I’ll admit not understanding the appeal of the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon. The introduction into BDSM was a worldwide sensation and the 2015 first film made half a billion dollars, the kind of money usually reserved for movies featuring muscular men in rubber costumes that use whips and chains for different purposes. I happily watched the first film to get a sense of what the big deal was and was unmoved. For a film designed to be titillating and provocative, I came away wishing it had more action (of any sort). With great success, author E.L. James asserted more authority in the film series. Out went original director Sam Taylor-Johnson, who at least provided a sleek sheen to the final product and sexual tension where able, and in came new director, James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross). Out went the original screenwriter Kelly Marcel and in came a new screenwriter, James own husband Niall Leonard, which could only mean the threat of the film hewing closer to the book was a guarantee. James is giving fans of her popular though critically savaged romance novels more of what they want, and I guess what they think they want are relatively bad movies, limp sex scenes, and an inert romance.
Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is trying to get back on her feet after leaving her ex, billionaire and bondage enthusiast Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). He’s got serious issues but won’t stay out of her life. He has to have her back, and rather easily the on-again off-again couple is back on and back getting it on. However, their sex life is threatened with women from Christian’s past and the question of whether he can settle down for good with such a plain Jane submissive like Ana.
There is a mystifying lack of conflict in the movie that makes 50 Shades Darker feel aimless. There are occasional bumps in the road in the form of old girlfriends still looking for their turn, and Ana’s aggressively inappropriate boss (Eric Johnson), but they’re dealt with almost immediately and without larger consequence. One of these antagonists is foiled by nothing more than a stiff drink to the face like a full-on Dynasty parody. Dealing with Christian’s past seems like natural territory for a sequel. A character as cold and self-serving as Christian could very likely attract a host of dangerous women. Stalkers who cannot let go would present an organic threat to their relationship and Ana’s literal life. A deranged former lover would provide a substantive question for Ana to deliberate. Is she doomed to the same fate? Bella Heathcote’s troubled character is begging for attention but she is so unceremoniously sidelined to the point of hilarity, and then she’s never seen again. Why should the story provide any question that these star-crossed lovers might not magically work out in the end? None of the mini-conflicts last longer than fifteen minutes before being effortlessly overcome, including a helicopter death scare. The shapeless plot structure is tediously airy, leaving too much space for characters and a world that doesn’t warrant the consideration. You would think the extra time would be spent with lengthy, over-the-top sex scenes stripping away all inhibitions and pushing the boundaries of cinematic good taste, but that’s not so much the case (more below). I knew we were in trouble when a sequence of Ana sailing Christian’s yacht was as long as one of the so-called outrageous sex scenes.
Here’s a prime example of just how poorly 50 Shades Darker is plotted. While dressing up for the masquerade, Christian admires Ana in lingerie. “You just going to stand there gawking?” she asks. “Yes,” he replies. Later, she walks in on him exercising shirtless and getting all sweaty while practicing for the Olympics on a pommel horse. It’s a flip of the male gaze, for once in the movie’s two hours. This is obviously a prime spot to repeat the dialogue exchange for a clever payoff, have Christian ask if she is going to just stand there gawking and her answer be in the affirmative. This movie cannot even do that! 50 Shades Darker doesn’t just fumble the big things, like plot and character and tone, it fails to even achieve modest, easily reachable payoffs that can be as ludicrously obvious.
Devoting more time with Ana and Christian outside of the bedroom is also best not advised. These one-dimensional characters are also barely removed archetypes from late night soft-core porn. Ana is an audience cipher but she’s also one incredibly dense human being. Forget the annoyingly mousey acting tics that Johnson (How to Be Single) is instructed to never abandon, this is a lady who just doesn’t get it. She’s had sex with her dude like minimum a dozen times and she’s never noticed the array of scars across his chest? After her boss tries to force himself on her, she fights back and runs into Christian’s arms, and he gets the guy fired (because a woman reporting a sexual assault on her own is not convincing enough?). Hearing the news, Ana acts deeply confused, as if she cannot understand why her boss is now not her boss. Did she just forget the upsetting assault? Every man in this universe seems to find Ana uncontrollably irresistible. She’s the ultimate prize to be owned. Even her own friend, who clearly has a crush on her, creepily makes her the centerpiece of his photography gallery show without her consent. She can huff and puff all she wants about agency but Ana is still a woman looking for her prince to sweep her away to a land of exotic privilege. Her reason for accepting a dinner date with Christian: she’s hungry. That’s fine, not every romance needs to be progressive or healthy, but when that guy is as controlling and worrisome as Christian Grey, then the romance starts to sour and become an exhibit of toxic misogyny. And that’s before Christian reveals that Ana, as well as his previous subs, looks like his dead mother.
Christian is your dark, brooding, oh so attractive as the bad boy but he’s defanged, turned into proper boyfriend material, the kind of guy who would drop down for an old-fashioned proposal of a girl’s dreams. In other words, the movie makes him boring. He’s still problematic as a romantic partner. While he swears this time will be different and no finely worded legal contracts are necessary, he’s still a controlling jerk and a boor. Even during his “please take me back” dinner he’s attempting to order for Ana. He deposits money in her account despite her protests, he buys the publishing company she works for to become her ultimate boss even outside their relationship, and he’s constantly insisting she is his and his alone in the creepiest of declarations. The movie seems to think it’s found a palatable excuse to explain away his warning signs. His mother, depicted in a hilariously sad picture that looks like a Wal-Mart family photo from a refugee camp, died of a drug overdose at a young age and he was physically abused by his father. It’s a slapdash, simplistic cover for his bad behavior. Another strange discovery: the childhood bedroom of Christian Grey has a framed poster of 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick. I know Universal is trying to play some studio synergy here, but come on. How old is Christian supposed to be? Also, HE HAS A FRAMED POSTER OF THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK.
All of this can be moderately forgivable if the movie more than makes up for where it counts with fans, namely steamy and scorching sex scenes that were the hallmark of the lurid book series. While the first film was far from perfect, or even adequate, let it be said it still could constitute an erotic charge when it desired. With the sequel, the sex is shockingly lackluster. There are only four full sex scenes and they start to become weirdly routine. You anticipate that Christian will spend a little time here doing this, and little time there doing that, and then as soon as would-be penetration comes into being they oddly jump forward and spare the audience the sight of sexual congress. It’s different minor tracks of foreplay and then the movie seems to shy away from the sex itself. For something this supposedly kinky it becomes strangely mechanical, predictable, and boring. Another irritating feature is that every sex scene is accompanied by a blaring rock or pop song. It announces itself with what I call “sex guitar music.” It blares over the scene and makes it difficult for the viewer to better immerse in the scene. Some of the music is downright nails-on-chalkboard awful from a tonal standpoint, creating its own source of comedy. The absolute most hilarious musical pairing is Van Morrison’s “Moondance” while Christian is fooling around surreptitiously with Ana in a crowded elevator. Go ahead and look up the song and come back to this review, I can wait. The jazz flute playing over the scene is certainly… different. It might be the worst sex scene song pairing since Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in Watchmen. I stayed until the end credits and counted 27 songs used in a 118-minute movie. Reportedly there’s a score by Danny Elfman in the film but I challenge you to find it (easiest paycheck of his career).
If you’d like to be spared the turgid two-hour experience, I’ll spoil the specifics of the sex scenes in this paragraph so you can see how truly tame the movie is for something so reportedly transgressive and kinky. The first sex scene is their reunion as a couple and he undresses her, goes down on her, then climbs atop, then it’s over. The second involves him spanking her, upon her request, then he goes down on her, climbs atop her, then it’s over. The third sex scene involved Ben Wa balls as foreplay reminiscent of the superior and far more erotic Handmaiden (seriously see that Korean movie like 1,000 times before this), or was that the second sex scene? As I type this, it’s only been mere hours since I left my screening and I can’t recall the general details of the third sex scene, that’s how boring it was. The fourth is more montage but it’s an unleashed exuberance of sexual id. Christian dumps an entire bottle of massage oil onto Ana’s breasts, which seemed impatient and wasteful to me, but I’m not a billionaire. I cannot overstate just how dull and lazily staged the sex scenes are in the film, extinguishing any kind of titillation and strangely demurring once things get passionate. The nubile bodies are on display, Johnson’s in semi-permanent arched back, though Dornan is often coquettishly obscured (sorry again, ladies). The word that seems most appropriate for the sex scenes is “anticlimactic.” Ana jokes that she’s a vanilla girl and trapping Christian into a plain relationship, and their big screen sex life typifies this (anyone remember Ana’s question about what a butt plug was?). It’s a world of kink where nipple clamps are giggle-worthy accessories to the participants and the go-to sexual position is missionary. This movie is not the daring dip into untapped sensuality it’s been made out to be. It’s much more conservative at heart.
Ironically, 50 Shades Darker is a curiously reserved romance that lacks serious heat. The actors have very little chemistry and are fighting losing effort to convince you just how sexy they find one another. Dornan still seems like a dead-eyed shark to me. I know people aren’t going to this movie for the story, but some better effort could have been afforded rather than false conflicts that are arbitrarily resolved one after another. It’s an empty fantasy with boring characters and timid sex scenes that register as sub-soft-core eroticism. I wrote of the original film: “Surprisingly boring and rather tepid, 50 Shades of Grey feels too callow to be the provocative film experience it wants to be. It needs more of just about everything; more characterization, more organic coupling, more story, more romance, more kink. It is lacking in too many areas, though the production values are sleek, like it’s the most technically accomplished episode of Red Shoe Diaries.” Every criticism is still valid and even more so. Whereas the first film was about the flirtation and exploration of the coupling, the sequel inevitably treads the same ground, watching pretty dull people get dressed in pretty clothes and then take them off. For a book series so infamous for its tawdry smut, I was expecting more smut or at least better smut.
Nate’s Grade: C-
The prospect of a new Nicolas Winding Refn movie is akin to a trip to the dentist for me: long, painful, and full or regret over one’s life choices. The Neon Demon will not change this perception of mine. I hated this movie, and the more I think about it the more I hate it. Unlike Refn’s last film, the punishing, overwrought, and nihilistic Only God Forgives, there isn’t even a kernel of an idea of a movie here. I loathed Only God Forgives but I’ll at least credit Refn for crafting something with potential in its plot dynamics. In better hands, somebody could have done something with the setup for that movie. I don’t think anyone could work with what Refn offers in The Neon Demon because he offers nothing. That’s not entirely true. He offers pretty pictures and alluring shot compositions, bathing the screen in high-contrasting colors. What he fails to offer is a story, or characters, or any reason that this movie shouldn’t exist instead as a ten-minute short. Somebody enlighten me and tell me what exactly this vacuous and tedious art exercise offers.
Perhaps I’m being too cruel so allow me to explain the plot. Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a 16-year-old girl fresh off the bus to L.A. She gets hired at a modeling agency and makes friends with a makeup artist, Ruby (Jena Malone), who also works in a coroner’s office beautifying corpses. Jesse quickly rises through the ranks of the modeling world because of her fresh face and youthful, pure demeanor. She makes enemies with older models (Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee) who feel threatened by her. And Keanu Reeves plays a sleazy motel owner who sticks a knife down Jesse’s throat for fun. Or that was a dream. I think. Then there’s a confrontation that includes necrophilia, murder, and cannibalism. And even after the cannibalism the movie still goes on for another fifteen minutes!
There is not nearly enough plot or any substance to carry out Refn’s near two-hour running time, which becomes all the more obvious with one dreary, pretentious, artfully self-indulgent scene after another. There are long segments where I cannot even tell you from a literal level what is happening on screen. Is Jesse descending into madness? Is Jesse losing herself to the vanity of the industry in a heavy-handed visual metaphor? Does anything happening register with the slightest merit? Refn is possibly trying to tackle the same meandering dream logic that populates David Lynch’s more obtuse filmmaking entries, like Lost Highway and Mullholland Drive (recently voted the top film so far of the twenty-first century by the BBC). I’m not a fan of untethered David Lynch but he will at least keep things interesting. The Neon Demon is a powerfully boring enterprise in annihilating audience patience. There’s no there there.
Another problem I have with Refn’s movies is that he hangs much of his meandering on broad and obvious themes and assumes they’re revelatory. Only God Forgives was all about the pointless nature of vengeance and cyclical violence, and you felt the pointlessness with one grisly and uncomfortable moment after the next. With The Neon Demon, Refn falls back on the most general of broadsides against the fashion industry. Did you know that people working in a surface-level industry could be shallow? Did you know that young women are exploited for their beauty and then quickly cast aside? Did you know that succumbing to the appeals of vanity could be self-destructive? These are the most general themes and they are presented without able commentary. It’s like Refn thinks touching upon these shallow themes is enough substance to justify all the excesses.
This is borderline unwatchable cinema. The plot is like Showgirls without the camp but still following some of the basic plot beats. There is nothing interesting about these characters at all and that’s because they’re not people but robotic figurines at best. They’re dolls for Refn to pose and play around with his purple lights. It’s like watching two hours of somebody rearrange fancy-looking furniture. The characters are just as significant as the nearest love seat or coffee table. I’ve complained about all the empty space in Refn movies and The Neon Demon is no different. This movie is padded out exponentially to become Refn’s longest movie in his career. He cares far more about his shot compositions and cinematography than storytelling. At this point I don’t think Refn has any interest whatsoever in telling a story. He wants to construct a visually immersive film experience. The Neon Demon is little more than the misty atmosphere of the impermissible, the phantasmagorical. Refn deploys controversial imagery and plot elements but he deploys them in place of actual substance. Anybody can get a strong response by throwing in a necrophilia sex scene, but has that reaction been earned and has this moment been properly setup by careful development? Absolutely not. Things just happen.
This was also billed as Refn’s horror movie but there’s nothing genuinely terrifying, at least from an intentional standpoint. You don’t feel any sense of danger or even a sense of uncertainty until the very end, and by then the movie has meandered far too much for the horror elements and gore to have an impact beyond lazy shock value. This is a movie where pretty people stand around and then, on the turn of a dime, do something outrageous. Refn hasn’t laid the groundwork for a descent into mental instability with our lead character, which seems like the most obvious solution. I could see a Black Swan-style psychosexual story about obsession with perfection and how this blinds one woman into making a multitude of sacrifices, driving her over the edge and into murder. Black Swan was a great, often brilliant movie. Go watch Black Swan instead, folks.
I think I have a solution that will benefit us all, dear reader. Nicolas Winding Refn should forgo the director’s chair and devote his career to being a cinematographer. He has an alluring eye for visual compositions and a great feel for atmospheric lighting, but with each passing movie I feel the man’s disdain for narrative filmmaking. His skill set is best utilized at making pretty pictures. Get him away from directing actors. Get him away from writing stories. Have adults in charge of the other aspects that help make a movie what a movie should be. The Neon Demon is a confounding, obnoxious, obtuse, intellectually destitute and monotonous movie experience. It’s frustrating to deal with the Cult of Refn in cinematic circles because I just cannot see what they see (I liked Drive well enough). The Neon Demon is too shallow and tortuous to be an insightful commentary on beauty, too oblique and maddeningly dreamlike to be an engaging story, and too devoid of interesting characters to hold your attention as they drift from one scene to the next. I’d be more forgiving of Refn’s indulgences if he was a short filmmaker. I’d allow more latitude for experimentation. The Neon Demon is not a movie. It’s a collection of half-formed, shallow ideas that Refn has thrown together, a whole lot of dead and empty space connecting them together, and an 80s synth score to underline the high-contrast colors. At this point I’d rather go back to the dentist than sit through another Refn film.
Nate’s Grade: D
Dark Shadows was a daytime soap that aired for only a brief period of time as far as soaps are concerned, 1966-1971, but it was enough to make a lasting impression. The supernatural soap featured vampires, werewolves, and other creatures of the night, entangled in high-stakes drama and romantic excursions – it was the Twilight of its day. Director Tim Burton and his attached-at-the-hip collaborator, actor Johnny Depp, were fans as children and have kicked around a big-budget big screen version for years. Now that Dark Shadows hits theaters, you’ll be left wondering whether they really ever liked the original show or secretly despised it.
In the 1770s, Barnabus Collins (Depp) is the son of fishing and canning magnate in colonial Maine. He has a fling with Angelique (Eva Green), one of his family’s servant girls, and unfortunately for him, the gal is also a witch in her spare time. She curses the Collins family, killing Barnabus’ mother, father, and the woman he loves. She then turns him into a vampire, riles the villagers into mob mode, and Barnabus gets trapped in a coffin and buried for good.
Two hundred years later, a construction crew unearths an old coffin and out pops Barnabus from his prison. The world is a very different place. Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer) is running the Collins family manor and canning company, which has fallen on hard times. A rival canning company is snapping up fisherman contracts, and this company is led by none other than the same ageless Angelique. Elizabeth tries to conceal her distant relative’s unique “condition” from the rest of her family, her brother Roger (Johnny Lee Miller), and his son David (Gulliver McGrath), grieving the loss of his mother, moody 15-year-old daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), and caretaker, Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley). The Collins family also has a new hire, Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote), who looks strikingly like Barnabus’ lost love from 200 years ago. He becomes smitten with the new lass, who may be the reincarnation of his lost love. That’s enough to rev up Angelique’s wild sense of jealousy, as she tries to get her long-desired man and destroy anyone that stands in her way.
Is this ever one ghoulish mess of a movie. It never settles on a tone; is it supposed to be a larky tongue-in-cheek send-up, a Gothic melodrama, a dysfunctional oddball family comedy? What is this supposed to be, because whatever it is, it isn’t entertaining. Oh sure, it’s entertaining in a, “Where the hell is this going?” kind of way, but so is being kidnapped by a drifter. The movie feels like it has a box filled with ideas, and every so often it just shakes up that box, reaches inside, grabs one and says, “Let’s give this a try.” The screenplay, credited to author Seth Grahame-Smith (Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), is awash with half-baked ideas and poorly developed characters. The live-in doctor, played by the second stalwart of the Burton Repertory Players, Helena Bonham Carter, is a hoot. Carter (The King’s Speech) has got an edge to her and an interesting dynamic with Barnabus, but sadly her storyline is tied up far too quickly. The character of Victoria is a rather interesting one, a girl who could communicate with her ghostly former relatives, who happen to look just like her. The gal was sent to a mental asylum by her parents and escaped, compelled to come to the Collins mansion. Why in the world wasn’t she the movie’s protagonist? That is a far more compelling perspective than a goofy vampire who speaks all old timey. Seriously, the Barnabus stuff is your basic fish-out-of-water comedy, lazily commenting on the times. There is no joke that is too obvious for this movie (Barnabus inquires why Carolyn has no husband; Barnabus is fascinated by a lava lamp; Barnabus thinks Alice Cooper is an ugly woman – sigh). A lot of the shapeless narrative would be forgivable if the movie was just funnier. Barnabus is just not that fun of a character. His anachronistic verbiage gets dull when you discover that seems to be the movie’s one joke. You may start tuning him out like I did.
The movie feels like a collection of subplots and no main storyline to gather traction. We’re told that the youngest Collins, little David, is enamored with Barnabus, though considering we’ve only seen the two together in like one previous scene, this seems like quite a leap. Unless David has gotten particularly skilled at hiding behind rocks, we haven’t seen any of this. The entire character of David and his sleazy father could be eliminated and they would only minimally affect the story. And then there’s the late revelation that one of our characters has a hidden secret identity, a revelation that fostered no setup. When the character looks into the camera to explain and ends with a curt, “Deal with it,” it’s like Grahame-Smith himself is speaking directly to the audience, mocking it for hoping that the movie would actually do a good job of setting up and paying off character development and relationships. Stupid audience. Why can’t you just be happy with all that neat Tim Burton set design?
The final melee between the Collins family and Angelique keeps reminding you of the dashed promise of the flick. Angelique, in her witchy withiness, summons dark forces to make statues come alive. Well, sort of. They flail their arms a tad. And then she makes the walls bleed. Well, sort of. The dripping blood stops after just a few inches from where it began. If you’re going to make the house bleed, I want Shining-level torrents of the red stuff. The tonal inconsistency, matched with the muddled plot and scant character work, makes for a pretty frustrating bore of a movie.
You could usually count on Depp (Alice in Wonderland) for at least committing himself to another bravura weird performance, but the material fails him. He’s caked with alabaster makeup, given claw-like hands thanks to additional knuckles (why…?), and he’s trying his best to transform a list of peculiarities into a character, but like most things concerning the movie, it does not coalesce properly. I actually think the most entertaining actor in the movie is Green (Casino Royale). Part of that might be my hormones revved up from her frequent cleavage-baring outfits as the vampy villainous (no pun intended). There’s not much to her role but at least she has fun with it, bringing an admirable level of energy while her peers remain laconic, content to submerge into the 70s scenery. She shows a nice flair for comedy heretofore unseen. Strangely, Green adopts a slightly raspy voice that sounded like an imitation of, none other than, Helena Bonham Carter. If Burton’s note to his film’s young, frisky, sexy antagonist was, “Sound more like my wife doing an American accent,” then I think we’ve butted into something personal best left between husband and wife.
Ultimately, I have no idea who this movie is going to appeal to. The fans of the original soap will surely not be pleased with the jokey, tongue-in-cheek manner that Dark Shadows treats its source material. Fans of Burton’s stylized, dreamy, Gothic fairy tale visuals will find the film tedious and a poor waste of the man’s talents. Even the casual Depp fan will probably find the movie mostly unfunny, weird, and boring. The tonal whiplash never settles down, and the plot is replete with half-developed characters, ideas, and plot points. It just seems to throw everything at the wall to see what sticks, but that’s not the best way to tell a story. Not even Burton’s visuals or Depp’s performance can save this movie. Dark Shadows is unquestionably amongst Burton’s worst films (2001’s Planet of the Apes debacle takes the crown), made all the more inexplicable by the fact that Burton and Depp are self-described fans of the TV show. Maybe we all have different definitions of “fan” that I am not privy to. This movie deserves a quick death.
Nate’s Grade: C