Friday, March 27, 2015


Despite its unsavory sadomasochistic subject matter, this cinematic adaptation of author E.L. James’ erotic bestseller “Fifty Shades of Grey” (** OUT OF ***) qualifies as puritanical.  I can say this because I managed to get through ten chapters of the book before I saw the Universal Pictures release.  “Nowhere Boy” director Sam Taylor-Johnston and “Saving Mr. Banks” scenarist Kelly Marcel have sanitized James’ novel and turned it into an antiseptic, “Cinderella” style fairy tale about an affluent Prince Charming and a bookworm of an English Lit major.  Not that it matters, director Sam Taylor-Johnston is a woman rather than a man.  Johnston and Marcel have forged a film that features simulated sex scenes without steam and cardboard characters without souls.  Mind you, “Fifty Shades of Grey” isn’t as abysmal as the amateurish “Addicted.”  Johnston stages several sex scenes where actress Dakota Johnson bares only her breasts, while actor Jamie Dornan displays little more than his carefully sculpted abs and buttocks.  Ladies hoping for a glimpse of male genitalia are going to be sorely frustrated because “Fifty Shades” is R-rated rather than NC-17, like both “Shame” (2011) and “The Lover” (1992) where full frontal nudity was conspicuous.  Comparatively speaking, little if anything risqué occurs until the concluding scene.  You won’t see anything like the candle dripping sex in the Madonna movie “Body of Evidence” (1993); the kitchen sink sex between Michael Douglas and Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction,” or the infamous “Last Tango in Paris” where Marlon Brando improvised on Maria Schneider with a blob of butter.  Subsequent adaptations of James’ two novels may pass up on the prudish approach after Universal studio executives have analyzed audience tolerance.  Altogether, this soft-porn entry in the trilogy shouldn’t hoist anybody’s eyebrows.

Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnston of “The Five Year Engagement”) is a shy, virginal, doe-eyed brunette who majors in English Lit at Washington State University and works at a hardware store.  She shares an apartment with her best friend, blond-haired Kate Kavanagh (Eloise Mumford of “In the Blood”), who serves as the campus newspaper editor.  As the action unfolds, woebegone, pajama-clad Kate is wrestling with a cold.  Kate persuades Anastasia to pinch hit for her on a newspaper assignment.  She sends her out to interview bachelor billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan of “Marie Antoinette”) who rules a colossal corporate empire.  Basically, Christian is the Bruce Wayne of hanky-spanky.  An orphan who survived the death of his crack-addict mom, Christian has amassed a fortune, but he harbors a deep, dark secret.  When she enters ‘The House of Grey,’ Anastasia knows little about him.  Anxious about her assignment, Anastasia makes a klutz of herself when she enters Grey’s office.  No sooner has she crossed the threshold than she stumbles and crumples to her hands and knees.  Realizing she hasn’t made the best impression, Anastasia recovers her confidence and begins the interview.  Initially, Christian adopts an icy attitude toward her, but he thaws out once they start talking.  Christian finds the way Anastasia chews her lip so irrestible that he cancels his next appointment.  Some of Kate’s questions shock Anastasia, particularly when she quizzes the tycoon about his sexual orientation.  A life-long bachelor who has never been photographed in public with a woman, Christian explains that he has little use for conventional romances with hearts and flowers.  A relieved Anastasia leaves Christian behind in his phallic monolith of a building and cruises home.  As it turns out, Anastasia is just as captivated with Christian as the latter is with her.  Later, they go on a date, and eventually he deflowers her.  He wants Anastasia to join him in a sexual liaison as a ‘submissive’ to his ‘dominant.’  Christian and she negotiate terms of a contract.  For example, the open-minded Anastasia has no problems with being tied up and titillated with a peacock feather, but she draws the line at vaginal fisting and genital clamps.  Meantime, Christian does everything he can to corrupt Anastasia, buying her a Mac notebook and replacing her classic Volkswagen Beetle with a shiny red Audi.  Ultimately, Christian convinces our heroine to let him show her how bondage can be enjoyable.  Nevertheless, Anastasia isn’t as gullible as she seems.  At fade-out, she gains the upper hand in their bizarre relationship.

The casting in “Fifty Shades of Grey” creates half of its problems.  Dakota Johnson makes an ideal Anastasia.  She gives a believable performance as a naïve college student who has just graduated and treasures the kind classic 19th century British fiction that Thomas Hardy wrote.  The Austin, Texas, born actress seems wholly comfortable with her casual on-screen nudity, and it is interesting to note that “Miami Vice’s” Don Johnson is her dad and Melanie Griffith of “Something Wild” is her mom.  Dakota isn’t as goofy as her literary counterpart Anastasia.  Sadly, lean, handsome Jamie Dornan doesn’t cut the mustard.  He doesn’t behave like a ruthless cutthroat who owns a billion dollar corporation, and his performance is considerably less spontaneous.  Although he wears his apparel well and delivers his dialogue with crisp precision, Dornan looks more like a callow amateur.  In all fairness to Dornan, he impersonates a character that doesn’t seem remotely believable, and his lack of personality underlines his lightweight performance.  The other big problem is the film seems as impersonal as a bargain basement torture rack.  Basically, Johnston and Marcel have designed it as a bondage primer that cautiously advances from one elaborate interlude to another without drumming up any melodrama.  Primarily, the filmmakers rely more on winks rather than winces as our heroine navigates the dire straits of Christian’s sexual calisthenics.  Keep in mind, Anastasia doesn’t say no until she knows better.  Gradually, Christian peels back the layers of his paranoia, revealing himself as an onion that initiates our heroine’s tears and fears.  When director Sam Johnston shifts the focus from the game of sexual chess between Anastasia and Christian, the film sacrifices suspense.  Undeniably, “Fifty Shades of Grey” will keep your eyes wide open, but it dwells more on tease instead of sleaze.


Liam Neeson embarks on an after-hours artillery barrage in “Nonstop” director Jaume Collet-Serra’s “Run All Night,” (***1/2 OUT OF ****), a vigorous, but formulaic, bullet-riddled, crime thriller that keeps the NYPD busy until dawn.   No, “Run All Night” doesn’t imitate Neeson’s “Taken” trilogy.   Neeson’s “Run All Night” hero qualifies more as an anti-heroic underdog, while “Run All Night” shares more in common with Neeson’s earlier abduction opus “A Walk Among the Tombstones.”  “Tombstones” cast Neeson as an ex-NYPD cop who quit the force after one of his stray slugs killed an innocent child.   Neeson’s “Tombstones” hero lived alone and attended AA meetings when he wasn’t trolling for clients as an unlicensed private eye who preferred to work off his pay in trade.   In other words, he wasn’t too fastidious about his clients and crossed the line between good and evil without a qualm.   Conversely, Neeson plays a washed-up enforcer in “Run All Night” for a merciless Irish Godfather (Ed Harris) who keeps his lifelong pal on the payroll because they started out together.   Comparatively, “Run All Night” is pretty grim, but it isn’t as creepy as “A Walk Among the Tombstones” with its pair of villainous homosexual maniacs who abducted women and carved them up for fun and games.   Moreover, these two movies make the three “Taken” thrillers appear hopelessly whitewashed.  Nevertheless, “Run All Night” is the kind of actioneer where you still root for the hero, even though you suspect he may have to confront consequences before fadeout.  Perhaps the closest thing to “Run All Night” would be Martin Scorsese’s Italian crime movies, like “Goodfellas” where Robert De Niro portrayed a trigger-happy lunatic.  Ultimately, the chief difference is Neeson’s itchy trigger fingered hitman redeems himself for his homicidal past.  While Neeson dominates the action, Ed Harris is no slouch as his no-nonsense, tough-as-nails, Irish mob boss.  Joel Kinnaman, Boyd Holbrook, Bruce McGill, and Holt McAloney round out the seasoned cast, with African-American actor Lonnie Rashid Lynn, best known by his nickname ‘Common,” standing out as an obnoxious assassin with a grudge against the Neeson hero.

Neeson plays Jimmy “The Gravedigger” Conlon, a notorious Irish gunsel who not only has managed miraculously to stay out of jail, but who also has rubbed out opponents by double-digits.  Since his wife died, Jimmy has spent most of his time nursing a bottle while he wrestles with his conscience about all those people he executed for infamous crime chieftain Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris of “A History of Violence”) who ruled the Irish mafia in New York City with a steel fist.   Mind you, this doesn’t mean Jimmy has lost his touch.   All that booze hasn’t diluted the ice water flowing through his veins.   He hasn’t lost that lethal knack that he perfected during his dark days of killing. Lately, Shawn has relaxed and has promoted his pride and joy, Danny Maguire (Boyd Holbrook of “The Skeleton Twins”), as head of operations.   Unfortunately, paternal love has blinded Shawn to Danny’s flaws.  Moreover, Shawn doesn’t realize the mistake that he has committed by turning over his largely legitimate empire to his decadent son.   Not only has Danny foolishly convinced himself that he is invincible but also that he is bulletproof.   Furthermore, Danny feels the desperate urge to prove himself to his dad.  He brokers a million dollar deal with some unscrupulous Albanian heroin dealers that he thinks his father will applaud.   The Albanians assure Shawn he will never regret their partnership.   Shawn surprises them when he turns down their deal and sends them packing.   Predictably, Danny is livid with indignation until Shawn explains how he pulled a similar stunt with cocaine twenty years before and had to wipe out half of his friends because they had become rip-snorting junkies.   Shawn doesn’t want to repeat his earlier mistake.   An irate Danny owed the Albanians already so he has no alternative but to blast both of them into eternity.   What Danny doesn’t plan for is the witnesses who saw him ice the Albanians.

Meanwhile, Jimmy has an estranged son, Mike (Joel Kinnaman of “Robocop”), who took a swing at professional boxing but crapped out.   Mike is nothing like his father.  Mike has kept his nose clean.   He drives a limo, has two adorable little daughters, and has gotten his wife Gabriela (Genesis Rodriguez) pregnant with their third child.   Mike leads a budget-pinching, but largely happy life on a blue-collar income.   When he isn’t driving the limo, Mike mentors an orphaned African-American teenager.   He is coaching Curtis 'Legs' Banks (Aubrey Joseph of “Fading Gigolo”) in the art of boxing at the local gym.   When he isn’t boxing, ‘Legs’ fools around with his new smart phone.   Mike encounters ‘Legs’ one evening after he has taken the two Albanians to confer with Danny about their abortive heroin smuggling deal.  Danny tosses the Albanians a satchel bulging with bogus bills, laughs at them, and then perforates them.   After he caps the second Albanian, Danny discovers that Mike has been sitting nearby in the limo that delivered the two Albanians.   Naturally, Shawn is infuriated about this unforeseen turn of the events.  Things grow complicated because Danny fears that Mike witnessed one of the murders. What he doesn’t know is that Legs captured the murder on video.  Worst of all, Danny doesn’t count on Mike’s father showing up and shooting him in the back of his head before he can blast Mike.   Now, a grieving Shawn launches a full-scale war against Jimmy for bumping off his only son. 

Director Jaume Collet-Serra allows “Run All Night” to unfold in flashback, but this gimmick doesn’t sabotage the suspense.  The resourceful Neeson is about as devastating against his own bloodthirsty mob as Denzel Washington was against the Russian mafia in “The Equalizer.”  Collet-Serra orchestrates an exciting car chase through traffic congested Big Apple city streets that will keep you squirming.  He also relies on snappy Google Earth transitions to maintain spontaneity. “Run All Night” runs out of neither momentum nor surprises during its 114 minutes.