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Fifty Shades muddles, Kingsman gets all the action

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FIFTY SHADES OF GREY. As my wife was quick to point out, my very presence at some movies could, to a stranger, pose problems. And she's not wrong: The lone man in his 30s attending a cartoon matinee is the tamer, lamer analog of the guy in the van by the playground. I try to manifest kindness in these situations, to wordlessly allay the fears of concerned parents around me. But other people are going to formulate their own twisted scenarios, regardless. Never have I been more aware of this than while watching Fifty Shades of Grey in a room full of excited women.

My wife read the books and got a kick out of them — like everybody else — even while realizing that they are thematically dubious literary trash. Enough time has passed by now that the cheap thrill has worn off, so there was no convincing her to join me. In all honesty, it didn't really even occur to me that it might seem creepy, or a little off, to go to the first major Hollywood sex movie in years by myself. At least not until I got there. (I wasn't ostracized or made to leave; just felt vaguely uncomfortable and out of place.)

When her roommate falls ill, bright-eyed, naïve college senior Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) volunteers to help complete an assignment. (Anastasia refers to herself as an "English Lit" major. I majored in English, and am the son of an English major. I don't know anybody who says "English Lit.") She drives to Seattle to profile eligible bachelor and billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), an alumnus of her university, for the school newspaper. At first the interview seems like a disaster, with Anastasia's exaggerated awkwardness sucking the air out of the room. But for some reason — in context that reason is unclear — Christian is taken with her. He begins to actively pursue her, surprising her with extravagant gifts and lavish dates. She's into it, but there's a twist. After deflowering her, Christian informs Anastasia of his fondness for bondage and dominance. He then presents her with a multi-page contract/non-disclosure agreement regarding the nature of their proposed relationship. She spends much of the rest of the movie debating whether to sign the contract. Meanwhile she's learning that she really enjoys getting tied up and spanked in his elegant penthouse sex dungeon.

Ostensibly, the central conflict is an internal one: Anastasia has to wrestle with her definition of relationships and romantic love in the face of Christian's intense but ultimately depersonalized sexuality. At least I think that's the conflict, because this movie does little more than suggest it. I'll grant that the sex scenes are pretty sexy, but everything in between is borderline incoherent. Johnson strikes an appealing balance of composure and innocence, and delivers a few lines with expert comic timing, but the character she's playing, like Christian, is a muddle of contradictory reactions. It could be argued that our emotional selves are all messy and unpredictable, and thus that the movie is attempting nuance and authenticity. But the whole thing is so contrived, so antiseptic, that any truth that comes out of it seems accidental.

It's been a while since Hollywood took on sex and relationships with any courage. Date movies tend to be dumb comedies or lifeless dramas, so I applaud the fact that Fifty Shades director Sam Taylor-Johnson doesn't shy away from putting some sex on screen. I can't help but think that there are better, more exciting stories to be told, though. At the end I was less embarrassed about being the only lone male at the movie than I was for having sat through it at all. R. 125m.

KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE. Writer/director Matthew Vaughn and comic book author Mark Millar last teamed on Kick-Ass (2010) which, funnily enough, starred Aaron Taylor-Johnson, spouse of Fifty Shades director Sam. Vaughn and Millar's collaboration was a fruitful one, an auspicious beginning to which Kingsman is a well-suited follow-up.

Gary "Eggsy" Unwin (Taron Egerton) is a bit of a London rude-boy, but well-meaning and probably too smart for his own good. He tends to stir the pot with the minions of his mum's low-rent thug boyfriend, among other pursuits, and is no stranger to the law. He is also, unbeknownst to him, the son of a military-man-turned-secret-agent in the service of Kingsman, an independent spy organization self-tasked with saving the world. He died saving the life of his friend Harry (Colin Firth), who figures he owes his fallen comrade's son a favor. He selects Eggsy as a candidate for Kingsman membership, and the young man's off on a rigorous trial process. Meanwhile, eccentric, color-coordinated tech billionaire Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) is enacting a sinister plot to curb global warming and overpopulation.

Kingsman is charming, stylish, funny and exceptionally violent. One sequence in particular (a free-for-all in a Southern church/hate group), has more deaths and more inventive staging thereof than any single scene since maybe Kill Bill: Volume I. Firth is customarily great, but Egerton really steals the show, with a winning combination of good looks, dry humor and genuine emotion. This movie reminds us that a work of pure imagination, an adventure for adventure's sake, can be just what we need. R. 128m.

John J. Bennett

Previews

THE DUFF. Teen makeover comedy about a girl (Mae Whitman) who finds out she's the Designated Ugly Fat Friend in her group. It's like Mean Girls never even happened. PG13. 101m.

HOT TUB TIME MACHINE 2. What part of the title don't you understand? Adam Scott and his boys are back in the chlorine. R. 93m.

MCFARLAND USA. Chariots of Costner. A feel-good Disney sports movie about a small-town cross-country coach and his team. PG. 128m.

STILL ALICE. Julianne Moore plays a linguistics professor losing her mind to Alzheimer's Disease. With Alec Baldwin. PG13. 101m.

AMERICAN SNIPER. Bradley Cooper plays a Navy SEAL in an intense and moving biopic/war movie that doles out adrenaline and domestic devastation in equal measure. R. 132m.

BLACK OR WHITE. Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer play grandparents battling for custody of a biracial girl. PG13. 121m.

THE IMITATION GAME. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing in a biopic about the mathletes and cryptologists trying to crack the German code in World War II. PG13. 114m.

JUPITER ASCENDING. Gorgeous trademark visuals and a wreck of a story from the siblings Wachowski. With Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum and a stylishly villainous Eddie Redmayne. PG13. 127m.

PADDINGTON. A South American bear moves in with a London family and dodges a museum taxidermist in a live-action adaptation of the children's stories. PG13. 128m.

SEVENTH SON. The Dude and Julianne Moore go D&D in a fantasy adventure with witches, dragons and Ben Barnes as the chosen savior. PG13. 102m.

THE SPONGEBOB MOVIE: SPONGE OUT OF WATER. He of the square pants leads his undersea crew onto land in this animation and live action mash-up. PG. 93m.

TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT. Marion Cotillard plays a woman trying to hang onto her job by convincing her co-workers not to sell her out. In French. PG13. 95m.

WHIPLASH. Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons play a young jazz drummer and his bandleader who pushes him to his limits in this breathless intensive on the nature of greatness. R. 107m.

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

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John J. Bennett

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