FIFTY SHADES DARKER (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 58 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Erotic Sexual Content, some Graphic Nudity, and Language

Directed by: James Foley

Written by: Niall Leonard

(based on the novel FIFTY SHADES DARKER by E.L. James)

Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eric Johnson, Eloise Mumford, Bella Heathcote, Rita Ora, Luke Grimes, Victor Rasuk, Kim Basinger, Marcia Gay Harden, Max Martini & Bruce Altman

Clearly, I’m not the ideal audience for the FIFTY SHADES trilogy, but they still manage to intrigue me in a trainwreck sort of way. Sometimes, you just have to watch something out of morbid curiosity. It’s the same reason why I’ll be eventually checking out THE EMOJI MOVIE after it’s hopefully bombed at the box office. All three FIFTY SHADES films fall into that category for me. I had more fun watching 2015’s FIFTY SHADES OF GREY than I thought I would, but that might have been the result of giggling at things that weren’t supposed to be funny and admittedly good visuals. The same can be said about 2017’s sequel FIFTY SHADES DARKER. It’s not the total failure that many critics have lambasted and it has a couple of positive qualities. For the most part though, DARKER is a step down from the already-low quality of its kinky predecessor.

After an ass-whippingly painful break-up with BDSM-obsessed billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) has moved on as an editor at a literary magazine. When Christian re-enters her life by creepily buying six giant photographs of Ana at an art show (because he doesn’t like other people looking at her), Ana stupidly decides to give him a second chance in a more conventional relationship…with a few kinks (get it?). Unfortunately for Ana and Christian, their second go-round encounters turbulence when a crazy former submissive returns and Ana’s lecherous boss also comes into play. Will this terribly mismatched couple make things work…again? Can the filmmakers pack in even more sex scenes than they did in the previous film? Where do those silver beads go? You’ll have to watch the movie to find out…or not because you’re better off not watching this R-rated version of softcore porn.

FIFTY SHADES DARKER feels like someone watched porn and thought to themselves, “You know what really works in these sexy smut films that are made purely with the purpose of getting people off? The crappy dialogue and filler in-between the erotic sex scenes! We should have more of that in our FIFTY SHADES sequel!” In so many ways, DARKER is a porno that’s lacking in sex. Don’t get me wrong. FIFTY SHADES DARKER has about 30 minutes worth of graphic depictions of sex, which leaves about 90 minutes of junk that’s loosely connected (at best) to resemble a plot.

With the exception of some brief elevator fingering and two secretly public “games,” DARKER’s sex scenes are dull and vanilla. Somehow, this sequel has even less BDSM-related material than the first film, though I guess that’s what I get for watching a movie where BDSM is portrayed as creepy abuse and not a loving relationship between two consenting adults who share a kinky fantasy. Still no ball gags or butt plugs this time around, but there are mentions of nipple clamps (they go on Ana’s fingers and not their intended targets) and toys in Christians’ infamous red room. It’s a pity that we don’t see many of these devices used (other than some rope, a blindfold, and the aforementioned silver beads), because that would have made for a sexier, more interesting movie…and likely would have pushed things into NC-17 territory.

When FIFTY SHADES DARKER isn’t in its flaccidly non-erotic sex scenes (which are always accompanied by shitty pop songs), the film has damn near 90 minutes of filler. This sequel tries to be more dramatic than the previous movie as Ana and Christian encounter the struggle of having a relationship over ownership (which Christian is so used to) and there are three half-assed antagonists this time around to boot. There’s phoned-in Lifetime movie thriller material as the crazy submissive subplot takes up about four scenes. Also, it’s made very clear that Ana’s boss will be the antagonist in the third (and thankfully) final film. I know this, because the filmmaker lazily clues the audience in with a final shot that seems like it came out of an entirely different film.

DARKER attempts to flesh out Jamie Dornan’s Grey through past trauma coming to light in the most clichéd and over-the-top ways possible. We get flashbacks to his abusive childhood through nightmares and exposition scenes. As Grey, Jamie Dornan looks bored out of his friggin’ mind and that comes across in his shoddy performance. His “emotional” scenes are phoned in and he’s simply not having any fun with the kinkier side of the material. At the very least, Dakota Johnson seems to be thrusting (literally at points) herself into the part of Anastasia. She’s not great by any means, but she’s certainly more convincing than him. Kim Basinger is also in this movie (for some reason) as Christian’s past abuser and a lame antagonist who pops up for three (count ’em, three!) whole scenes. She also receives a would-be dramatic send-off like she was a huge part of the plot, even though she was barely in this film!

On the redeemable side of things, FIFTY SHADES DARKER has unintentionally hilarious bits that make certain scenes fun in a trashy way and the visuals look good. I’ll likely see where things go in FIFTY SHADES FREED next year, because I might as well finish reviewing this trilogy and (again) there’s a silly trainwreck quality to these films. However, this sequel is a step down from its already bad predecessor in that most of the sex scenes are remarkably unsexy (especially given the kinky material that was begging for an NC-17) and the three-fourths of forced dramatic filler are messily glued together. If you’re a fan of the first film, there’s nothing I can say to dissuade you from watching this sequel. If you didn’t like the first film and were intrigued by this one, know that things only seem to be going downhill from here.

Grade: D

THE 9TH LIFE OF LOUIS DRAX (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Disturbing Images and brief Strong Language

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Directed by: Alexandre Aja

Written by: Max Minghella

(based on the novel THE NINTH LIFE OF LOUIS DRAX by Liz Jensen)

Starring: Jamie Dornan, Sarah Gadon, Aiden Longworth, Oliver Platt, Julian Wadham, Jane McGregor, Barbara Hershey & Aaron Paul

Alexandre Aja wowed horror fans with his tense gorefest HIGH TENSION and then went on to helm a couple of notable horror remakes (THE HILLS HAVE EYES, PIRANHA). In 2014, Aja slightly switched gears with dark fantasy HORNS. His shift from scares into fantastical thrillers continues with THE 9TH LIFE OF LOUIS DRAX. I don’t know what behind-the-scenes studio hijinks occurred, but I saw 9TH LIFE trailers in front of summer movies and it appeared that Aja’s latest outing was going nationwide. However, it has been dumped into an unspecified number of select theaters with no box office information available online. It appears that 9TH LIFE is already destined to become one of 2016’s more forgotten films, but that might be for the better. LOUIS DRAX is ambitious, curiously strange and does a handful of interesting things, but it also constantly drops the ball and frequently meanders to the edge of boredom.

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Based on the novel of the same name by Liz Jensen, this film is narrated by nine-year-old Louis Drax (Aiden Longworth). Though he’s been in this world for less than a decade, Louis’s existence has been filled with unfortunate life-threatening accidents and amazing recoveries. Louis’s latest misfortune has involved plummeting off a cliff, winding up dead for two hours, resurrecting and then falling into a coma. Dr. Allan Pascal (Jamie Dornan) has been assigned to the young comatose boy and proceeds to investigate what may have occurred on the cliff, with Louis’s suspicious father (Aaron Paul) on the run and his mourning mother (Sarah Gadon) as a love-interest. From an out-of-body state, Louis watches the proceedings and tells his story to a strange sea monster.

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A kernel of a good movie lies somewhere within 9TH LIFE’s complicated layers and oddball missteps. The film has two solid performances, a somewhat successful fairy tale tone, and creative plot points. Though this movie has dark moments, it’s mostly guided by Louis’s innocent voice-over narration laying out the strange story. The writing is at its best during flashbacks of Louis’s earlier life. The scenes between young Aiden Longworth and Aaron Paul feel like they’re from a compelling, realistic family drama. To be fair, these are the only two actors in the film who seem to care about the material. The rest of the cast looks like they showed up for a quick buck.

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The lows of 9TH LIFE’s mixed bag acting are totally evident in Jamie Dornan’s phoned-in performance. Dornan slightly redeemed himself from FIFTY SHADES OF GREY embarrassment with tense historical-thriller ANTHROPOID earlier this year, but now, he has another dull-as-dirt character to make up for. The same can be said about Sarah Gadon as Natalie Drax, who mostly exists to make sullen facial expressions, unconvincingly serve as a seductress, and gloomily stand in the corner. At least Oliver Platt seems to be having fun as a strange psychiatrist, even if he only shows up for about ten minutes.

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The film’s whimsical tone, imaginative elements and interesting mystery are frequently drowned in a sea of bland would-be suspense and tedious pacing issues. Colorful atmosphere and vibrant visuals are seen in Louis Drax’s flashbacks and otherworldly experiences, while the hospital setting seems purposely washed out to the point of being downright ugly. The mystery being pieced together by Drax’s memories is a hundred times more compelling than watching Dornan’s generic doctor figure out that Louis obviously isn’t like other children.

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Not everything works about Louis Drax’s otherworldly adventure though, because a few fantasy elements occasionally seem awkward (that damn sea monster). Still, the audience is slightly rewarded, because these do mature into interesting plot developments. The script’s shaky tonal shifts, between dull hospital thriller and LOVELY BONES-esque fantasy, undermine the emotional impact of potentially powerful revelations. 9TH LIFE had me hooked to the point where I wanted to see what would happen next, but also dragged to a point where I wished that I cared more.

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THE 9TH LIFE OF LOUIS DRAX is an okay (at best) effort for Alexandre Aja. The film has creative moments, two solid performances and a few cool plot twists. However, these are frequently overshadowed by a dull-as-dirt glacial pacing, two phoned-in performances, and annoying melodrama. The visuals range from beautifully stylish to painfully washed-out, while the two very different storylines seem to be constantly at odds with each other. There’s enough quality here to recommend 9TH LIFE OF LOUIS DRAX as a drunken/sleep-deprived late-night cable viewing, but nothing else to warrant spending hard-earned cash or going to the effort of tracking a theater down. This is a mess. Granted, this film is an oddball one-of-a-kind mess, but it still remains a mess nonetheless.

Grade: C+

ANTHROPOID (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours

MPAA Rating: R for Violence and some Disturbing Images

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Directed by: Sean Ellis

Written by: Sean Ellis & Anthony Frewin

Starring: Cillian Murphy, Jamie Dornan, Anna Geislerova, Harry Lloyd, Toby Jones, Charlotte Le Bon & Detlef Bothe

ANTHROPOID is a film that kind of snuck up out of nowhere for me. I wasn’t aware of this movie’s existence until last month, when I saw the trailer in front of THE INFILTRATOR. Though it may only be in select theaters at the moment, ANTHROPOID is worth seeking out. The film accurately depicts one of the less talked-about events from World War II. The movie is a grim, emotionally turbulent and depressing tale about unwavering courage and the bravery to do what is right…even when that’s the most difficult thing to do.

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The year is 1941 and the place is Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. Jozef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan) are two members of the resistance. Reinhard Heydrich (Detlef Bothe) is Hitler’s third-in-command, stands as the leader of Nazi forces in Czechoslovakia, and was the main mastermind behind “The Final Solution.” With the help of a handful of surviving resistance members, Gabcik and Kubis enact their mission: Operation Anthropoid. After months of planning and blending in, Gabcik and Kubis will attempt to assassinate Heydrich. Thousands of lives will be lost whether the mission fails or succeeds, so the resistance throws caution to the wind and tries to kill one of the most powerful Nazis in World War II.

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ANTHROPOID can be split into two distinct sections, both of which combine for one powerful experience. The film’s first half is all about planning, build-up and the two main resistance members trying to blend into “normal” occupied Czech life. This section allows the characters to develop. We see their personalities, sympathize with their plights, and are utterly horrified by the conditions surrounding their once proud homeland. The first half also packs in plenty of nail-biting tension as resistance members try to evade very close calls.

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The film’s second half is where all hell breaks loose. I won’t spoil whether or not the assassination succeeds (as I didn’t know the exact details walking into this film), but I will say that you see the attempt and the hellish aftermath. There’s lots of chaos, fiery action and borderline nightmarish imagery. ANTHROPOID is a very dark film and the powder keg explodes all throughout its second half, bringing plenty of desperation, emotionally harrowing scenes, and a finale that I won’t soon forget. Don’t expect to walk away from this movie with an upbeat attitude. It’s a grim viewing that left me feeling like I’d been punched in the gut.

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Of course, none of the proceedings would do much without characters worth caring about. ANTHROPOID has that base covered too. The criminally underrated Cillian Murphy gets time to shine in the spotlight as Jozef Gabcik, a complex hero who’s tough as nails and delivers seriously heartbreaking moments as the film moves along. I haven’t seen much of Jamie Dornan (other than in the unintentionally hilarious FIFTY SHADES OF GREY), but he proves himself to be a more-than-capable performer as the young, headstrong Jan Kubis.

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Charlotte Le Bon and Anna Geislerova play Marie and Lenka, two women who start off as aids and become bigger characters as the plot progresses. The mature relationship of Jozef and Lenka contrasted against the youthful ideas about the “romance” of war seen in Jan and Marie’s love makes for an interesting watch during the film’s slower points. The distinctly talented Toby Jones plays a resistance contact who becomes embroiled in the assassination. The believable dynamic between all of these main characters brings a greater emotional impact when all hell breaks loose.

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ANTHROPOID was filmed in the actual locations where Operation Anthropoid took place, which lends a further sense of authenticity to the factual historical-thriller. Some details have been stretched for the film, but the facts are kept 95% intact, which is more than many other sensationalized “true story” war movies. I’m not going to lie and say that ANTHROPOID is a good time at the movies, because it’s not necessarily “entertaining” or “fun.” This movie is downright hard to take in places, but remains amazing all the same. Whether it be for a mostly authentic retelling of a lesser-known WWII tale or for a powerful war-time thriller, ANTHROPOID is more than worth a watch. This is one of 2016’s best films thus far!

Grade: A+

FIFTY SHADES OF GREY (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 5 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Sexual Content including Dialogue, some Unusual Behavior and Graphic Nudity, and for Language

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Directed by: Sam Taylor-Johnson

Written by: Kelly Marcel

(based on the novel FIFTY SHADES OF GREY by E.L. James)

Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eloise Mumford, Luke Grimes, Rita Ora, Victor Rasuk, Max Martini & Dylan Neal

FIFTY SHADES OF GREY has become a pop culture punchline. Folks who haven’t read E.L. James’s trilogy are more than familiar with its general content, overly erotic sex scenes, and taboo BDSM subject matter. My only experience with the novel has been poking fun at friends reading it and watching funny videos of celebrities narrating segments of the over-the-top erotica on YouTube (including the likes of Gilbert Gottfried and George Takei). I found the prospect of an R-rated movie being made out of the clearly NC-17 rated material to be hilarious. I’m obviously not the ideal viewer for this film, but I was morbidly curious enough to purchase a ticket and sit uncomfortably in a theater full of horny women to watch this movie. FIFTY SHADES is not a good film, as expected by many snickering crowds, but I did enjoy it a tiny bit more than I initially expected.

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Anastasia Steele is a shy college student who has been granted an interview with the mysterious Christian Grey. Mr. Grey is a wealthy, handsome, and reclusive businessman who forms a connection with Ana from the moment she arrives. The two awkwardly hit off a potential relationship, but Grey quickly reveals that he’s not interested in love and only wants sex. Christian hides a BDSM lifestyle and wants Ana to become his submissive. While virginal Ana finds her sexual awakening with Grey, she is forced to choose between an unconventional relationship with Christian or a fairy tale romance of her dreams. I’m making this movie sound far more intelligent and well constructed than it actually is.

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FIFTY SHADES OF GREY is essentially softcore porn funded on a budget of 40 million. Seeing as this is an adaptation of a popular novel and is being granted a nationwide theatrical release with a mere R rating, there is obviously other stuff wrapping around the sex scenes. The dialogue sounds like its right out of a bad 70’s porn though with silly lines muttered every few minutes that got laughs from the crowd…whether they were on purpose or entirely unintentional. It certainly isn’t helped that neither the characters or the plot are particularly interesting. Christian Grey borders on becoming a psychopath in various scenes (outright stalking Ana or acting a bit too sadistic), while Ana is essentially an older version of Bella from TWILIGHT. Actress Dakota Johnson keeps biting her lip as a character trait and this becomes just as annoying as Kristen Stewart’s inability to close her mouth.

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In the same way that slasher films provide a skeleton of a plot that serves as an excuse for lots of dead bodies, FIFTY SHADES provides a hollow shell of a plot that serves as an excuse for various sex scenes. There are brief conversations with side characters who pop up for a combined total of less than 20 minutes of screen time. Ana’s college friends have big parts in the beginning and are all but entirely forgotten once her relationship with Grey comes full throttle. Other boring plot developments include a pointless dinner with Grey’s underdeveloped family, Ana taking a trip with her mother, and Grey taking Ana for a plane ride. This all taken into consideration, the film is beautifully shot and scored (the latter by Danny Elfman of all people!). It’s a pity that both of these qualities are wasted on a pretty, bland mess. There are a few humorous moments that work though. After all, it’s hard to watch a would-be serious discussion about a contract containing anal fisting and butt plugs without snickering ever so slightly.

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FIFTY SHADES contains a total of four sex scenes that I can recall. The first two are fairly well done, but the last two get increasingly over-the-top and ludicrous. Also, for a movie revolving around the taboo subject of BDSM, this is disappointingly light. The most graphic stuff is contained in some images that Ana finds when she looks up “Submissive” on the internet. Otherwise, things are about a kinky as a pair of leather handcuffs, a blindfold and an ice-cube can be…..which is to say, pretty tame by the standards this film was selling itself on. Gone is an infamous tampon scene that I kept hearing about prior to seeing this film. Missing are elaborate sex positions (this is an R-rated movie after all), graphic sex, or even a ball gag in sight. The film also ends in an unsatisfying climax (pun fully intended) to cap off the whole scandalous affair.

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As bad as it may be, FIFTY SHADES OF GREY has a guilty pleasure factor to take into consideration. The film is remarkably well shot and has a good score from Danny Elfman (as well as a Beyoncé song that isn’t bad). It may be boring at points and downright silly all the way through, but I was slightly entertained for a reasonable amount of time. Considering that FIFTY SHADES is bad film, there are moments of humor that work. When all is said and done, this is a relatively harmless (in spite of all the controversial outrage) flick.

Grade: D+

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