How ironic was it to open Universal's '50 SHADES OF GREY' on Valentine's Day? That commercially-romantic holiday was actually the perfect timing for this commercially-romantic movie. Romantic? Yes, I was surprised as my female friend and I walked out of the first screening at the Landmark theatre when we both laughed at the same time. "I loved it," she said. "It was sexy, but in a kind of nice romantic way." She had read the book, I had not, and later over drinks she filled me in on the various ways the movie differed from the book. Which I will get to in a moment, but first I must comment on the enormous excitement which this movie has generated in the past few weeks. I know that some folks thought that Universal, had been crazy to spend $5 million to acquire the trilogy of erotic novels by E.L. James, but as a seasoned film producer I sensed it was a brilliant move to preempt the sizzle along with the smoke. The New York Times noted that the advance sales for the film in places you would never expect it to resonate were astonishing: the South and the Midwest- Mississippi, Arkansas, Kentucky, Alabama....the heart of the Bible-belt is waiting with bated breath for this sensual smash. They won't be disappointed...but I suspect they will still be open-mouthed. The paper notes that most of the advance sales are to women, and many females are going in groups to see it ...probably all readers of the books, which have sold some 100 million copies and been translated into 52 languages. The film opened in Europe on Wednesday and it seems that it is a huge success already in places like France, where its less-stringent rating board lets those 12 years old and older in to see it. Rightfully so, not here. It's not a kid's movie.
Yes, I know...the terms bondage, discipline, sadism, masochism,,,BDSM...a depiction of kinky sadomasochistic sex is confusing to most of us. Handcuffs and bonds and blindfolds are not in our everyday repertoire (at least not mine) but there is something deeply attractive to the concept which has drawn in the female half of this repressed nation. The female star of the film, Dakota Johnson, is the young daughter of Miami Vice TV star Don Johnson and actress Melanie Griffith. I once produced a movie, Underground Aces, about the guys who park cars at a Beverly Hills hotel, which featured a young Melanie as the cashier...and in Dakota I saw so many of the cute, quirky gestures characteristic of her mother. (I ran into Melanie and teen-ager Dakota at the Aspen airport a few years ago, and never would have guessed the next 'occasion' I would see Dakota would be in this film.) Dakota has been quoted as saying that she didn't want her parents to watch the film....fat chance of that, even though at Clive Davis' pre-Grammy party Melanie said she didn't think she would. She will, and she will be disturbed. The male star is Jamie Dornan, and his Christopher Grey is a successful Seattle businessman, part-time piano playing helicopter pilot with distinctly kinky 'bondage' tastes, tormented by demons and consumed by the need to control. In his recent interview in the British Guardian, the 32-year old Irishman, Dornan, was described as being one of the highest-paid male models in the world for more than a decade (dubbed the 'Golden Torso' by the New York Times). His prior claim to fame was in the acclaimed English TV series, The Fall, in which he plays 'an eerily-calm serial killer with grey snow-leopard eyes.' He usually sports a beard-stubble, but not in this new film. (For two years his girlfriend was Keira Knightley.)
When asked if he or his new wife (the singer-songwriter Amelia Warner, whom he married last year) had read the book before he signed for the film, he laughed and said no....but commenting on the current controversy, "The film is not the book. All I can say is, wait until you see it before passing judgement." The interview mentions that as part of his research, he went along to a BDSM dungeon in Vancouver where he watched a perfectly sweet and normal woman" enjoying being spanked. "There may well be a repressed side to some women who long for that kind of thrill in their everyday life," he's quoted, while also saying he is a feminist. About the controversy, was he worried that the film will glorify sexual violence against women? "I think it's very hard to argue that when it is all consensual. Half the book (which he has now read) is about making contracts. Permission and agreement that this be done. There's no rape, no forced sexual situations." The relationship between Ana and Christian is one of carefully-navigated mutual consent...actually involving a contract between the parties. In fact, the contract negotiations are one of the most interesting scenes in the film.
This is a movie about kinky, slightly- forbidden sex. The director, Sam Taylor-Johnson (a woman), described the mix between sex scenes and others as about 50-50, saying, "I think the sex scenes are integral to the story but they are not gratuitous, it tracks the story." I think she's being slightly disingenuous; the sex scenes are the movie, the plot is inconsequential. And, frankly, when I realized that there are only about 20 minutes of 'sex' scenes in a hundred-minute movie, I think she erred on the sanitary side. My friend told me that the book had about 40% sexual content. For example she told me that the most infamous moment in the book but not in the movie is the tampon scene (a removal) and the director said they never even considered it being included. The director has gone on record this week in an interview that she and the book's author (whose real name is Erika Leonard) had "proper on-set barneys about the sexual tone-down;" (that's British slang meaning they went at it tooth-and-nail), and from what I gather the author had unusually strong 'rights' to what was included. The author wanted more explicit sex and the director wanted more subtlety. One dispute was toward the very ending of the movie and one word which was spoken. My companion said the book and movie ended the same: Anastasia asks her wealthy lover to give her a good 'shellacking.' When he obliges, she recoils and leaves him. James, who wrote the original film script with Kelly Marcel ("Saving Mr. Banks"), said the final word in the scene should be 'stop.' But the director favored the last word as 'red,' which is used in the trilogy as a 'safe word.' (When you say that word, all activity must cease at once.) The author didn't approve....and her version is now seen. (The power of the written word.) My friend talked about a sexual 'jelly fish' chapter which was not in the movie. Dakota said today, describing the sex scenes, "it was not like a romantic situation..it's more, um, like technical and choreographed, and less - it's more like a task." (Someone should tell the young star to be less descriptive in her interviews.) My consensus is that Dakota is wonderful and Jamie is....adequate. I did miss the 'fire,' the spark which should have ignited between them. I wanted more fierceness, and this was a too-sanitized version of what could have been. My companion mentioned the ben-wa balls which were featured in the book and seen very briefly in the movie, and I may have blushed (me?) as I explained their use. Anastasia Steel (Dakota) is a fragile little virginal (but not for long) co-ed when we meet her. She is substituting for her sick roommate, Kate (Eloise Mumford) in interviewing the powerful guy for their school newspaper....but she ends up participating rather enthusiastically in the erotic insanity of the final product. We do see Christian going to the hardware store where Anastasia works after their first encounter and buying some objects which will play roles in the film: rope, cable ties, masking tape. About now in there we see a 'non-disclosure' agreement about his 'playroom' equipped with all sorts of S & M gear. Most girls would have run for the hills about now but not our Dakota. She was quoted in the Hollywood Reporter as saying, "She's actually stronger than he is. If I can be an advocate for women to...not be ashamed of what they want, then I'm all for that." (Me, too.)
In Jamie's British Guardian interview, he said, "There were contracts in place that said the viewers wouldn't be seeing my....todger." (Isn't that unfair discrimination?) In fact, we only see him for the most part with his pants on, an utter joke. The $40 million movie managed to slide through the MPAA's review process and get an "R" rating....for "unusual behavior." Really? The director was quoted in the Guardian as saying "the movie is not graphically explicit. I know this is going to disappoint some people. It's the build-up and titillation of touch and sensuality. So I don't think it goes into the realm of porn." Quel dommage (what a pity.) The music was well-chosen, mostly mood music by Danny Elfman, Beyonce's Haunted, and I remember a couple of the numbers....Ellie Goulding's "Love Me Like You Do," "Earned It" by the Weeknd, plus a little Annie Lennox, Skylar Grey, even some Sinatra. The use of "I Put a Spell On You" over opening credits works well. You have to be impressed by the production design of David Wasco and costume design by Mark Bridges, while Seamus McGarvey's cinematography makes perfect use of the Pacific Northwest terrain.
I am prepped for the two sequals which will inevitably follow, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed. I only ask that the filmmakers rethink their degree of sexual content....".more is less" is a fair aphorism. Put the books in all their sexuality on the screen.
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