Fifty Shades Darker: Movie Man Jackson

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She’s just a sucker for pain. When the world last saw Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), she had had enough of billionaire Christian Grey’s (Jamie Dornan) penchant for pain during intercourse. Ana has left Christian behind, and started to focus on herself, acquiring a job as a secretary for one of Seattle’s biggest publishers, SIP.

Christian isn’t ready to leave Ana behind, though, and reappears in her life offering to change. No contracts, or nothing she isn’t comfortable with. As the two attempt to navigate a more “vanilla” relationship, Christian’s complicated past makes this endeavor difficult.

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Call me an idiot or just too nice, but I was one of the people who didn’t believe that Fifty Shades of Gray was the worst thing modern cinema ever created. That’ s not certainly not to say it was a good or even passable movie, but it was watchable enough in stretches to go into the sequel, Fifty Shades Darker, with a relatively open mind. That didn’t last long. Working with a bigger budget, Fifty Shades Darker ends up being a much smaller and flaccid movie package.

One thing the first Fifty Shades of Grey possessed was fairly good cinematography and direction from Sam Taylor-Johnson, and a decent score and solid original music tracks. The actual production wasn’t that bad. But this go-around, “FSD,” directed by James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross), doesn’t stand out much from the average ABC Family or Oxygen film, minus the subject matter. It’s a very lifeless looking production that does nothing to titillate or stimulate, and the music chosen to accompany these “sexy” scenes ranges from corny to cringey. It’s bad the first time, by the 6th time, you’ll feel violated.

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The two lovebirds in Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan return, with passable chemistry, but not the white hot chemistry this movie needs to be effective. As in the previous movie, Dakota Johnson is by far and away the braver of the two stars once again, putting her entire body out to bare in embarrassing situations. If only her character was as strong as Dakota claims her to be, Fifty Shades Darker may have something.

Dornan bares a little more this go-around, and is a tad better than before with some more character meat. Unfortunately, his American accent slips pretty noticeably here and there, to the point where that’s all I was looking for. With that said (for better or worse), they are the best things about this sequel. Everyone else looks bored to be there (Bella Heathcote, Kim Basinger), or a little over-the-top (Eric Johhson). His role into the story is seen from a mile away; not sure if it is supposed to be.

One can get on the stars and the cast for lackluster acting, but the realization is, these aren’t talentless thespians. Two films deep now, probably not much of a stretch to say that the source material for the Fifty Shades novels is extremely shoddy. Some stories are better left in the book. The dialogue is almost always agonizing to listen to. I simply don’t believe there’s someone out there to make this sound even average, but couldn’t someone else be allowed to take a stab at the screenplay who wasn’t the author’s husband? One thing to exercise artistic control, another to not want to take any suggestions from other, possibly more experienced, people.

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As yours truly pressed on through Fifty Shades Darker, there was one thought that went through the mind: The emotional and physical pain that Ana experiences from Christian’s unconventional desires are nowhere near the levels of pain I experienced watching it unfold.

D-

Photo credits go to variety.com, eonline.com, and yahoo.com.

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She’s Gotta Have It: Movie Man Jackson

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(Originally posted as part of the Decades Blogathon 2016, hosted by Tom at digitalshortbread.com, and Mark at threerowsback.com. Another thanks for those two wonderful bloggers for having me!)

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When you’ve gotta have it, you’ve gotta have it. For young Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns), She’s Gotta Have It. It, for her, means sex. And not just sex with one guy. In Nola’s case, she’s having it with three guys: The rigid but good-natured Jamie (Tommy Redmond Hicks), the conceited yet cultured Greer (John Canada Terrell), and the pint-sized yet hilarious Mars (Spike Lee).

Each man offers something different, which is why she is unable to commit to only one. Eventually, each guy gets tired of being a spoke in the wheel, and each man is ready for Nora to be his sole queen. But is Nola ready?

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Now days, hearing the name Spike Lee doesn’t exactly inspire the best of thoughts, at least for yours truly. That’s not to say that he’s a bad guy, or terrible at his craft. I just feel like now, in the 21st century, one doesn’t necessarily think of his films, but rather, the individual. I’d be willing to bet that most people today, this blogger included, think about Spike Lee the New York Knicks fan, or outspoken political—sometimes to a fault—activist, rather than director.

She’s Gotta Have It is a reminder that Spike Lee, the director before all of the excess, was just a director cutting his teeth for the first time in a feature, putting his imprint on a movie. She’s Gotta Have It is permeated with an avant-garde style from the first moment on, unabashedly different from the rest in its style, approach, and storytelling.

Aside from an obvious reference to another movie in which leads to a transition in color, it is filmed primarily in black-and-white with what appears like a decision based purely on cost (reportedly $185,000). But, the aesthetic decision adds to the film’s style, as well as the jazzy soundtrack, and it being actually shot in Brooklyn. Even the sex scenes are shot with so much precision and care, and help to see how the main character can find so much pleasure in the act.

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Even though 1986 was a few years removed from the inundation of blaxploitation movies on the market, it was still a fairly big surprise to see a movie featuring nothing but black individuals in a setting that wasn’t a plantation or a ghetto. Lee’s characters, while not necessarily of great depth, are not entirely one-note, either. Through a documentary setup used at choice times, Spike allows the main characters to reveal a bit more about themselves than what would be afforded if it weren’t used. While this choice isn’t flawless in execution, and sometimes looks as if the actors are reading off of cue cards, this does forward the story enough and provides context to what is happening on screen. As another aside, it does leave to some humorous moments especially with Mars, played by Spike himself, who provides laughs at the right times in what could be a dull affair without it.

Written by Lee himself, the screenplay dealing with the essential themes of love versus lust and by extension, monogamy versus polygamy (minus the marriage) is simple, but fairly profound. Are humans designed to be with only one mate? Is it a bad thing for a woman to be with multiple partners? Why is it that males are thought of as studs and women whores when the situations are exactly the same? Perhaps the strongest aspect of Spike’s screenplay is his neutrality, as his final shot leaves it up to the viewer to determine if Nola is in the right or wrong, content or dissatisfied with her decision.

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Please baby, please baby, please baby, baby baby please!  She’s Gotta Have It may not be quintessential Spike Lee (depending on your viewpoint of the director, that may be a good thing, though) but it is one of his more accessible films. Still relevant, as well.

Grade: B+

Photo credits go to huffingtonpost.com, filmlinc.org, and screenrant.com.

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Learning to Drive: Movie Man Jackson

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“You can’t always trust people to behave.”

Wish my driver’s ed teacher was as sage-like as Ben Kingsley. For 21 years, Wendy (Patricia Clarkson), and Ben (Jake Weber) have been in holy matrimony. Those 21 years have been far from perfect, but somehow the two have been able to manage the occasional rough waters. However, their marriage comes to an abrupt end after Wendy finds out about Ben’s cheating. It is not so much her wanting to end the marriage, but him, actually.

With her daughter Tasha (Grace Gummer) up in the farmland of Vermont, Wendy is all alone in the Big Apple, and now, her inability to drive a vehicle is more of a problem than it was before, because it is the only way to see her daughter. She enlists the help of driving teacher, Darwan (Ben Kingsley), an Indian Sikh with his own love issues. The two find strength in one another, learning more than just driving.

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In this film, the title Learning to Drive means two things. The first meaning is of course super-obvious, dealing with the task of the main character being taught on how to operate a motor vehicle. The second meaning is an extension of the first, but ultimately, the film is about taking control of one’s own life, not being reliant on someone, some ideal, or some entity to get to a figurative destination. If you have an idea on the type of film Learning to Drive is by looking at the poster, it’s probably a correct one. But, if looking for a somewhat different romantic flick, it may be worth to give this a view.

Like most romantic movies, there is simply a level of sappiness that becomes a bit much, especially with the absence of laughs. LTD is billed as a light comedy after being a romance and drama, but the attempts at humor are rarely successful. Director Isabel Coiset and writer Sarah Kemochan waste no time in setting up the story; in less than five minutes husband and wife have broken up in the back of a cab. Sure, it is revealed later that they’ve had their spats before, but how and where it occurs comes off as forced. Really, it feels more rushed than it needs to be, which can be said for the ending as well.

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The middle portion doesn’t make for a spectacular movie, but it does make for a semi-charming and warm and fuzzy one. Aside from the oddly placed daydreaming sequences and a sex scene that doesn’t contribute to anything that occurs after it, it is really consistent in getting from point A to B. The best word to probably use is unassuming, or workmanlike. Perhaps the best praise that can be given is that though it is clear as to how it will end, writer and director refuse to end it like other similar movies. Instead of the romance being the sole focus, the companionship is. It is a wise decision, one that saves Learning to Drive from being embarrassingly sappy and improbable.

Not a big film, the brunt of the weight is carried by Patricia Clarkson and Sir Ben Kingsley, and the two share a chemistry that likely was cultivated from their last movie together in Elegy, also directed by Coiset. Clarkson is resilient when called for it, and vulnerable when asked to be. Good work is turned in by Kingsley, in a role that very easily could have been offensive or cartoony. Thankfully, it is written pretty well, and much is learned and discovered about Kingsley’s character, He’s as big of a focus as Clarkson is, and seeing his character’s approach to life in comparison to Clarkson’s character gives LTD some depth.

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Learning to Drive is just like, well, the process of learning how to drive. It can be predictable, and (hopefully), it ends in the way one expects with getting their license. But, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some surprises along the way. It’s a simple film, reliable and small, about the importance of being the driver of the vehicle called life.

Grade: B-

Photo credits go to usatoday.com and dailymotion.com.

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Lolita: Movie Man Jackson

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“I want you to live with me and die with me and everything with me!”

Everyone gets sprung at some point. It is just a fact of life. But getting sprung on a 14 year old as an older middle aged man? That is not exactly normal. And this is the premise of Lolita, based on the novel by Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita begins somewhat unconventionally, as a murder occurs in a mansion after quite the lengthy conversation. Quickly after, the film introduces Humbert Humbert, a professor from Europe moving to the U.S. for an instructional position. Needing a place to rent, he takes the offer served on a platter by Charlotte Haze, a widowed woman looking for some male companionship in her life. What sells him on the renting situation? Charlotte’s daughter, a 14 year old stunner named Lolita.

For some reason, there is something about this girl that drives males crazy, and Humbert is just the latest to fall victim. A love triangle ensues between Lolita, Humbert, and Charlotte. Despite being unattracted to Charlotte, Humbert will do anything to get closer to Lolita, even if that means marriage to the elder Haze. After some interesting circumstances, it looks as if Humbert will finally have Lolita all for himself. But when you’ve got what Lolita’s got, other men are always going to be lurking…

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Directed by the legendary Stanley Kubrick, Lolita is one of the works in his filmography that is often overlooked. It is one of his earlier full length films and at times, it shows. But, it is a pretty effective tale of uncomfortable romance mixed with parental overtones. Even today with stories of these situations in the news, it does not dull the effect of the film. While not necessarily uncomfortable to watch, it is still disturbing to think about a “romance” like this.

One would think that a movie dealing with this subject matter would be really heavy handed, and in this instance, nothing could be further from the truth. Lolita is really a comedy. Dark comedy sure, but comedy nonetheless. There is something inherently humorous seeing the depths as to which James Mason’s character of Humbert will go to appease, and be with Lolita. Some of his reactions to various occurrences within the story are comedic gold; namely there is one scene that is forever etched into my brain. Both he and Charlotte are hilariously pathetic in their pursuit of their intended targets. Additionally, there are many subtleties nestled in-between dialogue that sort of serves as a middle finger by Kubrick to the MPAA, who forced Kubrick to tone down the film.

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Lolita is an adapted screenplay from the novel. At the core it is roughly the same story, but many and sometimes key details found in the novel are either removed or tweaked to a certain extent. I have never read the book, but after viewing comparisons between the two mediums used to tell the story, it does appear that Kubrick could have expounded on a few more elements.

For one, it is never told why Humbert immediately takes a liking to Lolita. It is quickly assumed as “love at first sight,” but there is no indication that he is into this type of thing, it just happens which seems a bit odd. Some narration on Humbert’s part would have alleviated this problem, and Kubrick does use it but not enough. The story is told from Humbert’s perspective, so why not take full advantage of that fact? As far as the pacing goes, some scenes drag on longer than needed. The banter between characters is generally entertaining but a few times the dialogue sorely needed to be shortened.

During its nomination year, Lolita received many well-deserved nominations, mainly for acting. James Mason possesses a cool and regal persona throughout this movie, and does so while providing humor and drama. Shelley Winters serves as the harlot’s mother, and her efforts go unrecognized in comparison to others. She brings an awkwardness to the movie, but at the same time is able to make the audience feel her pain. Between seconds she is able to switch from starved and desperate to a wretched woman. Peter Sellers was one of the great comedic actors of his time, and his portrayal as the mysterious Clare Quilty is memorable, albeit too eccentric and over the top in moments.

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But Sue Lyon steals the show in the title role. Mind you, this was her first every acting performance, and at 14 she never appears out of place with legends on the screen. She possessed a sort of hypnotic gaze that seizes the viewer’s attention and tells a story of a girl knowing way too much about the world than she should at her particular age.

Kubrick was always praised for his unique and innovative directing. With that said, do not go into this expecting amazing cinematography on par with his later stuff in his catalog. Many scenes are shot and then fade to black, leaving what happens to the viewer’s imagination as Kubrick had to be really careful with the content. That is not to say there are not extremely well done shots, as Kubrick definitely knows when to use certain camera angles and how to hold a shot. As a whole though, this is one of his more “basic” works from a technical standpoint.

Lolita is ultimately not as well crafted as Kubrick’s subsequent films, and does drag occasionally. While probably not as shocking as it was in 1962, it is still worth a watch for its controversial subject matter and all-around great acting work.

Grade: B-

Photo credits go to en.wikipedia.org, movieposters.2038.net, styleweekly.com, and watch32.com

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Her: Movie Man Jackson

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“Sometimes I think I have felt everything I’m ever gonna feel.”

We’ve seen this central theme before of the relationship of technology to humans, but never quite like this. Spike Jonze’s Her centers around a introverted, soon-to-be divorced man by the name of Theodore Twombly who has become quite lonely and reticent in his separation from his wife. After seeing an ad trumpeting the newest operating system (OS) that can be everywhere at once, Theodore purchases one and boots it up. This OS, self-named Samantha (in two one-hundredths of a second!), and Theo immediately start engaging in conversation, and from here, a friendship, and eventual relationship, is spawned.

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As Theodore Twombly, Joaquin Phoenix once again shows his acting prowess. He is, quite simply, one of the best actors in Hollywood today. I have not seen all of his acclaimed movies, but from what I have seen he knows just how much is needed for each role he undertakes. For most of this movie, it is only him on the screen, and as a viewing audience, we have to be engaged in his plight. Much of the movie will fail if we are not invested. Within the first few minutes, you will be. At least I was. Make no mistake, Mr. Twombly is the heart of this movie.

Every heart needs a soul, and the soul of this movie belongs to Samantha. What is quite odd is that Samantha possesses no body or even a face. Scarlett Johansson relies on her voice to convey the emotion that Samantha is feeling at any given time. You know how they say a picture is worth a thousand words? In this film, a voice is worth a thousand images. Never did I wonder what Samantha was feeling, and this is a testament to ScarJo, who was very deserving of an Oscar nomination. Sadly this did not occur, as Her may be her finest work since Lost in Translation. What isn’t lost in translation is the chemistry between the two leads. Easily, this is some of the greatest chemistry I have ever seen on film, period. As for the other “main” characters to the story, Amy Adams, Chris Pratt, and Roomey Mara are all more than capable when given the time in the movie, but they do take a backseat to Scarlett and Joaquin.

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As stated earlier, we have seen this type of theme before, but never done this way. The main reason I really, really enjoyed this movie was its refusal to be bound by one genre. Sure, at the core, it is a romance. But with that said, it really is genre-bending. One minute I was laughing, another reflective, and another minute introspective. It manages to cross across romance, drama, comedy, and even sci-fi without compromising anything.

The movie itself is beautiful from a technical standpoint. Jonze has crafted a film that isn’t too different from ours if you think about it, and when watching, I could easily see this scenario playing out in the future. There are some really, really stellar shots and edits that effectively portray the mood that certain characters are feeling. Spike Jonze has an extremely deft hand, both script-wise and directing-wise. The soundtrack aids the gorgeous visuals; everything just clicked into place and enhanced each scene. I’m pretty sure I became an Arcade Fire fan after this movie.

There aren’t really many negative things I can say about this film. It is slow, but anyone going into this movie should expect this. At times when watching this movie, suspension of disbelief may be something that some may not be able to overcome. But, don’t most movies require us to suspend our disbelief anyway?

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This film is original, fresh, intelligent, and deserves every nomination and every award it is going to get.

Grade: A-

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