kid. While it was lots of fun to see it turn from one thing to another, I was constantly reminded of Robin Williams’ routine of playing with a Transformer while on drugs:

“It’s a truck, it’s a robot, it’s a… WHAT THE FUCK IS IT?”

Based on the best-selling novel by Liz Jensen, it delves into the strange and very troubled life of Louis Drax who was celebrating his ninth birthday when he suffers a near-fatal fall off of a cliff into the water below. As a result, he ends up in a coma from which he is never expected to awaken from. From there we are given a window into his short life which is full of endless mishaps and a truckload of dysfunction. His father Peter (Aaron Paul) is a caring dad and a self-destructive alcoholic, and his mother Natalie (Sarah Gadon) also cares deeply about her son even while she comes across a very cold fish. Into the picture comes prominent child psychologist Allan Pascal (Jamie Dornan) who delves very deeply into Louis’ infinitely dysfunctional life to see if he can help the child rise out of his deep sleep.

Now I didn’t know much about “The 9th Life of Louis Drax” before I sat down in a darkened theater to watch it. Sometimes this proves to be an advantage as it keeps me from bringing unrealistic expectations to a motion picture, but with this movie I found myself at a complete disadvantage because I couldn’t figure out what it was trying to be. Was I watching a medical drama or a fantasy movie? I couldn’t say for sure, and my confusion was even more pronounced as the movie reached its honestly predictable conclusion.

The other problem is the Louis of the movie’s title is not altogether likable. Despite a strong performance by Aiden Longworth, he is more creepy than sympathetic or empathetic. While Louis certain didn’t deserve the fate which has befallen him, watching him in flashbacks acting all weird makes this film more cringe worthy than emotionally involving.

There’s also a rather twisted romance between Louis’ doctor, Dr. Allan Pascal (Jamie Dornan), and his mother Natalie (Sarah Gadon). This all leads a lot of drama between and Allan and his wife to where it feels like we have entered another movie. Dornan looks almost as lifeless here as he did in “Fifty Shades of Grey” (he fares much better in “Anthropoid”), and Gadon has little more to do than look lovely and lost. Both Barbara Hershey and Oliver Platt appear in supporting roles as well, but they are wasted playing characters they can play in their sleep.

This is all a shame because “The 9th Life of Louis Drax” was directed by Alexandre Aja who gave us the blisteringly intense “High Tension” and the two of the best and most entertaining horror remakes in recent years, “The Hills Have Eyes” and “Piranha 3D.” With this film he looks to break free of the horror genre, and he does it give a striking look with the help if cinematographer Maxine Alexandre. But while its story is compelling, it features way too many elements to where the movie has no chance of being the least bit satisfying. Aja ran into the same problem with his last film “Horns” which, despite featuring another in a long line of strong performances from Daniel Radcliffe, had him failing to find a balance between its horror and comedic elements.

If there is one truly great thing about this movie, it is Aaron Paul. The “Breaking Bad” star pulls off a wonderfully complex performance as Louis’ father, Peter. While Peter at first looks like your typically drunk and neglectful father, Paul makes him into one cannot be easily judged. Despite his self-destructive tendencies, Peter proves to be the adult Louis needs in his increasingly dysfunctional life. Paul’s performance will no doubt remind viewers of his time as Jessie Pinkman, but it also shows them just how gifted an actor he is when given the right material.

By the time this movie reaches its “Sixth Sense” like ending, one which I couldn’t help but see coming a mile away, I was pretty much ready for it to be over. I have not read Jensen’s book, but I imagine she did a much better job of handling all the different elements of the story much better than everyone did here. “The 9th Life of Louis Drax” has the makings of a fabulous movie, but it stretches out in too many directions to where you don’t feel like you’re watching several different movies searching for the same cinematic plateau. Considering the talent involved behind the scenes, it should have been so much more.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

* * out of * * * *


Anthropoid poster

Anthropoid” is kind of like a cousin to “Valkyrie,” another movie about soldiers looking to take out a high ranking Nazi. Like “Valkyrie,” it will not go down as one of the most memorable World War II movies ever made, but it is an entertaining film which engages us with noble characters, interesting questions about the price of war and a furious climax where resistance fighters make their last stand. More importantly, it deals with a true life event (yes, it is “based on a true story”) many probably don’t know about but should.

The movie starts in 1941 with two Czechoslovak exile soldiers, Jozef Gabčík (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubiš (Jamie Dornan), parachuting into their occupied homeland. Upon meeting the resistance fighters and their leader, “Uncle” Jan Zelenka-Hajský (Toby Jones), in Prague, they reveal that they are here to execute Operation Anthropoid which involves the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, a high ranking Nazi who was one of the architects of the Holocaust and whom Adolf Hitler described as “the man with the iron heart.” Do they succeed in their mission? You’ll have to watch the movie to find out.

“Anthropoid” gets off to a bit of a slow start as Jozef and Jan try to settle in and not stand out among everyone else in town. They even recruit two lovely ladies, Marie Kovárníkovasá (Charlotte Le Bon) and Lenka Fafková (Anna Geislerová), to help them carry out their mission, and they are more than willing to help. Just watch as Lenka makes clear to the men how she can handle a gun.

There’s a subplot where Jan ends up getting engaged to Marie, and it just comes out of nowhere to where this section feels rather awkward. A number of characters are not developed fully enough to where “Anthropoid” threatens to feel like a missed opportunity. But what elevates the material are the performances which are very strong.

You can never go wrong with Cillian Murphy as he has yet to give a bad performance in any film he appears in. As Jozef, Murphy’s steely eyes stare into others with an intensity which wipes the smiles off their faces as he makes clear this is no ordinary mission. He also makes Jozef a most determined soldier who is infinitely determined to carry out this operation, but even he can only take so much before he falls apart emotionally.

Jamie Dornan shows more life here than he ever could have in the dreadful “Fifty Shades of Grey.” This is especially the case when his character suffers a brutal panic attack which has Jozef desperately trying to calm him down from. It’s way too easy to look like a fool when portraying such an emotional moment as the camera never lies, and it says a lot about Dornan that he was able to make this panic attack such a genuinely anxiety ridden moment.

There are also a number of other terrific performances to be found in “Anthropoid” like the one from Toby Jones. Then again, seeing him in a World War II movie these days instantly reminds us of his “Hail Hydra” character from the “Captain America” movies.

“Anthropoid” really kicks into high gear when an assassination attempt is taken and the Nazis come down hard on a particular group of people to where sympathy isn’t much of an option. It gets to where everyone wonders if killing one Nazi will have any effect on the war. With the world closing in on the main characters, the intensity keeps building and building all the way to the very end.

The last half of “Anthropoid” has the protagonists holing up in a church, and they are discovered by the Nazis to where a violent standoff ensues. Director Sean Ellis, who helmed the Oscar nominated short film “Cashback,” stages an impressive standoff which has us completely riveted. While the first half feels routine, the last half really does keep us on the edge of our seats. With “Valkyrie” we had a very good idea of things would turn out, but with “Anthropoid” we don’t. Bullets fly all over the place and emotions are shattered to where we can’t look away, and this is aided by a pounding music score composed by Guy Farley and Robin Foster.

Parts of “Anthropoid” may not stay in the conscious mind long after you have seen it, but the parts which do make it worth the price of admission. Many made tremendous sacrifices which can no longer be swept under the rug, and this movie gives those soldiers the respect they have deserved for the longest time. It also looks at the many costs of war and of how soldiers can only keep their cool for so long until they break under the pressure. It’s a bleak movie in many ways, but it also shows just how far the resistance fighters were determined to end Hitler’s genocidal reign.

* * * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.