-Reviews of Fifty Shades Freed, The 15:17 to Paris, and The Cloverfield Paradox

This week is a fun week of reviews. Fifty Shades Freed marks the third entry of a big franchise, The Cloverfield Paradox is a surprise release with some serious buzz about it, and The 15:17 to Paris is the latest from one of my favorite directors, Clint Eastwood.

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FIFTY SHADES FREED

Genre: Romance

Director: James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross, Fifty Shades Darker, At Close Range, After Dark My Sweet)

Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eric Johnson, Eloise Mumford, and Luke Grimes

with: Rita Ora, Victor Rasuk, Max Martini, Amy Price-Francis, and Marcia Gay Harden

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 13%

My Score:  (7.2/10)

-You know, it’d be so easy to just watch these movies and say I hate them to conform with the obvious trend. I could pick apart loose subplots that don’t ever tie together, or clunky line delivery as a result of a rushed script and an even more rushed production. It’d be so easy to give each of these three films a one-star rating and call it a day. I refuse! It’s my job to neglect my schoolwork and go watch “Fifty Shades” so I can’t talk about it!

We’re in a spot where the taboo of the first one wore off, and the last two films have really been romantic thrillers and not necessarily the soft-core escapade that many mainstream critics want you to believe. Again, it’d be so easy to look at Rotten Tomatoes and play along with the narrative that these aren’t good movies.

And, they really, really aren’t. They’re horrible. But they’re so horrible that they’re fun.

Also, I think part of what has made the critical reception to these films so negative is male insecurity. I think with any romance film, there’s a prevailing view that men aren’t supposed to like it. I find myself saying it; “my girlfriend is dragging me to Fifty Shades,” when I want to see it just as much. Christ, I’m two movies in, I want to know how it ends, right?

I think the other fact is that the author of the books stated that she based her initial idea off of Twilight fan fiction. If you want an easy excuse not to go beyond marketing and surface level, there it is: “how could this possibly be good if it’s like Twilight?” While I’m not here to pitch the books, I can say that it’s very easy to begin basing your work off of something else and then have it grow its own life. I want to be in a pop-punk band, so I’m going to listen to a lot of Green Day. I want to learn to paint, so I’m going to study Van Gogh. The fact that the author based her idea on Twilight shouldn’t be a carte blanche excuse to discredit the films before actually watching them.

I, believe it or not, do not go into movies to hate them. I actually go in to have fun, and love when a movie, or a series, pleasantly surprise me. The Fifty Shades trilogy of films is one of those surprises. This is isn’t a story of Bella and Edward in Twin Forks dealing with their teenage angst and sparkling skin. Instead, we actually end up getting two central leads, played by reputable actors, who develop a half-decent backstory and arc for their characters. The most important part of any multiple-movie series is to have decent characters, and while I’m not here to convince you that Christian Grey is Jon Snow and Ana Steele is Khaleesi, I can speak very positively about what the two lead actors do in their roles.

I’ve loved Jamie Dornan since seeing him in BBC’s “The Fall,” where he plays serial killer Paul Spector. It’s obvious why they picked him for the first film, because the Christian that we met back in 2015 was an isolated, calculated, cold, and emotionally withdrawn person. They managed over the last two films to make him more warm, and I can say from seeing Dornan on some late-night interviews that he’s a pretty charming and funny person. He manages to make the development of the character worthwhile.

The same can be said about Dakota Johnson, who has given excellent performances in recent years in movies like Black Mass, A Bigger Splash, and How to be Single. She was a shy and malleable college student who was intimidated by her new boyfriend’s wealth and sense of entitlement. We’ve watched her evolve into an independent, confident, rambunctious, and resourceful character over time.

The film sets us up with a montage of Christian and Ana’s honeymoon throughout Europe, when their trip is eventually cut short by arson back at Christian’s corporate building. Ana seems to think it’s her former boss who she got discharged for sexual harassment, but there’s no way of knowing for sure. (It’s totally him, guys. There are no other characters.) As a potential threat looms, Christian and Ana work on finding a new home to settle down in, and work on giving Christian some more emotional availability with Ana’s friends. A kidnapping and a potential pregnancy later, and we have some drama. I think Kim Basinger appears again as Christian’s cougar. I don’t remember.

While the first film was meant as this cultural phenomenon that was to build a taboo of erotica on the big screen, the last two films have just been enjoyable and pulpy erotic-thrillers-without-eroticism-so-I-guess-it’s-just-a-thriller-?. The first film was all about the hunter on the prowl (Christian) trying to ensnare the object of his affections (Ana). The director even managed to put several shots behind crates or boxed windows to give this caged-in feeling. We learn over time that Christian was an abused foster child, adopted into the perfect family where he didn’t belong. He has scars over his body from the physical side of the abuse and can’t bear to be touched by anyone. The clinical, controlling side of him was to avoid that feeling of helplessness. (No, I’m not going to complain about his love for kinky sex being part-in-parcel with spotty mental health. I’m not opening that can of worms.)

Anyways, he gets confused when Ana challenges him, calls him out on his behavior, and sarcastically points out his double standards. It takes her showing of strength in leaving him to conclude the first film to make him realize he wanted her back, but this time with the intent of pleasing her, not himself. Anyone who views the films as a sexist and demeaning look at women should look again, because Ana clearly has all the power in the relationship. By the start of the second film, we have a corporate, wealthy tycoon fawning over a poor college graduate in complete puppy love because she finally balances him out.

Now, in a way, this is all a bit exaggerated. I love the two central characters, but there are plotlines that never get tied together, and loose ends that undermine the actual good qualities of the films. There’s a psychotic ex with a gun, a former dominant turned cougar after Christian, a helicopter crash, and a marriage proposal all within one hour in the second film. While the first film was a well-shot, well-acted cultural phenomenon with plenty of detractors but some solid motifs, the second film was a movie with two good central characters and a scattershot plot that rarely works. This film improves on the problems of the second, and I think fits in nicely in the series.

There is one scene in specific, where the couple talks about their commitment to each other, and also to their future that was actually really good! It’s set throughout Ana getting ready for work, showing her independence and covering herself up from him, as he becomes more and more helpless. There is a power balance that this movie achieves that really works. Despite a bad plot and some bad writing, the actors make this as digestible as possible.

If the first film was representative of erotic fantasy, this movie is really closer to wealth fantasy, because we love Christian’s bank account and looking at all the cool things he likes to do, but the movie is much more straightforward about playing them as an actual couple. They’ve presumably known each other for over a year now, some of the sparks have fizzled, and the film allows these two characters to breathe and grow together as people. That really worked for me. They have good chemistry, and there were several times where I thought about how cute the scene was because it felt like a real couple and not a dude dragging someone unwittingly into a sex dungeon. It’s tough to replicate that in a movie with precision (the cuteness, I mean), and they manage to perform it effectively.

The films are shot with a really gorgeous eye. The costumes and settings are exciting. The characters are interesting. The actors are good and have chemistry. I guess my main point is, like the old saying, don’t judge a book by its cover. There’s a lot of nonsense in this series, but these movies are really fun to watch, and I think it’s a mistake to miss out on a decent movie romance with a decent amount of action and plenty of wealth escapism because insecure male critics say that it’s not worth your time.

Remember, if you enjoy watching the movie, it’s met its goal, and the majority of other stuff shouldn’t matter. This won’t be an awards contender, and I’m not arguing that it’s a movie as objectively well-made as another movie I’d give a 3.5/5, but if it keeps you engaged, it deserves a positive score. This is a fun 90 minutes of complete nonsense with a few fun performances!

That being said, this movie doesn’t give you a mute woman sleeping with a fish-man, so what do I know?

 

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THE 15:17 TO PARIS

Genre: War

Director: Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby, The Outlaw Josie Wales, Mystic River, High Plains Drifter, Letters from Iwo Jima, Flags of our Fathers, Play Misty For Me, Pale Rider, American Sniper, Space Cowboys) (and many more…)

Starring: Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos, Judy Greer, and Jenna Fischer

Rotten Tomatoes: 24%

My Score:   (4.9/10)

-Clint Eastwood, in addition to being a great movie star, has compiled a filmography of movies he’s directed that is among the best of all time. If you can see in the caption of this review, several of those films are complete classics, but they also represent the vision of a director who likes to push the boundaries a bit. I’m thinking specifically about releasing two war movies from opposite sides of the war in the same year with Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers,  but there are other examples. This time, he tells the story about the three American military members who stopped a mass shooter on a train to Paris before he could kill anyone by casting the Americans as themselves in the role.

The story focuses on these three young men (Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler, and Alex Skarlatos) who grew up as friends, taking a backpack trip through Europe. Two of them are military members. We spend some time getting to know them before they board the train to Paris, where a shooter has boarded the train and is prepared execute a horrific terror attack. When he reveals himself with a gun in the first train car, the three men spring to action and stop the shooter before he was able to actually kill anyone. Then, they save one of the victims’ lives through their medical training. It’s a true story, told through the eyes of the people who actually lived it.

Partially, this was a really interesting idea. We do get actors cast as them when they were kids, growing up wanting to join the military and playing “war” with each other. When they get older, we see their trials and tribulations, and their eventual commitment to the armed forces. As they backpack through Europe, we learn about what makes these guys’ tick, we learn about their personalities. This worked for me, mostly. The only problem is that they really cannot act.

If this were designed as a documentary with a few simulated scenes, I’d be more likely to be receptive to it, but in a dramatic, feature-length context, this movie really struggles to seem competently made. While the people in it are interesting, they really are not actors, and spend most of their time fumbling lines and not commanding the screen. So, for every cool location they visit, it gets partially bogged down by not being as believable as it should be. And it’s a true story!

The scene on the train was very well done. The movie’s single action set was really solid, and I completely felt like I was there. Eastwood executes this last twenty minutes very effectively.

I didn’t really take issue with the glorifying of the military, but I could see how someone could. The first forty-five minutes of the movie felt like a sales pitch to join the armed forces, with the kids wearing camouflage and showing off their toy guns. They talk about how their whole lives led up to them joining the forces, and Eastwood’s political side shows a little bit. It wasn’t enough for me to become annoyed, but it’s pretty obvious, and could be a reason why people are panning this movie instead of just saying (like I am) that it was slightly below average.

Also, you’ll never want to hear about a selfie stick again. This is a gag that really doesn’t work. If you see the film, you’ll know what I mean. Either way, it’s fine, just is hamstrung by the lack of solid actors and an odd pace.

 

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THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX

Genre: SciFi/Fantasy

Director: Julius Onah (The Girl is in Trouble)

Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Daniel Bruhl, John Ortiz, and Chris O’Dowd

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 18%

My Score: (4.3/10)

-With the surprise trailer release on Super Bowl Sunday, I was intrigued enough to give this movie a shot, a straight to Netflix release that hardly anyone knew even existed until the moment it appeared on the streaming service. The process which I will now dub the “Cloverfield Process” is one that makes me a little sick to my stomach. Instead of promoting an artist’s real work, with the idea of making original science fiction, Bad Robot (J.J. Abrams’s production company) bought this movie during production and added in extra scenes to connect a completely unrelated script to the “Cloverfield” universe, the same thing he did with 10 Cloverfield Lane a few years ago. Instead of being able to be excited for original science fiction properties, Bad Robot can just purchase them and decrease the movie’s quality by connecting it to Cloverfield too. Cool. I wish they had done that with Ex Machina and Arrival. Both of those needed a Clover monster in there too.

Not surprisingly, the movie around the Cloverfield subplot is not very good either, so the overall quality didn’t really suffer because of the studio meddling.

The movie deals with a particle accelerator managed out in space by a group of astronauts played by actors like Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Chris O’Dowd, Daniel Bruhl, and David Oyelowo. The hope is to create enough energy to help Earth remain sustainable, as it had begun to go through a bit of an energy crisis. I think we’re supposed to believe that this movie takes place in about 25 years.

A few scientists warned about this process, worrying that the energy given off by the accelerator would be enough to rip open space time and open Earth up to multi-dimensional threats. (There’re your monsters). When the crew ignites it, they end up in a different dimension and begin experiencing strange events, knowing that they need to get back home.

A few scenes in this film were delightfully scary, and I enjoyed the confined area of the spacecraft. Outside of this, I have nothing positive to say about this movie. The plot makes very little sense and is scattershot, breaking its own science-fiction rules several times over. It attempts to play with an interesting topic of multiple dimensions, but we end up not really understanding the events as they come. Then, we randomly cut away to one of the astronaut’s husbands dealing with the monster invasion on the ground surface. My question is: if we are supposed to believe that these alternate realities are close to the current one because of some general temporal proximity, then where do these monsters come from that have such a different pattern of evolution? It would’ve made more sense if they ended up in a dimension so far unlike their own that it was inhabited by these creatures. And if we are to believe that it created such a hole in space time that these multiple dimensions started interacting with each other, how come the only thing our astronauts come in contact with is a universe completely similar to their own? If someone could explain that, I’d appreciate it.

The visual effects are fine, the actors are all fine. It’s just that the performances run into the problem of the implausible story. Although there’s some occasional excitement, it’s short lived, and I would not recommend wasting your time streaming this just because of a surprise release gimmick or because it has the name “Cloverfield” in it.

 

 

Next week: Black Panther and some independent films

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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