Friday, March 27, 2015
Despite its unsavory sadomasochistic subject matter, this cinematic adaptation of author E.L. James’ erotic bestseller “Fifty Shades of Grey” (** OUT OF ***) qualifies as puritanical. I can say this because I managed to get through ten chapters of the book before I saw the Universal Pictures release. “Nowhere Boy” director Sam Taylor-Johnston and “Saving Mr. Banks” scenarist Kelly Marcel have sanitized James’ novel and turned it into an antiseptic, “Cinderella” style fairy tale about an affluent Prince Charming and a bookworm of an English Lit major. Not that it matters, director Sam Taylor-Johnston is a woman rather than a man. Johnston and Marcel have forged a film that features simulated sex scenes without steam and cardboard characters without souls. Mind you, “Fifty Shades of Grey” isn’t as abysmal as the amateurish “Addicted.” Johnston stages several sex scenes where actress Dakota Johnson bares only her breasts, while actor Jamie Dornan displays little more than his carefully sculpted abs and buttocks. Ladies hoping for a glimpse of male genitalia are going to be sorely frustrated because “Fifty Shades” is R-rated rather than NC-17, like both “Shame” (2011) and “The Lover” (1992) where full frontal nudity was conspicuous. Comparatively speaking, little if anything risqué occurs until the concluding scene. You won’t see anything like the candle dripping sex in the Madonna movie “Body of Evidence” (1993); the kitchen sink sex between Michael Douglas and Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction,” or the infamous “Last Tango in Paris” where Marlon Brando improvised on Maria Schneider with a blob of butter. Subsequent adaptations of James’ two novels may pass up on the prudish approach after Universal studio executives have analyzed audience tolerance. Altogether, this soft-porn entry in the trilogy shouldn’t hoist anybody’s eyebrows.
Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnston of “The Five Year Engagement”) is a shy, virginal, doe-eyed brunette who majors in English Lit at Washington State University and works at a hardware store. She shares an apartment with her best friend, blond-haired Kate Kavanagh (Eloise Mumford of “In the Blood”), who serves as the campus newspaper editor. As the action unfolds, woebegone, pajama-clad Kate is wrestling with a cold. Kate persuades Anastasia to pinch hit for her on a newspaper assignment. She sends her out to interview bachelor billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan of “Marie Antoinette”) who rules a colossal corporate empire. Basically, Christian is the Bruce Wayne of hanky-spanky. An orphan who survived the death of his crack-addict mom, Christian has amassed a fortune, but he harbors a deep, dark secret. When she enters ‘The House of Grey,’ Anastasia knows little about him. Anxious about her assignment, Anastasia makes a klutz of herself when she enters Grey’s office. No sooner has she crossed the threshold than she stumbles and crumples to her hands and knees. Realizing she hasn’t made the best impression, Anastasia recovers her confidence and begins the interview. Initially, Christian adopts an icy attitude toward her, but he thaws out once they start talking. Christian finds the way Anastasia chews her lip so irrestible that he cancels his next appointment. Some of Kate’s questions shock Anastasia, particularly when she quizzes the tycoon about his sexual orientation. A life-long bachelor who has never been photographed in public with a woman, Christian explains that he has little use for conventional romances with hearts and flowers. A relieved Anastasia leaves Christian behind in his phallic monolith of a building and cruises home. As it turns out, Anastasia is just as captivated with Christian as the latter is with her. Later, they go on a date, and eventually he deflowers her. He wants Anastasia to join him in a sexual liaison as a ‘submissive’ to his ‘dominant.’ Christian and she negotiate terms of a contract. For example, the open-minded Anastasia has no problems with being tied up and titillated with a peacock feather, but she draws the line at vaginal fisting and genital clamps. Meantime, Christian does everything he can to corrupt Anastasia, buying her a Mac notebook and replacing her classic Volkswagen Beetle with a shiny red Audi. Ultimately, Christian convinces our heroine to let him show her how bondage can be enjoyable. Nevertheless, Anastasia isn’t as gullible as she seems. At fade-out, she gains the upper hand in their bizarre relationship.
The casting in “Fifty Shades of Grey” creates half of its problems. Dakota Johnson makes an ideal Anastasia. She gives a believable performance as a naïve college student who has just graduated and treasures the kind classic 19th century British fiction that Thomas Hardy wrote. The Austin, Texas, born actress seems wholly comfortable with her casual on-screen nudity, and it is interesting to note that “Miami Vice’s” Don Johnson is her dad and Melanie Griffith of “Something Wild” is her mom. Dakota isn’t as goofy as her literary counterpart Anastasia. Sadly, lean, handsome Jamie Dornan doesn’t cut the mustard. He doesn’t behave like a ruthless cutthroat who owns a billion dollar corporation, and his performance is considerably less spontaneous. Although he wears his apparel well and delivers his dialogue with crisp precision, Dornan looks more like a callow amateur. In all fairness to Dornan, he impersonates a character that doesn’t seem remotely believable, and his lack of personality underlines his lightweight performance. The other big problem is the film seems as impersonal as a bargain basement torture rack. Basically, Johnston and Marcel have designed it as a bondage primer that cautiously advances from one elaborate interlude to another without drumming up any melodrama. Primarily, the filmmakers rely more on winks rather than winces as our heroine navigates the dire straits of Christian’s sexual calisthenics. Keep in mind, Anastasia doesn’t say no until she knows better. Gradually, Christian peels back the layers of his paranoia, revealing himself as an onion that initiates our heroine’s tears and fears. When director Sam Johnston shifts the focus from the game of sexual chess between Anastasia and Christian, the film sacrifices suspense. Undeniably, “Fifty Shades of Grey” will keep your eyes wide open, but it dwells more on tease instead of sleaze.
Liam Neeson embarks on an after-hours artillery barrage in “Nonstop” director Jaume Collet-Serra’s “Run All Night,” (***1/2 OUT OF ****), a vigorous, but formulaic, bullet-riddled, crime thriller that keeps the NYPD busy until dawn. No, “Run All Night” doesn’t imitate Neeson’s “Taken” trilogy. Neeson’s “Run All Night” hero qualifies more as an anti-heroic underdog, while “Run All Night” shares more in common with Neeson’s earlier abduction opus “A Walk Among the Tombstones.” “Tombstones” cast Neeson as an ex-NYPD cop who quit the force after one of his stray slugs killed an innocent child. Neeson’s “Tombstones” hero lived alone and attended AA meetings when he wasn’t trolling for clients as an unlicensed private eye who preferred to work off his pay in trade. In other words, he wasn’t too fastidious about his clients and crossed the line between good and evil without a qualm. Conversely, Neeson plays a washed-up enforcer in “Run All Night” for a merciless Irish Godfather (Ed Harris) who keeps his lifelong pal on the payroll because they started out together. Comparatively, “Run All Night” is pretty grim, but it isn’t as creepy as “A Walk Among the Tombstones” with its pair of villainous homosexual maniacs who abducted women and carved them up for fun and games. Moreover, these two movies make the three “Taken” thrillers appear hopelessly whitewashed. Nevertheless, “Run All Night” is the kind of actioneer where you still root for the hero, even though you suspect he may have to confront consequences before fadeout. Perhaps the closest thing to “Run All Night” would be Martin Scorsese’s Italian crime movies, like “Goodfellas” where Robert De Niro portrayed a trigger-happy lunatic. Ultimately, the chief difference is Neeson’s itchy trigger fingered hitman redeems himself for his homicidal past. While Neeson dominates the action, Ed Harris is no slouch as his no-nonsense, tough-as-nails, Irish mob boss. Joel Kinnaman, Boyd Holbrook, Bruce McGill, and Holt McAloney round out the seasoned cast, with African-American actor Lonnie Rashid Lynn, best known by his nickname ‘Common,” standing out as an obnoxious assassin with a grudge against the Neeson hero.
Neeson plays Jimmy “The Gravedigger” Conlon, a notorious Irish gunsel who not only has managed miraculously to stay out of jail, but who also has rubbed out opponents by double-digits. Since his wife died, Jimmy has spent most of his time nursing a bottle while he wrestles with his conscience about all those people he executed for infamous crime chieftain Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris of “A History of Violence”) who ruled the Irish mafia in New York City with a steel fist. Mind you, this doesn’t mean Jimmy has lost his touch. All that booze hasn’t diluted the ice water flowing through his veins. He hasn’t lost that lethal knack that he perfected during his dark days of killing. Lately, Shawn has relaxed and has promoted his pride and joy, Danny Maguire (Boyd Holbrook of “The Skeleton Twins”), as head of operations. Unfortunately, paternal love has blinded Shawn to Danny’s flaws. Moreover, Shawn doesn’t realize the mistake that he has committed by turning over his largely legitimate empire to his decadent son. Not only has Danny foolishly convinced himself that he is invincible but also that he is bulletproof. Furthermore, Danny feels the desperate urge to prove himself to his dad. He brokers a million dollar deal with some unscrupulous Albanian heroin dealers that he thinks his father will applaud. The Albanians assure Shawn he will never regret their partnership. Shawn surprises them when he turns down their deal and sends them packing. Predictably, Danny is livid with indignation until Shawn explains how he pulled a similar stunt with cocaine twenty years before and had to wipe out half of his friends because they had become rip-snorting junkies. Shawn doesn’t want to repeat his earlier mistake. An irate Danny owed the Albanians already so he has no alternative but to blast both of them into eternity. What Danny doesn’t plan for is the witnesses who saw him ice the Albanians.
Meanwhile, Jimmy has an estranged son, Mike (Joel Kinnaman of “Robocop”), who took a swing at professional boxing but crapped out. Mike is nothing like his father. Mike has kept his nose clean. He drives a limo, has two adorable little daughters, and has gotten his wife Gabriela (Genesis Rodriguez) pregnant with their third child. Mike leads a budget-pinching, but largely happy life on a blue-collar income. When he isn’t driving the limo, Mike mentors an orphaned African-American teenager. He is coaching Curtis 'Legs' Banks (Aubrey Joseph of “Fading Gigolo”) in the art of boxing at the local gym. When he isn’t boxing, ‘Legs’ fools around with his new smart phone. Mike encounters ‘Legs’ one evening after he has taken the two Albanians to confer with Danny about their abortive heroin smuggling deal. Danny tosses the Albanians a satchel bulging with bogus bills, laughs at them, and then perforates them. After he caps the second Albanian, Danny discovers that Mike has been sitting nearby in the limo that delivered the two Albanians. Naturally, Shawn is infuriated about this unforeseen turn of the events. Things grow complicated because Danny fears that Mike witnessed one of the murders. What he doesn’t know is that Legs captured the murder on video. Worst of all, Danny doesn’t count on Mike’s father showing up and shooting him in the back of his head before he can blast Mike. Now, a grieving Shawn launches a full-scale war against Jimmy for bumping off his only son.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra allows “Run All Night” to unfold in flashback, but this gimmick doesn’t sabotage the suspense. The resourceful Neeson is about as devastating against his own bloodthirsty mob as Denzel Washington was against the Russian mafia in “The Equalizer.” Collet-Serra orchestrates an exciting car chase through traffic congested Big Apple city streets that will keep you squirming. He also relies on snappy Google Earth transitions to maintain spontaneity. “Run All Night” runs out of neither momentum nor surprises during its 114 minutes.
Friday, February 20, 2015
Imagine putting the James Bond movies into a cinematic blender with the Austin Powers comedies, and you’ll see what British director Matthew Vaughn does with his outlandish movie “Kingsman: The Secret Service.” For the record, Vaughn made his first film as a director in 2004 with the murderous mobster melodrama “Layer Cake” (2004) starring Daniel Craig. Three years later he followed up “Layer Cake” with “Stardust.” This imaginative Neil Gaiman fantasy romance bore little resemblance to the gritty “Layer Cake.” Vaughn didn’t come into his own until he adapted Mark Millar’s subversive graphic novel “Hit Girl” as the Nicolas Cage actioneer “Kick Ass.” This controversial revenge thriller about a dad and daughter who dressed like comic book super-heroes to destroy a dastardly gangster spawned a sequel. Vaughn’s biggest success came with the incomparable Marvel Comics “X-Men” prequel “X-Men: First Class” about the costume-clad mutants in their youth during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Vaughn has recycled many of the themes and characters from those movies for his adaptation of Mark Millar’s graphic novel “Kingsman: The Secret Service”(***1/2 OUT OF ****) that features Colin Firth, Michael Caine, and Mark Strong. This uneven but entertaining homage to the James Bond movies provides an overdue departure from the usual formulaic, testosterone laden fare that sacrifices wit and style for realism and gore. Mind you, Vaughn grinds his action gears during the early scenes as he sets up his improbable plot. Happily, he has everything running smoothly for an explosive finale. The big problem that Vaughn had to contend with in launching a new franchise was pairing relatively unknown actor Taron Egerton with veteran actor Colin Firth who rarely plays armed and deadly heroes. Meanwhile, sympathetic heroes and treacherous villains tangle mercilessly in this larger-than-life, hyperbolic espionage escapade that could easily qualify as “50 Shades of Blood” for its sensational number of mind-blowing action scenes. Hundreds of thousands of people perish when an evil megalomaniac plans to solve overpopulation by implanting SIM cards into their heads, controlling their thoughts, and converting their cell phones into improvised explosive devices. “Kingsman: The Secret Service” qualifies as the kind of silly but stout, R-rated saga that might repel squeamish moviegoers.
Matthew Vaughn and his wife Jane Golden, who has collaborated on every film her husband has helmed except “Layer Cake,” have adapted Mark Millar’s graphic novel with the same audacious abandon that they infused in “Kick Ass.” Indeed, they have made some extreme but inspired changes to Millar’s narrative. For example, without giving anything away, the villain in the graphic novel was Caucasian; the villain’s second-in-command was male, and Mark Hamill played himself rather than a scientist. “Kingsman” concerns an independent, international espionage agency hidden behind the façade of an elite tailor's shop on London's Savile Row that operates at the highest level of discretion like “The Man from U.N.C.L.E” television series. This private outfit makes Navy SEALs look like second-rate shrimp. Indeed, if such an ultra-secret organization existed, world peace would be guaranteed. Latter day British knights of the realm with appropriate code-names like Lancelot and Galahad, these dudes cut dashing figures in their globe-trotting missions to preserve peace and solidarity. The cream of their crop, Harry Hart (Colin Firth), ranks as their top agent. He is at his best when he has little more than an umbrella to vanquish the villains. British actor Colin Firth, who plays the impeccably clad protagonist, has been acting since 1984, but he is known largely as a lightweight leading man in romantic comedies like “Mamma Mia!,” “Shakespeare in Love,” and “Bridget Jones’ Diary.” In 2007, he ventured out of his comfort zone and played an armor-clad knight in the above-average medieval swashbuckler “The Last Legion.” During one of Vaughn’s many impressively staged action set-pieces, Firth devastates a hatemongering Westboro-style church congregation in a no-holds-barred, free-for-all fracas.
As “Kingsman” unfolds, Harry Hart’s closest comrade, Lancelot (Jack Davenport), dies during a mission but saves Harry’s life. Predictably, Harry consoles Lancelot’s grieving widow and son. Understandably distraught by her husband’s mysterious demise, Michelle Unwin (Samantha Womack of “Breeders”) wants nothing to do with Kingsman. Nevertheless, Harry persuades her only son, Eggsy, to accept Lancelot’s medal inscribed with a phone number and a code word should he ever require help. Seventeen years later, as an underprivileged teen living in the projects, Eggsy finds himself in deep trouble. Our wild, impulsive hero steals an automobile belonging to a gang of loutish British lads who have been badgering him. Commandeering their vehicle for a joyride, Eggsy careens through congested London traffic, driving the vehicle in reverse, with the police following him nose to nose, as he executes several complicated maneuvers. Vaughn excels with suspenseful scenes like this careening car chase. Later, with nobody to help him, Gary ‘Eggys’ Unwin (newcomer Taron Egerton) contacts Harry. After Harry gets Eggsy out of the clink, he takes him for a tour of a local tailor’s shop that serves as a front for Kingsman. Since he feels guilty about the death of Eggys’ dad, Harry helps the lad compete with other candidates for the job-of-a-lifetime as a Kingsman. After surviving the gauntlet of an incredible obstacle course, Eggys stands poised to become a top agent who can match wits and swap fists with either James Bond or Jason Bourne. Unfortunately, our hero commits some interesting mistakes before he can redeem himself in the eyes of the Kingsman and save the world.
Samuel L. Jackson steals the show as goofy looking, Internet billionaire philanthropist Richmond Valentine. Adopting with a quirky lisp, Jackson wears his baseball cap askew like a gangsta. Clearly, Valentine represents Jackson’s best performance since “Pulp Fiction.” Although the tongue-in-cheek Jackson overshadows handsome Harry Hart and his unusual arsenal of weapons, Valentine’s number one henchman--perhaps ‘henchm’am would be better--is a gravity-defying dame equipped with razor-sharp, 'Flex-Foot Cheetah' blade feet, who slices up her adversaries like deli meat. Nothing can prepare you for Algerian dancer Sofia Boutella of “StreetDance 2” when she performs her breathtaking acrobatic feats in a variation on Oddjob and his razor sharp bowler hat from the Bond groundbreaker “Goldfinger.” Altogether, “Kingsman: The Secret Service” amounts to amusing but polished nonsense.
Wednesday, February 11, 2015
Oscar-winning actor Jeff Bridges has made many memorable movies. “Thunderbolt & Lightfoot,” “Jagged Edge,” “The Big Lebowski,” “The Fisher King,” “Fearless,” “Against All Odds,” “Men Who Stare at Goats,” “Iron Man,” “True Grit,” and “Crazy Heart” stand out among the more than 60 theatrical features that he has starred in since he started acting back in the 1970s. Bridges’ latest outing “Seventh Son” (** OUT OF ****) proves that he can make an occasional stinker, too. Making his English-language film debut, Oscar-nominated Russian director Sergey Bodrov, who helmed the 1997 Tolstoy tale “Prisoners of the Mountains,” has spared no expense in bringing this sprawling but predictable $95-million, medieval fantasy to the screen. A posse of demon-possessed souls that can turn into voracious supernatural beasts tangle with our venerable hero and his naïve sidekick as the two struggle to vanquish an unforgiving witch. Interestingly, this larger-than-life adaptation of retired English teacher Joseph Delaney’s young adult novel "The Spook's Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch," the first of fourteen books in his “Wardstone Chronicles,” has generated greater enthusiasm overseas. Chinese and Russian audiences flocked to it. Meantime, American audiences have shunned it, and box office analysts have branded this Universal Pictures release as a flop based on its dismal opening weekend receipts of little more than $7 million.
“Seventh Son” opens as the last of the Falcon Knights, Master John Gregory (Jeff Bridges of “TRON”), locks up the malevolent Queen of Witches, Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore of “The Big Lebowski”), in an oubliette in a remote mountain range. Gregory and Malkin, it seems, once loved each other. Gregory abandoned Malkin for another woman, and the jealous Malkin killed Gregory’s wife. Gregory retaliated and imprisoned Malkin for what he thought would be an eternity. Designated as a ‘Spook,’ Gregory earns his living as a spell-casting, witch-busting, dragon slayer equipped with a flame-throwing staff. He has dedicated himself tirelessly to the destruction of anything supernatural that frightens common folk. Despite Gregory’s elaborate precautions, Mother Malkin breaks out of captivity many years later as a result of a centennial lunar event termed ‘the Blood Moon.’ The Blood Moon revitalizes Malkin’s evil powers, enabling this witch to transform into a winged dragon, and flap away to her own mountain-top fortress. Master Gregory and young apprentice William Bradley (Kit Harington of HBO’s “Game of Thrones”) recapture this diabolical dame with arrows and a silver net. Unfortunately, Malkin kills poor Bradley, and Gregory must recruit a new apprentice. Gregory comes across another ‘seventh son of a seventh son,’ Tom Ward (Ben Barnes of “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian”), a farm boy living in relative obscurity who slops his father’s swine. Tom reminded me of Luke Skywalker when he appears initially in “Star Wars.” Anyway, Tom takes advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to escape from a life of drudgery. Surprisingly enough, Tom had visions of his chance encounter before Gregory actually bargained with his dad to apprentice him. Meantime, Tom’s doting mother, Mam Ward (Olivia Williams of “Sabotage”), entrusts her son with a unique magical pedant to wear out-of-sight around his neck. While Gregory tutors Tom about witches, Malkin assembles her own culturally diverse posse of sinister shape-shifters. Initially, Malkin enlists the aid of her younger sister Bony Lizzie (Antje Traue of “Pandorum”) as well as Bony’s pretty niece Alice (Alicia Vikander of “Ex Machina”), who are witches, too. Alice beguiles young Tom and keeps the lad hoodwinked for about three-fourths of the film until he wises up about her treachery. Ultimately, Malkin and her devils lure both Gregory and Tom into her own mountain-top fortress for a fight to the death under a blood red moon.
Essentially, “Seventh Son” suffers from second-rate scripting despite its impressive scribes: “Blood Diamond’s” Charles Leavitt, “Eastern Promises’” Steven Knight and “Reign of Fire’s” Matt Greenberg. These guys have scrapped most of Delaney’s narrative in favor of something more bombastically cinematic but at the same time hopelessly incoherent. For example, neither Mother Malkin nor any of her witches mutate into dragons. Our heroes never ride horses and Gregory doesn’t ride off and leave Tom with his former residence. Alice doesn’t leave of her own accord; Tom’s mom doesn’t die; and Gregory’s only other friend Tusk works for Mother Malkin. If you loved Delaney’s novel, you will probably abhor “Seventh Son.” Moreover, the characters in the film lack depth, dimension, and/or decadence. If you’ve seen “Season of the Witch” with Nicolas Cage and “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” with Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton, you’ll know when to yarn during the formulaic, by-the-numbers, adventures. Mumbling as if with a mouthful of marbles, a bearded Jeff Bridges appears to be imitating not only his own cantankerous “True Grit” character Rooster Cogburn, but also he channels a combination of Alec Guinness’ Obi-Wan from the original “Star Wars” and Ian McKellen’s Gandalf the Grey from the “Hobbit” movies. Whereas Obi-Wan and Gandalf emerged as flamboyant, Gregory is far from flamboyant. His best scene takes place in a tavern where he wields a cup of ale without spilling a drop to thrash a presumptuous swordsman. Oscar nominated actress Julianne Moore restrains herself as a despicable witch who can morph into an airborne dragon, entwine adversaries with her chain-link tail, and then skewer them without uttering a clever line. Mind you, this description of Moore’s character sounds like she could have had a blast indulging herself, but she refuses to chew the scenery. Comparatively, Moore’s lavishly attired, red-haired sorceress is nowhere as audacious as Charlize Theron’s wicked witch in “Snow White and the Huntsman.” Sadly, secondary leads Ben Barnes and Alicia Vikander generate neither charisma as stock characters nor chemistry as an amorous couple. Barnes is about as wooden as Hayden Christensen was in the second “Star Wars” trilogy. Meanwhile, talented thespians like Olivia Williams, Kip Harrington, Djimon Hounsou, and Jason Scott Lee languish on the periphery of this synthetic sword and sorcery saga.
Although it drums up minimal intensity between fade-in and fade-out, “Seventh Son” boasts some lively combat scenes that the 3-D visual effects enhance. “Star Wars” visual effects specialist John Dykstra has created several outlandish CGI monsters, but few are terrifying.
The picturesque mountains of British Columbia are as scenic as “Canterbury Tales” production designer Dante Ferretti’s sets are spectacular. Unfortunately, “Seventh Son” recycles the usual dungeons and dragon shenanigans with little to distinguish it from its prestigious predecessors.