Out This Week
Fifty Shades of Grey (Universal, cert 18)
This decade’s Da Vinci Code – the book read by people who don’t often read books – is a basic Mills & Boon/Harlequin story (masterful man, virginal girl) with an added belt, if that’s the word, of S&M. In this film adaptation Jamie Dornan glowers but brings no real life to the role of buff CEO Christian Grey whom Dakota Johnson’s Anastasia Steele meets as he’s buying cable ties in the shop she works in. Dakota looks like her dad, Don Johnson, and has the pluck of her mother, Melanie Griffith, which is handy because she is required to take off more clothes more often than you might expect from someone with this Hollywood pedigree. She’s pretty good, Johnson, not registering even once a flicker at the risible dialogue – “I don’t make love. I fuck. Hard” says powerful dominant Christian Grey at one point – more entirely inhabiting her character than Dornan ever manages. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson, meanwhile, toys with turning the whole thing into a spoof, but is presumably held back by the controlling hand of author EL James – though as thrusting brooding Grey is taking trembling wallflower Steele for a ride in his helicopter, ST-J did sneak a shot of the joystick, for lovers of fnaar-fnaar symbolism. Presumably references to choppers had already been excised by James. What can I say – it’s not for me. Or for lovers of the rough stuff. The bondage is so vanilla you half expect the nipple clamps and anal fisting (referred to, never shown) to come with two scoops. But it does end well, satisfactorily, as if someone suddenly uttered the safe word and we were all let out.
Blind (Axiom, cert 18, DVD/digital)
Blind is a Norwegian drama written and directed by Eskil Vogt, the writer of the excellently emotive Oslo August 31st,, about a newly blind young woman (Ellen Dorrit Petersen). But hang on, who is this not unattractive other woman (Vera Vitali), also blonde, who starts having an affair with the blind woman’s husband (Henrik Rafaelsen), and who is also being stalked by a sweaty unsavoury guy (Marius Kolbenstvedt) with a highly developed interest in pornography? Things are not as they first appear in this “wait and see” psychodrama that does eventually explain itself admirably. It also manages to accomplish something that films aren’t actually very good at – depiction of internal mental states – by falling back on expressionist techniques when it’s not pulling what you might call the Douglas Sirk trick of simply jacking up the storytelling until its emotions teeter on the edge of the ridiculous. If none of this is leaving you any the wiser, that’s because I’m trying to avoid spoilers. Watch and enjoy – I did – and admire its coolness, frankness, novelty and occasional remarkable image. A broad mind is required.
The Wedding Ringer (Sony, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)
Kevin Hart plays the guy who turns out at the wedding of other guys who have no mates and pretend to be their lifelong pal, does the speech, charms everybody, takes his money and disappears. Josh Gad is the friendless guy in question in The Wedding Ringer, a shlubby but decent sort who’s getting married to a woman who, he says, is above his pay grade. We suspect, because she doesn’t look too far above his pay grade, that in fact they’re not suited at all, and exposure to Hart’s motormouth might shake things up a bit. And that Gad might find a pal. An arc for both, very neat. Because Hart is black, and America is obsessed with race, and this is a film about two guys, I was braced for the usual racial/homophobe gags. There were a couple. But there was also some funny physical comedy, jokes about disguised identity (did I mention that Hart is passing himself off as a priest?), fatguy gags, sexual grossout, redneck knockabout, all done at warp speed and with a supporting retinue of great comic actors as the crew of Hart’s familiars who he’s drafted in to play Gad’s friends. It’s actually a very funny film, with a nice warm emotional core too. But why cast Olivia Thirlby – now looking sensationally beautiful (as opposed to just very attractive) – and use her so little?
Can’t Come Out to Play (Signature, cert 15)
The normally scary Michael Shannon is outdone by an icy Samantha Morton in this strange and gruesome chiller that also goes by the name of The Harvest – which does somewhat give the plot away before the film has revealed it. These odd pair play a doctor and nurse – she’s the doctor, he’s the nurse, and a whole power dynamic hangs off that inversion – who have a sick child who “can’t come out to play” with the feisty girl new to the area. What is so odd about this film is its Lifetime Channel production style – it’s shadowless lighting, corporate direction, right down to the by-the-yard score by TV-movie favourite George S Clinton (no relation of Mr Funkadelic). It’s directed by John McNaughton, who hasn’t troubled surface life much since 1986’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and whose uneven pacing doesn’t help a film that needs assistance in overcoming its idiot-plot problem – when our plucky heroine (Natasha Calis) first discovers that dark deeds are being planned and carried out at the secluded home where the medical mom and dad keep too-watchful an eye over their son, why doesn’t she call the police? In fact on several occasions the question raises itself. For all that, this does have its moments. With Morton and Shannon you’d expect nothing less.
Dior and I (Dogwoof, cert 12)
It should be Dior and Me, obviously, but in all other respects this is a very old school fly-on-the-wall documentary taking pains to do things properly. It follows Raf Simons, the designer newly arrived from Jil Sander, where he was a minimalist menswear designer of ready-to-wear clothes – at Dior he’s doing women’s couture for a house known for its exuberant formalism, so quite a lot of learning curve for Simons. Here, his back story might have come in handy – he was a furniture designer who went to his first fashion show in 1991, decided that this was the thing for him, and had launched his first collection a mere four years later – but director Frédéric Tcheng sticks instead to the plan, filming what he finds in front of the camera in a boardroom-to-bootroom cross-section of the fashion house. Simons is a fascinating man, not given to much flouncing or shouting, collaborative, relying heavily on the talented women (mostly) who work in the Dior atelier, most of whom have been there for decades, and on the emollient charm of his right hand man, Pieter Mulier, who is the shopfloor fixer, diplomat and engineer, the zippy yang to Simons’s more withdrawn ying. Simons relies on the work of Christian Dior too, using some of the distinctive shapes of Dior’s famous New Look collection of 1947 to inspire his new collection – and one of the small joys of this film is watching a contemporary model trying on some of those old clothes, which look strangely on trend. Another inspiration for the designer is the paintings of Sterling Ruby, whose, to my eyes, ugly tie/dye look Simons appropriates. Tcheng uses narrated excerpts from Dior’s autobiography to point up other similarities between then and now, Dior and Simons, allied to snatches of archive footage and photographs, these helping to locate Simons in the present, and giving an idea of what he’s up against taking over at a venerable institution and with very few of the skills associated with the trained fashion designer – Simons doesn’t draw, for instance. A shot of Marion Cotillard’s gorgeous neck at the eventual show, held only scant weeks after Simons has taken over, in a room whose walls have been slathered with flowers, sums up much of what is good about this film – Tcheng has an eye for beauty. He gives us fashion as fashion wants to see itself – inspired, different, hard working, nervous and creative. This isn’t the whole story, for sure. But, like I said, this is very old school. Fashion fans will gobble it down.
Focus (Warner, cert 15)
A Will Smith film, in which Smith plays a cool grifter, Margot Robbie the two-bit player he takes under his wing and polishes till she gleams. On the way he falls for her, but by this time she’s hared off in a different direction and is hanging off the arm of another guy. Here’s a film called Focus that loses its grip on the same around halfway in – the first half sees Smith’s glossy Fagin teaching his Oliver Twist the tricks of the trade, and it’s a slick champagne-and-cognac piece of almost Michael Mann-like super-luxe film-making. Entirely satisfying. But once we slide into part two, it’s as if someone has made off with the film’s wallet, its working capital, and we’re left with the lovelorn Mr Smith moping about till the end credits roll. Robbie, for her part, is doing an excellent young Sharon Stone act, and behaving as inscrutably as a high class bitch should, which only doubles the sense of a vacuum where Smith should be. It’s as if he were, say, about to run for political office, had suddenly realised he was in a film about people who steal things as a way of making a living, and had ordered a rewrite to somehow position himself on the side of the good guys. I don’t know, but there has to be a reason why what could have been an enjoyable Ocean’s 11 clone is such a mess.
Stonehearst Asylum (Lionsgate, cert 15)
The lunatics have taken over the asylum in Stonehearst Asylum, a film that originally went by the name Eliza Graves, after the character played by Kate Beckinsale. Jim Sturgess plays the innocent who arrives at the out-of-the-way mental hospital, to find a clearly batshit Ben Kingsley in charge of the institution while real hospital honcho Michael Caine and his staff are locked in the basement. It’s an Edgar Allan Poe story originally, and this production attempts to weld the ethos of a cod-Freudian 1940s-style asylum movie such as Shutter Island to the faux-Victorian spooky house gothic of The Woman in Black – both pastiches in the first place. Perhaps that’s why this film simply refuses to take wing. The TV budget doesn’t help, nor does the lazy storytelling, hackneyed characters (ooh aargh Irish baddie David Thewlis is particularly funny), ridiculous situations – asylum patient Beckinsale unaccountably always dressed in a low-cut full-length ball gown, just for starters. Or the bizarre acting – though Kingsley clearly nicking Michael Caine’s line-reading rhythms is another point of pure enjoyment. It’s utter bollocks, all of it, but the gothic diorama it presents has a certain gritty edge, there are cryptic references to the work of RD Laing and the Stanford Experiment, for those trying to sift out a lump or two, and one of the key players bursts into flames at the end. Something the film has not managed.
Stonehearst Asylum – Buy it/watch it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2015