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Fifty Shades of Grey

It was mere hours before I left for my screening of the film adaptation of the popular novel “Fifty Shades of Grey” that I learned something interesting: the book actually began as fan fiction for the “Twilight” franchise. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Something so badly written, even when compared to its already rather insipid inspiration, surely couldn’t have come from a professional. As I recall sitting on the beach reading a handful of pages out loud to my father and brother-in-law, all three of us laughing maniacally at its overt and ridiculous sexuality while the true member of my family actually reading that nonsense walked the beach, it now seems obvious. Early reviews have stated that the story translates better to the screen than the page, but that’s like saying fiber foods translate to a better bowel movement than Taco Bell. At the end of the day, they’re both still crap.

And swimming in it is Anastasia (Dakota Johnson), a young college student who has landed an interview with business mogul, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). As she walks through the halls of his company, women parading by in sexy outfits while she dons a more conservative dress, her insecurity shines through. The moment she steps through the door of Grey’s office, which must be no more than five minutes into the film, she becomes a gooey, blubbering mess, as she articulates her insecurity by pointing out how she couldn’t possibly fit in at his company with all the pretty women around. And this is where “Fifty Shades of Grey” starts to more aptly explore the fifty shades of a sexual predator.

As should be widely known at this point, Christian’s sexual desires are, let’s say, less traditional, which is fine, but it’s the way he manipulates Anastasia and feeds into her notion of what love and romance can be that should set off alarms for anyone with even a minor sense of morality. Anastasia is vulnerable and, as he spins the interview around to force her into her own admissions, he begins to sense it and starts planning his sexual attack, like a predator stalking its prey.

You see, Anastasia is a virgin and she longs for love. Outside of family and friends, she has never truly felt the embrace of someone who truly cares about her. It’s this lack of sexual and romantic experience that ultimately fuels Christian’s disgusting seduction. After explaining his desires to her—she must be a total submissive to his sexual dominance, which includes physical punishments should she disobey him—and finding out she’s a virgin, his response isn’t that she’s not ready for such a commitment. No, it’s more along the lines of, “Where have you been all this time?” He then proceeds to rectify the situation and makes passionate love to her.

This would be all well and good, except for the fact that his “rules”—he won’t take her to dinner, he won’t sleep in the same bed and, most importantly, she’s not allowed to touch him—expressly forbid such an action. In this moment, he uses her sexual inexperience and her desire to find love to lure her into his sexual deceit. After that fateful night, she thinks she’s in love and that he loves her back, that this is what romance is and can be and she finds it wonderful. So in the following days as he tries to convince her to become his “submissive,” she starts to let go of her hesitation, not because she’s truly interested in exploring her sexual limitations, but because he is using her emotion to make her think she is.

Plain and simple, Christian Grey, is a master manipulator. Like a frat boy who argues he got consent from the nearly blackout drunk girl at a party—which, of course, is not truly consent since the girl isn’t in the right frame of mind to give such a thing—Christian takes advantage of Anastasia, only on a more psychological level. Worse yet, when she says no to being his submissive and cuts the relationship off, he doesn’t accept it and shows up at her place anyway, creepily heading inside her apartment without her knowing, where he ties her down, gives her a bit of wine and has his way with her. Sure, the filmmakers try to make him less of a full-blown rapist (he does ask if she “wants this” prior to actually doing it, to which she replies with a barely audible confirmation), but they fail miserably. Christian is a walking sexual perversion, not because of the type of sex he enjoys, but because of the way he ultimately gets it, playing with Anastasia’s fragile mind until she begins to believe she wants something she doesn’t, not unlike an abused wife blaming herself for her husband’s indiscretions.

Playful though some may think this story is, it isn’t, and it shows the true horrors of such manipulation and abuse in a late scene where Christian gives Anastasia the worst punishment she can receive as a submissive. As she laid there, forced to count out the lashes she was receiving, tears streaming down her face, I could feel a piece of me withering away inside. The act is barbaric and demeaning and it’s extremely uncomfortable to watch, worse than the worst rape scene I’ve ever witnessed in a film, but without the meaningful context to back it up.

If you’ve read this far, it will come as no surprise that “Fifty Shades of Grey” is not subtle (“Now you can’t escape,” Christian says to Anastasia as he straps her into a helicopter, implying something a bit more disturbing beneath those surface words) and the dialogue is so insipid that it comes as a shock to the brain every time a character utters a word above three syllables. At one point, Christian threatens to bend Anastasia over his knee for rolling her eyes, a moment I missed as my eyes were themselves rolling so far in the back of my head that I nearly put myself into a catatonic state. Its visuals are similarly bad, particularly in the grey color scheme that makes you wonder if the filmmakers perhaps took the “fifty shades” part of the title a bit too literally.

But none of that matters when you have a movie that is so unaware of its own tone that it blindly tries to make abuse sexy. Even the best aspects of the film are overshadowed by it, particularly the good performance from Johnson, who does all she can with such a flat character. Of course, I’m no prude. If two grown adults can consent to a sexual lifestyle of BDSM, then more power to them, but make no mistake, the actions portrayed in “Fifty Shades of Grey” are not consensual, no matter what the filmmakers, like Mr. Grey himself, want you to believe.

Fifty Shades of Grey receives 0/5


The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

Ever since the final story in the “Harry Potter” film series was split into two movies, other popular franchises based on young adult novels have followed suit. From “Twilight” to the upcoming “Divergent” finale to this week’s “Hunger Games” entry, it has become common practice to milk every dollar possible out of their fanbases. While smart from a business point-of-view, such a tactic typically means the storytelling suffers. To date, each first entry in these splits have expectedly felt like the first half of a whole story. But whereas “Harry Potter” had some meat to it, the first part of the final installment in the “Hunger Games,” subtitled “Mockingjay,” has none. The film is a cash grab through and through, taking about 30-45 minutes of dramatic narrative and lengthening it to a plodding two hours. And that’s the least of its problems. Despite two solid entries in the popular franchise, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1” fails to deliver in nearly every regard.

The story picks up where “Catching Fire” left off. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) has essentially destroyed the Hunger Games and has been picked up by the rebels who intend to overthrow the Capitol. To do that, they need to get the people from each district on their side, so the rebel president, Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), and her right hand man, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), convince Katniss to be the face of the rebellion, their Mockingjay, and they set out to make propaganda films they can broadcast all around the Capitol.

That is more or less all that happens in this part one of the “Mockingjay” story. It shoehorns in certain themes, particularly in its exploration of totalitarianism, but they fail to resonate. While a story about government intrusion and control over its people is not a bad one, it’s one that has been explored to death, especially in recent years when the US government arguably overextended its rights after 9/11. “Mockingjay” doesn’t do or say anything particularly different, or even well, instead opting to be what amounts to a rather basic “corrupt government vs. righteous rebellion” story.

Even if just looking at it from an action perspective, even if you go in just trying to satisfy your most primitive, visceral desires, “Mockingjay Part 1” won’t satisfy. The Hunger Games from the previous movies are over and the rebellion has begun, but their focus on propaganda films means much of the action happens at a distance, Katniss merely hearing about it or seeing it after the fact and subsequently expressing her frustration on camera, which the rebels use for future broadcasts. The fear, the thrill, the mystery, the intrigue; they’re all gone, replaced with unenticing answers and a glacial narrative pace.

Ultimately, its pseudo-intellectualism is the most prevalent aspect of “Mockingjay,” at least from a story perspective. Unfortunately, its visuals don’t do much to pick up the slack. The colorful eye candy from the two previous films are muted to drab grays and browns here; count yourself lucky if you pick out the fleeting moments of actual color. Though the aesthetic switch compliments the darker tone of the film, it nevertheless makes the movie a visual bore. It is possible to make a tonally dark movie with a dark, muted color palette without compromising the actual beauty of the film. The later “Harry Potter” entries are great examples of those films. “Mockingjay Part 1” is not.

Worse yet, the dialogue is full of some of the most heavy handed ramblings you’ll hear all year, as Katniss and her cohorts proselytize incessantly like loudmouthed doomsayers on a college campus. Lawrence is a terrific actress, but even she can’t elevate her dialogue from the drudgery of the page it was conceived on. When she isn’t talking, the supporting characters don’t do much better as they speak obvious truths, seemingly to appeal to the dumber viewers in the audience. After one character gives a very clear warning to the rebels, another yells out, “A warning! That was a warning!”

There are a few tense scenes, but they either pale in comparison to similar sequences in other films or they fizzle out before anything really happens. The finale in particular ends up going nowhere and the one would-be frightening scene where bombs are dropping overhead recalls 1942’s terrific “Mrs. Miniver,” and it reaches not even a tenth of the drama and fear that movie instilled in the viewer.

There’s not much going on for the majority of this film, but just when the story finally begins to gain some momentum, it abruptly ends. Though it sets the stage for a hopefully more exciting final installment—and when coupled with it, perhaps this first half will fare better—as a standalone product, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1” is a monumental dud, a huge nosedive in quality that is unprecedented in other major franchises. It’s unworthy of the venerable “Hunger Games” name and most certainly unworthy of your time.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 receives 1/5


The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones

With the “Twilight” franchise having finally and mercifully come to an end, it’s no surprise that Hollywood is eager to find something to take its place. The latest tween movie based on an existing novel with multiple entries in its canon is this week’s “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones.” While it could be argued that this first movie is somewhat of a gamble, the series has six books under its belt and if it proves to be a success, it could be the next lucrative, never ending franchise we’ll be forced to sit through every year until it ultimately dies. “Harry Potter” and “The Hunger Games” notwithstanding, most tween novel adaptations are poorly made and fail at the box office, rarely resulting in a sequel. If we’re lucky, this one will fail too and our cinemas will be saved from further ridiculous, overemotional melodramas.

The story follows Clary (Lily Collins), a pretty young girl whose best friend in the world, Simon (Robert Sheehan), is secretly crushing on her. One night, while out at a club, she witnesses a murder. However, the murderer soon catches up with her and explains that it was hardly a murder at all. His name is Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower) and he’s actually a Shadow Hunter, a person who hunts and kills demons of all kinds. She soon finds out that her mother, Jocelyn (Lena Headey), is also a Shadow Hunter, but she finds it out too late and is unable to protect her when she is kidnapped by a gang looking for a mystical cup that they believe is in her possession. Along with the help of Jace, Clary sets out to find the cup and get her mother back.

Naturally, a love triangle ensues, as is seemingly common with these types of things. Simon is in love with Clary, but Clary and Jace eventually hit it off, which leads to Simon witnessing them kissing, Clary making excuses and Jace storming off in a fit of rage, bemoaning that she is “dismissing their love,” partly due to the excuse and partly because she won’t invite him into her bed after a single kiss. What a swell guy. This is, quite literally, “Twilight” all over again, though the movie doesn’t seem to want to admit it. At one point, after Clary hurts herself and is bleeding slightly, she even mocks the franchise by commenting, “Is this the part where you start tearing off pieces of clothing to bind my wounds?” This is no doubt a reference to “New Moon” when Jacob hilariously and egregiously rips off his entire shirt to tend to Bella’s minor scrape.

While these moments are nevertheless amusing, they’re offset by lines of dialogue mere minutes later, lines that read like one of those idiotic words-of-wisdom memes so many wannabe prophets post on Facebook day after day, things along the lines of “The rune to fix a broken heart is the most painful one.” So while it creates some initial goodwill with some self-aware quips, it quickly becomes ignorant of just how closely it resembles the very things it mocks. In a nutshell, the film points out the flaws of something like “Twilight” while succumbing to the exact same problems, never aspiring to become anything better.

If it had a story worth caring about, these tween clichés would be easy to look past, but the script is an absolute mess. While the central story is certainly lacking, it’s in its side stories that the film truly drops the ball, never fully concluding any of them despite their initial set-ups. At one point, Simon is kidnapped by vampires and bitten, Clary finding the bite wounds shortly after rescuing him, but the film never follows up on this, nor does it use it as a precursor for what could come in any potential sequels. Similarly, it alludes to the homosexuality of another Shadow Hunter named Alec (Kevin Zegers), an intriguing plot turn that could mix up the usual love triangle romance we’ve become so accustomed to, but once it’s brought up, it’s quickly dropped and never resurfaces. It’s like the screenwriter, this movie being her first cinematic endeavor, had some good ideas (no doubt derived from the source material), but then forgot about them as she wrote on.

If there’s one thing “City of Bones” does well, it is its art direction. This is not a bad looking movie and, in particular, its costumes and make-up are nothing short of fantastic. The design of this fantasy world set amidst a modern day New York City is top notch, springing to life before our very eyes. Yet the movie itself is still a gigantic mess. Although darker and more action packed than many tween movies, it never compliments its admittedly palpable suspense with a satisfying payoff and a mid-movie Star Wars-esque pseudo-twist leads to some of the most awkward moments and dialogue exchanges one can imagine. “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” may hope to become a franchise (and with an already planned sequel in the pipeline, it could become a reality), but it’s going to have to try much harder than this to justify it.

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones receives 1/5


Warm Bodies

It wouldn’t be unreasonable for a cynic to look at Warm Bodies and fear that it will ruin zombies the way the Twilight franchise ruined vampires. Like Twilight, it takes a creature that should be scary and feared and turns it into a lover, trapped in a teen-friendly romance that is sure to be endeared by young girls across the country. Luckily, Warm Bodies is nothing like Twilight. It’s funny, self-aware and all around charming. It occasionally devolves into cheese and hits a few narrative lulls that drag the overall product down, but this is a solid film that takes a concept that really shouldn’t work at all and makes it palatable to a wide reaching audience.

Eight years ago, something happened. What that something was is unclear, but it caused the dead to rise and hunger for human flesh. Now, the humans still left alive have retreated into a confined part of their city, protected by a humongous wall. Of course, resources within that space are finite, so teams must venture out occasionally to gather more necessities. One day, a group of young kids, including Julie, (Teresa Palmer), the daughter of the city’s leader, go out to do just that. Unexpectedly, they are ambushed by the dead. However, one of the zombies actually takes a liking to her, probably due to his prior consumption of her boyfriend’s brain, which causes him to gather his memories and feelings, and he ends up protecting her from the zombie horde. For some reason, when he’s around her, he feels different and actually becomes more humanlike. Nevertheless, he still speaks in grunts with only the occasional monosyllabic word and he can’t remember his name, so Julie starts calling him R (Nicholas Hoult).

The film begins in R’s head with an inner monologue. He’s dead and his brain doesn’t quite function properly, as one would expect from a zombie, but he’s aware of this (just one of many contradictions that deviates from zombie lore). He can’t feel physical pain anymore, but he feels loneliness and lost, sometimes literally given that he tends to wander around unfamiliar places. His desire to be alive, to feel and to love is something we all feel from time to time, especially when our lives become a monotonous loop we seemingly can’t get away from. Not many movies have a set-up and structure that enable them to explore such themes, or at least not in this way, which makes Warm Bodies a unique offering. He may be a zombie, but R is one of the most likable and, oddly enough, relatable characters to be on the screen in quite some time.

Its themes don’t stop and start there, however. Other themes include some we’ve already seen, like the idea of humans living like we’re dead (which was better explored in Shaun of the Dead), and some that are a little too obvious to really work, like desegregation and acceptance in a world of people that are different than you, but the fact that these themes are there at all just goes to show how thoughtful the movie is. It doesn’t desire to be the mopey tween romance it so easily could have become. It shoots much higher. Granted, its central message of “love is what makes us human” is inherently cheesy (and it singlehandedly killed 2008’s Hancock), but Warm Bodies handles it as delicately as a similarly themed movie possibly can. When the end rolls around, you won’t be wiping away tears, but you also won’t be rolling your eyes. In fact, you’re likely to find it kind of sweet.

Although a cliché saying at this point, Warm Bodies is greater than the sum of its parts. If each part was analyzed individually, it would be easy to point out their flaws (like those aforementioned memories that aren’t seen in first person as they should be, but rather in third person, the way they were shot), yet there’s a gentleness and warmness to the film, despite some blood splatter and organ eating, that can’t be overlooked. It poses no threat to the dominance of the more brutal zombies we know and love, instead creating its own little nook in zombie lore that reinvigorates the walking dead in a way few have done before. It’s not your typical romance, but it’s the movie to see this Valentine’s Day. Men and women alike will find something to cherish.

Warm Bodies receives 3.5/5


Breaking Dawn Part 2

When Twilight hit screens back in 2008, nobody was prepared for how successful it would be, the least of all its detractors who saw a silly pre-teen romantic triangle with ideas about love that would be equivalent to what a 12 year old girl would write in her journal. After four bad (arguably terrible) movies, including last year’s Breaking Dawn Part 1, which ended up at number three on my worst of the year list, saying expectations were low for its successor, Breaking Dawn Part 2, would be an understatement. As I watched it, though, something magical was happening. I was actually kind of liking it.

The other films in the franchise were full of annoying, overdramatic teenage angst, originating from a central character that spent too much time staring aimlessly out a window and moping around. Its ideas about love were childish, seemingly coming from people who thought they knew what love was, but had never truly experienced it. But Breaking Dawn Part 2 was different. Gone were the endless brooding and unbearable whininess. The film was still about love, but it wasn’t about a fantasy romantic love. It was about family love, parental love and the type of love that gives you the courage to fight and maybe even lay down your life for those you care about. With an everlasting marital bond between Bella (Kristen Stewart) and Edward (Robert Pattinson) finally coming to fruition and a child in the mix, the movie had substance and proved itself to be a thematically mature film, something that most certainly can’t be said for its predecessors.

At long last, the Twilight franchise had found its place. Its tone even managed to get it right. Despite some hit and miss dramatic moments, it took itself decidedly less serious, playing up certain scenes as goofy, fun and humorous. It was finally embracing its own absurdity. Even better, things were actually happening. It wasn’t stuck in this will-she-or-won’t-she stalemate its franchise brethren succumbed to. Bella had a clear goal, finally something on her mind other than cuddling with Edward, and she was going to do everything she could to stop the evil Volturi vampires from killing her baby. This meant gathering up any vampire that would be willing to fight alongside her and Edward. Locations changed, characters were introduced and meaning was created. By the time the big climactic battle rolled around, I was hooked and the fight itself, though bogged down by some bad CGI, was exciting and tense. With only 10 or 15 minutes left to go, Breaking Dawn Part 2 was looking to be a legitimately good, wholly recommendable movie.

And then that twist happens, that twist that fans have been speculating over ever since Jacob himself, Taylor Lautner, spilled the beans on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno a few weeks ago. The twist, which I obviously won’t spoil, falls into one of the most hated narrative tricks in all of cinema. It’s a twist that takes everything that had previously happened in the movie and makes it moot, the film’s entire reason for being flies out the window. Here was a movie that had managed to take a franchise that had been practically dead in the water since the beginning and reinvigorate it. It was giving it an unexpectedly worthy send-off that it, after four poor installments in a row, didn’t even necessarily deserve, but then it tacks on one of the worst, most pandering endings to cap off a major franchise I’ve ever seen.

All of a sudden, that legitimately good, wholly recommendable movie transitioned to borderline terrible. I could have done without the embarrassing final scene, which is essentially the equivalent of a music video montage of the previous movies, but such thankful fan service wouldn’t have been enough to derail it. Instead, it all goes back to that twist. Despite some narrative blunders and some unintentional laughs, Breaking Dawn Part 2 was working. For the first time ever, this franchise was earning its fanbase. It was so close to being good, so close to recovering, even if only slightly, from its past failures, but it let that possibility slip through its fingers. Thinking back on it, it was a disappointment, to be sure, but I suppose such a moronic misstep shouldn’t have been a big surprise. It was a Twilight movie, after all.

Breaking Dawn Part 2 receives 1.5/5