Archive for February, 2015

“Kingsman: The Secret Service” is pretty awesome.  I’m not going to dance around it, the film is a supremely enjoyable action film that is self-aware and satirizes spy films and the “Prince and the Pauper” genre of showing a lower class person the higher classes, but as it satirizes it is also PART OF the genres, much like “Scream” was a satire of slasher films while also being a part of them.  The spy stuff isn’t the most interesting part of the film, however, as spy satires and spoofs have been done to death after “In Like Flint”, “Austin Powers”, “Get Smart”, and countless other films.  What makes “Kingsman” interesting are its truly bugnuts crazy, bizarre politics.  This movie’s political philosophy is just fucking weird.

The plot involves a secret spy and paramilitary organization called the Kingsmen.  The members of this organization have codenames derived from the legend of King Arthur, wear stylish bulletproof suits, and all around exude sophistication and elegance.  They are very, very British.  When one of their members dies, the other members each put up a young man (or woman) to take the deceased members place. The main Kingsman we follow is Harry Hart (Colin Firth) who submits the son of an earlier deceased comrade.  The son, called Eggsy (Taron Egerton), has intelligence and physical skill, but has not put his potential to use for various reasons, mostly related to his mother shacking up with an abusive guy.  We get the usual scenes of Eggsy and the colleagues being trained and tested, though delightfully Eggsy is given a pug to look after (I have 2 pugs, so any significant screen time given to one adds points in the film’s column).

It goes without saying that Eggsy, as our protagonist, will eventually end up a Kingsman.  The barebones of the plot, a secret organization for good must stop a megalomaniacal villain, are nothing new.  What is new, and will require delving into spoilers, is how REALLY WEIRD this film’s politics are.

*SPOILERS*

 

Our villain is Valentine, played with a lisp by Samuel L. Jackson.  Valentine is an internet billionaire whose motive and scheme deserve some discussion.  Valentine is very upset that Global Warming will inevitable kill the human race, much like a human body will heat up to kill a disease that the body is host to.  Valentine is especially is upset that politicians will do nothing about this problem because they are too concerned with short-term goals like re-election instead of long term issues which effect life on this planet.  His plan, then, is to go around democratic governance and use his wealth in the tech industry to create a SIM card that will offer free internet and cellular service to every man, woman, and child on the planet.  Once most of the people on Earth have this free product, the product triggers some sort of reaction when activated where it turns off people’s inhibitions and ramps up their aggressiveness so that they’ll kill each other, thus (Valentine hopes) killing off  most of the human race to save a small portion of it from extinction.  Okay, I get it, you kill off some people to save other people.  This is kind of like Ozymandias’ scheme in “Watchmen” to kill millions of people in order to save billions of them.  The difference with Valentine is that he’ll be killing more people, initially, than he’s saving in a brutally violent genocide.  Also, the people who are to be saved are all people of Valentine’s choosing, and Valentine seems to only recruit the rich, politicians (even though he complains about their inaction), and a handful of scientists and entertainers that he likes.  For a villain concerned with Global Warming, he sure acts like John Galt from “Atlas Shrugged”.  Later, likens himself to Noah (or God) and asks if God or Noah, or the saved animals were evil in that story. Valentine and his chosen people of course claim “no”.  I’d say they are, and since Valentine is the villain here, my guess is the filmmakers want us to say they’re villains too. If nothing else, “Kingsman” is a decidedly anti-religion film.  Still, at least the villain wants to do something about Global Warming, and he has a reasonable disgust with how politicians are dealing with the matter.  It’s just odd that his solution is mass genocide, and that his ego leads him to want to create a new world of non-egalitarian picks for survival. Oh, and Valentine also implants a chip in his picks so that he can kill them at any time.  Oh, and he also kidnaps people he wants to survive but who don’t wish to go along with his plan.  Yeah, Valentine is a weird character with no discernable political philosophy.

The idea of a technology, especially cell phones, making people crazy and murderous is not particularly new.  Films like “The Signal” and books like Stephen King’s “Cell” have done this before.  The twist “Kingsman” puts on it is that the product of people’s destruction is offered to them for free by a supposedly altruistic rich person.  You have a faux-egalitarian scheme that caters to people’s want of selfish and pointless consumption of technology.  This seems to be an indictment of our society in total, and partially arguing that it’s our own damn fault if some rich ass wants to take advantage of us because, hey, we want something for nothing, and it’s a stupid something, unlike food or shelter.  This seems like a Conservative message against helping the masses, but we have a Liberal message of Global Warming being real and inevitable, but then that villain chooses only upper classes (mostly Conservative), save for scientists and some Liberal celebrities, and politicians of both ideologies (we get a Conservative Swedish Prime Minister and President Obama)…yet the villain claims to hate politicians.  What?

The film does hate religion, though.  In perhaps my favorite scene of the film, Harry goes to a radical hate group’s church in Kentucky not unlike the Westboro Baptist Church.  Here, the preacher goes on with various racist and homophobic epithets, as well as preaching against abortion and the usual stuff super-Christians hate.  It’s at this location that Valentine’s tests his whole SIM card thing, and we are treated to a sequence where Harry pretty much single-handedly kills everyone in the church, who themselves have all gone crazy and murderous, as “Free Bird” plays on the soundtrack.  This is a gruesomely violent scene, and gloriously choreographed and executed (no pun intended).  So the one thing besides global warming that the heroes, villains, and the filmmakers all agree on is that religious zealots suck.

So what about the Kingsmen themselves?  This is an organization which seems to be all upper crust, blue blood, stiff upper lip type people who would all be, as Eggsy puts it, born with silver spoons up their asses.  The film, oddly enough, doesn’t have them represent Conservatism or the status quo or anything as simple as that.  Harry makes the point that it’s not a man’s wealth or superiority that makes him a good man, it is whether or not he is better than the man he used to be (I think he quotes Hemingway at this point).  Indeed, in order to become a Kingsman you have to pass numerous tests and trials of intellectual, physical, and other skills.  While the Kingsmen seem to largely recruit from the upper classes (a few recruits mention their colleges as being Oxford and the like) it is only merit that will succeed in making you one of them.  Meritocracy allowing for upward mobility is progressive (as it is true merit and not the upper classes claiming merit that do not possess, which is often a hallmark of Conservative Capitalists), but the film still showcases the correct way of being is still wearing expensive suits, having a 50s version of manners, and knowing and drinking expensive vintages of alcohol.  You don’t have to be hoity-toity upper class to be a Kingsman, but once you are, you better adopt some of their trappings.

Plus, the Kingsman themselves are a secret, undemocratic organization that exists beyond any single government’s authority or oversight and is seemingly funded by trusts and inherited wealth dating back to 1800s aristocrats.  Harry sort of insults the leader of the Kingsmen, codenamed Arthur (Michael Caine) by saying he hasn’t left behind his aristocratic ways, but telling him this doesn’t have much power when you yourself just drank brandy dating back to the age of Napoleon.  We are told that the organization does pass on their intelligence to other agencies, but they still operate according to their own rules and whims.  I suppose one could argue it’d be hard to make a liberal or progressive spy organization that still conforms to the basic genre needs of the spy film, and that trying to shoehorn a Liberal philosophy into the Conservative trappings of, say, a Bond film would lead to the inevitability of a mixed, nonsensical, weird political philosophy such as “Kingsman” has.  I don’t disagree, but that doesn’t stop the film from being so weird that it kind of bugs you a bit.

Some consideration has to be given to the film’s treatment of gender.  Of the recruits for Kingsman, two are female and the rest (I didn’t count, but at least 4-5) are male.  We’ll later find out that one of the two females was a fake recruit sent to be fake killed and thus up the ante for the other recruits.  So, we really only had one female recruit.  She eventually wins the contests (Eggsy will get in another way) but she is also shown as more nervous and needed of men’s help than the other recruits.  She is scared to the point of near paralysis during a skydiving task, and then a later mission to blow up a satellite she nearly fails.  She does succeed, but then the film shows that blowing up the satellite was largely pointless as it barely hindered the villain, thus making our female hero rather useless and a scaredy cat.  Not exactly progress.

The biggest thing, though, is the ending. One of the people Valentine has kidnapped for not going along with his plan is a Scandinavian princess (Hanna Alstrom).  Eggsy finds her locked in a cell and asks her if he’ll get a kiss from her if he saves the world.  She informs if me that he saves the world, she’ll let him fuck her in the ass.  Now, while this is funny and it is the woman who offers this, we still have a case where the man’s prize for succeeding at his mission is a woman.  Specifically, the ability to fuck this woman in her asshole.  Look, I enjoyed the show of this actress’s butt as much as the next guy, and if I were an 18-year-old superspy who saved the world I’m sure I would have loved to fuck a Scandinavian princess in the ass, but reducing a woman to her butthole-as-prize-for-winning is about as sexist as anything in a Bond film, especially since her character adds nothing to the story proper and exists solely to provide the film with one or two laughs and our hero with anal sex for a job well done.

**SPOILERS END**

 

The weirdness of the film’s politics and its less-than-progressive treatment of gender aside, the film is, as I said, pretty awesome.  It is a fun ride with some good action scenes and many humorous moments.  The oddness of the politics almost add an extra layer of enjoyment to the film at the same time that they are maddening, because bizarreness is at least more interesting that the dull, binary nature of most spy films with an easy dichotomy of good-vs.-evil.  Colin Firth plays his role perfectly, and Sam Jackson’s weird choice of a lisp actually helps Jackson tone down his badass-ness and be more of the character that was written, who is squeamish about blood and kind of a pansy.  Ending the movie with “Slave to Love”, including a sizeable role for a pug, and the self-aware references to films like “Dr. Strangelove” and “Trading Places” all make this film pretty damn likeable to me.  The film subverts the spy genre while still being wholly of it.  And, hey, an entire church full of super-Christians are brutally murdered to “Free Bird”.  This film is almost impossible not to like.

But man, this film’s politics are fucking weird. B+.

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My Top 8 Films of 2014 (Video)

Posted: February 21, 2015 in Uncategorized

“Jupiter Ascending” is largely silly, derivative nonsense.  Still, any film in which the villains are Incestuous Space Capitalists and where a character exclaims “Stalin’s balls” in Russian can’t be all bad.  It’s clear the Wachowski’s wanted to make a film saying something, but much of that something gets lost in a mythology that is explained too fast and too poorly, especially when the film’s pacing makes it feel both too long and too short at the same time.

I cannot go into the film further without **SPOILERS**, so reader beware beyond this point.  The set-up takes a long time for the film to explain, and some revelations are saved for a second act twist (though you see it coming), so here’s the whole thing: the universe appears to be run by a labyrinthine bureaucracy which sets up many rules which ultimately serve to promote and sustain various monarchies throughout the universe.  There is a funny montage of our protagonists being led through a sort of interplanetary City Hall that brings to mind both “Total Recall” and the works of Terry Gilliam.  Gilliam himself appears in a cameo under heavy make-up in this scene, so the homage is purposeful, though the seen feels at times completely separate from the film around it.  This government’s rules are enforced by a sort of intergalactic police force known as the Aegis, and there’s also mention made of some sort of military called the Legionnaires, but we get no real explanations as to who they are or what they do.

Within this universe, there is a royal family known as the Abrasax.  Their mother has died and her inheritance was split up between her three offspring.  We have Balem (Eddie Redmayne, who might win Best Actor this weekend for a different film, but here he is channeling the foppish bad acting of Joaquin Phoenix in “Gladiator”) who owns Earth and many other planets after receiving the largest inheritance.  There’s Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), the sister, who gets the littlest amount of backstory but shows the film’s only nudity.  Lastly there’s Titus (Douglas Booth) who is a scheming playboy whom the film implies has sex with his sister and possibly had with his deceased mother.

To cut to the chase, the most valuable resource in the universe is a serum, of sorts, which causes cells to regenerate and can lead to eternal youth.  This serum is made from dead humans, and approximately 200 dead humans makes one “dose” (I guess) of this serum.  The serum is produced when aliens splice human DNA with a planet’s indigenous life forms, then allow that planet’s newly created humans to evolve until their population exceeds the ability of the planet to sustain them.  At this point, the aliens (who are also human, mostly) “harvest” the humans (meaning kill them in mass genocide) to make the serum and sell it to other rich alien fucks throughout the universe, perpetuating intergalactic monarchy.  Yes, this universe takes the worse aspects of Feudalism and Capitalism and mashes them together.  When Balem gives a third act speech saying that to live is to consume, and that humans are just commodities and capital, well, it’s clear the Wachowski’s have read either Piketty or Marx.  The idea of rich people buying immortality with their wealth was dealt with much better in Andrew Niccol’s underrated film “In Time”, so we’re given another aspect of the film that feels like it came from somewhere else.

Our main character and vehicle to discovering all of this is Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis).  Yes, that’s our main character’s actual name.  It doesn’t help that this role was cast with Mila Kunis who, while attractive and can speak Russian, cannot exactly hold her weight as a dramatic lead.  While she did a good job in “Black Swan” her talents, if any, lay in comedy, and she makes for a lackluster lead here.  In any case, she is the daughter of a deceased astrophysicist father and a mother who gave birth to her while illegally immigrating to the United States.  Jupiter and her family not work in a home maid service, and she hates her life.  After a family member suggests she sell her eggs to a fertility clinic to get money, she uses a friend’s name (Vanessa Kirby) to do it surreptitiously, but somehow this allows Balem to find her (not explained how or why he knew to look for her) and he attempts to have her killed by his army of cloaking gray aliens and winged, leather jacket wearing dinosaur aliens.  Okay, I’ll admit the winged dinosaurs in leather jackets looked really cool.  In any case, the assassination is stopped by Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), who has pointed ears and a blonde goatee and wears gravity boots.

Caine, for no real reason, is apparently a half-human, half-wolf genetic splice, and albino.  The only reason given for him being half-wolf is really so we can learn he’s a loner without a pack and that makes him sad.  This is likely told to us so we can believe he will fall in love with Jupiter even though the film gives us no reason as to why these two would develop feeling for each other besides him being lonely and that he looks like Channing Tatum and she looks like Mila Kunis.  This is one of the more forced and unbelievable on-screen romances in some time.  Anyway, Caine takes her to a former military commander of his, Stinger, played by Sean Bean.  He’s apparently half-human half-bee, though the film would never let us know this if it weren’t for dialogue since Stinger never showcases any bee-like abilities.  He seems to live with a number of bees, but that never looks anything other than silly on screen.  I was waiting for a “Wicker Man” Nic Cage to start screaming “Oh no, not the bees!”

Stinger does give us some exposition on Caine’s backstory and explains that aliens seeded Earth after killing all of the dinosaurs.  Then we’re back in space as first Kalique kind-of kidnaps Jupiter to explain eternal youth.  We also learn the reason the royals want Jupiter is because she is a randomly created 100% genetic match to their dead mother. I’m not sure an exact genetic match can ever come about randomly, otherwise people would have random identical twins many generations in the future from different parents, and my understanding of genetics indicates that has happened zero times in human history.  Even if it could happen, this wouldn’t be “reincarnation” as the supposedly more intelligent aliens claim, but really more like having an identical twin, as identical twins are genetically the same person but, as any of them can tell you, still two different people.  Also, they have different fingerprints.  So the royals want Jupiter because, as the “reincarnation” of their dead mother, she is entitled to the dead mother’s inheritance instead of the three children she had.  The focus on inheritance rights in this space opera further leads one to believe the Wachowski’s have read Piketty.

Later, Titus also kind-of kidnaps Jupiter and tries to trick her into marrying him. His ostensible claim is that this would keep Earth from being harvested, but he really just wants to kill her and earn a larger portion of the inheritance than he got when his mother originally died.  This man wanting to marry his mother is already a bit creepy, but his explanation of marriage being little more than a business contract was a fun throwback to centuries earlier when royals were married off often to form alliances or join the wealth of multiple royal families.

Eventually this all leads to a final confrontation between Jupiter and Balem, and an orgy of special effects.  The special effects are often well done, but nothing special.  I enjoyed some of the sets, which combine Egyptian and Roman influences along with an unusual amount of candles.  It struck me as odd that space royalty would still use melted wax when they have massive spaceships at their disposal, but whatever.  The alien creatures that are completely digital are also cool, though many creatures that are made with practical make-up effects look silly or like bad cosplayers.  My main complaint with special effects action films nowadays is that with so much digital animation flying around the screen, you lose track of the human actors and the characters and stop caring, leading one to simply politely wait for the visual lava lamp to end so you can get back to the story.  I felt this way during the action sequences here; they were pretty, but boring.

The story, as I mentioned earlier, is derivative.  Harvesting humans comes right out of the Wachowski’s own “Matrix” films.  There are even human memories being erased after alien-caused destruction, which is pretty much a direct rip-off of the central conceit of the “Men in Black” films.  The film tries to be original in creating its own universe and mythology, but the look and feel and details all call back to earlier, and often better, films.

The message of the film is also pretty weird.  The film is very much against capitalism, as is made obvious from Balem’s very pro-capitalist monologue in the third act, but we still have a universe run by royalty, where the “good guys” beyond our main characters is a police force set up to enforce the laws of the universe, all of which are set up to ensure property and inheritance rights of royals.  That the royal with the most wealth at the end of this is Jupiter doesn’t undercut this.  This film argues against Capitalism in favor of a benevolent form of Feudalism.  It’s bizarre as all hell.  As long as a queen is nice and treats her property (including people) well, it’s okay?  Plus, even if Earth isn’t harvested, that wealth was still largely accumulated off of the genocide of countless planets.  Does Jupiter stop this process all together?  If so, one assumes she continues to hold onto her intergalactic property thanks to the rate of return on that slavery and genocidal capital, no?

Giving Channing Tatum’s wolfman angel wings at the end of the film is way too hilarious.  Tatum certainly tries his best in this film.  He clearly wanted to be an original action hero, but the film gives his character almost no personality, and we just have him flying around in gravity boots with a silly hair color shooting special FX aliens for the whole damn movie.

The film’s not all bad.  I did like a lot of visuals, I enjoy an on-the-nose critique of Capitalism as much as the next Marxist, and some of the creatures were genuinely cool to look at.  I know the Wachowskis are smart and have a lot to say in their work, but I wish they found a way to harness their message better so that we didn’t have such a jumbled and nonsensical mythology, one which has no understanding of how genetics works, and a film which doesn’t in the end argue for benevolent Feudalism.  They haven’t gotten past action sequences that are spectacle just for spectacle’s sake, and they try to shoehorn a romance in when we have no reason to believe the characters would ever be in love, and the actors have no chemistry with each other.

Still, the movie’s a fun and sometimes funny bit of nonsense, and even when a film strikes out, it’s nice when a movie swings for the fences.  Most movies these days just take an easy bunt.  You can’t blame a film for trying something new, big, and bold when most films just settle for the easiest thing they can do.  It’s just that this swing did, indeed, miss.

Grade: C

The filmmakers of “Fifty Shades of Grey” obvious knew they were dealing with a live wire.  The “novel”, if one can call it that, originated as “Twilight” fan-fiction written by a woman whose screen name was “Snowqueen’s IceDragon”.  Well, change the characters’ names and presto-chango, you have something you can call an original piece of work.  I myself have never much been a fan of fan-fiction.  My general belief is that people who have writing talent will just create their own characters and narratives, and that if people with talent write fan-fiction that it is a profound and sad waste of that talent.  I haven’t exactly read a large swath of fan-fiction, so it’s possible that my opinion of the genre could well be false and ignorant, but reading the book “Fifty Shades of Grey” did nothing to change my opinion.  Granted, the original novel “Twilight” is awful, sexist Mormon abstinence propaganda, and a quasi-BDSM erotica novel based on it would have had to surmount quite a large peak to succeed at being anything beyond pure rubbish.

The book “Fifty Shades of Grey” is pure rubbish.  The prose is painfully repetitive, the dialogue is uniformly awful, and the female protagonist, with the ridiculous name of Anastasia Steele, has the first person narration more fitting of a 14-year-old girl than a 21-year-old woman.  For large periods of the book you could mistake her for being mentally handicapped.  I know the author, under the new pen name EL James, was going for innocence, but a woman who have never even held hands with a guy and is so naïve that the idea of her graduating college seems laughable is bit too far in the direction of innocence as to be a child trapped in an adult’s body.

Still, that’s nothing compared to the Christian Grey of the novel.  He’s pretty much “American Psycho’s” Patrick Bateman, if you replace serial killing with light BDSM.  Throughout the novel he stalks Anastasia, forces her to eat, uses hostage-taker tactics to force Anastasia into a type of Stockholm Syndrome, and is extremely manipulative, creepy, abusive, and just plain weird.  How this character became the fantasy of millions of women is something that perhaps I cannot understand because I am a man.  Or maybe because I don’t want a partner who stalks me, controls me, and scares me into compliance.

Fine, maybe some of this can work when contained to the printed word.  Women, wanting a sexual thrill, can skip the creepier parts and simply read the sex scenes, which aside from a weird scene involving a tampon, are pretty run-of-the-mill stuff.  Much has been made of the book’s, and the film’s, bondage content, but the fact of the matter is that both versions of “50 Shades” barely rise above vanilla.  I’m not into the BDSM culture myself, but I know others who are, and I’ve spent time perusing websites like Fetlife and CollarMe.  I may have even seen a video or two from Kink.com.  Some spanking, mild restraints, and blindfolds does not kinky make.  Okay, but the sex scenes in the book are a lot of Christian peppering Anastasia with compliments and having sex with her.  Fine, I get women liking that in the privacy of their own homes with their vibrator of choice.  Hell, I can even understand some women getting off on the creepy controlling aspects of Christian.  Some women have rape fantasies, and we’re all entitled to be turned on by what turns us on.  But having a rape fantasy does not mean one wants to be raped, and imagining being creepily controlled is different from seeing it portrayed on screen and seeing it before your eyes.

For this reason, it makes sense that the filmmakers wanted to soften the book’s rough edges, and I’m not just talking about the bad dialogue, characterizations, grammar and syntax, or repetitive prose.  They needed to soften to Christian, otherwise what might (and I do say might) work to turn women on in a book will simply become the kind of abusive character you see beating up has-been TV stars in Lifetime TV movies about domestic violence.  In addition, they had to have realized that Anastasia was a dumb, ignorant, mildly mentally retarded character in the book, and would be completely unworkable on film.

So here’s the main problem with the film version: they went too far in attempting to shade the book into a film that would be palatable for a mass audience that wants big budget soft-core erotica but isn’t keen on bearing witness to a woman-child’s physical and mental abuse.  The result is to have a still-stalkerish yet oddly sympathetic Christian and an Anastasia who has completely unrealistic expectations about Christian, despite his candidness, and then has unfounded anger at him when he is exactly the man he said he was.  They took a book that was anti-women for elevating a stalking pseudo-rapist into a romantic icon and made a film that is anti-women for making its female protagonist a woman who toys with a man, expecting him to change, and then when he doesn’t calls him out as a monster.  Quite frankly, the film shows us Christian playing fair and Anastasia not doing so.

The film turns Christian into a wounded puppy dog.  Christian’s back story was always pretty insulting to those in the BDSM community because it made it seem like only wounded, damaged people could be into kinky stuff.  The back story is kept the same in the film; Christian was born to a crack whore mother and later adopted.  He was introduced to BDSM by an older woman, a friend of his adopted mother’s, when he was only 15 and became that woman’s submissive.  Now, Christian is a dominant who is incapable of having a “normal”, or “vanilla”, relationship because of that one-two punch of childhood trauma and teenage sexual abuse, for which Christian has a type of Stockholm Syndrome for the woman who took advantage of him.  While the book keeps this back story and makes Christian seem like a serial killer who was turned into a monster from his past, the film takes a different approach.  The film makes it seem like Christian is trying to stop himself from becoming a monster, and as such the BDSM he engages in is like methadone.  Without it, perhaps he would be a literal serial killer.  Despite knowing what he is and what needs, he’s still attracted to Anastasia, and one gets the feeling the movie Christian is less Patrick Bateman from “American Psycho” and more Dexter from the eponymous Showtime TV series, someone who is trying to channel his dark urges but longs to be normal.  Jamie Dornan, who plays Christian, was previously most well known for playing a serial killer, and you can see he would fit that role well.  I almost wish the film had decided not to smooth the character’s rough edges.  I wish the film had brought the Bateman-esque book creation to life and forced the audience to deal with him and consider why women found themselves attracted to this monster.  That would have made for an interesting discussion into female sexuality in the modern age.  Instead, we get the kind-of-but-not-really-bad-boy that a girl thinks she can change.  The film makes Christian into a cliché.

Watering him down may make him easier to swallow, but the film takes the equal and opposite reaction of making Anastasia not the ignorant and naïve child of the book, but rather someone who leads a wounded man on in the hopes of changing him, and a woman who blames him when she can’t, even though the Christian of the film is upfront and direct.  You water down your creepy male protagonist and make your female protagonist kind of a bitch, and that’s not exactly a positive and progressive step toward fixing a story that was anti-woman in its original iteration.

Dakota Johnson, to her credit, plays the character about as best as she can.  She finds a good enough balance between believable innocence and ridiculous innocent, even when saddled with at times tremendously awful dialogue (much of it lifted directly from the book).  Despite the film being aimed at women, and presumably meant to turn them on, the bulk of the film’s nudity is hers.  We see a lot of her breasts and certainly more of her ass than we do of Dornan’s.  In fact, it’s surprising how little of Dornan we see.  While it is true that Christian usually keeps pants on until the last moment in his sexual encounters in the book, it’s weird for the film to barely show us his ass at all.  Clearly they were going for ab-worship, but in keeping with the character’s description in the book Christian is lean and not exactly the muscular man that, say, the “Magic Mike” cast is made up of.  In non-sex scenes, Dornan has a harder time delivering the awful dialogue and perhaps tries to emote with his face a bit too awkwardly, but he wears an expensive wardrobe quite well.  Even more so than the sex scenes, I found myself captivated by the clothes Christian wears, particularly a leather jacket he wears in the woods, and a button-up shirt with a blazer he wears when taking Anastasia to dinner with his family.  The film gives him way too many V-necks for a man who is supposedly touchy about his scarred chest, and it’s also odd that then he’s okay being shirtless a lot but wears old jeans in his bondage playroom, but what are you gonna do?

The sex scenes are naturally going to be a focal point of the film, much in the way action scenes are in a summer movie.  There’s plenty of nudity, though no full frontal from Dornan and too much pubic hair to see much on Johnson.  The nudity was never the main concern, however.  The real question was how the bondage scenes would be portrayed.  The answer? Well, the scenes feel like soft-core erotica.  “The Red Show Diaries” comes to mind.  The scenes are pretty brief, occasionally mildly arousing, and usually scored to music that was enjoyable to my ears.  Non-sex scenes are scored by Danny Elfman, and that score was at times unnecessary, but the sex scenes are almost exclusively scored by songs from the likes of Beyonce and The Weeknd (sic) and I found myself really liking the music.  The same flaw with the book, the scenes not really being all that kinky for all the hype about kink, is the same for the film.  We some spanking, some tame riding crop stuff, some stuff with blindfolds and ropes and cuffs and light suspension, but there’s nothing in the film that pushes the envelope more than, say, “Nine and a Half Weeks” did in the 80s of “Secretary” did 13 years ago.  We see things like butt plugs and nipple clamps hanging up in Christian’s playroom (which, if you take out all of the sex toys, is a lovely room of red and leather that I would love to have in my home some day), but we’re left to imagine what Christian may have done with past submissives because the film’s not going to show us anything that might harm the delicate sensibilities of those who can handle a lightly kinky thrill but will squirm if we see a clothespin on a nipple.

The non-sex scenes are almost uniformly too quick, choppily edited, and the dialogue, as mentioned earlier, is atrocious.  Director Sam Taylor-Johnson does a decent job making the visuals look as pretty as they can be, but the material will only allow so much, and Taylor-Johnson seemed unwilling to try bolder things, like satirizing the material with a wink or going full on “American Psycho” cold and making everything seem unappealing and unappetizing.  Having a woman direct the film seemed like a good idea, as a woman would have a better idea of what women want to see in this material than a man would, but one wishes they had a Mary Harron on board who could maybe have strengthened Anastasia in a less-bitchy and hypocritical fashion (she’s angry that Christian wants to change her but she’s been trying to change him all along) and wouldn’t have been afraid to show us the book’s Christian in all of his horrendous glory and refused to let the audience off easy in liking him.  Mickey Rourke’s character in “Nine and a Half Weeks” was a bigger asshole than Christian in this film, and the women of 1986 still found him attractive despite his cruelty.  That character’s name, by the way, was John Gray.

The film doesn’t smooth away all of Christian’s edges. He still takes Anastasia, who is passed out drunk, to his home and undresses her.  Anastasia seems to not have much of a problem with this.  Christian still finds out information on his own, like Anastasia’s work and the bar she has gotten drunk at, and shows up unexpectedly and uninvited.  He tends to appear out of nowhere much like Jason in the “Friday the 13th” movies.  He even flies to Georgia to meet Anastasia, though it comes off much less stalkerish in the film than in the book because in the film at least she texts him something along the lines of “I wish you were here”, whereas in the novel he shows up after they have a fight online.  Also sanitized from the book, a scene where he shows up at Anastasia’s apartment uninvited when she seemingly rejects him via e-mail. In the book, Christian has a shouting match with Anastasia’s roommate and barges in.  In the film, he merely materializes out of thin air with wine.

Ah yes, wine.  Whereas in the book Anastasia is pretty much an alcoholic, the film downplays this by having her only drunk once, and drinking in anger another time.  The film completely downplays Christian’s obsession with making sure Anastasia eats.  The film also contains little-to-none of the dirty talk Christian engages in during sex, nor is there any oral sex.  In fact, Anastasia performs no sex acts herself, and anything that happens sexually involves Christian doing all of the work. It’s weird that the film decides to make her more passive in sexual matters when it makes her less passive in the relationship.  The film adds a scene, which I liked, of Christian and Anastasia negotiating a bondage contract in his boardroom, and that scene showcases a much more in control Anastasia than ever appears in the book.  The film is overall reasonably faithful to the book, but the changes are all to either make Christian more sympathetic or to make Anastasia more forceful in the relationship.

Christian still engages in creepy and not entirely kosher behavior, which makes it all the more important that he’s rich.  Like “Addicted” before it, “50 Shades” fetishizes wealth and commodities more than it does the human body or sex.  We get helicopters, gliders, Audi sports cars polished to showroom glory, apartments with marble floors and floor-to-ceiling windows, expensive suits and watches…Anastasia, if anything, is more seduced by opulence than by Christian’s looks, and certainly not by his personality, of which he has little.  Sure, he claims to care about feeding the world’s poor, but most people who care about that don’t own 15 sports cars, a grand piano, and entire room in their multimillion dollar apartment devoted to their sexual predilection.  His Red Room of Pain had to have cost a couple hundred thousand dollars at the very least (a leather bed!).  Christian can operate the way he does, stalking and controlling women, partly because of his looks but largely because he’s rich as all fuck.  Give Christian a minimum wage job and Anastasia would get a restraining order.  After all, Anastasia has not one but two other men who throw themselves at her; one of whom doesn’t take no for an answer and tries to force himself on her while she’s drunk (Victor Rasuk), and one who is a co-worker and touches her a tad too inappropriately on the shoulders (Anthony Konechny).  Out of three creepy guys, she falls for the one who happens to have an ultra-modern office in a building with his name on it.  Thankfully, the film changes his business’s name to “Grey Enterprises” from the books horribly sounding and double-plural “Grey Enterprises Holdings”.  There’s still no excuse for the film giving Christian pencils with his name on them that Anastasia can then put to her mouth.

The single most inexcusable thing the film does, however, cannot be discussed without a spoiler warning.

**SPOILERS**

The end of the film shares an issue that the end of the book had, which is to completely make Anastasia a villain.  Christian has had made it abundantly clear that he is addicted to his bondage-and-control lifestyle.  Anastasia is upset that Christian wants to make her okay with being a submissive when she clearly is not okay with it.  That she wants to change Christian into a normal boyfriend when he has clearly and explicitly told her on numerous occasions that he won’t isn’t brought up at this point.  Both parties have made concessions.  Christian has agreed to one night a week of normal dating, has engaged in vanilla sex, and has introduced her to his BDSM-lite sex despite Anastasia not signing his contract.  For this, Anastasia has kept an open mind, engaged Christian on his terms vis-à-vis considering the contract and looking up terms, and found that she likes very light kink.  However, it is at this juncture that Anastasia tells Christian to take her into his playroom and let her have a “full punishment”, since he has being going light on her.  Now, Christian is not blameless for his, as any true Dom in a BDSM relationship would know not to let someone do things when they (the Dom) is aware they don’t want to do things.  Plus, that aforementioned board room scene makes it clear that Christian can read Anastasia’s body language quite well.

However, Anastasia has been made quite clear that this BDSM stuff his Christian’s drug and he can’t be without it, even if he wishes he could be (which the film implies are his wishes).  So, Christian takes her to the Red Room and hits her on the ass 6 times with his belt, not holding back, and making Anastasia call out the number after each blow.  In the sec scene just prior to this, Christian asked Anastasia to recall the safewords (yellow if she’s close to her limit, and red if her limit has reached and she wants things to come to an immediate stop).  Anastasia takes the hits and says the numbers, while crying.  She never uses either safeword, and the angle in which the action is shot makes it seem like Christian cannot see the tears in Anastasia’s eyes, as she is facing away from him.  Unlike the book, where Anastasia screams the numbers, in the film she merely whimpers them.  Safewords exist because crying and pain are to be expected, but Anastasia, who knows them and initiated this act, doesn’t use them.  Why? The film seems to visually suggest that she’s hoping Christian will change, and that by seeing her in pain he will stop on his own, state his love for her, and end the BDSM stuff.  This is unrealistic for addictions or sexual turn-ons, and while Christian should have known not to comply with her wishes to take the full brunt of his punishment, the fault seems to lay mainly with Anastasia for pushing the encounter, not using the safewords, and for having unrealistic expectations when Christian has been completely forthright with his needs and desires.  Then she calls him a monster and makes him feel like shit, emotionally wounding this already wounded man further.

The ending is repugnant because it completely makes Christian a sympathetic character (despite his stalking and undressing passed out drunk women) and makes Anastasia a heartless and cruel person who ignores what she knows in the hope something will happen that she must know is impossible.  The ending makes Anastasia, and by extension women, look horrendous.  It makes them look worse than if Anastasia were kept the idiot she is for most of the book.  For a film that is at least ostensibly for women, this is confusing as hell to me.

The very last moment of the film, with Anastasia running into an elevator and Christian chasing after her, is also problematic.  She tells him “stop” and then “no” when it could have been so much more powerful for her to finally use the word “red”.  I do like the last shots of the film, though, as the elevator doors close on her, and then him, and we cut to black and the credits (the first song of the credits I’m not a fan of, but I love the second and third songs).  It reminded me a lot of the ending of “Nine and a Half Weeks” where Kim Basinger’s character finally leaves her controlling Mr. Gray and he stands at the door counting, hoping she’ll come back, and she doesn’t.

**END SPOILERS**

The “Fifty Shades of Grey” film is really not much more than a poor man’s “Nine and a Half Weeks”, but with a rich man’s aesthetics for props and production design.  The film looks pretty enough, and the soundtrack is enjoyable.  The sex scenes work fairly well, and while non-sex scenes can be haphazardly edited and too-brief, the unintentional hilarity of the bad dialogue and lightning fast pacing make the film enjoyable to watch for its entire runtime.  The film actually feels like it should be longer and, hey, I’d rather see this film again than any of the “Twilight” films.

Yes, the film has major issues on a story level (some inherited from the book, and some new to film because of the filmmakers attempts to fix the book) and can be ideologically repugnant(both because of what it says about gender and its fetishizing of wealth and capitalism), but at the same time it kind of warms my heart to see a mainstream Hollywood picture attempt soft-core in a way not seen since the age of late 80s and early 90s films like “Nine and a Half Weeks” and “Wild Orchid”.  It sometimes seems sex has disappeared from American cinema and been pushed to HBO and cable while violence has bled down from R to PG-13 (it’s nearly impossible to get an NC-17 for violence these days, and “50 Shades” avoids that rating for sex likely because it holds back on shots of thrusting).  It’s just a shame that women deserve a film that doesn’t make women look horrible and doesn’t make a wounded stalker their Prince Charming, and the BDSM community deserves a film that accurately portrays them to a wider audience on the big screen.

Grade: C

“Project Almanac” ultimately suffers because the writers couldn’t be bothered to deal with a very glaring paradox of time travel.  If I travel back in time to, say, go to a concert, and I blow my chance to kiss the hot girl I have a crush on, I may want to go back and try it again.  The main character, David (Jonny Weston) feels this way, so he goes back and does it again successfully.  The problem?  If he went back again, HE WOULD HAVE RUN INTO THE PREVIOUS TIME TRAVELING VERSION OF HIMSELF BLOWING IT!!!  The characters do run into past versions of themselves, but they never run into previous time traveling versions of themselves, and once I realize the film was either too lazy or too busy to consider this, I kind of checked out of the whole affair.  There are other time travel issues with the film, namely why the “found footage” of this film even exists by the end, but the aforementioned not-running-into-your-traveling-self thing was the worst.

A found footage time travel movie was an interesting idea, but I say that as a man who is a sucker for time travel movies.  While many are tired of the whole found footage thing by now, my love of “Chronicle”, the super-powered Columbine movie, made me want to check out this MTV-powered spin on the old sci-fi chestnut of going back in time and screwing things up.  It’s been about a decade since the underrated “The Butterfly Effect”, a film which was unfairly maligned because of the casting of Ashton Kutcher, but that film largely did time travel and the negative consequences thereof quite well.  “Almanac”, even more teenybopper aimed and saddled with a hindering PG-13 rating, shares the short-sightedness and immaturity of its teenaged protagonists.  While David is supposed to be some sort of genius wunderkind who gets into MIT, he makes rather rudimentary time travel mistakes for myopic, selfish reasons (a hot girl), and myopic selfishness is really the connecting thread here.  I do like that the film has a small, realistic twist on the kid-gets-accepted-to-college set up of many youth-aimed films: David can’t afford to go.  We also get an unemployed single parent, which when contrasted with 80s and early 90s films like “How I Got into College” shows how depressing the modern world has become for our youth.  Back in the 80s kids were worried about playing hooky (“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”), now they have to worry about whether mom has to sell the house to pay for my college.

The film gives us a far-too-long sequence, practically the entire first act, of David, his sister Christine (Virginia Gardner), and his two nerdy friends Quinn (Sam Lerner) and Ben (Gary Weeks) figuring out how to make an incomplete time machine found in David’s basement work.  The machine was being developed by the government a decade ago by David’s dad, but it was never finished, possibly due to the dad’s death.  Since time travel is not real, the fake science behind making the machine work in the film is almost beside the point. The film really only needs to give us a semi-plausible faux explanation for us to get on board, since we’ve already agreed to watch a time travel movie. Instead, the film gives us scene after scene of the kids testing the machine out with small batteries, then car batteries, then batteries and hydrogen stolen from their high school (my high school didn’t have hydrogen), then the graphics processor from an Xbox, and so on and so forth.  They eventually get stuff to work using the battery from a hybrid car belonging to the girl David has a crush on, Jessie (Sophia Black D’Elia), and after some testing, we finally get time traveling kids.

The biggest catch is that they can’t go too far back into the past, a few weeks tops, though David wants to push things to about 10 years after finding his present self on an old recording of his 7th birthday.  For a while, they do stupid kid stuff like try to pass a test they previously failed.  Christine, who I don’t believe for a second would actually be bullied when she looks like a beautiful, blonde model (as the actress is) gets back at her bullies, despite the film awkwardly telling us she’s being bullied without previously showing it, thus not really having the audience care when she gets her way.  The funniest of these experiments, given away in the trailer, has the kids winning the lottery but accidentally only getting 4 of the 5 numbers, and we see them sadly take part in a winner’s photo shoot showing off their meager $1.8 million winnings.

The biggest thing the kids really do is go back in time to go to a concert, Lollapalooza.  The film then gives us a way too long, extended montage of these kids having a good time while Imagine Dragons and other bands play songs that were popular while the film was being made as the product placed Coke products are given almost as much screen time as the plentiful PG-13-friendly teenage female flesh (legs are given prominence, as are the bikinied bodies of various women. If the film was going to try to be spank bank material for teen boys, it should have just gone for the R).  Honestly, while I enjoyed seeing Virginia Gardner in a bikini, the concert sequence goes on far too long and, really, is this the best thing you kids can think to do with your amazing time machine?

Eventually, the unforeseen negative effects of time travel rear their ugly heads, though the film does a poor job of explaining why certain negative events happen as a result of innocuous changes in the time line.  The film also never gives us an explanation, convincing or otherwise, for why running into your past self would cause both you and your past self to flicker and disappear?  When “Timecop” came up with the rule of not being able to touch your past self because “the same matter cannot occupy the same space” it didn’t need to make any scientific sense because it sounded like it made sense, and that’s all I really ask from a movie like this: good sounding bullshit to enjoy my time travel fantasy. “Project Almanac” fails to do even that.

The film is plenty fun to watch and I found the characters very likeable, even if having both Quinn and Ben in the film feels superfluous when both characters could have been combined into one with no loss to the film.  I just wish the writers, Jason Harry Pagan and Andrew Deutschman, had done more to explain the negative consequences the kids render, explained a few rules they come up with, spent less time at a concert and more with cool time traveling experiences, and spent less time with the kids testing and building the machine.  This film needed another writer to come in and polish what could have been a perfectly decent time travel story for teens and tweens.  The director, Dean Israelite, does a serviceable job with the found footage direction, keeping things from getting to shaky and nausea-inducing, though his leering at the legs and torsos of scantily clad teen girls comes off as a bit odd and unnecessary.

“Project Almanac” is an okay effort that could have been more with a slightly more punched up script, but the likeable characters make the film enjoyable enough. C+

The Loft (dir. Eric Van Looy)

Posted: February 6, 2015 in Uncategorized

“The Loft” presents a challenge for a reviewer for two reasons. The first is that the film has so many twists that writing a spoiler-free review while still giving a taste of what is good about the film is nearly impossible. The other challenge is in attempting to explain how the film can be both very enjoyable at the same time that it is, at many times, not a very good film at all. I am torn between grading my enjoyment of the film versus grading the actual quality of it. This is kind of bizarre.

The film is, at its core, a murder mystery. The identity of the killer, the identity of the victim, and the motive are all secrets to be revealed. The film gives us no shortage of suspects (for killer or victim) and produces enough reasonable red herrings to have you guessing while still, for the most part, playing fair. I suppose if I watched the film a few more times I could grasp onto events that are perhaps too coincidental or far-fetched, but while the film unfolded before me I felt that every twist and turn felt viable within the universe the world creates. You have to give credit where credit is due: it is nearly impossible to guess the specific circumstances of the murder and who the killer is. That alone is worth celebrating, as anyone who watches enough mystery films can usually guess a killer right off the back unless a film is purposefully unfair in giving the audience enough clues to guess things.

So what can be said of the plot? Well, five married men share a loft that was built into a building by one of them, an architect named Vincent (Karl Urban, who gives an uneven performance). They can each use it to take their mistresses or whomever to it to avoid credit cards bills for hotels and whatnot, and it becomes a secret oasis for debauchery. The other men are Chris (James Marsden), a psychiatrist; Luke (Wentworth Miller), a somewhat nerdy guy; Marty (a very funny Eric Stonestreet) the token fat guy comic relief who is a crude drunkard, and Phillip (Matthias Schoenaerts), half-brother of Chris and a drug addicted, violent man. Almost every character we meet in this film, either man or women, is a morally reprehensible person. The lack of likeable characters, and most of the characters being affluent to a certain extent, makes “The Loft” feel like a Bret Easton Ellis novel much of the time.

At the start of the film, Luke enters the loft to find a bloody, dead blonde handcuffed to the bed. he calls the other four men, and they attempt to figure out who could have had access to the loft to commit the murder, and who the blonde is. The film then follows a non-linear flashback structure to show how events came to pass and both build on and slowly explain mysteries.

I can’t say much more about the plot without giving anything away. Suffice it to say, I did enjoy the film as a mystery and enjoyed the twists and the various revelations as they are made. That being said, the film suffers from quite a few flaws. The biggest, I’d say, is an almost completely terrible first act. Almost every line of dialogue for the first 30 minutes is a dry, stilited, utilitarian tool for exposition. The information being delivered comes at such a fast clip that the actors, trying to perform both quickly and clearly to deliver the information, fail to do any “acting” or emoting beyond the most obvious and arch vocals and facial expressions. On top of that, the director, Erik Van Looy, tries a lot of weird tricks by setting his camera up at weird angles on people’s faces and letting the frame go in and out of focus in an attempt to build tension. It sometimes works, but is mostly distracting, and thankfully that style is abandoned by the second act. Also, there are some scenes where only two characters are talking to each other, and in an attempt to not make the scene so boring the characters are made to uselessly walk around and circle each other. People don’t do this in real life, but it’s common to see this in films because otherwise you’re left with a dry shot of two people standing a few feet apart discussing things with each other. The problem here is that Van Looy positions his camera for wide shots where the useless walking stands out as silly.

Also, we’re given two minor characters: one a business man (Graham Beckel), and one a city councilman (Ric Reitz) who seem to be the only businessman and politican in the city, and they are always seem together. It comes across as a bit silly and obvious to have a businessman and a poltician so in bed with each other that they are almost never seen in public without the other one. For a film that has, as one of its minor goals, a takedown of the affluent, this is more than a little on-the-nose.

Where the film is most interesting is in how it deals with certain gender politics. Issues of male fraternity and “guy code”, rape culture, sexism, and monogamy are given at least cursory examinations in the film. There’s also a small indictment of the “nice guy” and a boys-will-be-boys mentality. The film doesn’t exactly let women off the hook either, but by and large this is an anti-man film that rather interestingly gives at least give a cursory glance at gender issues going on today.

“The Loft” is a remake of a 2008 film from Belgium, made by the same director. I have not seen the original, but I would guess that it probably succeeds in the areas where this American version fails (such as some really bad dialogue, uneven acting, and a “six months later” epilogue that feels like a tacked on cop out). I blame most of this version’s flaws not on director Van Looy, but on English screenwriter Wesley Strick, as his dialogue stands out as awful for at least the first 30 minutes of the film. it does get better, but this film could have stood to have another writer come in to do a polish and smooth out the rough edges.

Look, I actually really enjoyed watching this film, but the very apparent and obvious flaws preclude me from giving the film a grade which reflects my enjoyment versus the actual quality of the work. As a result, I give the film a rather affectionate C+