Jane Austen is one of those name brand institutions, and yet the pioneering author only has six actual titles to her name (a seventh was unfinished; two were published after her death, including Persuasion). There have been five previous adaptations of Persuasion, including one from 2021, so I wasn’t rankled when the early trailers for Netflix’s Persuasion took a chance with their adaptation. There are plentiful fourth wall breaks where our protagonist, Anne (Dakota Johnson), and handheld camerawork that makes it feel more faux documentary at points, and there is more modern jokes and modern rom-com sense and sensibilities, and judging by the social media response, there are a lot of angry Austen purists who loathe these changes (could this movie be more heretical than Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?). I found the 2022 Persuasion to be perfectly pleasant and easy to watch. Johnson is tailor-made for the headstrong, intelligent, yearning lead of an Austen movie, and with her directly speaking to the camera, I felt a kinship with her, and this stylistic choice also allowed the screenwriters to sneak in more of that flowery Austen prose. Some of the jokes are a little clunky but I laughed or smiled at most of the comedic elements, especially Richard E. Grant as Anne’s foppish and status-obsessed father. I enjoyed Henry Golding (Crazy Rich Asians) as the caddish Mr. Elliot, a man born with a Cheshire grin. I enjoyed plenty of this movie, including its racial diversity, and the staples of these Regency romances like the exquisite production design, costumes, and English countryside. I can understand some grumbling that this isn’t “their Persuasion,” but not every movie is for every person, and there’s nothing about the 2022 movie that retroactively cancels out other adaptations that fans would prefer. For 100 minutes, it felt like Austen had been re-framed as a rom-com blueprint, and Persuasion had renewed charm for me.
Nate’s Grade: B
I was taken immediately and repeatedly by the many charms and intriguing personal details of Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (hence referred to as Leo Grande for the sake of my typing). This little indie played at the 2022 Sundance film festival and is primarily two people in one hotel room talking for the entirety of its 97-minute run time, and oh how early I was enraptured. This is a small-scale but laser-focused character-driven drama with edges of comedy and romance. It’s sex positive, very mature and tasteful given its subject matter, and the general awkwardness of watching two strangers combat sexual and personal hang-ups and vulnerabilities melted away thanks to the deftly superior acting, writing, and directing of those involved.
Emma Thompson plays Nancy Stokes (not her real name), a retired school teacher who worked for a parochial institution and taught Christian religion. Her husband has died and she reveals that, over the course of their thirty years together, she has never truly known physical pleasure. She seeks to change that by hiring a professional sex worker, Leo Grande (not his real name), played by Daryl McCormack. We will chart Nancy’s sexual awakening over four intimate encounters.
What stood out immediately to me was how well developed the story unfolds at such a natural pace. I’ve watched more than a few indies that simply don’t know what to do with their premise, that feel like they’re biding time to get to feature-length, and some that are likewise constrained to single or minimal locations but fail to secure the most essential need: providing a reason for the audience to care. Whether a movie takes place in one room or a hundred rooms, you have to make the time spent meaningful whether through compelling characters or a story that keeps you engaged and waiting for more. You need to connect to the characters or be intrigued by the revelations to come, and Leo Grande does both immediately. Its setup is rife with drama and conflict, two people navigating their relationship to physical intimacy, two people who have never met until now for a transactional evening. There are obvious, natural personal conflicts to be explored here, with the novice out of their depth in many senses. There are also plenty of intriguing possibilities, because as these two get to know one another so too are we getting to know each and getting glimpses of who each of them are outside of this room. Both people are putting on fronts of some sorts, trying to settle into a performance of who they could be, and peeling away the layers of this subterfuge becomes even more intimate and engaging. Writer Katy Brand, known for outrageous British sketch comedy, skillfully maps out the story so that each conversational stop, detour, and ramp-up feels organically composed. It takes a great writer to keep your attention from a movie about two people talking, and Brand is that good. The contrast between our characters and intimacy, from forced to unlocked, keep us glued intently.
I also think there’s an interesting generational character study here, though the film doesn’t ever make any grand pronouncements about the symbolic representation of its heroine. Nancy is over 60 and at a point where she’s used to compliments with the added qualifier of “for her age.” When she discusses her sexual history with her husband, it’s almost like a confession that she’s been unable to get off her chest for decades, an acknowledgement of her disappointment and longing. Her husband was the kind of man who would lie in bed, roll on top, and then a minute later roll off, mission accomplished (no wonder this woman has never experienced an orgasm). Talking through this embarrassment, it brings Nancy to tears, realizing she’s lived so much of her life without accessing physical pleasure, a joyful repose that so many others seem to revel in. This bold step, hiring a sex worker online, is her making a leap outside of her comfort zone, and the subsequent return engagements give her new opportunities that have eclipsed her for so long.
In essence, this is woman who feels like she’s playing catch-up. Her character is from a generation where women didn’t make as much of a fuss about reciprocal pleasure. Her view of her aging body is one of general shame. She will repeatedly say she has no idea what she’s doing. Nancy feels like she’s been missing out for so long and wants what has been denied to her. However, she also has her own personal sexual hang-ups she’s pushing through, with decades of religious upbringing and enforcing moral codes with her students and their wardrobe choices. All of it adds up as far as her view on sex and her body. Leo asks her if she just wanted sex why not find a man in a pub and go from there, and she curtly says she doesn’t want an old man, an old man that will simply be another version of her husband, another disappointment in a lifetime of unrealized intimacy; she decidedly wants a young man. She’s indulging in her desire and a young man best represents a promise of sexual fulfillment (and she definitely doesn’t have any teacher/student fantasy, she will let you know). I think there are many more Nancy’s in the world, older women who soldiered through their lives, carrying the burdens of others while sacrificing their own pleasure, and are now at point in their lives where they are hearing more about body positivity, about female pleasure, and about being worthy of physical intimacy on their own terms and desires. Nancy is a character having a delayed sexual re-awakening; in her confession with Leo, she details her first impulse of desire when she was 17, a feeling that she hasn’t experienced as surely for the decades hence. While being a unique and well-rounded character, Nancy also serves as a representative of an older generation and perspective coming into conflict and revelation with a modern sense of intimacy and self.
Leo Grande is a smooth and charming man but one who doesn’t feel oily or like he’s obnoxiously masculine. With McCormack’s kind eyes and soothing Irish balm of a voice, it’s easy to see how this man could set others at ease. But then you also have to remember that Leo Grande is not who this man really is; it’s a character he’s playing, and as Nancy opens herself up to this man, she’s looking for him to do the same, for them to share something more special than a simple client-professional relationship. The more that Nancy pushes and pries, the more that Leo himself is pushed outside his own comfort zone. Leo is willing to talk about some things, like his frayed relationship with his mother, a point of unity with Nancy and her adult children, and his cover story of being away and working on an oil rig, an outlandish excuse that makes Nancy and eventually Leo break into laughter. By the nature of this character dynamic, Leo must be the more confident and assured participant to better contrast with Nancy’s personal and cultural insecurities. He’s the pro and she’s the novice. However, that doesn’t mean emotionally he’s as self-assured and without regret. Listening to these two characters bounce off one another and come in and out of intimate contact is fully entertaining.
I hope that Thompson (Cruella) gets nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal. She’s in just about every second of the movie and so much of it hinges upon her baring herself, physically and emotionally, to this man and us, the tacit observers. It’s a performance of radical self-love in so far as Nancy is reclaiming her body as a point of pride rather than as one of shame. In some ways, she’s shedding her past sins, easy judgement on the mores of others and their bodies. Thompson goes through such a wide range of emotion and gets to play so many different revealing sides to this woman putting herself in a most unfamiliar position. It’s Nancy coming to terms with her own disappointments, misgivings, and hypocrisy, and Thompson is splendid at every moment. She gives so much life to this character without sacrificing her complexity or occasional coldness. By the end, when her character hits her arc’s climax, it feels like a journey fully earned.
Another 2022 Sundance indie, this recipient of the Audience Award and a plum Apple Plus streaming spotlight, feels less smooth despite its title. Cha Cha Real Smooth is from writer/director/star Cooper Raiff, the twenty-five-year-old up-and-coming filmmaker best known for 2020’s Shithouse, a talky and introspective movie about older teens trying to gravitate with the adult world they feel ill-equipped to handle. While I found some promise with Raiff’s naturalistic dialogue, I found the lead characters to be too dull to really care about. Enter Cha Cha (which will also, henceforth, be how I refer to the title) which benefits from deploying more recognizable rom-com and indie movie plot mechanics. Working from a more familiar movie template, it actually helps Raiff better temper his writing and focus his story. While I enjoyed the movie overall, I would say it still has not won me over to the charms of Raiff just yet.
Raiff plays Andrew, a recent college grad who is still very much trying to figure out his life. He knows he doesn’t like his mother’s (Leslie Mann) new husband (Brad Garrett). He also doesn’t like his job working at a mall food court. He’s also not happy that his ex-girlfriend broke things off before leaving for Barcelona. He’s struggling to plan his “what comes next” when he stumbles into a job being a “party starter” after his enthusiastic chaperoning of a local bar mitzvah. Soon the neighbors are all seeking Andrew’s party-starting ability to make their next bar or bot mitzvah a fun time. Andrew becomes attached to a thirty-something single mom, Domino (Dakota Johnson), and he autistic teen, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), he persuades onto the dance floor to loosen up. Domino is intrigued by the younger man and asks him to babysit Lola, especially since the two have bonded and earned a trust. Andrew doesn’t know whether Domino is feeling the same level of attraction but someone who would not be happy is her fiancé, Joseph (Raul Castillo).
You spend a lot of time with Raiff as the lead, so your ultimate determination on Cha Cha will hinge on your perception of Andrew and as Raiff as a performer. He’s got an easy smile and his enthusiasm can be endearing at points, like he’s incapable of being still in thought. I found the scenes where he encourages little kids to be cute and easy to enjoy. He’s an infectious presence when he’s dealing with children. However, when Andrew is dealing with adults or people his own age, he seems to be out of his depths with arrested development. He’s rude and pissy with his stepfather for no real discernible reason given. He’s fairly thick-headed about romantic ideals about following his girlfriend to Spain, who declines his grand offer. Andrew’s uncertainty about charting his own path is a familiar story, and Raiff takes advantage of the overall coming-of-age blanket of tropes. The problem is that too many of them feel easily discarded. The only characters that seem to matter in Cha Cha are Andrew and Domino. Even Andrew’s younger brother (Evan Assante), who loves his big brother so much that he is constantly asking for advice on romancing a girl he likes, and the kid even cries at the prospect of his brother moving out of his room, is just another underwritten foil like Andrew’s mother, always supportive, and stepfather, always wary, and friend-with-benefits girl, always… there? These characters are meant to be reflections of our main character, serving to make him look charming or sincere or naïve or deluded but always serving Andrew. This can work in screenwriting but it helps if the characters don’t feel so obviously cultivated to make our hero look good.
I did find the central will-they-won’t-they relationship between Andrew and Domino to actually be entertaining. Much of this helps from Johnson sliding into a role that definitely fits her skill set. The role doesn’t even seem too different from her struggling thirty-something mother in The Lost Daughter. In the last few years, I have grown as a fan of Johnson with strong supporting turns in Bad Times at the El Royale, Peanut Butter Falcon, and as a dying mother in Our Friend. In each one of these roles, there is an inherent melancholy to her that she so effectively radiates. She has certainly broken free from the long shadow of the Fifty Shades franchise. Much of Domino feels from the point of view of a young man projecting onto her, and I think that is also Raiff’s larger thematic point. In Shithouse, a significant plot development is when Raiff’s central character has a different interpretation of a sexual encounter. He bombards the young woman with eager texts and is carried away with making an attachment, whereas she did not view their college hookup on the same terms. Although, this hard wisdom is undercut at the end of Shithouse by this same lady relenting and saying, “Yeah, okay, I’ll be your girlfriend.” To Andrew, Domino is a wounded soul looking for a rescue and he’s her dutiful man in shining armor. From his perspective, she is crying out for kind attention and support that he feels is being neglected. The learning curve for Andrew is that Domino can distinguish between a person who excites her and a person she can see herself settling down with. Their age discrepancy is never really addressed until the very end, though Johnson herself is only 32 years old, which doesn’t seem like an insurmountable gap though Domino’s age is kept purposely vague. I would have preferred the movie being told from her perspective as she had the most interesting role. Johnson and Raiff have an easy-going chemistry, with his overeager charmer meshing with her subdued, glassy-eyed, taking-it-all-in openness. She makes him feel a little more excited, but ultimately, that may not be as important as other more practical concerns.
This leads to what seems like the lesson of Cha Cha, because for a movie that seems to operate on a powerful level of irony-free sincerity, the big life lesson it seems to impart is that becoming an adult is one about accepting compromise and disappointment. Sure, that’s an important lesson, to adapt as well as process personal reflections, but with Raiff’s movie, Domino’s lesson seems to be she’s accepted that her fiancé doesn’t make her feel all the things that young Andrew does but he will provide stability for her and her daughter and that means more at this point. I cannot say whether the movie is asserting that Dakota’s reasons are mature and something Andrew will come to understand in time when he gets a little older or whether we’re supposed to see her as someone willfully forgoing her personal happiness to settle for something less and that, to Raiff, is what adulthood means, settling for less. The way that writer/director Raiff could have shore his thematic intentions would be with the supporting characters, seeing this larger nugget of wisdom reflected in his own mother’s relationship with the stepdad who Andrew could attempt to understand better rather than view with contempt. This is where underwriting the supporting characters can also undermine the artistic aims of your movie. It appears like Raif, at 22, is saying that growing up means essentially giving up on some level, which is a strangely pessimistic lesson for a movie that trades in such earnestness and sunny go-go positivity.
I sound more negative with Cha Cha Real Smooth than I’m intending. It’s a relatively breezy movie to watch with fun exchanges, solid jokes, and characters that I found amusing and some of them even engaging. It has its charms and sweetness and I can completely understand falling under Raiff’s spell. This is definitely a step in the right direction for Raiff as a filmmaker after his 2020 debut, and I think he’s going to continue to grow and tell these personal, highly verbose little indie dramas with big feelings where whomever Cooper Raiff portrays learns some life lesson, likely from his interaction with the person of the opposite sex he desires. As such, every Raiff movie from here on out seems likely to rest upon your feelings about him. With Cha Cha, the sequences between Andrew and Domino or Lola were my favorite, so the film mostly worked.
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande and Cha Cha Real Smooth are both fine examples of indie filmmaking supporting distinct voices adding their stamp on the larger contours of the romantic comedy genre. Leo Grande is a grand example of character writing and it’s even poignant and a little sexy. It’s extremely tasteful and nuanced and even empowering for an entire movie about two strangers meeting in a hotel room for sex. Cha Cha is a fun and formulaic coming-of-age movie and with Dakota Johnson hitting her stride with a winning character with pools of depth. There are some writing and thematic shortcomings but it’s still a charming experience. Both movies can definitely brighten your mood and generate their share of smiles for 100 minutes.
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande: A-
Cha Cha Real Smooth: B-
As a film critic part of a credited organization, I’m used to getting goodies in what I call “screener season,” the months of October to December when studios want to court critical favor for year-end consideration of their assorted movies for awards and titles. Netflix has sent me enough heavy coffee table books that I could, in Cosmo Kramer-style, fashion a literal coffee table made from them. For The Lost Daughter, Netflix sent me quite a bundle, including the film’s source material, a 110-page novella written by Italian author Elena Ferrante (My Brilliant Friend), which I read, and an actual bottle of sauvignon blanc wine. This was the first time a movie studio had sent me alcohol (my girlfriend drank a glass and did not like it, so thanks anyway, Netflix, but we dumped the bottle). I found the novella to be well written with plenty of poetic insights and turns of phrase, but I didn’t see the movie there. After sitting down and watching the two-hour feature film, I still don’t quite see the movie in this story.
Leda (Olivia Colman) is 48 years old, a literary professor, and vacationing on a small villa in Greece. Her time away is disrupted by a large, boisterous family sharing her resort. Leda is intrigued by a mother, Nina (Dakota Johnson), and her young daughter, Elena. It makes her reflective of her own time as a mother (played in flashback by Betty Buckley) to her two daughters, now both in their early twenties and having little to do with their mother. One day, Leda picks up Elena’s forgotten doll from the beach with the intention of returning her to the child, and then she simply does not do this. Leda grows closer to Nina, disapproving of her arrogant husband, her boorish relatives, and some of her risky personal choices, and we’re left to question whether she’s relating to this young, besieged mother or judging her from afar.
This is one of those character study films that will ebb and flow on the level of the performers, and the actors elevate the material beyond what is present on the page. There are several intriguing conversations that shed light on characters and their view of parenthood, like Leda explaining how she feels that she gave the best of herself to her daughters when they were born, and now what she’s left with are the scraps. It’s not breaking new ground to view motherhood in non-glamorous terms. I thought 2018’s Tully did this with great observational detail, unsparing honesty, and great empathy. The Lost Daughter is not exactly Tully, which explored the hardships of motherhood with a put-upon woman who was valiantly struggling to keep her head above water, but it was a woman who wanted to be in the fight. With this movie, you never quite get a clear sense of Leda’s relationship with her two children, who are mostly kept to flashbacks when they are very young. Writer/director Maggie Gyllenhaal (yes, that Maggie Gyllenhaal) employs a non-linear plot to better inform the interior thinking of Leda, so we’ll have past and present juxtaposed for our ongoing evaluation. This is a smart way to follow the imprecise nature of hazy memory. There will be moments that will cause you discomfort, like when one of Leda’s young children is pleading through tears for her mother to kiss her wounded finger, and Leda withholds doing this as a power play, as an act of spite, as a knowing punishment for her wailing child. It’s also potentially relatable for others out there who too have, at the apex of their frustrations and exhaustion, lashed out at children and regretted it later, acknowledging that every parent will fail at some point over the long journey of time and to only attempt to minimize the inherent damage that will be left.
The Lost Daughter becomes an exercise in how long you want to spend with a pleasantly unpleasant woman. Leda is complicated, yes, but she’s also admittedly cruel and selfish, and the movie is trying to make her a case study, to shed our moral judgements and acknowledge that parenthood can be a draining experience. I understand the intention for embarking on empathy for unsympathetic characters; hundreds of movies have invited us into the minds of unlikable and downright psychopathic characters. I’ve always said that I need not like a character, I only need to find them interesting to keep me watching. Leda is an interesting woman because of where she veers from common practice. Most of us would return a missing doll to her rightful owner, especially as that child is grief-stricken and her wave of terror is affecting everyone in her family. Most of us would recognize others suffering and our ability to ease this, to absolve that suffering in an instant, and we would do so. Then the question becomes why isn’t Leda returning this doll to this child? The movie is an elusive attempt to answer, and each person’s interpretation will undoubtedly be different. I don’t know if this doll, perhaps the “lost daughter” of the film’s title, is Leda attempting to hold onto her own daughters, reclaim a version of motherhood that suits her, that doesn’t require of her. Or maybe she views the doll with derision. Whatever the case may be, have at it, dear reader, and enjoy not getting this question resolved.
I completely understand viewers growing frustrated with watching two hours of a middle-aged woman holding onto a child’s doll and refusing to return it. It’s spiteful, and maybe that’s the point. Maybe Leda wants to impart the same lessons of hardship she endured as a struggling mother at her wits end. Maybe it’s her way of trying to shake Nina to re-examine whether being a mother is a role she is cut out for. Maybe it’s simply the continuation of a sadistic rationalization, “I had to suffer through this, so then you should have to suffer too” that props up whenever sociopolitical reforms and progress are met with generational push-back. By the end of the movie, I don’t know if Leda has seriously changed her outlook or sense of self. I don’t know if anything has really changed, and I don’t know if we’ve gotten to understanding her any better. Again, maybe that’s the point; people are complicated and possibly unknowable. But as a filmmaker showing us a character’s interior life and flashbacks, maybe you should try.
There is a late revelation in the movie that is going to be a deal-breaker for many. I won’t spoil it, though I will say that this reveal is covered in the first chapter of the novella, providing you this key piece of info as a prism for your early assessment. It explains why Leda has a strained relationship with her adult daughters and why thinking back about her perceived parenting failures causes her shivers of grief and guilt. At the same time, there are plenty of feminist stories about women shirking societal demands, so others could perceivablly view this revelation as an act of empowerment or self-determination, and others may just find it as the final straw in giving up in trying to sympathize with an already difficult person.
Fortunately, if you’re going to build a movie around a challenging character, Colman (The Father) and Buckley (I’m Thinking of Ending Things) are two of the most compelling actors for the cause. Much of their performances is naturally guarded, requiring each actress to hold back and utilize more subtle acting muscles. Colman’s middle-aged Leda is more set in her perception of self, more settled though not quite self-assured, so her performance seems more like cracking through a veneer and pushing back, trying to find the real Leda’s feelings about her life and the people she is socializing with. Colman is mesmerizing as always. Buckley’s young Leda is the version that is fraught with being an attentive mother as well as a burgeoning literary academic. Hers is the role of frustration, of shutting down, of desiring an escape hatch from the perils of motherhood. When young Leda is away on an academic retreat, she’s like a completely different person, and Buckley makes it clear that she covets this version of herself. Both women are gifted actresses and provide lifelines for the viewer to better analyze and unpack Leda as a puzzle.
Gyllenhaal makes an impressively natural debut as a director. Her camera is usually very closely tied to her actors, bobbing to catch up and keep them in frame, afraid of leaving their sights. Her attention to detail is solid and her command of the actors is strong across the board. Her adaptation makes smart choices to better visualize the drama. After I read the novella, I genuinely wondered how the movie could even convey the material. It was so insular, so personal, and again, much of the onscreen drama was a woman hiding a doll from a child. I was worried the movie might become a ridiculous thriller of waiting for Leda to be caught, how she had to go to greater lengths to keep her secret, and thankfully that is not the case.
I can easily foresee The Last Daughter becoming a polarizing movie upon its Netflix streaming release at the end of the month. Some will hail it for being challenging and thorny, an indictment on the expectations of motherhood from a society that sets ambitious women up to fail. Some, and I predict the majority of viewers, will find the movie to be an insufferable character study of a misanthropic protagonist. I know the movie wasn’t trying to make an audience like its lead character, but I don’t know if by the end we are better at understanding her and her choices. It leads to a sort of, “That’s all there is?” ending that will frustrate many. The acting is strong to excellent overall and Gyllenhaal has a bright future ahead as a director, but The Lost Daughter might be too lost for too many to care. Just give the kid back her doll already, lady!
Nate’s Grade: B-
A sweet and heartfelt true story to friendship that also doesn’t sugarcoat the hardships of illness and the elongating circle of grief. Our Friend is based on the life of journalist Matthew Teague (Casey Affleck) whose life is thrown into turmoil after his wife, Nicole (Dakota Johnson), is diagnosed with terminal cancer. They rely upon their devoted friend, Dane (Jason Segel), for help during the months and years after the diagnosis. The movie jumps around in time, for minimal effect, but does a fine job of laying out the three central characters and their core relationship of love and compassion. Dane is scoffed at by Matt’s friends as a loser who hasn’t gotten his life together, and Dane even contemplates some drastic personal decisions, but he finds a purpose and definition with his servitude, even as it impacts his own outside relationships. I was expecting more attention to the titular “friend” of the title, and it is a slight detriment, but the dramatic core of this movie is solid. The topic of terminal illness can easily veer into soapy, maudlin territory, but the movie is on firm grounding early during a scene where Matt and Nicole discuss how to tell their two young girls that mommy isn’t getting better. Her angry outbursts later and final moments are also unvarnished yet still in character. The acting is quite good overall and there are plenty of one-scene players that leave a favorable and empathetic impression, like Gwendoline Christie and Cherry Jones. The non-linear jumps feel like an attempt to create more meaning than a simple story about friendship will afford and an invitation to sift out connections and parallels. It’s a movie that doesn’t necessarily break away from your expectations as a cancer weepie. You know what you’re headed for. Our Friend is an enjoyable and heartfelt drama with better-than-average performances and overly disjointed editing. If you’re in for a decent tearjerker, give it a try.
Nate’s Grade: B
It’s a beguiling little buddy movie about a wrestling fan with Down syndrome (Zack Gottsagen) escaping his care facility, joining forces with a runaway screw-up (Shia LaBeouf) in over his head, and the nursing home assistant (Dakota Fanning) looking to find her charge so they can all sail down the river and meet an old wrestling coach (Thomas Haden Church) who may or may not exist. It’s an episodic journey that hearkens to Mark Twain and 90s indie cinema with its unorthodox family dynamics. The real pleasure of the movie is watching LaBeouf and newcomer Gottsagen bond, whether it be building a raft, channeling larger-than-life wrestling personas, running away from a vengeful criminal (John Hawkes), getting baptized by a blind man, and simply finding time to become friends. It’s one of those “journey, not the destination” films because by the end The Peanut Butter Falcon is nice but rather unremarkable. It’s amusing and sweet but the advertising was filled with heightened exclamations such as, “The sweetest damn film of the decade.” As I sat in my theater, I was wondering if there was something wrong with my ticker; it wasn’t exactly feeling too full from the onscreen proceedings. It felt like there were core elements here that could have been further built upon, further developed, to turn The Peanut Butter Falcon from a relatively good movie into a great one. It’s well acted and the photography of the South can be gorgeous. LaBeouf (American Honey) is genuinely terrific and carries the movie on his back as a beleaguered soul still wounded from personal tragedy. The way he becomes the biggest supporter and advocate for his new friend is heartening without feeling overly trite or saccharine. However, by the end, I didn’t feel too uplifted or moved by the accumulative adventures. I enjoyed myself, but much like a Twain story, it’s more the teller than the tale, and by its winding conclusion I felt like there was too much left behind unexplored.
Nate’s Grade: B-
The idea of remaking Dario Argento’s horror classic Suspiria seems like movie heresy. How could any filmmaker attempt to come close to the Italian master’s original? Though that has not stopped Hollywood from remaking other horror classics of yore. Italian director Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name, A Bigger Splash) tempts the unwise with a new version of Suspiria, this time following the exploits of Susie (Dakota Johnson) in Cold War Germany as she is seduced by a private dance company lead by Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) that’s really a front for the occult. The new Suspiria is a worthy, splashy artistic endeavor but it suffers from too much airy meandering in the name of redundant atmosphere, vague and arbitrary plotting, and poor characters.
We’re told up front this is a story in six acts and a resolution but frankly the first two acts could have been completely eliminated. Their bearing on the overall story is minimal, but then I could say the same thing about much of the characters. Chloe Grace Moritz’s role could have been entirely cut. The majority of the story is strange things happening very slowly in the background of a dance school. The characters that do investigate aren’t our protagonists, which then traps us with people who know too much and won’t share, people who don’t know anything, and people who don’t want to know anything. It gets frustrating spending that much time with them, especially when the end destination (coven conspiracy sacrifice) is obvious even if you haven’t watched the 1977 original. I was told that Guadagnino edited an hour out of the final movie. How? What in the world was left out? It feels like everything they could have shot found its way into the finished film, whether it needed to be there or not. There’s an ongoing subplot about the Red Army Faction (a.k.a. Baader-Meinhof Gang) that we keep returning to as if there’s supposed to be larger relevancy. It’s a left-wing conspiracy that translated post-war anger into violence against the government. If I work really hard I can make a larger thematic connection to witches and women, but I won’t. With Suspiria 2018, it’s really just historical atmosphere that adds little but yet is returned to again and again. There is even a post-credit scene of a character doing something unclear while looking toward the camera. Why include any of that? It’s arbitrary and superfluous to the very end.
The new Suspiria toggles through three tepid lead characters: 1) Johnson’s new dance recruit, 2) Swinton’s artistic director at the school, and 3) Swinton in old-age makeup as a grieving psychiatrist trying to make sense of his life (yes, “his,” as she plays a man). Two of these characters matter in strict plot terms and only one of them are granted some degree of characterization. Susie is essentially an empty vessel who is extremely passive, going along with whatever she’s told (there is a reason for this but it falls under the category of contrived dues ex machina). There are hints of the connection she has to some occult force at play, but we don’t really see any transformation on her part because she’s so opaque to start with. Madame Blanc is the most interesting character, somewhat by default, but she only becomes that in the last third of the film when her personal feelings for Susie make her doubt how far she’s willing to go to achieve the coven’s goal. It’s the only character with a direct internal conflict that seems to matter to the story. The old man has no reason to be in this movie. By the end, it feels like the film has found a significant story reason for his inclusion, one that will actually produce some thematic relevance for Swinton also playing this role, but nope. He serves no purpose other than exposition and to hammer home a tangential historical context of generational guilt. There is a nice character moment between two characters in the resolution but by then it’s too little too late. Even this nice moment doesn’t really need to happen. I think the reason the film toggles between these three characters is even it knows you will get bored with them.
When the horror hits, that’s when Suspiria is at its most rattling. Watching a woman’s body betray her, one excruciating limb convulsion after another, culminating in her own jaw seeming to rotate out of her head, is wince-inducing and terrifying. The sudden jolts of violence made me gasp and squirm every time. This culminates in a third act that is heavy on blood and lunacy, so much so that it feels like the finale to another movie. If the proceeding two hours was understated, atmospheric horror, the last thirty minutes feels like the splatterific Sam Raimi Evil Dead 2. There’s an explicit campiness that feels at odds with the self-serious meanderings of earlier. There are also moments that cannot be described as any other word than “goofy.” There’s an ongoing shot of characters being dispatched in a very exaggerated and theatrical manner, and the fact that we watch thirty of these in a row just invites some degree of laughter. I know I laughed. The final act and confrontation is my favorite part of the film, delivering some long-sought vengeance, but it feels like a different movie. It’s also where Guadagnino’s “put the camera anywhere” stylistic approach betrays him. It’s hard to tell what exactly is happening on a literal level, let alone understanding it, and that’s not even taking into account the muffled sound design of several characters when they hoarsely whisper aloud whatever.
I would be more forgiving if the new Suspiria had not been as exasperatingly long, a full hour longer than the 1977 original. Long movies only feel long when they haven’t fully engaged you, and there are generally only so many ways to keep an audience’s sustained attention and investment. I understand wanting to allow a movie to breathe or wanting to create an uncertain atmosphere of intoxicating dread, but there has to be more than that. There’s also what I’ll affectionately coin the Nicolas Refn Trap, meaning where all of that breathing space ultimately exposes a lot of empty indulgences and vamping. Suspiria 2018 falls into this trap too often; there simply isn’t enough of anything to spread over those 150 minutes. The odd comparison I would make is to the notorious 1980 Western disaster, Heaven’s Gate, a movie I watched for the first time two years ago and actually appreciated. Let me be more specific: I appreciated the 100-minute very good movie somewhere inside there suffocated by the artistic excesses and peculiar and mercurial artistic demands from its uncompromising director (the man refused to shoot anything for ten hours until he got a cloud positioned exactly where he wanted). I’m convinced there’s a potentially great movie in Suspiria but it’s going to require a lot of excavation to allow it to see the outside.
I was interested in re-watching Argento’s 1977 original for the first time in years, and some things have aged better and some things have aged worse. Argento is a first-class visual stylist and his famous use of color makes the cinematography often beautifully horrific as young women are terrorized. There is even less plot than I remembered, a series of surreal murders finally leading to the obvious reveal of the dance company being a coven of witches. The characterization is even thinner than the thin 2018 film, which means that Guadagnino and company had a lot of room to roam when it came to their grandly grotesque remake. Argento’s film is a remarkable example of the immersive power of the screen, with his gorgeous use of light and color, production design, and a pulsating score that is perhaps a bit too omnipresent and anxious. There is one reoccurring musical sting that sounded precisely like the beginning of “Footloose” and it made me laugh every time, imagining Kevin Bacon dancing through the hallways. It’s a testament to the transcendent power of style when done by a first-rate stylist, and it works so far as to create a nightmarish, oppressive atmosphere. However, that eerie atmosphere and technical craft are about all the original Suspiria has to offer since there is a gnawing scarcity when it comes to characters, structure, and story. That makes the 2018 Suspiria a little more confounding. While it clearly works as an homage to Argento it’s also radically different, and yet it still manages to also have underwritten characters and bad storytelling choices even when it could have ditched the original’s original sins. At least Argento’s version is only 90 minutes and a lot easier to watch in one sitting.
The Suspiria remake was clearly a labor of love and not a soulless paycheck for all those involved. The technical craft is accomplished, and even though it lacks the vibrant colors of Argento’s original the cinematography is still highly evocative and unsettling. Guadagnino has put a concerted effort into making his movie operatic, lavish, and radically different from the source material. I think it’s different yet reverent enough that fans of the original will find something to enjoy as the film asserts its own identity. And yet the moody atmosphere is undercut by the shortcomings of the characters and the contrived nature of the overly padded and meandering plot. The more I think back on the movie the more it falls apart under further scrutiny. Suspiria is a tonally confused movie that doesn’t have enough substantial material to fill out its gargantuan 150-minute running time. There will be blood but what there needed to be was a more judicious editor.
Nate’s Grade: C
It is no disservice when I say that Bad Times at the El Royale joins the ranks of the finest of Tarantino imitators. It’s packed with twists and turns that keep an audience glued to the screen and continually re-evaluating the characters that we thought we knew. Because of that dynamic the movie invites the audience into becoming more involved, dissecting the information available and waiting for the next clue or plot revelation. It turns watching the film into a game and makes the experience that much more active and thrilling.
In the summer of 1969, the El Royale hotel is in for one hell of a night. The old fashioned hotel sits on the border between Nevada and California, allowing its dwindling customer base the opportunity to choose which state they would like to stay in. A group of strangers cozy up for the night including a priest (Jeff Bridges), a chatty vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm), a hopeful lounge singer (Cynthia Erivo), a skittish bellhop (Lewis Pullman), and a mysterious woman (Dakota Johnson) who happens to have a hostage in her trunk. As the night progresses and the characters uncover one another’s secrets, sometimes with deadly results, menacing cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) comes swaggering to the El Royale to reclaim by force what he feels is rightfully his.
There are Act One twists and reveals in El Royale that would have been the Act Threes of other movies. Writer/director Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods, The Martian) has packed his movie full of sinister intrigue as he establishes the hotel, the main characters, and an immediate impression of each in the first 15 minutes. From there, the movie is divided into chapter titles (another Tarantino motif) where we follow different room inhabitants who get 20-minute-vignette spotlights. Once in private, the characters shed their false faces and begin to reveal who they really are, or who we think they might really be, and the movie starts to resemble Tarantino’s own hidden identity parlor game, 2015’s Hateful Eight. The vignettes begin to overlap, ending on cliffhangers and then circling back with a new character as our focal point, re-watching prior scenes but from a different perspective. Goddard’s script is wonderfully clever, layering in questions and answers and a constant desire to upend audience expectations. Even though some segments will repeat, Goddard doesn’t waste time on redundancy. A character will be seen prying loose floorboards searching for something desirable, and we never have to relive the before or after of this moment from that character’s perspective because we’ve been imparted the necessary info and can put the pieces together with the next jump. I appreciated Goddard’s faith in the intelligence of his audience. The pleasure of El Royale is watching it deftly unfold as a fun, funny, startling, appealing mystery.
The characters must also be worthy of our attention, and Goddard does fine work teasing out his colorful cast of criminals and lost souls and deepening most. Everyone has something to hide at the El Royale, and finding out his or her true intentions and motivations is part of the film’s fun. I won’t spoil any of the big surprises or which characters are really putting on a show. Despite all the many plot machinations intertwined, Goddard still finds time for his film to breathe and let the characters talk, opening themselves to one another, sometimes with the assistance of dramatic irony. Jeff Bridges and Cynthia Erivo play the best characters and deliver the best performances. Both of them are haunted by pasts they don’t feel like sharing, both are under some element of disguise to embark on finding their happy ending, and both form a sort of bond throughout the film as kindred spirits, even if they can’t fully trust one another. Bridges has the most complicated back-story but it actually links with a very real and emotional condition: memory loss. His character is (legitimately) going through early dementia and he’s losing full control of his sense of self, occasionally blanking and forgetting who he even is and how he got where he did. For a character pretending to be someone else, there’s a cruel irony to this malady. The seven main characters aren’t all on the same level (some are more plot devices than people) but Goddard knows this, making sure his 142-minute movie spends the most time with the best of them.
The actors given the best characters are also the ones that deliver the best performances, if you can imagine that. Bridges (Hell or High Water) brings a strong sense of pathos to his memory-addled priest trying to assess his life and his choices. He seems genuine in every moment, which is a feat considering his character has his share of secrets like anyone else. Erivo is a Broadway star making her film debut here, and she steals the show with her bruised sense of optimism. She’s the heart of the movie and a proven survivor, especially from a rigged system that protects predatory men. She brings a quiet power to her character as well as a believable vulnerability that makes you care. Hemsworth (Avengers: Infinity War) is all shaggy, scraggly charm as a cult leader who gets off pitting his followers, and captives, against one another. Really he likes to listen to himself speak, and Hemsworth is having a grand ole time with the part. Another actor exhibiting clear joy is Hamm (Baby Driver) who is, if you’ll pardon the pun, hamming it up with great gusto. He does a far majority of the talking for the first twenty minutes. He’s practically bouncing all over the place as an unchecked extrovert, but when alone, Hamm demonstrates an additional layer to his outlandish character. Another strong impression is from Pullman (Strangers: Prey at Night) as the lone employee eager to find absolution for his part in the El Royale’s history of sin as well as his own personal demons. The weakest of the ensemble ends up being Johnson (Fifty Shades Freed) who gets lost in her femme fatale archetype and can’t seem to find her way out again.
This is only Goddard’s second directing feature and his best directing aspect is that he knows when to linger on the written page. There are several segments that dwell in a certain emotion, elevated by Goddard’s tracking shots to continue the predicated unease. There’s one early moment where the bowels of the El Royale are revealed as hidden viewing areas to secretly record the guests doing their seemingly private illicit good times. The lead character of this vignette walks along the corridor, studying other characters and slowly realizing the implications of what he or she is finding. The scene is given a beautiful and eerie soundtrack thanks to Darlene practicing her singing, belting out “This Old Heart of Mine” like her life depended upon it, the tune taking on a sinister edge as it echoes through the dark hallway along with the tick-tock of the metronome. There’s another terrific singing suspense segment in this very same location, except with a different character spying on Darlene as she and another character work in conjunction to coordinate their movements, timing striking sounds in the room to her claps. Goddard has an adequate eye for visuals but he benefits from the gorgeously conceived and constructed El Royale setting, allowing the quirks of the rundown hotel to serve as another character to his ensemble. I enjoyed little touches, like only the Nevada side having a liquor license and the bright red line that runs down the middle of everything.
And yet there are some lingering doubts that halt me from a full-throated endorsement of El Royale, and I’ve been trying to articulate them better in the days since I watched the film. It frankly doesn’t fully come together by the end in a way that feels suitably climactic. Once Billy Lee enters the third act, the movie stabilizes and we spend time with the remaining characters assembled together to be terrorized by the cult leader. After seeing everyone else’s story in smaller vignettes with some slippery non-linear perspectives, we’ve finally come to our big confrontation and summit with everyone. Except it doesn’t feel as big as the movies needs it to be. Characters will be dispatched swiftly, and instead of it feeling shocking it feels abrupt and contrived, devaluing the character arcs that had been shuffling forward to that point. The deaths feel too ho-hum, and the final confrontation and melee too chaotic and random. The sacrifices feel wasted and sloppy rather than the payoff from some long established setup. It’s here where Goddard cannot hide his narrative trickery anymore and the machinations are exposed. I couldn’t help but feel that the final act was slowly losing the momentum and excitement that had been built carefully over the course of two hours. Billy Lee isn’t quite the force that his whispered presence has been made out to be, no fault to Hemsworth, who impresses me more and more with every new performance. It’s like by the end of his movie Goddard has realized that certain characters were inevitably just more interesting than others and he saves room for them to get a climax and brushes off the rest. Thematically I don’t quite know if it comes together with any sort of final statement about the 1960s, the dichotomy of good and evil, or anything else. It’s a final act that left me a little disappointed and realizing the end wasn’t nearly as fun as the journey.
Bad Times at the El Royale is a movie jam-packed with twists, plot turns, and colorful characters played by great actors who are clearly enjoying themselves, given the room to roam and stretch their muscles as exaggerated and dangerous criminal cohorts. Goddard’s film is impeccably structured up until its final act where it feels like the answers and confrontations cannot match the mysteries and setup that had been laid before. If you’re a fan of the top level of Tarantino imitators, like Things to Do In Denver When You’re Dead or Lucky Number Slevin, or enjoy unpacking a good mystery, then check into the El Royale, a hotel where maybe the cockroaches have the best chance at survival.
Nate’s Grade: B+
I think Fifty Shades Freed as a title works well not just for the audience but also the actors, as everyone is celebrating putting one of Hollywood’s least engaging film franchises well behind them. E. L. James’ best-selling erotic novels have made for pretty lifeless big screen entries. Director James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross) is free from having to bring this silly thing to straight-laced life. The actors are free at last from the mechanical sex scenes that populate these films, free at last from their terrible chemistry with which they cannot conceal, free at last from having to say stilted dialogue for stilted characters, and free at last from the six hours of boredom and overstated kink. This is a franchise that wants to go out in a toe-curling climax but goes out with a whimper. If you’re like me you’ll scratch your head and wonder, “Was that it?”
Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) are now Mr. and Mrs. Grey. While honeymooning in France, Christian still can’t help his domineering ways and instructs Ana not to sunbathe topless. She finds ways to assert her independence and defiance. Meanwhile, the happy couple is challenged by two foes: a vengeful Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson) and the prospect of children.
It’s hard to say which in this trilogy is the worst film but I still venture that the second, Fifty Shades Darker, is the winner in that regard. It’s hilariously bad and incompetent, whereas Fifty Shades Freed is slightly better simply because there’s less of everything, which also includes less of a reason to exist. If you thought the previous film was struggling to stretch enough story to fill a feature-length runtime, then just wait until you watch the new movie where we have such scintillating plotlines like whether Christian’s brother might be cheating on his girlfriend or Christian being mad because Ana hasn’t changed her work email to her new married name. That last item also serves as another blaring waning sign about the scary control freak that is this franchise’s supposed brooding, Byronic hero, but we’ll get more into that later. The characters introduced in the last film don’t really matter. There just isn’t a credible story here, which may be why this is the first Fifty Shades to clock in short of two hours (and it has a montage that cycles through highlights of the trilogy). The problem is that the last film mostly completed the journey of Christian Grey from bad boyfriend material to slightly less bad marriage material, as he got down on one knee and proposed to Ana. He learned to settle down, open up about his past behavior, and start the process of compromise. With Fifty Shades Freed, we start off with them getting married and their frolicking honeymoon, and the movie seems to exist in that post-“happily ever after” phase of romances that we rarely see because nobody wants to know what happens after the couple gets their Big Closing Kiss. Does anybody want to check in with Cinderella and Prince Charming arguing over who has to do the dishes (trick question: it’s the servants)?
Conflicts are once again introduced and hastily taken care of, much like the laugh-out-loud helicopter crash from that last film that was resolved in the very next scene. They’ve carried over a lackluster villain from the second film, Ana’s unfortunately named old boss Jack Hyde who tried to sexually assault her. This man worked as a fiction editor in the world of publishing and now suddenly he’s an expert on kidnapping, breaking and entering, and stalking. It’s a ridiculous threat meant to provide some level of dread and danger, except he’s easily dispatched by the end of Act One. There’s a hilarious courtroom scene where his lawyer is trying to argue that Jack was simply trying to work things out after exhausting all his communication resources. Ignore the fact he held a knife to Ana’s throat. He goes away for the second act only to, surprise, come back in another stupidly preposterous way to re-establish his menacing threat… only to once again be easily dispatched in an anticlimactic manner. This guy sucks. The screenplay tries to hastily add some duality to Jack, saying he despises Christian Grey for denying him the life he deserved. Apparently (spoiler alert but do you actually care anymore?) Jack and Christian were in the same Detroit foster care system together and I guess Jack assumes without Christian he would have been adopted by wealthy elites instead? Jack seemed to make a name for himself even without that cushy starting point. Mostly this is another Fifty Shades movie that feels like it has time to fill and time to kill.
That’s where you’d expect the steamy sex scenes to provide a jolt. Isn’t the whole purpose of this franchise watching pretty people get naked and do sexy things? For all its whips and chains and BDSM banter, the Fifty Shades sex has been tepidly tame. As I wrote previously of this franchise: “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 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.”
The lusty thrills are of the soft-core porn variety with close-ups of erect nipples and heavy breathing. The sex scenes in the second film were most strange because they all followed a routine that was cut short once actually sex began, cruelly teasing the target audience. By my count, there are three actual sex scenes in Fifty Shades Freed and two or so aborted efforts. The strongest sex scene is the one that feels inspired from 9 1/2 Weeks, where Ana takes control and dabbles melted dollops of ice cream over Christian’s shirtless torso only to lovingly lap up every morsel. It’s the only scene that feels like it has some spontaneity and sexiness. Maybe it’s because it breaks free from their Red Room routines or maybe it’s because it has Ana in charge, or maybe it’s just residual good will from memories of 9 ½ Weeks (side note: I re-watched it a year ago as “research” for a short script, and it is not as sexy as you’ve been told. There’s an extended sex scene on the scuzziest and grimiest fire escape stairs in the rain). Another disappointment for its intended audience must be the lack of full-frontal male nudity, something each film has curiously shied away from. There is plenty of Jamie Dornan’s pubic hair, which I guess was dangled as a concession to the fans. If you came to watch erotic sex scenes you’d be better off getting off from late night cable.
With bad sex, bad storytelling, and bad pacing, what we’re left with is the closing realization that these two people really shouldn’t be together. Much of the second half of this movie revolves around a core difference over their views on children: Ana wants them and Christian is less than enthusiastic. This is a conversation that should have taken place before they got hitched. It’s another example of Christian not wanting to share Ana with anyone (he literally says this in response to being a potential father). You can bring the man to sing a dopey love song on the piano but you still can’t remove all the scary, controlling elements of his character. I think ultimately Christian’s love of bondage is because he is portrayed as being damaged, abused, and this informs his sexuality. While that may be the case for various people, transforming moments of trauma into uncontrollable and subconscious desires or titillation, it presents a pretty distorted picture of the consenting adults who frequently enjoy participating in BDSM. These people are simply not that interesting. Anastasia Steele (and it pains me every time to type that out) is a mousy audience surrogate meant to be whisked away into a hidden world of luxury, where the hunky man is obsessed with having her, and only the power of her love can make him whole again. That doesn’t exactly sound like the makings of a healthy relationship, and the fact that it’s spun into being a smutty fairy tale is even more disconcerting. The Twilight fan fiction origins become clearer with every film.
Struggling to justify its whole existence for 105 lugubrious minutes, Fifty Shades Freed is the flaccid finale to a boring and underwhelming trilogy. I have no problems with movies whose sole purpose is to turn on their audience. Erotic movies certainly have their place in the landscape. They can even be specifically designed for very specific audiences that do not include me, and the Fifty Shades series is definitely not my kind of smut. I’m not the target audience but I’m open to interesting stories and visceral sexuality. With how redundant and tedious the film franchise is, I think I’ll recycle yet again an observation I wrote of the original film: “Surprisingly boring and rather tepid, Fifty 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.” Skip the Red Room, these insipid characters, and the high-camp tawdry attempts at sensuality. The final Fifty Shades is a fitting end for a franchise that could never get its mojo going.
Nate’s Grade: C-
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-
For decades, James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) was the most feared man in Boston. After being released from Alcatraz, he returned home to his Massachusetts roots and consolidated power with an iorn grip. He and his cronies ruled Boston’s criminal underworld and were given protection from none other than the FBI. Thanks to agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), a childhood pal of Bulger’s, his crimes were given an implicit blessing (as long as he didn’t go too far) as he served as an FBI informant. In reality he was just ratting out his competition and abusing his power. This charade lasted for decades until Bulger went on the run, not being caught until 2011.
Black Mass really suffers from its two core characters, Bulger and Connolly, who are just not that interesting, which is a great surprise for a true-story about corruption and murder. Crime drama have an allure to them and this is accentuated by their colorful and usually larger-than-life figures that we watch commit all those terrible yet cinematic acts of vicious violence. Being the inspiration for Jack Nicholson’s crime lord in The Departed, you’d assume that the real-life Bulger would have a menace and personality that fills up the big screen, leaving you asking for more. Shockingly, he doesn’t. He’s a mean guy and he has his moments of severe intimidation, but he’s also practically a 1990s action movie villain with a sneer and one-dimensional sense of posturing. He doesn’t come across as a character but more as a boogeyman. We see him help some old ladies in the neighborhood, but you never get a sense he has any care or loyalty for his old stomping grounds, especially as he pumps drugs into the impoverished community. We don’t get any sense about how his mind works or what motivates Bulger beyond unchecked greed. We don’t get a sense of any discernable personality. We don’t have any scene that feels tailored toward the character (even though I assume many are based on true events); instead, Bulger feels unmoored and generally unimportant to Black Mass because he could be replaced by any standard movie tough guy. How in the world has a movie about notorious criminal Whitey Bulger found a way to make him this boring?
Then there are the underdeveloped supporting characters of Connolly and Bulger’s brother, Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch). The guy responsible for Bulger’s misdeeds getting the green light should be a far more important person in this story but he’s mostly portrayed as a stooge. He wants to look out for Bulger but despite one “you’ve changed” speech from his beleaguered wife, you don’t truly get any sense that Connolly has changed. You don’t get a sense of his moral dilemma or even his desperation as new leadership in the FBI starts to see through his poor obfuscations. He’s a stooge from the beginning and we feel nothing when his self-serving alliance comes to an unceremonious end. There is even less when it comes to Billy, a character that seems to pretend his brother is a different person. Billy works as a state senator. His political position must have supplied more inherent drama than what they movie affords. Black Mass is doomed when its three central characters are this dull.
Another problem is that the movie makes Bulger too protected for too long to the point it becomes comical. The script follows a routine where an associate of Bulger’s knows too much or is going to confess to the police, and within usually the next scene that character is easily dispatched, sometimes in broad daylight and with scores of witnesses. There are several recognizable actors who must have filmed for a weekend. I understand Connolly was protecting his meal ticket here with the Bureau, but Bulger is so brazen that we as an audience need more justification for how Connolly could cover for so long. It feels like Bulger has free reign and that extends into the screenplay as well. Without a stronger sense of opposition, or at least watching Bulger rise through the mob ranks, we’re left with a collection of scenes of the status quo being repeatedly reconfirmed.
I’ve figured out the way to revise Black Mass and make it far more entertaining. As stated above, Bulger is just too much a one-note boogeyman to deserve the screen time he’s given, and his onscreen dominance hampers what should be the movie’s true focus, Agent Connolly. Here is where the movie’s focal point should be because this is the transformation of a person. Bulger is the same from start to finish, only shifting in degrees of power, but it’s Connolly who goes on the moral descent. His is the more interesting journey, as he tries to use his childhood connections to get ahead in the FBI, but he consistently has to make compromise after compromise, and after awhile he’s gone too deep. Now he has to worry about being caught or being too expendable to Bulger. This character arc, given its proper due, would make for a terrific thriller that’s also churning with an intense moral ambiguity of a man trying to justify the choices he has made to stay ahead. It’s a more tragic hero sort of focus but one that has far more potential to illuminate the inner anxiety and psychological torment of the human heart rather than constantly going back to Buger to watch him whack another person. It’s far more interesting to watch a man sink into the mire he has knowingly constructed, and that’s why the narrative needed to shift its focus to Connolly to really succeed.
Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean) takes a few steps back from his more eccentric oddballs to portray the unnerving ferocity of Bulger, and he’s quite good at playing a human being again, though Bulger strains the definition of human. He underplays several scenes and his eyes burrow into you with such animosity that it might make you shudder. He’s a thoroughly convincing cold-blooded killer, though I wonder if part of my praise is grading Depp on a curve since Bulger is so unlike his recent parts. Regardless, Depp is the most enjoyable aspect of Black Mass and a reconfirmation that he can be a peerless actor when he sinks his teeth into a role rather than a series of tics. He also handles the Boston accent far better than his peers. Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) and Edgerton (The Gift) are more than capable actors but oh boy do both flounder with their speaking voices. They are greatly miscast as two native Massachusetts sons.
If you’re a fan of crime thrillers steeped in true-life details of heinous men (it’s typically men) committing heinous acts, even you will likely be underwhelmed or marginally disappointed by Black Mass. There just isn’t enough going on here besides a series of bad events that don’t feel like they properly escalate, complicate, or alter our characters until the film’s very end when the plot requires it. The screenplay has propped up Bulger by his rep, told Depp to crank up his considerable glower, and called it a day. It’s a Boston mob story that needed more intensive attention to its characters to survive. Black Mass is a crime story that dissolves into its stock period details and genre trappings, becoming a good-looking but ultimately meaningless window into a hidden world.
Nate’s Grade: C+