The relationship status of Christian and Anastasia continues to be “It’s Complicated” in James Foley’s not-as sloppy-seconds-as-you’d-think sequel Fifty Shades Darker (C+). Dakota Johnson and Jaimie Dornan actually improve a bit on their original portrayals of a couple from different sides of the track marks, as they advance their unusual romance against the demons of his dysfunctional past. It’s perplexing, but they make the far-fetched characters relatable. The struggle to tame this wounded billionaire is real, and sometimes he earns a little Red Room. Overlong and oddly paced most of the time, this erotic thriller could have used some whips, chains and clamps in the editing room. The final act begins to progress like a season of a campy eighties nighttime drama (Falcon Breast?). In a particularly saucy role as a BDSM mistress who keeps showing up to warn Ana about Christian like a Dickensian apparition, Kim Basinger seems to cast all fifty forms of shade. The movie is beautifully filmed, a kind of love letter to Seattle through the spherical lens of Ben Wa. There’s even an homage to Johnson’s real-life mom with a line right out of Working Girl as Ana advances in her publishing company. The cliffhanger in the original didn’t prompt much interest in this sequel, but Foley tarts things up enough this go-around that he may indeed have built interest in bringing on a third.
For about half of its duration, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey (C) maintains a fairly respectable sense of intrigue about whether its bookish co-ed (Dakota Johnson) and her unlikely business magnate boyfriend (Jamie Dornan) will indeed be an ideal match, despite his S&M tendencies. Alas the film gets tied up in fifty shades of loose plot-ends and considerably mounting degrees of absurdity. For a while a meet-cute romance and then a bit of an erotic thriller, the film seems to be at a loss for what it all is supposed to add up to by the final reel. It’s fine to tease the notion of “how far would you go for love?” but then you have to actually answer that question. The two leads are game for the pulpy page-turner quality until they are stuck in a puzzle box that neither illuminates their cardboard characters nor elicits any real answers on theme. With all its talk of negotiations and contracts, it practically had the ambition of at least becoming an Indecent Proposal or Disclosure level pop opus, but it fizzles and flails in most regards. Supporting characters are introduced and summarily dismissed, and the sexy sequences total about seven. And they’re not even as deadly sinful as many viewers will be hoping. Let’s just say the film is likely to leave folks wanting, and not in the ways they may wish.
An exotic ode to love, art and revenge, Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book (A) stars Vivian Wu as a Japanese model in search of lovers who will paint on her body as part of their mating ritual with her. One of these men is a British translator played by Ewan McGregor, and a romantic entanglement that soon erupts due to betrayal and blackmail leads the plot down a variety of unexpected passageways. Greenaway’s innovative uses of popular music, multimedia effects, calligraphy and chapter settings, sensory illusions and uncensored erotic imagery makes this one of the most resonant and resplendent films to blossom on screen in years. This is one for the dreamers.
Director David Cronenberg uses car crashes as a stand-in for unusual fetishes, but his focus on this type of auto-erotica seems like more a delirious dissertation than an actual real thing in Crash (C-). Nonetheless, James Spader, Holly Hunter and a game ensemble sell the heck out of the high-concept. But there’s only so long the hang-up on bang-ups can sustain.
Willem Dafoe, the incredibly modern actor from The Last Temptation of Christ, was tempted by unknown forces – perhaps the promise of co-star Madonna and candle wax – to headline the embarrassingly bad Basic Instinct knockoff Body of Evidence (D). Director Uli Edel orchestrates sex scenes and courtroom scenes with equal incompetence. Ann Archer’s poor performance is the only thing that makes Madonna’s acting appear competent. The plot about a woman accused of killing a wealthy lover during an especially naughty encounter is almost incidental; it was all S&M — shallow and meaningless.
Basic Instinct (C-) is a self-consciously shocking thriller from Robocop director Paul Verhoeven. Its highlight is a fresh, fierce performance from Sharon Stone as a cunning ice pick wielding femme fatale with a penchant for being panty-less and being oddly nonchalant about homicide. Both her creaky co-star Michael Douglas and Joe Eszterhas’s lumpy screenplay (“She’s evil…and brilliant!”) are no match for Stone’s one-woman show. Underdeveloped plot and characters leave the high-gloss affair oddly un-erotic and un-involving despite some undeniably guilty pleasure moments.
Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (A-) is a startling drama, all taking place in the confines of a swanky restaurant in which the colors of the characters’ costumes change in each room. This allegory features Helen Mirren and Michael Gambon as the central couple. She is an abused wife (the husband evidently is a symbol of Margaret Thatcher) who falls into the hands of the so-called “lover,” who represents intellectual dissidents. A secret love affair ensues right under the same roof where the brooding husband holds court each night over his feast. Greenaway films the movie in fleshy primary colors and uses Michael Nyman’s orchestral music to propel the story forward during the course of a series of days. All sorts of deceit and decadence are on the menu as the film swells to its stirring conclusion. It’s an obsessive and amazing film, not for the easily offended.