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Movie Review: Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)


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: Blue is the Warmest Color (2013)


For some time now I have heard about this “amazing” French movie, Blue Is the Warmest Color, about the relationship between two lesbian lovers.  The film was an unanimous choice for the Palme d’Or from the official jury of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival and critics raved about the performances, and yet it was largely overshadowed by the hype over the explicit sex scenes, and later, the controversy over the complaints against director Abdellatif Kechiche made by the film’s two stars, Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux. And so I checked out the film with a healthy mix of curiosity and scepticism, though I never expected to end up being blown away by the experience. For once, they were right: Blue Is the Warmest Color is an amazing film, one of the best love stories ever depicted on screen.

For starters, let’s not tiptoe around the lesbian theme — some people might be uncomfortable with it for whatever reason (and indeed I had my own reservations about it, believing that it could have just been a gimmick or exploitative) — but honestly, I was so emotionally invested in the characters and their relationship that by the end their sexual orientation became completely irrelevant. The emotions and heartbreak were so agonisingly real that I almost forgot I was watching a film, and I couldn’t believe it when both my wife and I uncontrollably teared up. (What is this salty discharge?)

Based on a graphic novel of the same name, Blue is the Warmest Color begins with high school student Adele being a normal adolescent trying to fit in with the crowd while discovering her sexuality. Two chance meetings — the first of which was just a glance on the street — with blue-haired artist Emma (Lea) changes her life as the two start a love affair which we follow over the course of several years.

It’s not the typical fairytale or whirlwind romance we’re accustomed to seeing in Hollywood films. It’s sometimes passionate, sometimes emotional, sometimes painful and sometimes banal — like real life. And it’s all very raw. But it’s precisely because of that the relationship comes across as genuine and believable, and before you know it you are sucked into their world and into their hearts. The fact that it’s a lesbian relationship does provide some additional friction — such as meeting parents and dealing with the attitudes of bigots — but it’s really no different to other relationship challenges experienced by other couples, gay or otherwise.

It’s a 3-hour film that doesn’t feel like one, an impressive feat given that it’s not action packed or a Lord of the Rings-esque epic. Every long conversation, every longing glance had my full attention, and I was almost sad when the credits started rolling. The length is important because the film does a particularly fantastic job of depicting how feelings can change over time, and the vulnerability, isolation and loneliness people can sometimes feel even when they are supposedly in a loving relationship.

The performances have been lauded and rightfully so. Both actresses are phenomenal and it’s not surprise that they received the Palme d’Or along with the director. Newcomer Adele, as the younger of the two, gets to express more emotion and delivers a powerhouse performance that should have earned recognition from the Academy this year. Lea, who was in Inglourious Basterds and stole Owen Wilson’s (and my) heart in Midnight in Paris, is more mature and reserved, but she’s equally good as the ying to Adele’s yang. Both are straight in real life but you could have fooled me into believing otherwise after seeing the emotions in their eyes in a few of the film’s key scenes.

The sex scenes have received a lot of attention for their graphic nature (apparently it’s aided by “prosthetics” and “effects”) and criticised for being unrealistic and too long. I understand the need to exhibit their passion, but I do agree that they are a bit “too much” and unnecessarily long. Seriously, outside of porn, is there a need for a single sex scene longer than 10 minutes? I mean, I found it educational and all (I was like, “so that’s how they do it”), but I highly doubt shortening the scenes and toning them down a little would have much of an effect on the emotional impact of the film overall. So yeah, I found it gratuitous. As for unrealistic? Heck, how would I know? All I know is that the same could easily be said for most straight Hollywood sex scenes.

Notwithstanding that one minor complaint, Blue is the Warmest Color is an outstanding film, a seductive, beautiful and breathtaking coming-of-age story about not just the discovery of sexuality but about finding out who you are and what you want in life. If you’ve ever fallen in love or had your heart broken then you need to see this film. It might crush your soul in the process but it’s a powerful experience that’s well worth the cost. One of the best films of the year and the best romance I’ve seen. Period.

4.5 stars out of 5