(On Cable TV, November 2018) I suppose we should be begrudgingly impressed by the persistence of the Fifty Shades series, which managed to complete its trilogy even though the novelty effect of the first instalment had considerably faded by then. But then again: Fifty Shades Freed was a cheap movie by many standards at $55M, with a substantial guaranteed return-on-investment (as proven by 370M$ box-office) by being aimed at a different audience quadrant than most Hollywood blockbusters. All of this, however, doesn’t negate the overwhelming dullness of the result for anyone who falls outside the target audience: never mind the sex, the core of the series has always been its wish-fulfillment fantasy best suited to movie-of-the-week status. This third instalment keeps the BDSM leashed and redundant in favour of playing up more conventional thriller tropes. There are also more familiar romantic dilemmas at play (Jealousy! Infidelity! Baby!), but none of them exactly help the film get out of its doldrums. Fifty Shades Freed is clumsy most of the time, which is probably for the best because otherwise it would be infuriating: its equation between happiness and wealth is condescending to a rare degree even by wish-fulfillment standards, and it’s not as if the dialogue or plotting (or acting, Dakota Johnson aside) are particularly refined. I wonder how this film will play in a decade or two. I suspect future reviewers won’t have kind things to say about our era as an enabler for that kind of film.
(Video on-Demand, May 2017) The Fifty Shades trilogy keeps going with this second instalment and the results as just as dull as viewers of the first film can imagine. While the BDSM content has been toned down in favour of a far more conventional romance, Fifty Shades Darker still plays like a direct-to-video romantic thriller enlivened by more explicit than usual sex scenes. It’s remarkably boring, especially as the plot is so threadbare. Stalkers, ex-lovers, etc.: how ordinary. Dakota Johnson is, to her credit, still the best thing about the movie: her acting runs circles over the impassible Jamie Dornan, and she will probably have a career after this series wraps up. Kim Basinger also has a decent small role, but otherwise there isn’t much to say. There’s quite a bit of wish fulfillment in the way the film lingers in high-priced sets and gadgets. There’s even a bit of sunshine when the two characters take a sailboat out for a day. Roughly half a dozen sex scenes interrupt the dull story for even duller moments—the recurring “panties removal” motif is interesting, but not much else. Otherwise, the film does spend quite a bit of time short-looping its dramatic developments (the boss is lecherous? Wait two scenes and he’ll be gone. Christian Gray disappears after a helicopter accident? Wait two scenes and he’ll be back) while spending its last fifteen minutes setting up its third instalment. We know it’s coming. There’s nothing we can do about it.
(On Cable TV, November 2016) Anyone wishing for a distaff counterpart to 2014’s That Awkward Moment will be fulfilled by How to be Single … although one wonders if anyone else will be. Squarely set in the “ensemble romantic comedy set in New York and featuring up-and-coming actors” sub-genre, How to be Single incoherently examines the life of young singles in contemporary NYC, going for comic set pieces, an uplifting ending, actors using their charm to salvage a subpar script and other familiar elements. Dakota Johnson, Rebel Wilson, Alison Brie and Leslie Mann are the main characters, even though they get a lot of help from supporting players. The third act is a quasi-refreshing blend of relationships cut short, especially for the nominal main character who decides to go hiking rather than settle for unsatisfactory relationships. The film may or may not try to subvert the convention of romantic comedy, but it’s not too clear whether it wants to, or succumbs to expediency in order to wrap things up. It does have a few laughs; Rebel Wilson gets her share by playing essentially the same character as in the Pitch Perfect series, while Jason Mantzoukas makes a stronger impression than his limited screen time would suggest. Otherwise, it’s a mostly unremarkable film—funny while it plays, forgettable when it ends and not irritating enough to earn a bad review. At least the lead actresses get a paycheck, solidify their persona, prove that they can carry a movie and then move on to the next thing. It could have been worse.
(Video on Demand, May 2015) My favourite vice is curiosity, and so there was no way I could stare at the Fifty Shades of Grey new entry in the video on-demand menu and not, eventually, succumb to the temptation of seeing what the fuss is about. Take the hype, the controversies, the tut-tutting think-pieces away and focus on the film; what’s on screen? As it turns out, not much. There is about twenty minutes of plot in Fifty Shades of Grey, stretched over an oft-exasperating two hours. The story couldn’t be more basic if it tried: a young innocent girl meeting a rich handsome man, and then the push-and-pull of “will they?” Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan do the best they can with their wish-fulfilment characters, and they don’t really embarrass themselves. Obviously, the domination/submission aspect of the story is the big avowed draw here, as the protagonist quickly get in bed and then spend the rest of the film arguing about their different conceptions of their relationship. At best, Fifty Shades of Grey can be funny, skillful and moderately intriguing (the boardroom negotiation scene is as good as it gets, although I kept wondering how they could read anything in that low light.) Alas, those flashes of interest are rare: Much of the film is a fairly dull affair not just despite the subject matter, but because of it. As with most sexual fetishes, domination games tend to feel silly or boring if you’re not tempted by them, and so Fifty Shades of Grey’s interest grinds to a halt every time the characters step into The Red Room, or as artificial complications just push the ending further away. The film does get extra points for an unexpected finale by the usual romantic standards, although that’s mitigated considerably by the knowledge that this is just the first film in a trilogy. From what I read from the book (which wasn’t much, exasperated as I was with the writing), the film seems to be making the best out of weak material –proof that Hollywood doesn’t always ruin things.