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

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

50Shades poster

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+

AMERICAN SNIPER (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 12 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong and Disturbing War Violence, and Language throughout including some Sexual References

AmSniper poster

Directed by: Clint Eastwood

Written by: Jason Hall

(based on the book AMERICAN SNIPER by Chris Kyle, Scott McEwen & Jim DeFelice)

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Max Charles, Luke Grimes, Kyle Gallner, Sam Jaeger, Jake McDorman, Cory Hardrict & Navid Negahban

In recent years, audiences seem more willing to watch intense dramas about the Iraq war. It’s not as if these films are prettying up the conflict as the immediate ones springing to mind (ZERO DARK THIRTY, LONE SURVIVOR, THE HURT LOCKER) offer bleak views on the horrors of war and the heavy toll it takes on soldiers. As of writing this review, AMERICAN SNIPER has been nominated for 6 Academy Awards, has broken two box office records (highest grossing January opening, biggest single-day gross) and has gone on to become the second-highest R-rated debut ever. It’s nice to see all of these accomplishments because this movie is a near-masterpiece and the best war movie to come out in a decade.

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Chris Kyle was raised from a young age to stand up for those around him. Being a cowboy, Chris can’t help but feel unsatisfied with his direction in life. That’s when he sees news footage of 1998’s US embassy bombings and decides to serve his country. As a Navy SEAL, Chris falls in love with his future wife and becomes a stellar shot behind the trigger of a rifle. He’s sent to Iraq and quickly builds a reputation as a legendary sniper. Chris’s service is seen as he deploys four times through various missions in the war, but we also see the mental and emotional weight this is placing on his shoulders.

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AMERICAN SNIPER graphically depicts bloody combat through some of the best wartime sequences that I’ve ever seen. You’re not likely to be cheering as shots are fired, but instead feel yourself placed in the same tough decisions that Chris (and plenty of other soldiers) have to make on a daily basis. Clint Eastwood masterfully directs this film. Things could have easily become very repetitive as this is following a guy whose primary job is to shoot people from long distances. Instead, each sequence stands alone as a memorable piece of the film. Most of which are utterly nail-biting. This is a movie you’ll want to see in Imax (or its equivalents) if you can because it reminded me just how much a good viewing environment can change a solid movie from just a piece of art into an unforgettable experience.

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AMERICAN SNIPER isn’t solely centered on Chris in combat though as the viewer is shown enough to realize what a strain this is putting on this soldier’s family life. Bradley Cooper is perfectly cast as Chris, already bearing a remarkable resemblance to him. He’s a likable guy who makes you root for him to save as many people as he possibly can, but it also makes things harder when you him willfully ignoring his obvious PTSD. Sienna Miller (who was recently in FOXCATCHER as well) is remarkable in her role as Chris’s concerned spouse. You feel her frustration with him, but can also grasp why Chris wants to go back and help more people (at the cost to his mental health and normal life).

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As brilliantly constructed, acted, and amazing as AMERICAN SNIPER is, I do have one gripe with the film. This is a small compliant but bothered me enough to knock the planned A+ slightly down as I exited the theater. The movie doesn’t necessarily know where to end. It keeps going long after a possible awesome conclusion and there’s a solid reason for that. However, the movie doesn’t spend enough time on that reason and suddenly cuts to a title card giving that information as opposed to showing it. It’s a minor complaint, but enough to take a tiny bit off an otherwise perfect film.

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AMERICAN SNIPER should be seen by everyone. It’s an incredible glimpse into the hellish battlefield of war and the toll that it takes on the soldiers in combat and at home. The performances are stellar (Bradley Cooper has proven himself to be a hugely talented actor in any role) and the story is compelling. It does stumble a tiny bit in the ending, but can be otherwise be considered a flawless masterpiece. This is a must-see!

Grade: A

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