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Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)
I've not read the novel on which this film is based. Indeed, in my milieu, I know of no one who read it and liked it. Still, the work sold like hotcakes so I can only presume there are many (single women, most likely, who enjoy at least a little of what they regard as forbidden frisson in their fantasy lives) for whom this rather vanilla sexual adventurism holds an appeal.
The story is nothing unexpected. An attractive young woman named Anastasia Steele, played with a doe-eyed earnestness by Dakota Johnson (whose Hollywood pedigree is nearly royal, since her parents are Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith), on the verge of graduating from college, meets a young but enigmatic billionaire named Christian Gray, convincingly played as a block of wood by Jamie Dornan (which is surprising, since he does a very good job of playing the family man serial killer in the British television series The Fall). I would say sparks fly but that's too generous a characterization for the fading embers that signify the relationship at the heart of this movie. Despite being young and beautiful (Johnson has the appeal of a young librarian or graduate assistant who yearns to be bad, which is to say she's perfectly cast, and Dornan owes a bonus to his personal trainer), these two actors have no chemistry whatsoever! There are rumors they didn't get on during filming but, whatever the case, I can hardly remember seeing a love story (which is, ultimately, what this is) in which the two leads seemed to be so completely wrong for one another. So, for some reason known only to him, Gray develops a major jones for Anastasia, proceeds to woo her in an intense but also creepily unsettling sort of way that, given his wealth, intimidates and ultimately swamps our heroine. He has intimacy issues, though, and reveals he's what many would consider a major freak, with a red-painted room in his space-age bachelor pad that contains a Marquis De Sade starter kit. Then these two crazy kids start dithering over a relationship contract in a negotiation that makes the refinancing of Greek national debt look sexy. Anastasia wants him to let her in and Christian just wants a cocker spaniel in leather wrist cuffs and panties who actually pants for getting flogged. They meet each other's folks (the respective mothers played by the otherwise very fine Jennifer Ehle and Academy Award winner Marcia Gay Harden)and they're no help, so Christian, after confessing some dark truths to a sleeping Anastasia (Dornan's one compelling bit of acting in the film), is persuaded to share his innermost self, which takes the form of him paddling Anastasia as if she just spilled ink all over his spreadsheets. Her bottom still red, she leaves him and we promptly forget all about them until the inevitable sequel.
Within the bounds of this dopiness, Johnson is very good. Though we've no idea why she's still a virgin (particularly when it's made obvious her roommate has a healthy interest in sex) or what she hopes to do for a living once she graduates college, she effectively conveys an intelligent but somewhat naive young woman who finds herself involved in a relationship that is not just overwhelming in several ways but reveals things about herself she never even suspected. When one has an unrealized passion, it's to be expected that the actual first experiences of that passion might leave one bewildered and exhilarated. But how does one react when introduced to practices one never even considered, much less thought one might have a taste for? Amid her growing love for Christian (fetchingly demonstrated when, at one point, she breaks into a goofy dance and, in the best scene of the film, when the two of them glow with delight during a glider flight), Anastasia's initial recoil from his kinks and then her doubt and uncertainty as she gradually accedes to the same, her own surprise at her guarded receptiveness, is compellingly rendered by Johnson. The sight of her lithe naked body, descending into a bathtub or writing under the administration of a cat o' nine tails, is also no drawback.
Dornan, however, calls to mind the critiques of Clint Eastwood's performances in his first years of stardom: a bedpost in Christian's sex den would have had more personality. Despite Christian's monologues, I got no sense of what, if anything, animated him. Even his supposed passion for BDSM seemed detached, hardly a part of him. Dornan's interpretation of this character was almost completely opaque, which I cannot believe he was aiming for. Perhaps he was hamstrung, maybe even embarrassed, by the limitations, the downright silliness, of the material.
Dornan's performance aside, the movie is sunk by flaws of story and screenplay, which is particularly true at the end when Anastasia, once again nagging Christian to reveal himself to her, gets her wish in the form of a whipping and then promptly walks out on him. Make up your mind, honey; either you're into it or not. And if you're not, why did you ask for the whipping in the first place? The direction is competent and the film certainly looks good. The money is up on the screen but the supposedly transgressive nature of the story is really just warmed-over vanilla and, while there are flashes in Johnson's performance of a fresh perspective on such a tale, the penthouse elevator doors close on something Jackie Collins could've written in her sleep.
Bless Me, Ultima (2013)
A Major Disappointment
The novel, which has become a staple of high-school lesson plans and thus qualifies as Great Literature, deserves all the plaudits that have been heaped upon it. I read the work for the first time a few years ago and found it very moving. Like To Kill a Mockingbird (to which it has often been compared), its deceptively simple coming-of-age tale is the prism through which we are allowed a view of a larger picture: the merging of a mystically-inclined Native American way of life and more establishmentarian (and yet, in its way, even more superstitious) Catholic Hispanic culture, as well as the impact encroaching modernity has on both. Moreover, the story explored, through the relationship between young Antonio and the wise old curandera Ultima, the meaning of the connections human beings have with one another and the natural world of which they are a part, all beautifully weaved together by the skill of the author Rudolfo Anaya. (I will also add that, when I read the novel, its simple but powerful evocation of a distant time and place, the love between a growing and inquisitive boy and the old woman who effectively serves as his grandmother, and the neo-pagan lessons she imparts all helped me through a tough time, which is certainly one of the blessings of great writing.) So one can imagine my excitement when it was announced a film version was finally in the works and now, after having seen the movie, one may also imagine my disappointment over a work that is barely a shadow of the book. While decidedly earnest and also largely faithful to the source material, the film has none of the magical beauty of the novel. Indeed, the whole enterprise seems misbegotten. I suspect Carl Franklin, a talented director who has made such fine films as One False Move and Devil in a Blue Dress, was the wrong choice for this project. The direction is humdrum and the script he penned is weak, beginning with the idea of having the great Al Molina narrate the story as an adult Antonio. While it's always good to see a film make liberal use of Hispanic actors, every role, other than Miriam Colon as Ultima, seems miscast. The whole movie, for lack of a better description, just lays there, possesses little if any of the wonder over life and love and nature that Anaya made come alive on the page.
In his review, the late Roger Ebert generally praised this film, stating that the movie took its time and did not, as so many other films in this day and age often do, completely dispense with subtlety and over explain everything. While I appreciate his point, I think a film can sometimes be too spare and thus too obscure. It was a mistake, I think, to focus so much on young Antonio and his sometimes confused child's eye view of the world. It would have been enlightening, particularly for those who haven't read the novel, to see more of Ultima and her "magic," her pagan-infused Catholic teachings.
A completely re-written script would have well served this project and the fuller and more subtly complex film that might have resulted would have come closer to capturing what the author conveyed. I missed seeing that golden fish in the river.