Tag Archives: adaptation

Fifty Shades Darker (2017)

Fifty Shades Darker — or as I like to call it, Fifty Shades Boring-er — is the Fifty Shades of Grey sequel no one was waiting for. I won’t repeat my epic rant about the first film, but essentially, it was a piece of crap, and so I had zero expectations this time around. This was particularly so as I had read the second book and knew just how abysmal the source material is.

Fifty Shades Darker picks up shortly after the end of Fifty Shades of Grey. Protagonist Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) has split from her impossibly good looking, wealthy, controlling, and perverted boyfriend, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). I think it had something to do with all the S&M shit he was into and some contract she had to sign so they could engage in kinky stuff. Whatever. She’s now working at some publishing company where her boss Jack (Eric Johnson) fancies her.

It’s not the most horrible premise, though it does not take long for the story to nosedive. You would think the film would take a bit of time before reuniting the lovers, to build up a bit of excitement and yearning. But of course they don’t. Every reason they broke up in the first place is quickly and conveniently thrown out the door despite there being no change in circumstances. The power of incredibly bland and boring sex can overcome all challenges.

Sadly, the script follows the novel written by EL James quite closely and sabotages itself at every possible turn. It creates potential scenarios for tension and then quickly resolves them in the lamest ways you can think of. Each plot point comes and gets immediately resolved one after the one in a linear fashion until the excruciatingly bad and suspenseless “cliffhanger” ending. I can’t say much more than that without spoilers, but you get the gist.

The biggest sin Fifty Shades Darker commits is that it is insanely boring. It is one of the flattest films I’ve seen in a long time, with no ups or downs or changes in direction or tone. It just plods along in a straight line with very low stakes and somehow manages to sustain that for a ridiculous 131-minute running time. There is just no tension between the leads and no character development. It even throws in a few poorly executed and lame thriller movie cliches in an attempt to “spice things up”, but the results are laughable. The kinky stuff also falls into the category of boring. For all the hoopla about the books, the sexy time in the movies is anything but sexy. You could find more titillating action on just about any cable TV show these days. It really is astonishing that the film is directed by James Foley, the same dude who gave us the explosive Glengarry Glen Ross!

The acting—well, it’s not atrocious, I suppose. Dakota Johnson does her best, though Jamie Dornan clearly looks like he’s not having a good time. It’s as though he knows he made a big mistake in signing up for the role. He can’t hide it. The other supporting actors (Rita Ora, Luke Grimes, Marcia Gay Harden, Max Martini) return to fruitless role, while Kim Basinger goes through the entire film with a look which suggests that she feels torn between the paycheck she received for her performance and knowing what a shit film she’s in.

So yeah—shitty story, boring as hell, lame sexy time, and barely acceptable performances. Fifty Shades Darker is the gaaaaarbage everyone expected it to be. That said, I actually think the movie is an improvement on the book. At least the script not as diabolical as the source text, which is absolutely all over the place, waffles on, and has downright embarrassing dialogue all the way through. The film appears to have tried to pare these things back to the best of its ability. The scary thing is that the third book, Fifty Shades Freed, from memory at least, is the worst book of the trilogy. Can’t wait to see the adaptation next year.

1.25 stars out of 5

Assassin’s Creed (2016)

I don’t like to just accept the word of other people when it comes to shit movies. I have to experience it for myself before I can call a movie shit. And so, despite the negative reviews, I decided to throw down some cash to watch Assassin’s Creed, the long awaited adaptation of the popular video game franchise that I have always wanted to but never played. And NOW, I can finally say it: Assassin’s Creed is indeed shit. Very shit.

Like Warcraft before it, Assassin’s Creed was hailed as the possible saviour of the future of game-to-film adaptations. There was certainly every reason to be optimistic: It is directed by Aussie filmmaker Justin Kurzel, who first shot to fame with the harrowing true story Snowtown. Kurzel has a way with gripping storytelling and a flair for visuals, and seems to always manage to bring out the best of his actors, as he did with Michael Fassbender (henceforth “Assbender”) and Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard in Macbeth. And guess who also stars in Assassin’s Creed? Yes, Assbender and Cotillard, plus Academy Award winner Jeremy Irons, Silver Bear winner Charlotte Rampling, Brendan Gleeson and Omar Little himself from The Wire (ie, Michael K Williams). So you know they had every intention making a great movie.

Sadly, it feels like Assassin’s Creed to was doomed to failure from the start. Sure, the visuals are great — it’s exactly as how I imagined an adaptation would look from the snippets of the game I’ve seen. The action is solid (though not spectacular — I felt it could have been more inventive and there was a lot of killing but not much “assassinating”). The performers do their best to give emotion to their wooden lines of exposition. However, nothing could save Assassin’s Creed from its ridiculously silly and non-sensical premise and convoluted plot.

I haven’t played the game so I don’t really know how much the script is based on the game, but essentially, there is some ancient mystical item called the Apple of Eden (roll eyes), which contains the genetic code for free will. You read that correctly. The Knights Templar want it for world domination, and the Assassin Order (why not just call it Assassin’s Creed?) are a clandestine group sworn to protect it. I could probably work with that premise, except they chose to set the film in the present day and have a scientist (Cotillard) send a descendant of one of the assassins (Assbender) — who, by the way, looks exactly the same as his ancestor — back to the past using some sci-fi machine to access his “gene memory” so they can trace the Apple of Eden back to the days of the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century. Yeah.

I knew the film was in trouble right from the opening text explaining the above premise on the screen. It’s just too non-sensical and unnecessarily complex for a movie like this. Kudos for making everyone speak Spanish for the 15th century scenes, but apart from that, the decision to have this dual timeline made it virtually impossible for Assassin’s Creed to be any good. Knowing that everything you see from the 15th century has already happened and cannot be changed (it is, after all, just “gene memory”) really saps the excitement and tension out of it. And let’s face it: None of it makes any sense. The modern rock music choices were also quite jarring, kind of like how Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit was blamed for ruining Pan in 2015. Rather than wasting all this time on this split/dual timeline, they could put more effort into character development, of which there was virtually none to speak of.

As I mentioned earlier, Assbender and Cotillard do their best, though all throughout they had this sad look on their faces that screamed, “This isn’t working.” I actually whispered to myself during the movie, “What the f*&% is going on?”, and, I kid you not, only to hear Assbender’s character say the exact same line just seconds later.

Some ideas work well for games but stink for movies. I’m more convinced than ever that Assassin’s Creed is a perfect example of this. The filmmakers were probably afraid of offending the game’s fanbase and tried to mirror the premise as closely as possible. It’s a fatal mistake that crushed any opportunity for the movie to succeed. Instead of a film that gives hope to future video game adaptations, Assassin’s Creed should make film studios very, very afraid. If all this talented cast and crew can produce is an incoherent, ludicrous, lifeless piece of garbage, what chance does everyone else have?

1.5 stars out of 5

PS: I forgot to mention the anti-climatic ending that presumes a sequel is coming. Assassin’s Creed has made around US$150m off a US$125m budget, so that should (with the addition of marketing costs) equate to a loss that will keep everyone safe from a sequel.

Warcraft (2016)

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I must admit, Warcraft was my least anticipated major blockbuster of 2016, with the possible exception of Suicide Squad (I’ll watch that too, but expectations cannot be lower). Having never played the popular video game on which the film is based, or with any intention of ever doing so, it seemed somewhat destined to be yet another disappointing video game adaptation, following in the footsteps of the likes of Doom, Street Fighter, and Prince of Persia.

Having said that, director Duncan Jones is quite a visionary filmmaker, and many were apparently quite optimistic that Warcraft would buck the trend. However, the trailers did not instill much confidence in me — giant, muscular creatures in large-scale battle scenes with humans and magicians, and loads and loads of CGI-heavy special affects. It was pretty much just Hollywood telling the same old story.

It was with such a mindset that I went to see Warcraft, and I have to say that I came out of it very pleasantly surprised. There are plenty of flaws with it, some impossible to overcome given the circumstances, but on the whole it was about as much as I could have expected from a fantasy film of this nature.

I don’t want to get into the plot because it’s not really that important in the scheme of things, but I guess it should come as no surprise that there are humans, orcs, elves, dwarves and so forth -– but mainly humans and orcs –- who all all live in a magical realm with mythical creatures, magic powers, evil warlocks, master wizards and apprentice mages. It’s about fighting for your people and your tribe, honour and loyalty, family and friends and all that shit. It’s more less your typical RPG game.

Now, if you can get past the first stage, which is to take this kind of video-gamey premise seriously, then the rest of the film has a decent chance. Mind you, this does not have the gritty realism of something like say Game of Thrones — this is legitimate high fantasy, where you can actually see the light shooting out of magicians hands and souls being literally sucked out of bodies. 

When you take into account just what a difficult task this was for director Duncan Jones to get right, you start to appreciate the great job he did with this movie. While the storyline is indeed cliched, the storytelling is, for the most part, well done. Instead of making the orcs just brainless monsters hell bent on killing humans for no reason, Jones makes proper characters with proper character development. It’s not quite a two-sides-to-the-story kind of scenario, where the humans characters and orc characters are genuinely on an equal footing (hint: the humans still get more love), it’s at least good to see them apply a less conventional approach.

The cast is also really solid. On the human size, you’ve got Aussie Travis Fimmel, Dominic Cooper and Ben Foster, while on the orc side there’s Toby Kebbel (he will always be Koba to me) and Daniel Wu (I was shocked when I discovered he’s in it), and in between there’s Paula Patton, looking a little on the green side. None of these names are A-listers, but they’re all quality performers who bring gravitas to their respective roles. 

As for the action, it’s of course predominantly CGI, and to be honest it’s really nothing we haven’t seen before in terms of scale, creativity or choreography. What it does do well is the depiction of magic, which is rarely done well on film, and building up some character relationships so that we will care about the outcome of the battles and duels.

So absolutely, Jones should be commended for doing everything he could to make Warcraft the “great” film he tried to make. If you manage to immerse yourself in the story (like my wife, who said she really enjoyed it), you’ll likely think the film is a success. For me, on the other hand, there were elements I liked and places where I thought the film did a great job with, but I couldn’t get into the story or care for the characters as much as like I hoped I would. It really comes down to it being virtually impossible to introduce a whole new realm with all these different races and conflicts, not to mention focusing on both sides of the war, in a movie barely over 2 hours long. If this were a TV series where you have 10 hours to play with, then maybe you could achieve all these things. But given the time constraints and the need to devote a good chunk of that time to battle scenes, you’re going to have scenes and dialogue of obvious and annoying exposition cramming. 

Could they have reduced the number of characters and shifted the balance from CGI battles to more character and relationship development? Of course they could have. But as a one-shot opportunity to make a successful blockbuster for which sequels are no certainty, it would have been too risky an approach for any studio to take. It’s easy for critics to dismiss the cliched aspects of the movie, but sometimes commercial realities dictate these things.

The same goes for the CGI, which was limited by the technology and budget. As a result, it was a little patchy — photorealistic at times and like an Xbox cutscene at others. Perhaps part of it is also the way the orcs have been designed — they just don’t look like creatures I could genuinely believe, a feeling that is heightened whenever I see Paula Patton’s half-orc, half-human character, who looks basically like a human in green paint with two little tusks coming out the bottom of her mouth. It’s ridiculous.

Despite all these flaws, I still appreciate and admire the film Warcraft had set out to be. It’s not quite the “great” film Jones had dreamed of or the saviour of all video-game adaptation movies (that baton has now been passed on to Assbender in Assassin’s Creed), but as a high fantasy film with all the hard-to-swallow things that come with it, Warcraft is not bad at all. If you see it with an open mind, you might agree too.

3.5 stars out of 5

Goosebumps (2015)

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I owe a massive debt to RL Stein for cultivating my interest in reading as a kid. Unable to satisfy my horror cravings just from the video store, I looked to his Goosebumps book series to get my fix of ghouls and monsters. I still remember looking forward to receiving the monthly book club order forms in primary school so I could get my hands on the next instalment. Granted, they’re not the greatest books from my current perspective as an adult — they’re highly derivative, cliched and predictable — but when I was nine years old I thought they were the best things ever.

Having said that, so much time has passed that I wasn’t particularly eager to see the long-awaited film adaptation. But my son, who is obsessed with monsters himself right now, went nuts when he saw the poster and trailer for the movie, and bugged me until I took him to see it.

To my own surprise, I liked Goosebumps much more than I expected. While it’s not a standout film by any stretch, I still found it to be a fun, funny and occasionally thrilling experience that both current and older fans of the books should be able to enjoy.

For starters, I think it was a brilliant idea to shy away from a direct adaptation of RL Stein’s books and instead include the author himself as a character in the mythology of the universe he invented. The premise is that all the monsters created (well, “blatantly ripped off” is probably more accurate) by Stein are actually real, and they are somehow unleashed by a well-intentioned kid (Dylan Minnette) who moves in next door to the bestselling author (played by Jack Black) and his teenage daughter (Odeya Rush).

This plot device allows all of Stein’s books to play a part, and I was very surprised to discover that I still remembered a lot — if not most — of them. That’s pretty cool. I guess it also means his earlier books were much better than his later ones.

That said, nostalgia alone isn’t enough, and what makes Goosebumps punch above its weight is that it’s actually pretty funny, largely thanks to some solid writing, the brilliance of Jack Black’s performance, and decent comedic timing from director Rob Letterman, who last collaborated with Black on the not-very-good Gulliver’s Travels (there’s even a nice little nod to that film in this one).

Anyway, Black is in excellent form here, really dictating the tone with his quirkiness and distinct style of humour but without steering the movie off path. I’ve never even considered myself a fan of his, but Black was perfect for this role and his presence elevates Goosebumps above what it otherwise should have been.

As a family film, the horror elements are intentionally not very scary, and so the film relies more on frantic action and humour, a lot of which is tongue-in-cheek, which I didn’t have a problem with because the execution is good enough for the overall film to easily roar pass a passing grade. To be fair, some of the CGI characters do look quite cartoonish, but if you look at them as monsters brought to life from the pages of children’s books then it becomes easier to digest.

Like the books, Goosebumps the film is also not too long (103 minutes) and somewhat cliched and predictable, though if you appreciate the film for what it is aiming to be and consider the target audience I think you can call it a success. My son certainly thinks it’s a 5-star film. As for me?

3.5 stars out of 5!

Z for Zachariah (2015)

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I may have read Z for Zachariah when I was in high school. I can’t remember if I did, but it’s a great title you never forget once you’ve seen it.

Then I heard last year that they were making a film adaptation starring Australia’s own Margot Robbie, Chris Pine, and Oscar-nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor (let’s face it, should be Oscar-winner, bloody McConaughey), and thought it would be one of 2015’s big blockbusters. Instead, the film kind of disappeared off the radar and got a limited release late last month.

My initial reaction is that the film must have sucked balls, but as it turns out, Z for Zachariah is actually quite a compelling post-apocalyptic drama that was probably always fated to appeal to a small segment of the market.

From what I understand, the first half or so of the film follows the book quite closely. Margot Robbie plays Ann, a religious young woman who survives what appears to have been a nuclear holocaust due to the fortunate positioning of her family’s farm. Then one day a man, John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), appears and changes everything.

The second half of the film is said to deviate from Robert C. O’Brien’s 1974 novel in that it introduces a new character played by Chris Pine. As a result the story takes a completely different direction and becomes dominated by a different set of themes.

It’s understandable why the film has been so low-key, as it plays out at a pace that will be challenging to a lot of audiences. It’s one of those contemplative dramas, where the interactions are more subtle and invites viewers to read between the lines and draw their own conclusions. At its core, this is a film about basic, fundamental human emotions and instincts, and how feelings can be magnified to dangerous levels in a confined setting. I’m sure everyone has a relatable experience where you spend a lot of time with a person or a small group of people and develop strong feelings toward them, but when you look back upon it later on or from a step back you wonder why it ever had such a powerful effect on you.

I found the slow speed of the film to be fine — there is a constant tension that continues to grow beneath the surface that made me uneasy and curious as to what would happen next. It’s quite impressive how director Craig Zobel — who last directed the superb 2012 film Compliance (my review here), which is also about the nature of human interactions — manages to create such an effective drama using this very simple story with so few characters.

Chiwetel Ejifor is really awesome in this, as you would expect, and he stands out among the trio of actors. Both Pine and Robbie are very good too (though I noticed Robbie’s Aussie accent leaking through a few times), which is a big reason why the film works despite its pace and occasional uneven tone.

Admittedly, Z for Zachariah is not for everyone, but people who enjoy slow-burning dramas that explore the many layers of human nature might find it a surprisingly captivating experience.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Child 44 (2015)

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I remember first seeing Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 in a bookstore, reading the back cover, and thinking to myself that the story will likely make a great movie. Stalinist Russia, a child killer on the loose — what’s there not to like?

Hollywood execs clearly agreed with me, and that’s why we now have the film adaptation of Child 44 by Daniel Espinosa (Safe House), starring the always-brilliant Tom Hardy as an MGB officer at the center of the story. Playing his wife is the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Noomi Rapace, whom Hardy previously worked with on The Drop. Rounding out the superb cast are Robocop Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman and the ubiquitous Aussie Jason Clarke.

All the ingredients for a brilliant political mystery thriller are there, but for whatever reason, Child 44 turned out to be a mild disappointment. It’s one of those films where you keep watching intently, expecting it to get better and blow you away at any second, but all you end up doing is wait and wait and wait, until suddenly you realise it’s all over and none of your expectations were met. And that’s not a good feeling after you just sat through 137 minutes.

I sense that some of the blame must go to the story itself. It’s actually very misleading to market this film as being about the hunt for a child serial killer. In reality, Child 44 is a political thriller with a tangential child serial killer subplot. The “mystery” is something that’s always lingering in the background, something the film comes back to repeatedly, but is never the focal point. Instead, the vast majority of the film is about depicting the terror of Stalinist Russia — how you always need to keep an eye over your shoulder, how people and the state can turn on you at any second; never knowing who to trust; the constant fear and paranoia.

As for the killer? There’s never really a proper investigation. There’s no real mystery, no shocking revelations. It’s just some guy who suddenly shows up halfway through and is revealed to audiences as the killer. I also had some trouble understanding the motivations behind Hardy’s and Rapace’s characters wanting so badly to find the killer. They don’t even have children and they have enough life-and-death problems of their own to deal with. As a result it’s almost like the whole child killer thing is just a hook to suck people in. It’s a red herring.

That said, I shouldn’t be penalising Child 44 for not being the type of film I anticipated. On the plus side, it is quite effective in its depiction of that period of history, and Tom Hardy delivers a superb performance as the complex protagonist. I also wasn’t as distracted as some people have been by the Russian-accented English — or at least the varied attempts at it — as I accepted early on that it’s just something viewers have to live.

What fails the movie, however, is a lack of genuine intrigue and sustained tension. There are perhaps too many subplots, none of which manage to gather any momentum. It’s just not that interesting, a shocker considering that the book is considered to be a riveting page-turner. And that’s a shame, because I’m sure there’s a compelling story buried in there somewhere.

On the whole, Child 44 isn’t terrible. It’s a solid production with strong performances, but it’s also quite a dull adaptation that is unable to bring out the most of the fascinating premise and whatever it is that made the book such a supposedly compulsive bestseller.

2.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Attack on Titan (2015)

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I thought I had sworn off live-action manga/anime adaptations since the abysmal Dragon Ball: Evolution (you know, the one where Goku’s a white American high school kid), but a recent trailer I saw of Attack on Titan, based on the Japanese manga of the same name, got me interested. Plus several people have raved on to me about how good the manga/anime is, but given that there are so many volumes now and I don’t have the time to start, I thought I’d cheat a little and try to get up to speed through this 98-minute movie.

Now, since watching the film, I have read that fans of the manga/anime are up in arms because of the liberties the filmmakers took in adapting the source material. None of that is relevant to this review.

Accordingly, my impression of the movie is probably better than he general consensus, which is that it sucked more balls than there are Dragon Ballz. Still, that doesn’t mean I liked it. Attack on Titan straddles an uncomfortable line often seen in manga/anime live-action adaptations, where it tries to be “realistic” to differentiate itself from its source material but stay true to it at the same time to appease fans. The result is a film that pisses everyone off for not being able to do either effectively.

Allow me to backtrack a little. The premise of the film is a very interesting and imaginative one. Some time in the future, these naked humanoid giants with no genitals begin roaming the land and eating people for no apparent reason. After humanity is nearly driven to extinction, the remaining survivors manage to build massive concentric walls to keep these giants out. A hundred years pass and no one has seen a titan — until now.

The story focuses on youngster Eren Jaeger (Haruma Miuru) and his two friends, Mikasa Ackerman (Kiko Mizuhara) and Armin Arlert (Kanata Hongo) when they first encounter the titans, and then skips forward in time to when they are members of a human resistance army dedicated to fending the titans off.

The first part of the film, when the titans emerge, is executed quite well. Though the special effects are not up to Hollywood standards, there is an anime-esque aesthetic to the CGI that suits the eerie tone of the movie — at least that part of it anyway. The titans are grotesque and creepy ass looking, with randomly deformed body parts and facial features. Their expressions are what the Japanese refer to as “hentai”, which basically means perverse sexual desire. These initial sequences are brutal, extremely violent, and highly terrifying, the kind of stuff you’d expect to see in a horror film.

And honestly, that’s what I thought Attack on Titan — a title which, in typical Japanese fashion, doesn’t even make sense anyway — was: a monster horror movie. If it stuck to being that kind of movie, I think I would have liked it a lot. It didn’t take long, however, for the movie to steer towards a more traditional fantasy manga plot. As it turns out, the titans can only be killed by severing something in their nape, and accordingly, the humans develop some kind of mechanical outfit that more or less turn them into Spider-Man ninjas. Yeah, they shoot wires from their belts and fly around in the air, bouncing off walls and shit while carrying swords.

Once this happens, Attack on Titan evolves into a war movie of sorts, but it’s just not a very compelling one. The flaws in the special effects also become a lot more obvious when the characters are flying all over the place. There’s simply not enough story advancement and the characters are all poorly developed, to the extent where I was beginning to get some of them confused with each other. Admittedly, some of the quirks are probably cultural, but none of them came across as real people.

There is a nice twist towards the end (not sure how close this is to the manga/anime), and then the film finishes abruptly. I was like, “WTF?” before I realised, shockingly, that there is a second part to the movie — Attack on Titan: The End of the World —  set to be released in September. When I put that into perspective, I suppose the first part of Attack on Titan didn’t finish on too bad of a note. It remains to be seen whether more thought will be put into the characters in the second part.

On the whole, there are some positives to take out of Attack on Titan, especially in its early stages thanks to some effective and perverse horror imagery. However, it felt like so many aspects of this fascinating world and its characters were barely given any attention at all, and I fail to understand why they couldn’t have extended its relatively short 98-minute running time to 2+ hours to deliver a much more well-rounded film.  Still, by manga/anime adaptation standards, Attack on Titan is a passable piece of entertainment, just not a very good one.

2.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

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I knew it was not going to be good. Having put myself through the novel, my motivation for seeing Fifty Shades of Grey stemmed largely from my curiosity over how much a quality Hollywood production headed by director Sam Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass’s real-life wife) could salvage an adaptation of the third worst book I’ve ever read.

The answer? A decent amount, but nowhere near enough. You can’t deep fry a turd coated in 11 secret herbs and spices and expect it to suddenly be finger-licking good.

Fifty Shades of Grey is probably the first adaptation of a best-selling novel where the dominant expectation is that it will suck because of the source material. Originating as a piece of Twilght fan fiction, the novel has sold more than 100 million copies worldwide despite universal scathing reviews. All the blessings in the world to author EL James for her remarkable success, but how this poorly written amateur effort — which was initially released by an independent Aussie virtual publisher — became a global phenomenon will surely go down in history as one of the greatest literary mysteries of all time.

By now you should know that the “erotic romantic drama” is about young, beautiful, virginal Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson — the offspring of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson), who meets and falls for the rich, mysterious and “impossibly handsome” Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). She likes biting her lower lip and he’s a sex maniac who enjoys flogging women and contractual negotiations.

The problems with the story and the characters have been, like Anastasia’s ass, flogged to death. People who have read the book would have anticipated this, but audiences fresh to this tale will be introduced to a whole new world of painfully awkward conversations, unrealistic human reactions and WTF moments of the purest kind. It’s one unintentionally hilarious moment after another, each gradually propelling the film towards “so bad it’s good” territory, but without actually getting there. I can honestly say that my wife, who never read the books, laughed louder and harder in this movie than any comedy we’ve seen in the last few years.

The film’s other drawcard, the eroticism, was surprisingly flaccid. I knew they had to pare things back to squeeze the film into an R-rating under America’s classification system, but I didn’t believe they could make the sex scenes even duller than what they were in the book. We’re talking soft-soft core; 9 1/2 Weeks and Wild Orchid it definitely is not. And I say this with an unblemished record of staunch heterosexuality (not that there’s anything wrong with that): there was not enough man-junk for a movie whose target market is young to middle-aged women. In fact, while Johnson showed off everything, Dornan’s johnson doesn’t even make a fleeting, or even accidental appearance. By the way, the S&M scenes were just horrible. Maybe you need to be into that sort of stuff to appreciate it.

So when you take out the moronic characters, a paper-thin plot and tame eroticism, all that’s left is a dull experience littered with trite dialogue, cringeworthy set pieces and tacky efforts at developing “romance” between the two leads, which is evidently difficult when the guy can only think about torturing the girl and the girl can only think about…nothing at all.

Still, you can tell they tried. The biggest issue with the movie is that the filmmakers were restricted in what they could change without angering the faithful fans of the novel — and the woman who wrote it. Apparently, James clashed constantly with Taylor-Johnson during the creative process and in the editing room. The author wanted the film to remain loyal to the source material, while the director wanted the film to be less shit. I’ve also read that screenwriter Kelly Marcel initially rehauled the embarrassing dialogue, but James vetoed her and a second writer was brought in to rewrite the original shit back in. The mess has been described as a “falling out.”

I think it’s safe to say neither Taylor-Johnson nor Marcel will be back in future entries, though they must still be credited for doing all they can to repair the damage. Taylor-Johnson does a solid job of infusing the film with a blue-grey colour scheme that’s pretty to look at, while also moulding an atmosphere that suits the tone of the narrative. Marcel’s biggest contribution is ensuring that the story is not narrated by Ana, so there’s none of that “inner goddess” garbage or her annoying soliloquies. Some of the more ridiculous facts about her from the book — such as that she’s never kissed anyone or had a boyfriend — are thankfully trimmed out. They even tried to scrape back the amount of pointless emailing and texting between Ana and Christian and all the excruciating back and forth about the contract details.

As for the performances, Johnson is actually pretty good as the mentally challenged naive Ana, the beautiful girl who has no idea men are even remotely attracted to her. Though she’s close to Ana’s age in real life — Johnson’s 25, Ana’s supposed to be 21 — I found Johnson a little old-looking for the part, but kudos to her anyway as she at least channels the book version of the character well.

Jamie Dornan is by all accounts a great actor who will go one to bigger and better things after this, but you can tell from his performance that he couldn’t believe he was in this shit, playing a piece of shit. To borrow from Arrested Development’s Bluth family, Dornan’s singular expression throughout the film said it all.

Jamie Dornan

The rest of the cast sleepwalk through their way for their paychecks. Eloise Mumford, whom I’ve never seen before, plays Ana’s best friend and roommate Kate, while veterans Jennifer Ehle and Marcia Gay Harden play Ana and Christian’s mothers, respectively. True Blood‘s Luke Grimes plays Christian’s brother Elliot and British singer Rita Ora plays their sister Mia, with the familiar face of Max Martini stepping in as Taylor, Christian’s answer to Bruce Wayne’s Alfred. Everyone involved seems to acknowledge that they’re just in it for the money and the CV-boosting publicity.

Having said all this, Fifty Shades of Grey is not one of the worst films I’ve seen by a long shot. It’s better than the book, which doesn’t say much but must count for something. By all means, watch it to satisfy your curiosity or so you can crack jokes at it with your friends.

The film leaves audiences hanging like the novel, and judging from its box office success — smashing several opening weekend and R-rated film records — it appears at least two sequels (they’ll probably split the last book into two films) are headed our way. That’s not good, because the only two books I’ve read worse than Fifty Shades of Grey are — you guessed it — Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed.

1.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Two Faces of January (2014)

two faces

First the mirror, now January. Seems like everyone has two faces these days.

The Two Faces of January is an intriguing and elegant thriller set in the early 1960s featuring an A-list cast. It’s based on the 1964 novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith (who also wrote The Talented Mrs Ripley), about a young con man (Oscar Isaac from Inside Llewyn Davis) working as a tour guide in Athens who gets involved with a seemingly wealthy American tourist (Viggo Mortensen) and his young wife (Kirsten Dunst).

It’s one of those classy yet twisted tales where interesting and complex characters who are not who they seem keep falling deeper and deeper and into a mess they can’t get out of. The fun comes from not knowing who is telling the truth and who is ultimately playing whom. There are twists and turns galore, but the progression of the narrative is subtle and deliberately low-key. Rather than a series of ups and downs, the film begins on low heat and gradually simmers all the way to the end without ever boiling over.

All three leads are phenomenal, as you would expect. Viggo, in particular, always one of my fave actors, shows again why he perhaps the most versatile and underrated performer of his generation.

The confident, controlled direction of debut director Hossein Amini, who also wrote the screenplay, is enviably stylish, creating a constant sense of tension and paranoia that’s hard to shake. Amini also wrote the screenplay for Drive, one of the slickest films of 2011, and the talents he demonstrated in that adaptation are in full bloom here.

The problem with the Two Faces of January, however, is that despite its look and feel of a top-shelf, A-grade thriller, the film’s story doesn’t quite live up to everything else. When you boil it down, the plot is actually quite mediocre and over-reliant on coincidences, resulting in a limp payoff that disappoints following the spectacular set-up. It’s one of those films that comes across as much better than it really is, and the more you think about it the less impressive it becomes.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed the build up a lot and have feeling that Amini will go on to bigger and better projects. While it may fall short of potential, I’d still recommend The Two Faces of January for those with a taste for old-fashioned, character-driven thrillers.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Fault in Our Stars (2014)

fault-our-stars-movie-poster

First the book, and now the movie. I’m not big on romance, but I consider myself a fan of John Green’s young adult cancer romance novel The Fault in Our Stars. Last week I finally got a chance to see the movie adaptation, directed by Josh Boone (set to direct a new adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand) and starring rising stars Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort as a pair of cancer-ridden teen lovers.

I went in expecting a tear-jerker and still came close to discharging some saltwater from my eyes, which is no mean feat considering I almost never cry at movies and I knew exactly what was going to happen. I don’t have a problem with films that intend to manipulate viewers into crying as long as it is done in a non-exploitative way, and I think The Fault in Our Stars achieves, and if not comes very close to achieving, that objective. The emotions come not just from the realization that young lovers will inevitably be torn apart, but arise organically from the fact that we care about them and the special relationship that they have.

Woodley plays Hazel Grace Lancaster, a smart, uncannily self-aware teen living with terminal thyroid cancer. She’s already supposed to be dead, but a fictional experimental drug has miraculously extended her life for an indeterminate period of time. At one of the dreaded support groups her parents send her to, she meets Augustus Waters (Elgort) a former basketball star who lost a leg to osteosarcoma. The attraction is instant, and the two begin a sweet but doomed courtship that will take them from Indiana to halfway across the world.

I thought the book was awesome, and the film does a fantastic job of staying true to its source material. Much of the dialogue is there, the key scenes are all there, and some of Hazel’s inner thoughts are projected to audiences via well-timed but not overused voice-overs. There were some small changes, such as the cutting out of some minor characters and a clever (and arguably more effective) tweak to the ending, but for the most part the adaptation is as smooth as fans of the book could have hoped for, and kudos must go to Josh Boone in creating a tone that captures the essence of John Green’s voice and style.

Admittedly, it is difficult to transfer the love story from the page to the screen without losing something, and if one must nitpick it would have to be the loss of some of the sardonic wit of the novel. Much of it is there through the dialogue and interactions between the characters, but I guess it was too difficult to squeeze in all of Hazel’s astute observations and thoughts about the world and the people around her. But hey, I get that the focus is on the love story, and you can’t blame the filmmakers for sacrificing a bit of humour to make more time for tears.

The casting is also a bit of a mixed bag. Shailene Woodley is magnificent. I don’t know if it’s an Oscar-worthy performance, but in my humble opinion it’s as good as performance Jennifer Lawrence has given. Woodley drives the film from start to finish. She’s sympathetic but not pitiful, charming but not obnoxious, and she brings out the best of the qualities of Hazel as the protagonist.

Ansel Elgort, who incidentally played Woodley’s brother in Divergent, is solid but occasionally struggles as the love of Hazel’s life, Augustus Waters. It’s not an easy role to pull off because he needs to be attractive, witty, considerate and caring, and Elgort achieves that for the most part, though at times he fails express his emotions in pivotal scenes, opting instead for an awkward, supposed-to-be-but-not-really charming smile. But still, he’s better than Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner.

The supporting cast had some big names but not quite what I expected. Hazel’s mother is played by a rail-thin Laura Dern, who despite her excellent performance was not the actress I had envisioned in the role. Neither was Hazel’s father, played by True Blood’s Sam Trammell, who is given less to do and doesn’t deliver any more than he is given. The strangest casting choice was that of Willem Dafoe as the writer Hazel worships, Peter van Houten. Having read the book, I know the character is supposed to be fat and dishevelled, but Dafoe (despite trying to dress down) is neither, and it was hard reconciling the two in my mind. Even had I not read the book beforehand I probably would have expected more from the performance.

As it turned out, it was the lesser-known Nat Wolff (who appeared in Boone’s first film, Stuck in Love) who steals the show from the other supporting characters in his role as Augustus’s best male friend Isaac, who has already lost one eye to cancer and is about to lose the other. He was exactly how I pictured the character to be and comes across as both affable and genuine.

I can only imagine how my thoughts about the film would differ had I not read the book first, though I imagine it would still be highly positive. This is an easy film to like, with likable characters, a witty and thoughtful take on the bleak subject matter of cancer, and of course plenty of heartbreak mixed in with splashes of beauty and joy. It might still be a teen romance, but it’s a heartfelt and powerful one that does its best to avoid the cliches of the genre with rare wisdom and warmth.

4 stars out of 5