Friday, May 15, 2015

Review: UNFRIENDED: Self and Selfability

The line that weighed most heavily with me from Blair Witch Project was: "I'm scared to close my eyes. I'm scared to open them." Can't look. Can't look away. Multiply that by the immersion of youth into communications technology that has happened since and you get this film.

Beautiful Blair, one of her school's alpha chicks, is languidly teasing her boyfriend Mitch through a Skype screen. He's horny and orders her to unbutton her top, flashing a knife and talking tough. She grins playfully and tells him she likes his violence. This does and doesn't sound creepy. It does because it is but it doesn't because we've already caught her looking at a teenage suicide on youtube. Mitch's Skype call interrupted her from looking at the video that led to the suicide. But, hey, she's only sixteen.

The pair are themselves interrupted by a gaggle of friends also on Skype. This is all taunts and giggles but they all notice the silent extra person in the space, the generic head and shoulders placeholder avatar who doesn't speak and can't be identified. A few group runs at shaking the anomaly off fail and they just go ahead with the ol' collective fat-chew. Then the plain-Jane avatar starts speaking in text.

By now you will recognise that this is going to be a story of revenge for the suicide and a lot of high school bitchiness will be punished. That really really really is not a spoiler. This film makes no secret of its journey any more than Halloween did back in 1978. The point is not in the plot (which I'm not going to spoil, regardless).

The entirety of the screen is occupied by the computer screen of one of the characters. We do not physically leave this rectangle. (Here's a sidepoint: in the Blair Witch era, the film's authenicity as a found footage piece was compounded in the cinema by being screened as a 4X3 near square in accordance with the original ratio of the raw footage, Unfriended is in the shape of the 16X9 screens whose shape was influenced by cinema. There ya go!)

But we don't need to leave it. The screen is turgid with diversions and utility. The Chrome browser, the side by side thumbnails of the Skypers' webcams, Facebook sessions, Messenger exchanges, Youtube videos, Spotify playlists: none of the characters appears anywhere but on a subset of this screen. The confounding of artifice with raw experience that Brian O'Blivion warned us of in Videodrome has come to us but not as he planned, at the ready will of its users rather than an anonymous corporation.

As the entity (is it ghost or revenging hacker?) insinuates itself into the friends' space and compels them to play against each other and the results are brittle and violent. For all the fuck-you worldliness anyone of this age must assume they are raw, scared and alone. Any screaming at the screen would be audible to parents in other rooms as just more of their teenager's histrionics and probably about something wincingly trivial: these young people, wired to the world as they are, are alone and more vulnerable than if they were loosening down at a party.

The coup of Unfriended, the thing that lifts it above all the teen horror remakes and retreads I saw in the trailers before it, is that it not only understands teenagers and their rough but sophisticated pecking jungle but how this has only been intensified with technology. It's not the fact of the technology but their naturalised engagement with it that is being understood on screen. And we are at once in the future-now and the tradition of horror that creates unease by the steady removal of control. The signal of the webcams through the Skype connections render these pretty faces distorted and monstrous almost constantly; sometimes they seem even to have lost their physical youth. Even before the time-limit games that the cyber-intruder compels them to they are no better able to pull the plug at the mains than a human pokies disaster is able to walk away after running out of coins.

The other strongly aspect of the online world so brilliantly understood here is that is creates its own digesis, its own world of logic, emotion and functionality. Sudden asides between two characters in Messenger are like confidential scenes. Clicks on reference videos or websites serve as thought balloons or voiceovers. The stream of consciousness in clicks is really no more alien than Joyce's was in words as it is familiar to its audiences as daily reality. When Billie infiltrates even this and it becomes momentarily difficult to tell her from the others in pranking or self-incriminating mode. For each door the online world opens a dungeon door closes somewhere else.

This film has been compared in preference to Hideo Nakata's earlier Chatroom but the comparison is as uncomprehending as it is unfair. Nakata's film presents the visualisations of a text-only world that was obsolete while his film was in production (based on a play from the early 2000s). I haven't used anything like irc for many a moon but can readily recall the constant buzz between what I imagined I was communicating with and what it might actually be. When the characters in Chatroom took to the outside world they didn't know what the antagonist looked like. In Unfriended, everyone knows what everyone looks and sounds like. They know the decor in each others' bedrooms. Even the faceless interloper takes on an identity that will forever be playing on Youtube, eternally ridiculed, eternally ridiculous, the delete button greyed out and unreachable.

I've rambled and there's probably a ton more to say but this will do for now. Oh, one thing: due to the extreme intimacy of this film's world in a screen in a screen, the hard and expert work done on the sound and editing that brings it as close as the screen you are reading this on and the natural pacing and overall acceleration (all kept within an easy 83 minutes!), demands that you see it in the front rows of a cinema. Don't wait for a more controlled loungeroom tv or (worse still, despite the apparent irony overload) a computer screen. See it where it can hit you. Now!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Films I Dislike that Could be Improved Through Further Committment

Dead Poet's Society:
From the get go this story of manipulation of a group of impressionable people by a demagogue reminded me of fascism. Robin Williams' Mr Keating doesn't lead his flock away from conformity to freedom but to just another conformtity: his. After everything that happens we're supposed to cheer the kids for making their stand rather than weep for their gullibility. Put Nicholas Winding Refn in the chair and watch as the real story of localised brainwashing cordons a group of the elite blazer-wearing privileged away from middle class mediocrity to the blazing cult of heroism. It'd make a nice obverse role for Ryan Gosling after his own fall and redemption in Half Nelson. Keep the music the same. If you don't get the irony of its cloying sentimentality as the boys give the parting leader the secret sign then you should find a way out of compulsory voting.

Eddie and the Cruisers:
Imagine Jim Morrison appearing on the scene just before the Beatles break in America but dying in an accident before his big groundbreaker of an album is released. This premise is still intriguing but this early 80s film doesn't seem to realise that sounding like Springsteen on an off night wouldn't sound like the future in 1964, it would sound like musical potato starch. So, do it for real. Have the band go from the Four Seasons to a kind of proto Doors as the central figure takes the same journey from good time music to poetic disgust. Have it sound like pop music straining out of the chrysalis like the first Doors album. Keep it from breaking through with the same kind of intra band politics that smothered Brian Wilson and you get a much more plausible reason for Eddie's death itself to be a controversy.

Compliance:
True life horror unfolds in a diner as a prankster claiming to be a cop manipulates the staff until his chief victim is traumatised for life. The big message was about how we submit to authority too easily but the tone soon became too ugly. The victims' compliance, however factually based, grew so incredible that they were soon cast as deserving of their treatment and the resulting gap was filled with the perpetrator's viewpoint. The sleaze of this is not that we identify with a sicko but we're then supposed to snap out of it and condemn him at the end so everything's ok and we were really on the side of right all along. Phew! Well, commit to it, really commit to the sleaze and sick self pleasure of it. Start, continue and finish inside the bad guy's mind. Cast Will Ferrell so you never know whether to laugh or not until it's too late and you're with him on a nightmare voyage through a dark and terrifying narcissism. Keep the footage of the victims intact. Just don't start with it. Anyone who watches that and has to be reminded at the end that it's bad should be given a list of local psychiatric facilities before something terrible happens.

Dune:
I had looked forward to this as I was already a Lynch fan after Eraserhead and Elephant Man and really wanted to see what he could make of sci fi and colour. It was just too big for him. Lynch is so much better when he's deep inside the nervous system than out on the open field and this film only proves it. Seeing the documentary Jodorowsky's Dune didn't change my mind in that direction, either. It's like a two hour long "previously on Dune" sequence that highlights all the subplots. Throw those away for starters unless they are directly relevant to Paul's progress from viceregal heir to living god. Have Paul pursue the mystery of himself as though he's on the tail of a killer and you've got something. Anyone who needs to read the book to get the rest is free to, meanwhile here's the companion film. Could be a good Cronenberger.

Animal Kingdom:
This mess was bursting with treasures but you had to  pick through a lot of used marshmallows to get to them. The single most compelling performance was Jackie Weaver's but everything that had to do with the youngest brother seemed to drive the most important scenes. Stick to that. Put mother at one end and son at the other and slowly bring them together through their own stories. Ditch all the sub plots and overlong fates of the other brothers and get rid of the dragging speech that explains the title as there is no need for it. Ben Mendelsohn can still play his super creepy murder scene and Jackie still gets her mother wolf grin at the cop that goes through everyone who sees it. Cast a more believably seventeen looking seventeen year old as Josh and you've got it, a great family crime/coming of age film without the director getting in his own way to let you know how wonderful he is.


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Films I Dislike that Ought to be Remade and How

Frances Ha:
As a quirky character piece about a fiercely eccentric individualist, Frances and the film she lived in repelled me with their constant pleading for me to indulge them. My solution would be to correctly diagnose Frances as bipolar or something more accurate and let Brandon Cronenberg have a stab at it. This would be a good way to get to the genuinely intriguing possibilities of Frances as a case study in galloping narcissism and also allow Cronenberg Junior to step with a realistically measured pace away from charges of following his dad too closely (as unfairly happened with Antiviral).

Rushmore:
As a quirky character piece about a fiercely eccentric individualist, Rushmore was the first and almost the last Wes Anderson Film I ever saw, so vehemently did I it revile. Let Sion Sono loose on it to render the cloying cuteness into a range of disturbing illusory episodes and examine the protagonist's galloping narcissism. It could still be about the life lesson of learning self-acceptance and giving up unrealistic dreams but the ride would be intriguing and a hell of a lot more fun.

Bad Lieutenant:
Abel Ferrara's quirky character piece about sin with an eleventh hour cherry of redemption ground at my patience for the writer/director's failure to develop the constant list of atrocities committed by the titular Loot. It plays like a toddler throwing a tantrum for the guests, having an effect but unaware that that has quickly turned to exhausting annoyance. Rename it Bad Decisions, cast Vince Vaughn in the lead and play it as a man-boy black comedy of a once bad cop who just can't get straight because a series of hilarious co-incidences and mishaps keep putting him in the frame. The gang members can't be allowed to get away with the original adolescently imagined horror crime, of course, but Michael Sera with a dye job could outline it to his increasingly bored gang, constantly topping himself just to get a reaction out of them: "ok, so we rob a mom and pop store." Silence. "No, a church, we rob a church." Silence. "We rob a ... church with NUNS in it ... and we rape the nuns...!" This approach will render the conceits of the original at least plausible. And just imagine the redemption scene now!

Insidious:
This is one of the founding bricks in the ghost-ride and cattleprod wall that has filled cinemas and emptied mainstream horror of its substance. Quiet .... BOO ....... quiet ...... BOO. And that's about it. Ok, so, remove every jolt that isn't directly derived from the characters and their relation to each other. Play the resulting jolt-free film as a Bergmanesque depresso piece about people trying unsuccessfully to convince each other that they've seen the sudden horrors but to no avail. Keep the pallet desaturated and keep all the big jolty orchestra hits for when the breathlessly delivered accounts reach their climaxes. Eventually, we wander a house of coagulating disbelief with only the victims of the scares convinced of the forces beyond the light, huddled into themselves is silent distrust. The only way to give credence to the horrors they've known is to recreate them, one by one....

Ferris Bueller's Day Off:
The only way I could endure the screening of John Hughes's freshly minted mid-80s paean to the sieze the day joy of youth was to recognise that it was essentialy a tale of bullying. Ferris constantly berates and belittles his dowdy friend until the latter really gets it and siezes that melonfarming day by its a-hole horns. Ferris' irrational whimsicality, if not seen as lovable but grating, lends itself to a case study of adolescent schizophrenia. Keep all the football games, wild drives, school collection campaigns (but shorten the excruciating Twist and Shout scene) but smash them together as a kind of delusional flash forward as Ferris imagines the day to come. Then play them as they would be, a series of increasingly crushing disappointments that steadily shift Ferris' sights from the fun he thought he'd have to the manipulative influence he has over Cameron. Cameron's life lesson would be the same but so much graver and unforgettable, like a Machinist or Fight Club for teens.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Review: IT FOLLOWS

Jay is seventeen, intelligent and sexy. Her new boyfriend is a little older but he's super cool, even if he gets spooked by nothing and makes them walk out on a movie. The big date comes and the sex is great. The trouble starts (after the consensual conjunction, that will become important) when he knocks her out with chloroform and ties her to a chair, saying it's for her own good. Ok, so Mr Nice is really Ted Bundy. Well, no.

She wakes in an abandoned building shell, winds whistling around, as he circles with a torch, gibbering about being sorry for what's about to happen. He's given her a curse, the result can be seen approaching step by step in the overgrown grounds below and into the space with them; a naked woman expressionlessly walking toward Jay in the chair. The guy gets close to the figure who doesn't acknowledge him. He frees Jay and they escape in a panic. He deposits her, still only in her underwear, on the street outside her house and drives off forever. A few nights later, after rallying friends around her the kitchen window is smashed. She goes to investigate only to find another woman, far scarier than the first advancing on her while urinating.

All that without a word about the prologue. There is a good one but my purpose here is not to go over the plot but to air the premise. If you read the synopsis you might be dreading the return of the sex/death equation of the horrors of the seventies and eighties that this film so stylishly recalls. But even in those cases the mistake of taking allegory literally is one of missing the point.

If Jay wanted to evade the curse she'd just have sex again and flee safely. But there's something else going on here. The bearers of the curse, even when safe, can still see the identity-shifting entity that follows the accursed. If the entity catches up and kills the latter it goes after the last one all over again. Time to think of the title here. It, the thing follows the victim but the phrase also refers to a logical consequence.

The grassy autumnal footpaths of the suburbia of the setting will remind anyone who's seen it of John Carpenter's Halloween. A blackboard in an English class also reminds us that people in this setting refer to autumn as fall. You don't need to know your Book of Genesis that well to be aware that the fall of man in that mythology is the consequence of knowledge. It's not an orgasm that makes life so difficult (all the sex in this film is consensual and most of it looks natural and enjoyable) but the awareness of the place where any worldly act can put us. Contrast this with the peppering of voyeurism done by the younger boys of the neighbourhood. Their curiosity has a sinister taste, a kind of unformed sleaze, enacted before knowledge.

Sex is a well chosen trope here not just because it plugs us in to the tradition of teen horror but it means the Scooby team of teen siblings and local friends to be variously experienced. Only those who have come into contact with the curse can see the thing. This only partially changes but essentially remains the case.

There is also the repeated gestation, birth and growing imagery of floating (the backyard pool later is shown after its water has broken), urination, menstruation. Jay runs from the entity to take refuge on the swings of the nearby park but this proves as terrifying a place as anywhere else on earth, a planet she now knows much better than she did before. There are decisions to be made about how to exit the curse and they increasingly lean toward responsibility and ever deeper consideration.

Sounds kinda PC doesn't it? Well, happily it's not the only thing on show. The mechanism of terror in this film uses the deliberate certainty of the entity itself and keeps clear of sudden jolts. Some manifestations (the kitchen, the later scene of fulfilment which is truly ghastly) will leave you wide eyed and others (the figure in the school grounds; a scene involving a masterful mix of single take and focus shifting) are just as effective by their understatement. This horror movie is scary. If you've seen as many as I have and still celebrate the genre, you'll know that that statement is not tautologous. It's scary because it delivers its fresh ideas on teen horror in the costume of an era when something as bloodless as Halloween was scary (still is, by the way). And there's another reason and it's a good one.

Could it be that, after the bloated karaoke versions of Ringu, Dark Water or Pulse were remade for people who can't read subtitles, the lessons of J-horror have finally been absorbed by filmmakers in the West, not studied, copied and overwrought but absorbed? It Follows plays less like Nightmare on Elm Street or Final Destination than Ringu or Kairo. It doesn't play at all like the flattened approach of more recent fare like Insidious or Sinister because when it does use sudden scares it earns each one with genuine suspense and is prepared to go slowly so we can absorb its notions and questions enough to bring our own dread to the space between ourselves and the screen.

Also, if you've seen the Harry Potter version of The Woman in Black or Sinister or a host of other recent shallow efforts you'll remember the big scary endings with the nasty thing jolting out of the scenery as though Asian horror had never happened. It Follows recalls a tradition that allowed its audiences to do some thinking for themselves and adds a pinch of something of its own.

No review of this film can escape without a few plaudits chucked its way for the superb electronic score that goes from clear Carpenterian tributes to the noisier and darker parts of the oscillators and filters of the synthesiser. It augments the dread and never needs to inform us of what we should be feeling.

Also, this is the second horror-related film I've seen that has made use of its Detroit setting. Only Lovers Left Alive turned this into a kind of digetic editorial which was saved by Jarmsuch's goofy poetics and Tom Hiddleston's delivery of them. In It Follows America's industrial ghost town has whole ex neighbourhoods of surburban dream life rendered into crumbling gothic shells whose surrounding gardens grow into twisting strangulation around the foundations. The sense that dusty perdition is only streets away is palpable (and reinforced in the dialogue). The lake is Lake Michigan, once loud with commerce and affluent leisure now just huge, silent and unknowable.

Also, any film that features a partial reading of TS Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (in a very Halloweenish classroom scene) and a recited quote from Dostoyevsky that encapsulates the film's theme in accelerating prose can only get my vote.

Also, any film that has its origins in a real nightmare that the writer/director had, has already started in the right place.

There is buzz on the tail of this film sufficient that, even if it only attains a modest success, there will almost certainly be a sequel. If that happens could the filmmakers of that reach even further back into horror history? Val Lewton helped to save RKO Studio after the box office disaster of Citizen Kane with the first of his back seat driven features Cat People. It stormed the box office. It was only meant to be a copy of the kind of horror Universal had been churning out since Dracula but Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur cast the cat monster suit aside and remembered that people above all feared what they didn't know and couldn't see. When its sequel, Curse of the Cat People, appeared it swerved sideways into an eerie tale which might have been a haunting or a troubled child's imagining. It wasn't a sequel in name only as there were solid links to the original but it wasn't just a replay either. So guys, if you do it again, surprise us all over again. Would juz?

Friday, March 20, 2015

FIVE WEIRDOS for the Anniversary of Eraserhead's Premier

An annual celebration of weirdness with substance. None of these films will topple my favourite of all time (in the post title) but do qualify for this most difficult brief.


El Topo: While Holy Mountain might be more flamboyant with the surrealism of its imagery I have always found its remedial philosophising tiresome. El Topo takes the machismo and nihilism of the later Western an opens doors. Also, the scenes of clowning toward the end demonstrate that at base, Jodorowsky remained a performer of real skill.




Songs from the Second Floor: Jodorowsky with a side of Gravlax? Why not? From the choral train commuters to the self-flagellating stockbrokers to the great grandfather whose dementia gleefully reveals his former Nazism to his gathered family to the astounding finale of redemption this might take some settling into but this is one you can carry around for long afterwards.




Diary: Starts like a thriller with a grief theme then goes to a kind of bizarre obsession horror and then to - Well, when a new credits sequence starts running halfway through and you get a completely different telling of the same story and it's both more rational and worse you're going somewhere. The Pang brothers' other great work.




Tetsuo: A character's fascination with machinery plagues him until he is compelled to become a machine himself. The transition is neither smooth nor painless but, boy, does this film mean what it says.



INLAND EMPIRE: Lynch's final of his unofficial trilogy of fugue states (people making extreme psychological escapes from their burdens) is his toughest and least compromising. Returning to his roots as an impulsive but obsessive artist he finds even darker and more refulgent territory to explore. Take the subtitle "A Woman in Trouble" as your talisman and you'll make it. A rough ride but a rich journey.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Review: A MOST VIOLENT YEAR

The makings of this one suggest it might be a gangland drama by Scorsese or even a camped up copy by Tarrantino or a camped up Tarrantino by one of his copyists. Self-made immigrant businessman tries to expand without resorting to crime but his rivals make that very difficult by hijacking his trucks. He stands alone against the black hats, ready to crash or crash through. Bring on the juke box soundtrack from the 1981 setting and let's make a MOVIE!

But this is a slow, deliberate piece that asks you to examine rather than thrill. There is a constant tension on a slow phasing pulse. Abel Morales is not just troubled by the piratical hijackers but is on a clock to fulfil a property deal which would set him up for life or ruin him if it fails. And then there's the DA who is bringing bad business charges to his door which might well hold water if his beloved but suspect spouse did what she kind of hinted she did. There is no way out. Will a Cain explode out of this Abel?

That looming question is rendered resonant by the sparseness of the score, the darkness of the interiors and their period brown-led pallet; if ever mise-en-scene were put in the service of such studied melancholy it were never as profoundly done as here. And yet this quality was the thing I resisted all through the first act, expecting it to escalate into action. Only when I understood that I was to follow this flawed and vulnerable man through the valley of temptation and that it would not be an easy trek did I relax and allow myself to be fascinated. This is a film of fascination.

Moments of violence and action don't relieve the tension as much as thicken it. They also serve to show that the director is well able to stage them convincingly and his refusal to give into them is like his protagonist's determination to maintain his integrity. A chase by car and then foot lifts us with it (some expert steadicam work here expressing some wondrous moments of inertia) and concludes with a poignant demonstration of this restraint. The lack of relief that we crave adds more weight with each passing and passed opportunity for it. J C Chandor, whose All is Lost compelled me last year by allowing its linear and burdensome narrative to play out in full, here applies the same deliberation to what is essentially a western in New York. It's not a neo-Leone campfest nor an overly observed homage to John Ford but more of a new Western from the late 60s like McCabe and Mrs Miller or True Grit. A moment with the hijackers reveals the same point about them being workers as cattle rustlers or hired guns were in the eyes of a Robert Altman or Arthur Penn.

Oscar Isaac as Abel keeps his fire under the permafrost of his manly bearing which wears the elegance of his wardrobe as an earned thing. The more vulgar Anna (a glowing and dangerous Jessica Chastain in Armani) is among the few who can draw that fire but even she observes Abel's stance, not slavishly but seriously. Abert Brooks is unrecognisable as Abel's lawyer/deputy by his combover, wire specs and downplaying. This is a story with a single protagonist but is entirely dependent on the solidity of the world of others it creates around him.

I have given little plot in this review and seem to have been affected by the sobriety of the film which might suggest indifference. It isn't. Here is a film that dares to play against expectations to offer a contemplation of the difficulty of goals; a kind of humanist prayer in the din of the feast around it.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Review: FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

When I was twenty-four I sat around thinking up the great Australian novel while waiting to be discovered. I was still new enough to Melbourne to be affected by the force of its winters and concocted a fantasy wherein I would read every Mills and Boon I could find at the op shop and throw each one I finished into the blazing fireplace. I wanted to be stirred to greatness by tormenting myself with mediocrity. Neither happened. The winter was mild. I got a job which ruled out the idle afternoons.

Oh, and Mills and Boons aren't that bad.

So it was that I paid for a ticket to see this at the ol' Kino on my day off, almost hoping for something that bent over and cried: "ridicule me! I need it!" Well...

We open with the cloudy skies of the Pacific Northwest. A fit young man on his morning jog. Back home he goes into the walk-in wardrobe that Stanley Kubrick designed for him and picks out the pieces of the suit he will wear that day. Meanwhile, a young woman leaves her apartment to interview the man we've just seen. She is cowed to clumsiness by the opulence of Grey House with its dangerous metal and glass edges and the sculpted Hitchcock blondes at every reception desk.

"Mr Grey will see you now," purrs one of them before Ana passes through the office portal and tumbles to her humiliation on the carpet in front of her subject. Christian Grey helps her up and the interview proceeds before thinning to vapour around the solid attraction the two feel for each other.

Back home, Ana, still buzzing from the encounter, is greeted by the flatmate whose flu seems to have just been one of those twenty-four minute things. Mr Grey has, in the time it's taken Ana to drive back to Vancouver from Seattle, emailed all the interview questions answered in full. The next day Ana's at work at the hardware shop when who should turn up? From there it's fate until the breach of trust in the second act and the reconciliation in the finale. Just like a Mills and Boon ... with piss gags.

Except not really.

The courtship of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele has the requisite mix of erotic charm and danger. As Christian closes in on Ana he lets strange things slip into the conversation about written consent and punishment. He doesn't make love, he fucks. He doesn't do romance. This is a kind of steroidal remake of the dashing hunk who breaks into the scene on horseback, as handsome as the devil himself and a laugh to weaken the resolve of the primest ladies of the district. When she created Christian Grey, E.L. James wasn't drawing from de Sade or Sacher Masoch but the common bodice-ripper. She added the notion of a fractured form of love to keep the thread alive and left the tale open to charges of celebrating abusive relationships. Also, mix in some of Samuel Richardson's captive heroine novels (Pamela and Clarissa) and you've got it. The question of consent and its violation is as central to this piece as it is to those.

How does this play out on film? Is it Dominance for Dummies or Cronenberg for Commoners? Actually, pleasantly, more the latter. Sam Taylor Johnson is at the helm. Her Nowhere Boy impressed me greatly by taking the flashfoward fame of its subject diminishing it with the story of a damaged childhood using some expertly judged aesthetics and fine performances. The most ardent fan finds that they not missing mention of the word Beatles through the entire piece.

In Fifty Shades we again get some strong performances (crucial in a film so dominated by close ups) and a winsome painter's palette. And a strong sense of cinema doesn't hurt. The glider flight feels as thrilling to us watching as it is to the pair on screen. The contract meeting between Ana and Christian is almost laughably extreme in its burnt gold light. We don't fail to notice the crosses refracted in the wine glasses that neither party look at let alone drink from. If there be porn here it is the now well established conversational sense of fetishised interest (food porn, car racing porn, geology porn etc) and it is the porn of riches and opulence. Christian's helicopter flight through the magic hour heavens of the Pacific Northwest has a loving drool to it. This is another throwback to Samuel Richardson, particularly in Pamela when Mr B. boastfully shows himself in his finery before a society engagement, like the callow over-coffered country bumpkin he is. Christian Grey's use of the word incentivise is similarly from the middle management meeting rather than the corridors of power.

Talyor Johnson slows the movement from the speed of the attraction and courtship to a far more stately and considered pace as the middle act decision to sign the contract plays out. This is where it gets interesting and, while we are diverted by the shift from student apartment life and the stink of the street to the rarefied confines of Grey's labyrinthine apartment, we witness the effect each player has on each other and how that is muddling the deal. (Oh, if you pays yer money for a lot of shackles and whips you won't get any for a long while and then only a bit. You should know that going in.)

Performances are strong but in various ways. Jamie Dornan, a kind of young Matthew Barney with Aspergers syndrome, is cold and unbroken until the effects of Ana assail him. But it is Dakota Johnson who impresses most immediately. Her lightning eye rolls, lip bites, helpless giggles, fascination and stern frowns of sudden knowledge and her balance of clumsy self-consciousness and near balletic grace add the blood flow and nervous system to this film that might otherwise have flattened to politeness.

While I have some inkling into why some people might identify sexual pleasure with pain I have never shared it. So, I might have hoped for some insights more profound than Grey's dodgy upbringing and seduction while young, delivered in dialogue. A scene of consensual S&M played against a scarlet palette as a Renaissance mass is sung is beautiful to look at and moves the story ahead but I needed to do some struggling to care about it. If it were more restrained it would lack power. If it were bloodier it would court resistance by all except those who had paid for titilation. The religious music it is set to might well be the moment of  reconciliation of two odd forces, Grey's sense of worship or even a nod to what we're finding out about the Catholic church these days. Whatever, a scene closer to the end, which is more violent and starker, features a far deeper and more disturbing performance from Dornan as Grey. More of that might have taken us closer to the shadows of Videodrome or Blue Velvet. Here, we are reminded of romance fiction.

While there be off-ness hereabouts it's nowhere near the paean to pain that it suggests. This is stripped back from the source material (which might have tipped into pure risibility if filmed literally) and the result is neither a bold middle finger at the honest world nor an examination through fable of one of its troubling corners. There are three books and will probably be another two films. At least Taylor Johnson and Johnson should get some better work outside of the context from it.

Anyway I can't hang around here all afternoon. I have guests over soon and a documentary about the role education played in forming one of the greatest revolutionaries of the twentieth century. That's right, it's Fifty Grades of Che.

Those of you who know me might suspect that I read the book and paid to sit through this film to make that joke. I sing with Anastasia Steele of the novel: Double crap! You know me too well.