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Well, it has been a strange four months or so, hasn’t it? It seems strange that, just as the newspapers are full of ominous stories about the so-called ‘second wave’, there are actually signs of some kind of normality resuming – which, naturally, is code for ‘cinemas reopening locally’. Fingers crossed, of course. Not that we have been entirely short of new films recently, of course, one way or another, but the prospect of new theatrical releases is a relief if only because it will give us something to focus on other than whatever bizarre offering has somehow managed to find an audience on one of the big streaming sites.

Let us (hopefully) bid a heartfelt farewell to this dark interlude by examining a movie which is the best argument possible for seeing all your new movies in the cinema: Barbara Białowąs and Tomasz Mandes’ 365 Days (Polish title: 365 Dni). This is a Polish film which actually got a theatrical release in the UK back in February, didn’t attract much attention, but has somehow managed to become a hit for one of the major streamers. It is comfortably one of the very worst films I have seen in the last twenty years, although (as you may soon discern) it does not achieve this solely on its own lack-of-merits: the makers have obviously been watching other very bad films and taking notes. (Not so much standing on the shoulders of giants as digging round the ankles of midgets.)

We open on a Mediterranean island where we meet our male lead, Massimo (Michele Morrone), who is being groomed to become the head of the Sicilian Mafia. The grooming comes to a rather premature end when someone puts a bullet through Massimo’s papa, leading him to have a bit of a near-death experience. Five years later, Massimo is now running the Mafia and wastes no time in sorting out some presumptuous Californian bankers who have messed up the mob’s investments.

This is intercut with another tense office scene in Warsaw where feisty young manager Laura (Anna-Maria Sieklucka) sees off an incompetent superior. Afterwards we see her sitting wistfully in the empty boardroom. This is intercut with Massimo brooding in the other empty boardroom. Thus does the movie smash the viewer round the head with the notion that these two somehow share a connection. It tries to capitalise on this by following up with a sequence where Laura amuses herself with a flourescent sex toy while Massimo requires the stewardess on his private jet to do more than just give him an extra blanket. (Or it may just be that the producers demanded a sex scene every ten minutes or so.)

Well, Laura and her inattentive boyfriend go to Sicily for her birthday, where he just treats her badly and goes on about her WEAK HEART every other line. (E.g.: ‘Hey, baby, don’t be angry that I went up Etna without you! Don’t forget you’ve got a WEAK HEART.’) I can only assume that Laura’s WEAK HEART will take on greater significance in one of the threatened sequels, because it has damn-all importance in this film. Eventually she has had enough and strops off, only to be descended upon by Massimo and his Mafia minions.

Soon she is recovering from being drugged (‘You’ve had a bad reaction to the sedative – maybe because of your WEAK HEART,’ says Massimo, getting with the programme briefly, but soon Laura’s cardiological irregularities are forgotten) and learning of what has befallen her. Not long after taking the bullet at the top of the film, Massimo had a vision of a woman (or so he claims) whom he fell instantly in love with. It has taken him five years to find someone who looks like his vision – and it’s her!!! Now she can look forward to being held prisoner by Massimo and the Mafia for a year, as he confidently believes that it will take no longer than this for her to fall in love with him.

Laura demurs somewhat at this prospect, being a feisty young manager in the hospitality industry, but Massimo does his best to reassure her by acting like a controlling psychopath. ‘I will never touch you without your permission,’ he growls, seemingly not realising he is copping an unauthorised feel even at that moment. But surely the millionaire lifestyle of a mob girlfriend and Massimo’s impressive but coyly-presented bod will not be enough to win Laura over?

Well, of course they are, for we are in the realm of possibly the nastiest of all film subgenres, the coercive romance: you know what I mean, the one with the subtext that if you really love someone, they will inevitably come to love you back: all you need to do is terrorise and lock them up for long enough. ‘Love is… never having to explain what Stockholm syndrome is.’ Yes, for reasons which remain persistently elusive, Laura decides that Massimo the psychopathic mafia boss kidnapper is actually a bit of a catch. Many games of hide-the-sausage and whose-leg-is-that? ensue, while 365 Days may very well find itself on the shortlist if anyone gives out an award for the most-cunningly-framed fellatio sequence (there are a number of contenders: the directors seem to have let this sort of thing go to their head, if you see what I mean).

As you may recall, I did my tour of duty in the trenches when the Fifty Shades trilogy was on release and concluded, like many others, that seldom before had such bad movies done such good business. Well, I tell you, friends, 365 Days makes Fifty Shades of Grey look like Inception or Parasite, which is slightly curious considering it is clearly attempting to follow the same formula of soft-core humping interspersed with glossy consumerist drivel. But, unless you subscribe to the notion that it is somehow acceptable to kidnap people and basically force them to have sex with you, it just doesn’t function as a romance at even the trite level the Grey films did. (The interminable sex scenes, as you might have expected, carry the same exotic frisson as giving an elderly relative a pedicure.)

It barely functions on any level other than simply looking like a commercial, anyway. The acting and direction are about as good as you’d expect for this kind of film, while the English dialogue is just painful on the ear (‘Five years ago, my life has changed,’ announces Massimo ahead of a key piece of exposition, which I had to rewind and watch twice as my cries of sympathy for the suffering of English grammar drowned out the dialogue the first time). Even the basic storytelling seems to break down around the ending, although once again this may just be to facilitate the threatened sequels. (Basically, we are meant to believe that Laura carks it in a mob hit, while pregnant with Massimo’s child, on her way back from her wedding dress fitting. Yup, no pudding knowingly goes un-egged around this film. As we barely learn how or why this happens, and certainly don’t see it, it is a dead cert she has just been kidnapped again and may be forced to fall in love with a different Mafia boss in the follow-up.)

Literally the only positive thing I can say about all this is that it doesn’t actually take 365 days for the plot to unravel, although it certainly feels like it at times. This is the kind of film which is so dreadful it is likely to bring on an interlude of existential fugue: you question not just its existence, but your own. But it’s not just bad, it’s nasty to the core, and if parts of it are so inept they’re amusing that shouldn’t distract us from the unpleasantness of the rest of it. You may find yourself tempted just to have a little look at it, to see if it’s quite as bad-funny as you’ve heard. Resist the temptation. Proper films will be back soon, or so we can only hope.

 

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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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