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Posts Tagged ‘Dakota Johnson’

It’s fairly unusual for a film to show up on my radar and its UK release to then slip by me almost entirely, but this is what happened this year with Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale. I definitely recall seeing a trailer at some point, but then (and this may be partly due to one or other of my trips to the Kyrgyz Republic this autumn) it was suddenly showing as a catch-up movie in one of the out-of-the-centre cinemas in Oxford, apparently barely having troubled the main multiplexes at all. A somewhat plaintive cry of ‘Are you going to see this one?’ from a reader in the US forced me to confront the hard truth that sometimes you just can’t see every film that gets released.

On the other hand, sometimes you find yourself with a spare evening in Berlin with a decent cinema showing movies in die ursprungliche Version only a brisk walk away, and it was a choice between Bad Times at the El Royale and BlacKkKlansman (another film I missed due to my sojourn in Bishkek), and my inner grammar obsessive clearly couldn’t face the prospect of typing that second title too many times [I buckled eventually – A]. So off we went to the Goddard movie.

Things get underway with a prologue set in the late 1950s, as a mystery man checks into a hotel room and proceeds to take up the floorboards and hide a bag in the cavity thus created. Before he can do much else, he is murdered, a development which is both shocking and disappointing (mainly because it means Nick Offerman, who plays him, is obviously going to be in the movie much less than one would hope).

Ten years later, a group of strangers encounter each other at the El Royale, a fading motel with a curious geographical quirk – it’s built squarely on the state line between California and Nevada, meaning (for instance) that you can only buy a drink on the west side of the bar room. Amongst the people checking in are a slightly confused elderly priest (Jeff Bridges), a garrulous vacuum cleaner salesman (Jon Hamm), an African-American woman with some unusual luggage (Cynthia Erivo), and a young woman (Dakota Johnson) who looks like a hippy but doesn’t seem that interested in peace and love. The boyish desk-clerk (Lewis Pullman) does his best to keep them all satisfied, of course.

Well, and wouldn’t you just know it, it turns out that most of these people are not at all what they initially seem to be, and several of them are dragging around a different sort of baggage entirely. As the night wears on, a peculiar chain of events develops, involving FBI wiretapping, blackmail, dementia and a psychopathic cult leader. Not everyone is going to be checking out alive…

I have to say that my first thought on properly looking at the poster for Bad Times at the El Royale was that this is a movie filled with people currently stuck in an odd twilight zone in terms of their movie career: by which I mean, there are some people who have the ability to open a movie (meaning their presence alone will guarantee the film does healthy business), and there are others who are by any standard appreciably famous, but aren’t able to translate this into consistent box office success under their own steam. Bad Times at the El Royale has Jeff Bridges in it, who is a veteran movie star and a fine actor, and Cynthia Erivo, who is a definite up-and-comer, but also a bunch of people who seem to be in the latter category – Jon Hamm (still best known for TV’s Mad Men), Dakota Johnson (whose high profile is mainly down to appearing in all those big-budget soft porn films), and – perhaps the best current example of the kind of thing I’m talking about – Chris Hemsworth (whose films make literally billions of dollars, but only when he’s playing one particular role).

I am aware that Bad Times is felt to have underperformed somewhat at the US box office, and this may be part of the reason why: it’s certainly a star-studded movie, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into ticket sales. It’s hard to think of another reason, apart from possibly the film’s length (it’s 140 minutes long, and by the end you’re starting to feel every one of them), for this is an engaging example of a type of film which was all the rage a few years ago but not much seen these days – by which I mean that Bad Times belongs to that very odd sub-genre, the Quentin Tarantino pastiche.

How can you possibly pastiche the style of someone who has basically built a career around pastiching other people? Mostly it is a stylistic thing: there are various self-conscious formal quirks here, and a chopped-up non-linear approach to some of the storytelling – one key moment in particular plays out multiple times, viewed from different perspectives. The film isn’t afraid to include some fairly grisly violence, too, and there’s where one sequence in particular where the threat of it hangs in the air and you almost get the sense the director is relishing the prospect. The retro setting also reinforces the idea that this is a film looking to the past rather than the future.

That said, while the movie includes a number of plot elements which are very specific to its setting – there’s a cult of murderous hippies, and a morally-compromised FBI surveillance operation, amongst others – it doesn’t feel like the film has anything particular to say about the sixties or America at that point in time. It’s just a convenient, colourful backdrop – a dressing-up outfit for a film which always seems just a bit more interested in style than in substance.

Nevertheless, this is a very capably assembled piece of entertainment. I must confess that the name Drew Goddard didn’t register with me at all, but it turns out I’ve been watching his work as a writer and director for about fifteen years, on and off, and this film is as polished and effective as his resume (which includes things like The Cabin in the Woods and The Defenders) might lead you to suspect. His script exploits the potential of this kind of set-up (the nature of the film is such that it’s impossible to tell which characters are going to survive to the closing credits) and he’s helped by consistently strong performances from the ensemble cast – I should probably make a special mention of Chris Hemsworth, cast most against type as a cross between Jim Morrison and Charles Manson.

As I say, there is perhaps a bit of a problem with a film that feels like it should be brisk, knockabout entertainment having a running time round about that of the theatrical cut of 2001, and the film’s performance may also have been affected by the lack of a bankable star and the nature of the narrative. However, I had a good time watching it and I’m glad I got the chance to do so on a big screen. I would say Bad Times at the El Royale has a decent chance of a respectable career as either a cult movie or an underappreciated gem.

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Regular readers (heaven help you) will easily the imagine the wail of anguish that echoed round the garret when I discovered that I would have to see Fifty Shades Freed, latest (and hopefully final) instalment in the ghastly Fifty Shades multimedia colossus spawned by E.L. James, unaccompanied. It turned out that my usual associate Protective Camouflage, as a result of her having gotten hitched since the last film came out, no longer feels able to be seen with me at overlong inanely aspirational pornographic dribble. Or so I assume, anyway: what Mrs Camouflage actually said was that she had watched the trailer and thought it looked a bit rubbish, but, come on, what kind of reason is that for not going to watch a movie? If I didn’t bother with films just because their trailers weren’t that good, I’d end up only going to the cinema forty or fifty times a year.

Hey ho. You know me; I like to keep my finger on the knob of where it’s at, culturally, and the inescapable fact is that this series of films have earned over a billion dollars at the global box office. (Guys, are we sure the rapture didn’t happen a few years ago and nobody noticed?) So, having wrapped myself up to protect my identity from casual observers, off I went, sinews (and nothing else) appropriately stiffened.

It turns out that Mrs Camouflage is not the only one to have gotten herself spliced, as James Foley’s movie opens with the nuptuals of minimally-defined everygirl Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and her fiance, the inexplicably alluring handsome billionaire bondage-lover Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). Soon they are off on their honeymoon tour of the great cities of Europe (it goes without saying that Mr Grey takes his new bride up the Arc de Triomphe while they are in Paris).

Soon there are signs of problems in their idyll, for despite having landed her fish, Anastasia finds herself still having to contend with his stern, possessive, control-freakish tendencies. Is she not even to be allowed to sunbathe topless around the fleshpots of the continent? They even have a big row about whether she is going to keep her maiden name around the office where she works.

Just at the point where I was about to scream ‘Hashtag first world problems!!!’ in the cinema, a subplot develops concerning Anastasia’s psycho ex-boss Hyde (Eric Johnson), who now turns out to have some kind of unspecified beef with the whole Grey clan, as coincidence and the requirements of a credulity-straining plot would have it. Not content with stalking the couple, Hyde even breaks into their apartment where he is swiftly subdued by their highly-trained bodyguards. ‘We need to restrain him!’ shouts Bodyguard One. ‘We don’t have any restraints!’ frets Bodyguard Two. ‘Ooh, I think we might have something,’ pipes up Anastasia, brightly: this is by far the most entertaining moment in the film and yet I’m by no means sure if it’s actually intentional or not.

On and on it goes: can Anastasia persuade Christian to let her keep her own identity now that they are married? Is he ever going to be in a position where he wants to have children? And surely they’re not going to let Hyde out on bail, what with him being a violent nutter? Oh… yes they are. Never mind.

Well, the one thing about Fifty Shades Freed‘s psycho stalker subplot is that it at least results in a sequence where there is some actual dramatic tension and chasing about. Suddenly the film achieves a sort of clarity and dramatic focus as a psychological thriller; only a sort of half-life, to be sure, but still much better than the rest of the film. The only other time I was particularly troubled by a strong feeling came very early on, during the Greys’ exchange of vows, which is so glutinously sentimental a moment I felt the profound urge to upchuck all over the premier seating area of the more downmarket of the two Oxford Odeons.

Those parts of the movie which are not attempting to be a thriller, resemble, like the previous episode, a very long and rather bland commercial, with anonymously attractive young people drifting around high-end apartments with wardrobes bigger than my entire garret, swathed in designer gear. The plotline is, as you may be able to tell, underwhelming, largely consisting of a new development in the lives of the Greys, which results in tension between them, which is resolved by a protracted sequence of make-up sex, often in Christian Grey’s sex dungeon, after which the whole cycle repeats itself.

It is a close-run thing whether the sequences of the Greys discussing their various emotional hang-ups are more or less boring than the trips to the sex dungeon – certainly while Johnson and Dornan are droning their dialogue at each other, I was hoping it would end as soon as possible, but then as soon as he started strapping her to the bedframe and getting out his metalworking kit – that’s what it looks like at one point, anyway – I found myself hoping for another outbreak of dialogue.

In the end this supposedly edgy and transgressive tale of forbidden desire resolves with a tableau of the most conventional domestic happiness you could possibly imagine. I’ve said it before and will repeat it again – the whole Fifty Shades saga is one of the most generic and undemanding romances you could possibly imagine, supposedly pepped up with all the kinky sex. Except it never feels that kinky, and carries no discernible erotic charge. It’s so utterly banal and mundane that it manages to make the visits to the sex dungeon seem boring.

Well, anyway, this seems almost certain to be the last one, and one thing in this film’s favour is that it’s mercifully briefer than the other two, by a good twenty minutes. People clearly go to these films, and I’m hardly in a position to mock them for doing so, but there’s no getting around the fact that they are simply turgid pap that have the opposite effect to the one they seem to be aiming for. After watching Fifty Shades Freed, celibacy has never seemed so attractive.

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Well, Valentine’s Day and the global corporate attempt to make people who are not single by choice feel worse about themselves than they already do are almost upon us as I write, and one could reasonably expect the onset of a spate of films all extolling the modern ideal of romance at its most epically glutinous. But wait, what’s this? A rather odd film about a slightly alarming dysfunctional relationship and someone with ball bearings up their wazoo?

Ah, it must be time for Fifty Shades Darker, directed by James Foley, the peculiar sequel to 2015’s peculiar Fifty Shades of Grey. Well, as before I felt it behoved me to check out such a significant piece of pop culture action, and thankfully my faithful companion when it comes to this sort of thing, Protective Camouflage, was also up for it. ‘Two tickets for Sex Dungeon 2, please,’ we proudly said, then (moving past a group of possibly underage cinema-goers arguing with the manager over whether they were allowed to watch the film) took our seats. With the first film, we practically had the place to ourselves (that’s what you get for watching soft-core porn at the art house, I guess), but this time around we found ourselves in the midst of a riotous, febrile atmosphere, with a brittle sense of people pretending not to take it all too seriously but secretly really, really excited about the prospect of seeing naked flesh and simulated whoa-ho-ho.

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All very much at odds with the actual film, of course, which as before is primarily concerned with the doings of Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), who has just started a new job in publishing, her kinky entanglement with the inexplicably attractive young, handsome, ripped billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) definitely a thing of the past. For the first ten minutes anyway, for then Mr Grey reappears, declares he can’t live without her, and so on, and so on.

The plot beyond this point is a little difficult to describe… it’s not quite as if nothing actually happens, because obviously things do, and I don’t just mean visits to the sex dungeon. It turns out that Mr Grey, despite being more than a bit stalkerish and controlling himself, has got a couple of stalkers of his own, one of whom is played by none other than Kim Basinger. (This reminded me of Basinger’s role in the 1989 Batman movie, which also concerned a handsome, athletic young billionaire with an obsessive interest in punishment. But I digress.) Anastasia Steele attracts another weirdo (Eric Johnson), who is not a non-threatening billionaire and thus not dreamy boyfriend material. Mr Grey is in a helicopter crash with a female colleague, but this does not appear to bother him overmuch, no doubt because he has gone down with a lady many times in the past. Most excitingly, we finally get to meet Mr Grey’s housekeeper, who is presumably the one who keeps everything in the sex dungeon so well-oiled and shiny, but she is sadly only a very minor character.

But all of this feels very incidental to the main storyline (the helicopter crash bit in particular feels bizarrely throwaway), which concerns the, um, unexpectedly conventional relationship between Miss Steele and Mr Grey – she’s worried that he has something of a history with other ladies, struggles to get him to open up emotionally, and is bowled over when he asks her to move in. Radical stuff this really isn’t – this is a romance very much done by the numbers, as a quiet Everygirl discovers she has almost effortlessly won the heart of the handsome prince (it’s just that on this occasion the handsome prince has an extensive selection of recreational aids, even if he seems unsure of where to stick them). There’s something so blandly aspirational about the whole thing, with its tasteful interior decor, designer clothing, and endless product placement.

The advertising for this film is once again built around how blisteringly steamy and boldly transgressive it all is. Well, what floats your boat is a personal matter, I suppose, but even for an 18-rated film this is hardly very explicit (the only time Mr Grey gets his chopper out is when he’s preparing a salad) nor is it especially daring. Early on there’s a spanking sequence which is unintentionally funny rather than erotic (the fact the soundtrack at this point actually features the lyric ‘bum-diddy-bum-bum’ may be partly responsible, I suspect), and the whole ball-bearings-up-the-wazoo bit had Protective Camouflage and I sniggering up our sleeves. Your mileage may vary, naturally: we were practically the last people to leave the theatre, but as we did so there was one couple near the back apparently intent on sucking each others’ faces off, so it clearly did the trick for them.

Of course, this movie has already made an enormous pile of money, so (short of the total collapse of western civilisation, which admittedly feels like more of a genuine possibility than was the case a few months ago) I foresee little that can fend off the release of Sex Dungeon 3 next year, not least because it was filmed back to back with this one, by the same director. Not much chance of the last film redeeming the series, then, and every chance of more of the same.

Joking apart, this is simply quite a dull film, the characters are flat and not performed with any real energy, the plot is meandering and under-powered, and once again there’s a disconcerting lack of anything actually approaching an, um, climax – when it comes to the plot, anyway. It just resembles a very long advert for designer goods with some fairly tame soft-core sex scenes incongruously inserted. I expect that Protective Camouflage and I will check out number three as well, not least because we both enjoy a good laugh, but on the whole I would say that while the makers of Fifty Shades Darker have indeed come up with a film which will appeal to masochists, this is not quite in the way they probably intended.

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Okay, kids, strap in, it’s the one you’ve been waiting for. When I mentioned in passing on Facebook that I was dubious about the wisdom of seeing Sam Taylor-Johnson’s adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey, I was quite surprised and touched by the collective wail of concern from people actually looking forward to reading my opinion. (Yes, it is possible for two people to wail collectively. Of course it is. And if you’re going to take that attitude, you can kindly sling your hook.)

I was a bit concerned about the visual of a spud-faced middle-aged man turning up unaccompanied to watch the great sado-masochistic sexcapade of our time, but as luck would have it a colleague was also keen to see it and more than willing to act as Protective Camouflage. (Although she did refer to it as Fifty Sheds, which made me a bit worried she misunderstood what was involved.) And so it was that we proudly made our way to the front of the queue of young families waiting to see Shaun the Sheep: the Movie.

‘Two for Sex Dungeon, please,’ I said proudly. (Well, we all have the occasional Freudian slip, don’t we.)

After a bit of a double-take from the woman on the till we got down to the normal rigmarole of choosing seats and so forth. Although, we were told, this wasn’t that big a deal as no-one else was actually going to be watching it with us. Something quite odd seems to be going on here: this was the most sparsely-attended weekend matinee I can remember going to (someone else turned up during the trailers, but it was just three of us in a big theatre), which I would usually take as a sign the film was spectacularly tanking, but apparently it has already recouped its relatively modest budget ten times over and a sequel is due out next year. Did it really do such good business on its opening weekend?

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Hey ho. Fifty Shades of Grey is, of course, based on E.L. James’ astonishingly successful piece of retooled slash fanfic, which everyone was talking about a few years ago. (I worked with someone who was reading it and insisted on reading out choice selections at mealtimes, and to say that it was like listening to contract law is probably an insult to legal jargonese.) I note that James herself is producing this film and has actually joined the PGA, despite having no previous experience beyond British TV admin. (Maybe I’ll join the PGA too, it’ll look good on the blog.)

The film opens with a montage of clouds scudding across the sky, so that was a few shades of grey sorted out in the first few seconds. Before long it settles down to being the story of suave, enigmatic, 27-year-old billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), and his relationship with mousy, nervous young student Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), whom he meets when she interviews him for the college newspaper. Things go haltingly at first, for she is (wait for it) fifty grades of shy, and he seems to evade her questions, especially the one about his hobbies. ‘I enjoy a range of physical activities,’ he says. Hmm, what could he be on about?

Later on he turns up at the hardware store where she works, intent on buying a selection of rope, masking tape, and so forth. Cripes! They keep bumping into each other until Christian Grey makes his intentions properly known (once Anastasia has signed her non-disclosure agreement, that is).

It turns out that Christian Grey is… um, well, how can I put this? His tastes are sort of bracingly robust, if you know what I mean. He does indeed have his own sex dungeon in his luxury apartment, although it looks more like the interior of a gymkhana suppliers than anything too kinky, and he would quite like to put Anastasia in it and do all sorts of things to her.

She, unsurprisingly, has her doubts, but there is a long film to be filled and so it takes her a hell of a while to actually make her mind up about this. Also, Christian Grey seems to be just as big a fan of legal paperwork as he is of sado-masochism, because he has an extremely lengthy contract he wants her to review and sign before they properly get down to business. There is even a pre-business business meeting dedicated to this, which is quite possibly the weirdest context in which you will ever hear the words ‘vaginal fisting’. But I digress. Will Anastasia sign the contract and take up residence in the sex dungeon? Or will she manage to break through Grey’s reserve and engage him in something resembling a more conventional romantic relationship?

All right, so from a certain point of view this is one of the most extreme movies ever to get a mainstream release from a major studio, with all the marketing and attendant advertising designed to emphasise how throbbingly sexy it all is. (Some of the ads were for things I had to ask Protective Camouflage about, as I had no idea what they were.) Isn’t it all so shocking and transgressive, seems to be the unspoken subtext. Isn’t it all so overpoweringly erotic?

Um, well, no it isn’t, kids. The Emperor has no clothes on, not unlike Dakota Johnson for long sections of the film (as a result I now feel better acquainted with her nipples than those of any other person in history, including myself). It’s just not sexy: after a while your heart starts to sink every time they decamp to the sex dungeon for another distinctly unengaging romp. I found myself wondering just who kept the sex dungeon so spotlessly clean. Does Christian Grey get busy with the Mr Muscle and the Dyson every day after his latest playmate goes home? Has his cleaning lady also signed an NDA? That glossy flogging table must need a lot of polishing.

The main problem is that the films this most reminds me of are the Harry Potter adaptations and the Hunger Games movies, not because of the subject matter, but because it has been very carefully made not to spoil a potentially massive cash cow. This being a film aimed at a mainstream audience, there are limits to what it can show, and indeed in some ways it is notably less explicit than some other, less contentious films. Mr Grey keeps his trousers on most of the time, for instance.

Ironically, this isn’t as big a problem as it might sound, for in many ways Fifty Shades of Grey is crushingly conventional. If you extract all the stuff with the leather straps, the floggers, and the spanking, you’re just left with a rather gooey and familiar story about a shy young woman who captures the attention of a powerful, attractive man with commitment issues: It’s the stuff of countless blandly anonymous romances, wish-fulfilment for the (dare I say it) undemanding female reader. The bondage is just there to give the illusion of something spicy and a bit different. (Anastasia Steele’s attraction to Christian Grey has less to do with his ‘dangerous’ tendencies than the fact he’s an improbably handsome young billionaire. If the sado-masochist was a middle-aged ugly bloke in a council flat, this story wouldn’t work at all.)

Of course, this does lead to the biggest problem with the film, namely the ending (or absence of one). On paper it looks like a triumph for female self-empowerment, with Anastasia deciding the sex dungeon perhaps isn’t her cup of tea after all, and dumping Mr Grey. But while this makes a certain sort of sense, it’s playing against the whole thrust of the story, which feels like it should be the one where they break up, only for him to realise he really does love her after all and makes a big gesture to win her back, prior to the happy ever after. This film omits everything after the break up, or possibly defers it all to the sequel. The result is a conclusion which just feels annoyingly abrupt and unsatisfying.

The consensus on Fifty Shades of Grey is that ‘it’s better than the book, not that that’s saying much’. Not having read the book, I can’t comment, but the book would have to be pretty comprehensibly dreadful to be much worse than this. I have got more pleasurable erotic frissons out of watching Carry On films than I did from Fifty Shades of Grey: this film actually manages to make the conjugal act look unappealingly dull. I’m not sure if it’s a crime against cinema, but it’s certainly a crime against sex. Yuck.

 

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