Friday, February 24, 2017

"Fifty Shades Darker" and The Week in Reviews

[I review the new movie "Fifty Shades Darker" as well as DVDs "American Pastoral" and "Birth of a Nation."  The Book of the Week is "Everything I Need to Know I Learned in The Twilight Zone."  I also bring you up-to-date with "My 1001 Movies I Must See Before I Die Project" with Rene Clair's "A Nous A Liberte."]

Fifty Shades Darker

Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey are back but instead of "darker," I would say this is "Fifty Shades Lighter."

Of course I was going to review this one.  I reviewed the first one, and yes, I called it, boring, a snooze fest (here is the full review) and a "Lifetime Movie with boobs and butts," but I was hoping that perhaps the producers of this sequel would have read my review, decided to listen to me and provide something a little spicier than last time.

Well...they didn't!

For all of the hype around S & M and bondage, again this is pretty tame stuff.  Even more tame than the first one.  I mean, who hasn't had some sex play with handcuffs, right?  Oh, OK...never mind.  

But I will say, I enjoyed the story more this time. 

As for the sex, at my age when the long sex scenes come on, I get kind of bored and wish I was at home so I could fast forward.  But that's just me.  I guess I am just too old for slathering on warm oil and the old Ben Wa balls.  And speaking of Ben Wa balls, what's the deal?  This is the second time in the last few months when they have played a major role in a movie (see my review for "The Handmaiden").  But I am getting ahead of myself here.

Anyway, as for this second installment directed by James Foley, which I know is not the last one in the series, we find our heroine, Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) on her own with a new job.  As you may recall from the first film (and I am assuming you saw the first film or you wouldn't be interested in this one), Christian (Jamie Dornan) was a bit, shall we say "excessive" with Ana and she left him.  But as this second film begins, Ana receives a bouquet of white roses from Christian wishing her well on her new job. She almost tosses them but decides against it. Then Christian seeks her out at a gallery showing and begs her to have dinner with him where he says he wants to try again.  After a bit of about two seconds...Ana is convinced and once again they are a couple, though this time Christian promises he will act more like a boyfriend and less like her master.  In fact, they laugh about how "vanilla" their relationship has become, something Christian used to say he never wanted.

There are the usual sex scenes, because this is a story about sex, but like I said, they don't involve much in the way of S & M or even bondage as Christian is trying to learn how to have "vanilla" sex.  But what this movie DOES have, which the first one didn't, is an actual plot.  Anastasia is stalked by one of Christian's ex-submissives, which is a tiny bit interesting, and then Christian does a bit of stalking too, which is a creepy bit interesting.  Ana's new boss, Jack, played by Eric Johnson, makes an aggressive play for her too.  So our Ana is a busy girl trying to dodge all of this activity. 

And how do I know there is going to be yet another installment? 

Well, there were more than two books in the series for one thing, but even if you didn't know that, it's a giveaway when the film ends with a character, who played a small role earlier, looks menacingly at the camera with an "I'll be back" look on his face.

So if you like love stories, this one is OK, though I am irritated by passive women and controlling men. I laughed when Christian and others said that Ana wasn't likely to go along with something just because she is told to.  Really?  I guess she must pick her battles, though I'm not sure what they are, since she lets Christian order her meal; she doesn't go to NYC for a work thing just because Christian says no; and when Christian admits to something that I would definitely call a red flag, she sticks with him. 

Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson do what they can with a script by Niall Leonard (based on the E.L. James novels) that at times has some cheesy lines.  If I were to judge Johnson by these films, I would think she doesn't have much range, but I have seen Johnson in other films since, and she is a talented actress who can do comedy and drama.  I especially enjoyed her in "How To Be Single."  Likewise, Dornan is much better than he appears in these films. Yes, he is a handsome, sexy guy, but his Christian is still awfully creepy. But if you want to see what he can really do, see him in "Anthropoid," a film I reviewed recently.  He is wonderful.  And did I mention that he is one handsome dude?

Kim Basinger is also in this, but I am still wondering why.  Her character seemed unnecessary.  Marcia Gay Harden plays Christian's mother and as an actress she is always fine. I have no complaints, but again, she doesn't have much to do as a mother in a sex film. But it's Eric Johnson as Ana's boss, Jack, who got my attention.  He is a Canadian actor who so far is best known for the TV shows "The Knick" and "Flash Gordon," but I say, watch for him.  He will go far.  He has that special combination of looks, talent, sophistication and charm, even though here he plays a heavy.

And speaking of Canada...the film supposedly takes place in Seattle and being a Seattleite, I like that and look for familiar sights. Look!  There is the Space Needle!  We must be in Seattle! I also really love Vancouver, B.C. so it's rather disconcerting to see the opening establishing shot showing Seattle, but then the next frame?  Our characters are definitely in Gastown in Vancouver B.C. and every other frame is clearly NOT Seattle.  Why?  BECAUSE THE MOVIE IS FILMED ENTIRELY IN VANCOUVER!!!  All I can say, is "C'mon!!!"  Why even bother to pretend we are in Seattle? 

Rosy the Reviewer says...the title is very misleading.  If you are expecting this to be "darker" you will be disappointed, but if you want a soft porn love story, it works.

***Some Movies You Might Have Missed***
(And Some You Will Be Glad You Did)!


American Pastoral (2016)

An ex-college football star and his beauty queen wife who seem to have everything must come to grips with their daughter's involvement in the protest movement of the 1960's.

I wanted to love this movie.  I like movies about the protest generation of the 60's and 70's because I was there.  I was one of them.  My parents were part of the so-called "Greatest Generation." The "Greatest Generation" revered security and serenity after the war years, and then we Baby Boomers came along, eschewing all of that and we became their greatest nightmare.  The Baby Boomers embraced sex, drugs, rock and roll and protest.

Ewan McGregor stars as Seymour Levov, also known as "The Swede," because, though he was Jewish, he eschewed traditional Jewish values, married a shiksa beauty queen, moved to the suburbs and became "whitewashed," a theme that writer Philip Roth liked to explore in his books, and "American Pastoral," on which this film is based, is no exception.  Seymour was a football hero who got to marry a beauty queen (Jennifer Connolly). His life looked perfect except for one thing.  His daughter, Merry (Dakota Fanning) developed a terrible stutter, and as she grew older, rejected his life and was swallowed up by the turmoil of the 60's.

Merry is a sensitive but confident kid, her stutter notwithstanding, and as she matures, she actually becomes a pain in the neck to her parents.  She sees a monk immolate himself on TV - a fairly common occurrence during the Vietnam War era - and she is deeply disturbed by it.  Over time she becomes more and more obsessed about the War and starts blaming her father and mother for their middle class lives. 

Merry has a contentious relationship with her mother and the shrink trying to help them with Merry's stuttering says she is trying to compete with her beautiful mother, a premise that goes nowhere in this film.  Seymour dotes on Merry and when she argues with her father about his life and the war, he tells her that if she cares so much to "bring the war home." So much for parental advice.  Not sure if he meant it literally but that's how she took it, so she blows up the local post office.  Unfortunately, the post master was inside.  Mary disappears and the rest of the film involves Semour's efforts to find his daughter and to try to understand what happened.

The film begins at a high school reunion for the Class of '51.  Seymour's brother, Jerry (Rupert Evans), is there and classmate Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn), now a famous author, asks about "The Swede," which gives Jerry the opportunity to tell him about Seymour and for Nathan to provide the narration for what transpires as an American tragedy.

Ewan McGregor not only stars in this film, but directed it as well. It bombed at the box office, and I am not sure why.  It has wonderful actors and a compelling story with a screenplay by John Romano based on Philip Roth's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, but I guess in this time where animated and horror films rule, it didn't get the hype it deserved.  Also, the critics were not kind.  But it is not an easy thing to bring a multi-layered novel like this one to the screen, so though I will say the film fell down a bit in the second half, I liked it. I didn't love it like I wanted to, but I liked it. 

We are all familiar with the radicals of the 60's and 70's and the bombings but what about their mothers and fathers?  How did they feel about the activities of their kids?  What did they go through as a result?  This film attempts to explore that - parental despair when their children reject everything they stand for and their inability to believe their own children could turn out to be something they don't want them to be - and it gets the message across.

Rosy the Reviewer says...Sorry, haters, I liked this film and found it very compelling.  I think my fellow Baby Boomers will too.

Birth of a Nation (2016)

A dramatization of the famous slave uprising led by Nat Turner.

Here is another film that did not live up to its promise, but not because it wasn't a good film. Soon after the film was released, it came to light that star/director/writer/producer Nate Parker had been accused of rape while in college and that hurt the film.

Not to be confused with the 1915 D.W. Griffith film of the same name that glorified the KKK as defenders of southern women against the newly freed slaves, this film tells the story of "the birth" of Nat Turner (Parker), a slave who was allowed to learn to read and write (something that was forbidden for slaves to do) and who became a preacher.  He was used by the slave owners to preach to other slaves the importance of doing what their masters told them.

Set in in Virginia, this is a biopic that shows Turner's rise as a preacher, his rise as a leader of the slaves and their eventual rebellion in 1831.  At first Nat was used as a pawn by the slave owners to keep the slaves in line, using religion to passify the slaves and validate their control over them, but as time went by Nat couldn't stand what he saw, and when his wife (Aja Naomi King) was brutally raped, he wanted revenge.  He began to understand that his preaching had real power and he started to use it to galvanize the slaves and to orchestrate an uprising.

The first two-thirds of the film chronicles Nat's life and the last third of the film shows how the slave revolt, known as Nat Turner's Rebellion, played out where over 50 whites were killed and hundreds of slaves hanged.

As Turner, Parker is a compelling film presence, who sensitively shows Turner's conversion from quiet, obedient preacher of the gospel to loud, radical preacher of rebellion.

I always affirm the need to see films like this - holocaust films fall into that category too - because we must never forget the horrors of slavery and the holocaust, but it never gets any easier to see the incredibly cruel and inhuman treatment inflicted on humans by their fellow humans.  This is a difficult film to watch.  There is one scene that shows a slave owner's little white daughter playing with a slave child, except the little white girl is dragging the slave child around by a noose.  That one image says it all and shows the power of film.

Rosy the Reviewer says...a difficult film to watch, and despite the controversy surrounding its star and director, an important one that deserves to be seen.


***My 1001 Movies I Must See Before I Die Project***

213 to go!

Have YOU seen this classic film?

A Nous A Liberte (1931)

Two convicts escape from prison.  One prospers, the other doesn't.

Louis (Raymond Cordy) and Emile (Henri Marchand) plan an escape from prison.  Louis makes it out but Emile is recaptured.  Louis goes on to build a factory empire but when Emile gets out of the prison and recognizes Louis, Louis's new life is threatened.

Rene Clair was a French film director whose early silent films were reknowned for their innovations. However, he is probably best known by American audiences for his later films, "I Married a Witch" and "And Then There Were None."

This is an early film that, though not really a silent film, has little dialogue, instead substituting music and song where dialogue might have been.  It is a sort of whimsical film - half comedy, half musical - that pokes fun at the pomposity of the upper classes. There is also a scene with an assembly line getting out of control.  Sound familiar?  It all has a very Chaplinesque feel to it, so much so that after Chaplin's "Modern Times" was released in 1936, Chaplin was sued for plagiarism over it.

Even a film enthusiast like myself has a hard time with these really old films. I think it didn't take much in the early days of cinema to delight audiences, because they were just happy to see moving images and hear the characters in the film talk.  I guess we expect more these days.

Why it's a Must See:  "Interestingly, much of the humor in [this film] stems from carefully manipulated screen space and sequence...It's a formula freed from dialogue and adopted directly from the silent cinema as a transitional vehicle into the talkies."
---"1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die"

As I make my way through this project (to watch the 1001 movies I must see before I die) and encounter films I might not have necessarily wanted to see, I have found some unlikely treasures but also suffered through some that were just not my thing.

Rosy the Reviewer says... sadly, early film comedies with slapstick and over the top plots are just not my thing.
(b & w)

***Book of the Week***

Everything I Need To Know I Learned in The Twilight Zone by Mark Dawidziak (2017)

Remember that book, "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten" by Robert Fulghum that was all the rage in the 80's? Well this book thinks that all we really need for a good life is the lessons from "The Twilight Zone."

Rod Serling may no longer be a household name, but in the early 1960's his anthology television program, "The Twilight Zone," was de rigeur viewing and everyone could hum the iconic theme music. 

With famous actors like Burgess Meredith and even Robert Redford starring, the show was part scifi, part horror and, according to author and veteran TV critic Mark Dawidziak, the show was also really a series of morality plays that could serve as guides to life.

"Lurking in almost every at least one guiding rule, one life lesson, one stirring reminder of a basic right or wrong taught to us as children.  There are lessons for individuals.  There are lessons for our society.  There are lessons for our planet."

Dawidziak has divided the book into chapters, each with a moral lesson, followed by synopses of episodes that illustrated those lessons, e.g. "Nobody said life was fair," "That which doesn't kill you makes you stronger" and "Never cry wolf."

Though Dawidziak includes descriptions of most episodes, this is not really an episode guide or a history of the show per se, though he does a short bio of Serling that highlights Serling's moral code, and Serling's daughter weighs in on her Dad, but rather it's a light-hearted self-help book courtesy of "The Twilight Zone," where he links each episode to an old saying, e.g.  Walter Bedeker (David Wayne) sells his soul to the devil in "Escape Clause." Hence the lesson: "Read every contract...carefully."

When speaking about Serling, his daughter says:

 "The seeds of his strongly felt convictions, understanding of human nature, and ability to see beyond the obvious were nourished at Antioch [college] and would become the trademarks of his work...It has often been said that the episodes of The Twilight Zone are parables -- short allegorical stories designed to illustrate or teach some truth or moral lesson.  My father always said, though, 'Whenever you write, whatever you write, never make the mistake of assuming the audience is any less intelligent than you are.' Keeping that in mind, he used television as a vehicle to bring awareness of the hypocrisy and disingenuous nature of many of the ills wrought on society by selfishness, apathy, and a lack of a moral compass. Throughout his career my father's deepest concern was for the well-being of humanity."

There are also "Guest Lessons" after most chapter/episodes, and then Dawidziak might weigh in also.  We hear from Jack Klugman, Dick Van Dyke, Harlan Ellison and others about what the episode meant to them.

Serling wrote 92 of the 156 episodes that ran from 1959-1964 but he introduced them all, and starting in Season II, said the famous intro line that many of us Baby Boomers could recite then and now:

"You're traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That's the signpost up ahead - your next stop, the Twilight Zone!" 

Doo doo doo doo, doo doo doo doo!

Though, as I mentioned, Dawidziak's title pays homage to Fulghum's 1988 bestseller, Dawidziak considers his book a step up from kindergarten, calling it "postgraduate work." 

"Not to diminish or dismiss anyone else's dose of self-help inspiration, but kindergarten just didn't provide enough basic intel for me.  I definitely required a good deal of postgraduate work after moving on from the land of finger-painting and A-B-C blocks.  Some of us are just slow learners, I suppose.  Some of us need more.  Some of us need extended stays in the Twilight Zone."

Rosy the Reviewer says...those of us who grew up with this show can cite our favorites so it's fun reading the background on those episodes.  Mine was "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet."

What was your favorite episode?

Thanks for reading!

I am back on Tuesday 

for my Oscar recap,


"Let's Dish About the Oscars!"

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