Thursday, 23 February 2017

Movie Review: Fifty Shades Darker (2017)



Well, the heavily-publicized holiday(?) of Valentine’s Day has come and gone, and hopefully you spent it better than I did. Back in 2015, I forewent the usual nothing I was planning on doing for this special day, put on my best suit and tie (that is to say my only suit) and went out to see Fifty Shades Of Grey on the big screen. I didn’t like it; here’s over 2000 words explaining why. Last year, things turned out a lot better with the release of Deadpool, and even considering my own misgivings with the film overall, it was still a fun night out. This year, it’s back to what I guess can be called business as usual with the follow-up to that film I am so utterly apathetic towards. So, I dusted off the same suit and (somehow) got someone else to tag along with me this time around, and sat down to prepare myself for what will be coming my way next year with the finale. Time to dig into this bewildering follow-up and see how exactly this managed to be even worse than the original. This is Fifty Shades Darker.

The plot: After their rough break-up at the end of the last film, it seems that Anastasia (Dakota Johnson) and Christian (Jamie Dornan) are back together. What’s more, considering the circumstances behind their break-up, Christian is willing to acquiesce and allow for a more equal relationship between them. However, ghosts from Christian’s past in the form of his former lovers Elena (Kim Basinger) and Leila (Bella Heathcote) may make that prospect difficult, especially with Anastasia wondering how long Christian can control his urges for.

In the two-year gap between films, it seems that Johnson and Dornan have managed to work through their utter animosity towards each other in real life. I say this because, contrary to last time, the two actually seem to have some semblance of chemistry between them. Admittedly, it’s not much and Christian’s control issues still make the romance tough to vibe with, but at least we have some now. While the rest of the cast is just kind of there, not really making that lasting an impression (not that they are given a chance to, but we’ll get to that in due time), the actors playing our “antagonists” are probably the most consistent here. Basinger does alright at bringing some tension to the proceedings, Heathcote barely gets any lines and just exists as basically a walking jump scare and Eric Johnson as Ana’s rapey boss is about as stock as a love rival can get.

Just like last time, I actually sat down and read the book in prep for this movie… and I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but I’m glad I did for two main reasons. For one, it clarified a few things about the soundtrack of the first film, as some of the best songs from there are actually written into the sequel. Using up all of their best material would certainly go to explain how much weaker the soundtrack here is; don’t get me wrong, it’s still fine as a collection of contemporary slow jams, but the Elfman magic is somewhat lessened this time around. The other reason is that prior research helps make the following statement easier to make: The plot progression here is some of the worst I’ve seen in any romantic film. It’s truncated to the point where all of the key plot points are kept intact (more or less), but any sense of build-up and/or tension behind them is completely absent. It really says something when the book picks up a mere five days after the events of the first, and yet this is still worse in terms of romantic tension.

But who cares about the story; what about the sex scenes? Well, we thankfully don’t get anything involving ice cream or pool tables this time around, keeping with the original’s approach of (thankfully) editing out the grodier bits of eroticism from the text. Don’t worry, though; we still get the same wrong-headed brand of S&M that we got hefty doses of last time. It’s about as sanitized and “appropriated for the masses” as you would expect for a film that is this laden with product placement. The version of S&M we get here is one populated by mentally scarred individuals and pop psychology patients that would make the cremated Freud still roll his eyes, all of whom can’t help but have their dominant/submissive roles in the bedroom bleed out into their everyday life. To say that this is disingenuous and, considering this is the most mainstream portrayal the lifestyle has managed to garner on screen, fucking wrong would be one thing, except it seems like the film itself wants to have its vanilla ice cream and eat it too. It keeps pushing for sensual bewitchment in the sex scenes, and yet keeps painting those who indulge in the related practices (save for our flawless heroine) as abusive and truly damaged people. This is exploitative in a way that I’m not used to commenting on on this blog, where the subject is used for titillation in one scene and then vilified in the next; hypocrisy is probably a fetish for some people, but it’s certainly not for me.

Okay, ignoring its treatment of S&M and its pacing, is there anything actually good about this? Well, credit where it’s due that writer Niall Leonard (AKA E.L. James’ husband) knew well enough to try and make Anastasia to be more assertive with the re-write. And sure enough, the film keeps sprinkling in moments that are meant to show her dramatic and sexual agency… by comparison to the novel, but still, some effort was made. Not that I particularly care about this film trying to be legitimately good; adapting slightly-retuned fanfiction to be dead serious is still one of the dumber ideas in circulation right now. So, in light of my biggest criticism of the last film (that it wasn’t bad enough), did I get the entertaining inanity that I wanted this time around? Frankly, no. It’s bad, but it’s not of the hilariously mockable variety and it’s once again down to the handling of tone. The book maintained the little fanfic touches of the first, namely with Ana’s inner goddess and subconscious serving as symbolic cutaway gags, but also provided all these bizarre tonal shifts and legitimate cheesy rom-com moments that, despite myself, I had a good laugh at. Here, we rather obviously get none of that but they don’t even replace it with anything substantial. Run-on former submissives, what can only be classified as rape shenanigans at the hands of Jack Hyde (a two-faced antagonist called Jack Hyde, that’s how little E.L. was even trying in the first place) and empty threats that do little more than setup the sequel. Yeah, more of that please(!)

All in all, this is basically just a CliffNotes version of the book, and a really damn incompetent one at that. The acting is okay, I guess, but it’s not as if the frantic pacing and editing give them any space to perform in. All the problems persist from the original, from its failure to titillate to its utter disrespect for the BDSM community, but now it’s bolstered by absolutely incoherent storytelling that just feels like it’s telling this story because the filmmakers have to and want it over and done with as quick as possible. I can’t say I blame them, but they could have at least made it a less painful journey in the process. This is worse than Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, which was gracious enough to allow for some unintentionally funny moments throughout; this takes itself way too friggin’ seriously for any of that to happen. However, with how spiteful this can get, it still doesn’t scrape the bottom of the barrel has hard as Collateral Beauty, and this film should count itself lucky because it barely inches out over that trash pile.

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