FIFTY SHADES OF GREY
Everyone knows that movies aren't books. Yet it's amazing how many people - critics, specifically - have chosen to forget that fact when discussing Fifty Shades of Grey, director Sam Taylor-Johnson's and screenwriter Kelly Marcel's adaptation of E.L. James' pop-porn phenomenon.
Admittedly, I haven't dived all that deeply into the film's reviews, considering that the Hollywood-ized Fifty Shades is not, to put it mildly, an offering that invites or requires much trenchant analysis. If I'm gleaning correctly, however, a majority of commentators appear to have a major beef (pardon the first of likely several puns) with the film, one that effectively boils down to "It isn't as hot as the book," if not the more damning "It isn't hot at all." Grantland's reliably incisive and astute Wesley Morris even wrote that Fifty Shades is "far closer to your average romantic comedy than to a sex drama between a punisher and the punished." Consequently, allow me to pose a perhaps heretical question: So what?
As even non-readers of James' literary behemoth know, Fifty Shades tells of a submissive young woman who finds the dominant of her dreams in a mind-bogglingly rich young man whose luxury apartment boasts a heavily accessorized playroom that one hopes gets disinfected on a regular basis. And here's where it's inevitably stated that I, myself, am one of those non-readers - as is, with two known exceptions, every single one of my close friends and family members. But the caveat there, of course, lies in those "known" exceptions. Who really knows how many of them made secret Amazon.com purchases, or read James' novel chapter by chapter during library visits, or routinely scanned it at Barnes & Noble seeking out the good parts? The book's astronomical sales, and the movie's predictably huge opening weekend, suggest there's little embarrassment in being part of the Fifty Shades explosion. Erotica, though, is still erotica, and the frequent titters I heard at my screening reinforced the notion that - in America, in 2015 - we're still not collectively comfortable with communal experiences involving handcuffs and floggers and women who want to know what a butt plug is. (Personally, I'd love to know the percentage of husbands forced into seeing the movie on Valentine's Day who told their buddies they saw American Sniper instead.)
Given our current culture and preponderance of "Won't somebody think of the children?!" panic, the R-rated Fifty Shades couldn't possibly be the sexually explicit turn-on its critics are attacking it for not being - not if the folks at Universal Pictures expected to make big bucks from it, and I'm assuming they did. (My guess is a wholly faithful adaptation could've only transpired if it were released [a] strictly on pay cable or video-on-demand, [b] overseas in a foreign language, or [c] in the early '70s, back when Deep Throat was a popular date-night event.) And while those who claim that Fifty Shades is pointless without the hardcore aren't exactly wrong, they also appear to be missing what's actually on-screen - namely a well-acted, slickly produced, surprisingly humorous drama about an innocent coming to terms with what she wants, and especially doesn't want, from life and love. If that sounds more like The Fault in Our Stars than Fifty Shades of Grey, I can't argue otherwise. As much as I may prefer to, I also can't pretend I didn't have fun at this thing.
Dakota Johnson, portraying college-senior protagonist Anastasia Steele, deserves most of the credit/blame. The performer's subtle, comedic responses to belief-defying circumstances both in and out of the playroom make her continually delightful; there's a welcome sense of "You've got to be kidding" in each of Anastasia's incredulous replies and miniature double-takes. Yet Johnson is also accessible and empathetic enough to make emotional sense of the borderline-senseless material. You never spend time thinking "Why is this smart gal doing this?" because Johnson has clearly thought through her role and realized that Anastasia, despite her 4.0 GPA, isn't a smart gal - at least not in the ways she needs to be around Christian Grey. She loves this bushel of damaged goods wholly and recklessly, and actor Jamie Dornan plays his inscrutable stud with impressively single-minded focus and flashes of dry-comic wit. Christian may be a great-looking blank, but Dornan, while indeed great-looking, isn't - he's graceful enough to offer teasing hints of interior life within all those shades of Grey, and I wound up liking him more and more as the movie progressed.
Ditto the movie itself. There's sharp character work by Jennifer Ehle and Marcia Gay Harden and enjoyable, unexpected displays of shifting power dynamics, and even though the sex scenes are the dullest scenes in the movie, they do come with built-in fascination. Will the beautiful stars ever go full-frontal? (Answer: Johnson very briefly; Dornan not at all.) Will those butt plugs ever make an appearance? (No.) Will the soundtrack's many pop divas, whose crooning underscores the coitus, ever give it a rest? (Hell no.) Fifty Shades of Grey may be a guilty pleasure, but it is mostly a pleasure, and while I have no idea what to expect from the rest of this trilogy (if it gets filmed), I'm kind of hoping Anastasia lands Christian as her hubby. Who wouldn't want a surname as chic as Steele-Grey?
Opening locally opposite Fifty Shades of Grey was the pro-faith romance Old Fashioned. And if you tried to develop a computer algorithm for "Valentine's-weekend counter-programming to Fifty Shades of Grey," I swear you couldn't have come up with anything more thorough than writer/director/star Rik Swartzwelder's accomplishment. Long-ish story short, the film is about a free-spirited young drifter named Amber (Elizabeth Roberts) who takes residence in a sleepy small town in Ohio, and winds up falling for the courteous, unmarried antiques dealer Clay (Swartzwelder), a gentleman so respectful of women that he's pledged never to be alone with one who isn't his wife. (Clay tells Amber, "I know how weird it sounds," but nothing that transpires suggests that he does, really.) What follows is a tenuous courtship in which the not-quite-lovebirds visit the library, toast marshmallows, visit Clay's elderly aunt, and enjoy other such exhilarating dating activities while never, ever, coming close to kissing. They also spend their time sharing passages from a (fictitious, I hope) premarital instructional manual titled Red Yellow Green, a book that Clay forces upon his surprisingly willing new girlfriend, kind of like how Steve Guttenberg, in Diner, forced his fianceé to take a football quiz before marrying her. (Clay even dines on French fries with gravy - just like Guttenberg!) It hardly needs to be said that Old Fashioned - or, as I prefer to think of it, Fifty Shades of Clay - should've been unendurable. But my eating the movie up with a spoon? That definitely needs to be said.
I've been asked before - especially in the past year, during which we've had a plethora of 'em - why I bother seeing and reviewing so many micro-budgeted, nonsecular rush jobs that pop into cineplexes for a week or two and promptly vanish with almost no hope of ever being remembered, even by their fans. It's because, for every trio of Courageous and Persecuted and (gulp!) Kirk Cameron's Saving Christmas, you'll find an engaging little scrapper such as God's Not Dead - or, better yet, Old Fashioned, a legitimately searching, thoughtful, entertaining work that, in its TV-dramedy way, examines the tenets of Christianity and forgiveness with more sincerity and depth than most faith-based titles I can name. Sure, its storyline involving Clay's apparent vow of ultra-chastity is mostly ridiculous. Happily, though, with the exception of Clay himself, everyone on-screen knows it's ridiculous and has no problem expressing that sentiment in one manner or another; even the sitcom-adorable aunt (Dorothy Silver) will have none of it, telling her nephew, "If you were any more self-absorbed, you'd be a dot!" (I have no earthly idea what that means, but I nonetheless appreciated Clay being called out.) In a refreshing change from similarly-themed films, and despite this one's central plot gimmick, people talk and behave here the way they likely would in real life; I never loved the film more than after Clay's holier-than-thou antics broke up his best friend's bachelor party, and the stripper confronted him - angrily but honestly - for how much he cost her in tips. And perhaps best of all, we're treated to a major find in Elizabeth Roberts, whose talent, charm, and looks blend the best of Rachel McAdams and Mary-Louise Parker, and who would would be giving a star-making performance if any Hollywood powers-that-be could be bothered to watch the movie. (Swartzwelder himself is a bit of a lunk as an actor, but demonstrates enough nascent writing and directorial skill to make up for it.) I don't in any way judge, and even applaud, patrons who chose Old Fashioned over Fifty Shades of Grey this past weekend. I do judge those who wouldn't dream of giving it a chance.
KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE
There's a moment in Birdman in which Michael Keaton asks if Jeremy Renner can be hired for a replacement-actor position, and Zach Galifianakis replies that Renner isn't available because "he's an Avenger now," and Keaton fumes, "They got him, too?!" If you're keeping track, they also just got Colin Firth, who plays a well-heeled super-spy in director Matthew Vaughn's comic-book adaptation Kingsman: The Secret Service. For this, I'll admit, I'm grateful; Firth is a hoot as the sedately brutal governmental assassin Harry Hart, lithe and comfortable with his fight choreography and funnier than he's been in many a moon (which is a particular relief coming after his dreary turn in Woody Allen's Magic in the Moonlight). I was also grateful for the presence of the charismatic and charming Taron Egerton as Hart's working-class protégé, and Sofia Boutella's razor-footed henchwoman who slices Jack Davenport length-wise, and the cheeky prelude set to Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing" that found pieces of crumbling CGI rubble aligning to form the opening title cards. (Chances are I would've also been grateful, as I usually am, for co-star Mark Strong, but if there's one actor alive whose characters shouldn't be costumed in cardigans, he's the one.) Yet if a comic-book movie is only as good as its villain, Kingsman: The Secret Service sucks, because Samuel L. Jackson - playing a lisping, viscera-averse megalomaniac planning wanton destruction through smart phones - in an incessant, insufferable irritant. And if a movie's only as good as its construction, Kingsman sucks there, too, because the endless action scenes are hyper-actively boring, the narrative is devoid of suspense and surprise, and Vaughn's "gift" for melding über-violence with snark - the Kick-Ass helmer's stock-in-trade - now appears as listless as co-star Michael Caine's "Where's my paycheck?" readings. At one point, to the shock of no one familiar with his tricks, the director underscores an especially grisly interlude with the peppy KC & the Sunshine Band anthem "Give It Up." Vaughn should maybe take that advice to heart.