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FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

I requested "Fifty Shades of Grey" out of pure morbid curiosity. I'm not even sure why I'm reviewing it because a negative assessment will not turn away the book's many fans who also became the film's many fans. ($94-plus million its opening weekend and a USA gross of over $166 million pretty well guaranteeing the two follow-up novels will hit the big screen as well.) On the other hand, if I had liked it I doubt I could have persuaded anyone uninterested in an updated "Story of O" to pick up the disc. The story as you might possibly know has Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) meet cute with billionaire businessman Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) when she trips over the carpet while entering his office to interview him for the college newspaper (she falls for him on first sight, get it?). She conducts the worst interview ever; while this should suggest she reconsider journalism as her career choice instead she fascinates Grey and he pursues her – let's be honest here: he stalks her, probes into which men she knows might be her boyfriend and starts bossing her around about drinking too much and other personal matters. Now if you can't detect an abusive personality there, you'll probably be shocked, (shocked!) when it transpires that he gets his sexual jollies from sado-masochistic activities and that he's a dominant. Still she's fascinated – or so the film insists is the case. Neither Johnson or Dornan provide much evidence that they're smitten with each other; in fact both give such low-key performances I wondered if I hadn't been sent a zombie movie by mistake.

Possibly "Fifty Shades of Grey's" biggest blunder is that it's just plain boring. Now I haven't read the book (some quotes in a Dave Barry column were more than enough to convince me I didn't want to wade through writing that verged on the illiterate) but presumably sexual matters were hotter there and the BDSM acts depicted onscreen have been toned down to garner an R rating. I also have never had any first-hand knowledge of BDSM so I can't speak to the accuracy of the acts depicted or the relationship between dominant and submissive shown onscreen. However, on one occasion, Grey coerces Ana's consent by means of alcohol and in our present society that is considered rape. On another occasion, he continues administering pain after she has signaled him to stop. No means no, remember? So what we have here is a book and a film that glorifies and romanticizes an abusive relationship, not unlike the "Twilight" series, and, like the "Twilight" series, a bafflingly huge number of women are lapping it up. Why? Technically the film is well-done, with impressive production design and striking photography. In that it is better than the book, but that still doesn't mean it's good.

2015 / Universal Studios Home Entertainment / 129, 126m / $?? BR+DVD [NR, R]

CYMBELINE

"Cymbeline" is one of the Bard's least known and least performed plays possibly because no one is quite sure what to make of it. Sometimes classified as a tragedy (though the only two characters who die are villains) and sometimes a romance; others see it as a parody of certain theatrical offerings of Shakespeare's time. It is a play of wild coincidences and a profusion of sub-plots and counter-plots; characters disguise themselves, as in the comedies (a princess even passes herself off as a boy) and there's one story thread involving a wicked queen (and described in the dialogue as such) who attempts to have her step-daughter murdered by a servant and, barring that, poison her (shades of Snow White). It also involves said step-daughter in love with a man not of her dad's choosing and that father, king of Britain in the original, in a contest with the occupying Roman forces. It even has a dream sequence where Jupiter descends on an eagle and fires off lightning bolts! Michael Almereyda excludes that in his modern adaptation that has Cymbeline (Ed Harris) as the head of a motorcycle gang facing off against corrupt police (led by Vondie Curtis-Hall). A secondary storyline has his adopted son Posthumus (Penn Badgley) and his daughter Imogen (Dakota Johnson) in love; Cymbeline would rather she marry his second wife's (Milla Jovovich) son from a previous marriage (Anton Yelchin). For no particularly good reason, there's a further sub-plot in which a rogue (Ethan Hawke in a decidedly supporting role despite his billing) tries to prove Imogen unfaithful to Posthumus, despite no discernible motive for doing so.

This modern setting of "Cymbeline" is a decidedly low-budget affair, not unlike Joss Whedon's modern version of "Much Ado About Nothing" (which he filmed in his house and gardens). Sometimes a modern setting can bring new meanings to Shakespeare's plays (Orson Welles' modern dress "Julius Caesar" became an anti-fascist commentary); I'm not so sure that's the case here though the modern setting and the cast might expose the Bard to many who otherwise have only encountered his works in boring high school English classes. The trim running time slices the text to the bone – sometimes only snippets of dialogue remain of scenes – and while the cast does an admirable job of making the antique language flow naturally, few of them really inhabit it. Only Yelchin, delivering another terrific performance, truly imbues his loutish slimeball) who shows up drunk at the breakfast table) with real life. And things are just played entirely too straight for this lunatic conglomeration of plotlines (the finale even involves lost children reunited with a parent); it needs more outrageousness or more camp. (Jovavich at least seems to be in on the joke and her queen is played in full-out diva mode.) Don't get me wrong, there are many good things here but I couldn't help feeling that "Cymbeline" just ever so slightly misses the mark.

2014 / Lionsgate / 98m / $19.98 [R]

JESS FRANCO
Vampyros Lesbos
She Killed in Ecstasy (Sie totete in Ekstase)

A recent home video release of a film by Jess Franco, the late Spanish director, carries a quote on the box proclaiming him " the most important figure in the history of cinema!" So much fort those over-rated hacks Sergei Eisenstein, Michael Powell, Jean Cocteau, Howard Hawks, Akira Kurozawa, Orson Welles, Federico Fellini and their ilk. The most important film director who ever lived is one who cranked out just one production shy of 200 low-budget exploitation titles (including porno) on breakneck schedules. As that count might suggest he didn't linger long over any of them but where I see sloppiness and incoherence others see surrealist poetry and deeply profound symbolism. In "Vampyros Lesbos," a gender-switched adaptation of "Dracula." That symbollism includes a red kite bobbing in the breeze when Countess Nadine Carody (Soledad Miranda) mentally summons Linda Westinghouse (Ewa Stromberg) to her island home. (There are also inserts of a scorpion scuttling about and a white moth fluttering on a window screen. Presumably these represent the Countess and Linda respectively; they definitely eat up a good deal of screen time.) Linda heads to the island on behalf of her employers to settle an inheritance the Countess has gotten from her friend Count Dracula (as close as the film ever comes to acknowledging its source) and before you can say Sappho the two women are rolling about naked on the beach.

Further proof of the director's real interest is at the start of the film with a bizarre cabaret performance where the Countess, in minimal attire, removes some of her clothing and places it on a nude woman standing (mostly) as still as a statue before vampirizing her. Why the Countess should be performing in a nightclub remains unaddressed. Equally baffling is a pointless role played by the director himself as a man whose wife has been claimed by the Countess – she is now a la Renfield in an asylum run by Dr. Seward (Dennis Price, a long way from "Kind Hearts and Coronets). For no good reason, he has taken to murdering women. Frankly, there's a good deal here that doesn't make a lick of sense; Franco apologists claim it is because he was exploring dreamscapes but I'm more of the opinion that he just didn't give a hoot as long as there was ample opportunity for female nudity. Admittedly this film could be classified as experimental, and I would be okay with that if it didn't have such a lugubrious pace, show more interest in softcore girl-on-girl action than on telling a story, and feature pointless use of the zoom lens and unnecessary establishing shots. Franco has a keen eye so there are many beautifully realized compositions and he knows how to use décor effectively but ultimately the film is a snore.

"She Killed in Ecstasy" is no more exciting. I watched it back-to-back with "Vampyros" and never has a double feature given me greater guilt that I wasn't doing something more productive with my time, such as folding laundry. Soledad Miranda returns, this time portraying the vengeful wife of a man driven to suicide. Seems the guy was involved in some unorthodox medical research and he has been denounced by his colleagues (led by Franco slouching through his usual somnambulistic performance and Franco regular Howard Vernon giving his role more than it deserves) and barred from practicing medicine. Now back in the day had Bela Lugosi or George Zucco been faced with such a dilemma they would have created a giant vampire bat or a werewolf and put paid to their enemies (and the result would have been a far more exciting movie) but this wimp takes a straight razor to his wrists. That leaves it for his wife to seduce and kill the old meanies, giving us the obligatory nudity. Franco could never be accused of originality and the resemblance to Francois Truffaut's "The Bride Wore Black" is blatantly obvious. Examples of Franco's "dream logic" here include one victim recognizing the doctor's missus when she's in disguise but not when she's undisguised. She's also able to keep her late husband's corpse around the house even though it seems everyone knows he's dead. But let's face it, as long as the flick delivered the Euro-sleaze goods, neither Franco nor his audience cared.

1970 / Severin Films / 89m, 80m /$34.95 each BR [NR]

SAGRADA, THE MYSTERY OF CREATION (Sagrada, el Mysteri de la Creacio)

The Sagrada Familia cathedral of Barcelona was begun in 1882 and has yet to be completed. If that seems amazing consider that Notre Dame de Paris, arguably the most famous cathedral on the planet, has never been finished either. Unlike Notre Dame the Sagrada Familia is still being worked on and chances are good that it will be finished. Someday. It is one of the oddest Gothic structures – no, make that THE oddest. With its conical towers and the profuse statuary on its facades it looks more like an East Indian temple than a Catholic church; the carved leaves adorning the Nativity façade complete that appearance. It began as a more conventional chapel but architect Antonio Gaudi took over the project; as much genius as madman he let his imagination run riot. He decided to retain the initial construction and create a fantastical monument to God around it. Gaudi's work is characterized by its curving, Art Nouveau lines based on the shapes he'd observed in nature and many of his buildings look more as though they'd grown rather than been constructed. There aren't that many of his works around because the Sagrada Familia, which he took over at age 31, soon became an obsession and his only project. He even moved into a completed portion.

Work until recently has proceeded in fits and starts, mostly due to funding issues. World War One and the Spanish Civil War also saw slow-downs. In the period following the civil war, when General Franco and his fascists took over the country, churches were burnt. Somehow the Sagrada Familia was left untouched but all of Gaudi's drawings that could be found were burnt and his models smashed. Work eventually resumed based on the few drawings that had survived, photographs of the models and painstaking reconstruction of the pieces of the smashed models. Much of the work being done now is theoretical and some of it bears little resemblance to anything Gaudi might have conceived. But the architect was aware that construction would outlast him and expressed the desire that new developments in art and architecture be incorporated into the structure. The conglomeration of styles and methods makes for a result as cockamamie as it is beautiful. There's no doubt it will be finished some day; the cathedral has become Barcelona's top tourist attraction and the fees from the tours guarantee that work will continue – a far cry from when Gaudi went door-to-door begging for alms to keep things going. Seeing as how I won't be getting to Barcelona any time some (or ever for that matter) Stefan Haupt's documentary is a fascinating look at one of the world's most eccentric buildings.

2012 / First Run Features / 94m / $27.95 [NR]

THESE FINAL HOURS

The end of the world is not a jolly subject but it is one that has occupied filmmakers from time to time. The earliest, to my recollection, is Abel Gance's 1931 "La fin du monde," supposedly based on one of Edgar Allan Poe's more obscure works. Like that film "These Final Hours" depicts an earth already mostly destroyed by a comet that is orbiting the earth as it descends and creating firestorms that wipe out everything on the surface (presumably the seas also boil creating a mammoth bouillsbaisse). The populace reacts in various ways. Some commit suicide to avoid what will certainly be a nasty end, others go for a final party of sex, drugs and rock and roll and still others indulge in homicidal mayhem. (Presumably some engage in prayer, as in Gance's film, but director Zac Hilditch gives us scant evidence of that.) After some farewell sex with one girlfriend James (Nathan Phillips) heads off to be with his other girlfriend at one of those end of the world blasts. Along the way he witnesses 11-year-old Rose (Angourie Rice) being abducted by two pervs intending to bid the world farewell while raping a prepubescent. Reluctantly, James rescues the girl (his conscience ultimately gets to him) only to find out she insists he take her back to where she was waiting for her dad to return with petrol for their car. When there's no sign of dad, she insists he take her to her aunt's house where dad will surely be waiting.

Neither of the two main characters is exactly a prize package. James is self-absorbed and determined to get to his party (he even thinks he can palm the kid off on someone there) while Rose is a bossy little thing, to put it mildly. Only when the girl's life is imperiled at the party does their prickly relationship transform mostly because James starts caring about other people, including his sister and his mother, both of whom he stops to visit on his way to Rose's aunt's house. Mom (a lovely turn from Lynette Curran) is determined to finish some jigsaw puzzles before the inevitable occurs (and put a serious dent in her stock of wine while she's at it). The writing throughout (also by Hildritch) is wonderful but this particular sequence is delicious and Phillips and Curran are superb in it. There's no last-minute reprieve here – sorry folks if that's a spoiler – but "These Final Hours" is more a celebration of life and the human connections that matter to us, particularly in James' emotional growth but also in a surprising decision that Rose makes. The ending is poignant and beautiful, not unlike the firestorm that envelops the characters. If you pass on this title just because it has a sad ending, that's your loss.

2013 / Well Go USA / 87m / $29.98 BR [NR]

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