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FIFTY SHADES FREED

Producer: Michael De Luca, E.L. James, Dana Brunetti and Marcus Viscidi
Director: James Foley
Writer: Niall Leonard
Stars: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eric Johnson, Rita Ora, Luke Grimes, Victor Rasuk, Jennifer Ehle, Marcia Gay Harden, Eloise Mumford, Max Martini, Arielle Kebbel, Brant Daugherty, Amy Price-Francis and Tyler Hoechlin
Studio: Universal Pictures

F

The third—and one devoutly hopes, last—installment in the franchise filmization of E.L. James’s novels on the Lifestyles of the Obscenely Rich and Emotionally Stunted begins with the grossly ostentatious wedding of mogul Christian Grey (Jamie Doran) and his mousy lover Anastasia (Dakota Johnson), but marriage does not resolve all the issues between them.

For one thing, though he takes Ana off on wonderful trips to exotic locales in his big plane, Christian doesn’t want her showing too much skin on the beach. Nor does he appreciate her choosing to continue using her maiden name as the new fiction editor at the publishing firm where she insists on continuing to work. She doesn’t want to “lose her identity,” you see. But he sheepishly concurs.

The bigger disagreement, though, is about having children. She wants to; he says he does too, but not right now. That will cause a rift between them, especially since—as Ana notes—things happen when people have a lot of sex, as they do, even when they are taking precautions (or claim to be doing so, at least).

As for that sex, it’s sometimes of the regular variety, but often involves trips to the duo’s famous red room, where it takes more playful forms, shall we say. You know what those are from previous episodes in the franchise.

All of that pales, though, beside the fact that someone is threatening the pair. “Fifty Shades Freed,” you see, wants to be a thriller as well as a piece of soft-core erotica, but totally fails as either. The sex scenes are remarkably tame—a bit of skin here, a dollop of domination there—and timidly dull. As for the stalker plot, it allows for a car chase through the streets of Seattle (not very well executed, it must be said), but quickly deflates because the perpetrator—a former boss of Ana’s called, none too subtly, Hyde (Eric Johnson)—is revealed very early on.

Sometimes that twist can work—think of a film like “Vertigo,” for instance. But for it to do so, it needs a master like Hitchcock at the helm, and James Foley, though he made a few interesting pictures early in his career, is far from being one. He lets the supposedly suspenseful plot thread dribble on tediously until he tries to tie it all up in a poorly-managed twist that involves a kidnapped family member and a race to save her. It doesn’t help that the villain’s motivation, when finally revealed, is utterly ludicrous. It might be noted that in all this the high-priced security team in the Greys’ employ proves supremely inept and stupid, but no more so than the people who hired them.

Visually this dreary nonsense is presented like a glossy but dull magazine spread, the luminous cinematography of John Schwartzman designed to obscure the sheer vacuity of what’s being depicted—including the performances (to use the term loosely) of Dornan, whose bland stiffness never varies, and Johnson, whose idea of acting appears to consist in screwing up her face in kewpie-doll pouting to suggest emotional turmoil. Both are matched by Johnson, who huffs and sneers in a failed effort to appear menacing. The rest of the cast—including proven talents like Marcia Gay Harden—are utterly wasted, especially Rita Ora, who’s compelled to endure sheer humiliation in the terrible last act.
Overly languid editing by Richard Francis-Bruce and Debra Neil-Fisher, which seems designed to linger over Schwartzman’s ogling of Nelson Coates’s production design and Shay Cunliffe’s costumes, as well as the succession of awful pop music tracks (Danny Elfman’s original score being virtually invisible) cap an indigestible cinematic meal.

It should be added that “Fifty Shades Freed” adds a postscript suggesting an idyllic future for the Greys. But one has to wonder whether all the kinks in their relationship—if you’ll pardon the expression—can be so easily ironed away.

As bad as the first two episodes in this series were, this final installment is the worst. Every person buying a ticket should really be issued a personal safe word, to be used to bring the movie to a halt when it becomes intolerable. That could have saved a lot in production costs, since fifteen minutes of footage would probably have been enough to cover all comers.

BRIGHT

Producer: David Ayer, Eric Newman and Bryan Unkeless
Director: David Ayer
Writer: Max Landis
Stars: Will Smith, Joel Edgerton, Noomi Rapace, Lucy Fry, Edgar Ramirez, Ike Berinholtz, Happy Anderson, Jay Hernandez, Enrique Murciano, Brad William Henke, Andrea Navedo, Veronica Ngo, Alex Meraz, Margaret Cho and Dawn Olivieri
Studio: Netflix

F

Coming in just under the wire for consideration as the worst movie of the year, this big-budget Netflix original mashes “Alien Nation” together with “Lord of the Rings” and “Training Day” to contrive a mess of apocalyptic proportions, a black hole of a movie that sucks all life from the screen.

In David Ayer’s ill-titled “Bright” (shot in such dark, murky tones by cinematographer Roman Vasyanov that it’s often impossible to discern what’s going on—though one shouldn’t complain when Andrew Menzies’ production design is so unattractive), Will Smith, giving his most slapdash performance ever, swaggers and shouts mindlessly through the role of Daryl Ward, a tough L.A. cop returning to work after being injured—the result, he believes, of having been paired with the department’s first orc policeman, inept Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton). L.A., you see, is the same urban dystopia familiar from Ayer’s previous movies, but now its population is even more diverse, including orcs, elves and fairies as well as various human ethnic groups. That simply magnifies the hostilities on the streets.

Max Landis’ plot kicks in when a bunch of corrupt cops try to kill off Ward and Jakoby but fail, and our mismatched buddies are left leaving a bloody crime scene in possession of a magic wand (no kidding!) and a terrified young woman named Tikka (Lucy Fry). They will be pursued by various forces—a rabid Latino gang led by a snarling wheelchair-bound boss named Poison (Enrique Murciano), an orc gang under beefy Dorghu (Brad William Henke), and an FBI team headed by an elf named Kandomere (Edgar Ramirez) and his assistant Montehugh (Happy Anderson). But their most dangerous pursuer by far is Leilah (Noomi Rapace), the evil Bright to whom the wand belongs; she wants to retrieve it so that she can employ its power in service to The Dark Lord, who intends to enslave the earth’s populace to do his bidding—or something like that.

What follows is a succession of confrontations with the various pursuers—including lots of random gunfire, fisticuffs, “enhanced interrogations” and—inevitably—plenty of chintzy special effects as the wand issues blasts of destructive blue light. There are also numerous deaths—one of a sheriff played by Jay Hernandez in a pointless cameo—and, apparently to balance them out, a couple of resurrections. It hardly constitutes a spoiler to reveal that the good guys win, the forces of evil are defeated, and the world survives, though having glimpsed the condition of Los Angeles in the movie, one must wonder whether it deserves to. The cascade of incoherent violence is sloppily thrown together by editor Michael Tronick, though to be fair it’s unlikely that anybody could have made much sense of Ayer’s footage.

“Bright” also tries to use the neighborhood-against-neighborhood scenario as the basis for commentary on the racial, ethnic, economic and—in this context—species prejudices that prevail in society, but frankly its treatment of such matters is so crude that no one could derive any positive message from it. Poison is such a revolting figure, for instance, and his band of followers so gruesomely brutal, that it’s difficult not to find the stereotyping appalling.

Smith ambles through all the mayhem and nonsense without the slightest nuance, beginning with a grotesque episode in which he cavalierly beats an annoying fairy with a broom and ending with the inevitable medal-receiving ceremony. It’s as if he’s letting you know he was in this turkey for the paycheck and nothing else. But he’s still identifiable, and therefore easily blamed. It’s easier for Edgerton, who’s encased in so much makeup that he’s actually unrecognizable. He does have to deliver his dialogue with those inverted fangs attached, though, which can’t have been easy, especially in his big, anxious admission to Kandomere at the end, which must have been a real chore to attempt in a single take. Rapace’s slinky villainess is comically dreadful, and Murciano’s murderous thug embarrassing, but Henke actually brings an imposing presence to Dorghu. As for Fry, she looks like a frazzled escapee from a bad rock band. Margaret Cho has a cameo as the boys’ desk sergeant, but nothing comes of it.

Netflix has made some interesting smaller films before now, but this attempt to match the major studios’ big action pictures is all too successful: it’s even more ghastly than most of them are.