George Byrne gives his verdict on Fifty Shades of Grey, Love is Strange, and Pelo Malo
FIFTY SHADES OF GREY (Drama. Starring Jamie Dornan, Dakota Johnson, Marcia Gay Harden, Rita Ora, Jennifer Ehle, Eloise Mumford, Luke Grimes. Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson. Cert 18)
So, after all the hype and the massive advertising campaign, not to mention all the free ancillary publicity this release generated, the movie version of EL James' multi-million-selling bonkbuster finally arrives in time for St Valentine's Day and, in truth, it's not nearly as bad as I was expecting.
But that doesn't necessarily mean that Sam-Taylor Johnson's adaptation of the dominance and submission saga is particularly good either, merely that a complete howl-with-laughter disaster along the lines of Showgirls has somehow been avoided.
This is mainly down to the fact that screenwriter Kelly Marcel has ditched most of James' truly appalling writing while Taylor-Johnson does a decent if deadly dull job in keeping things moving, albeit at the kind of pace which a snail would find sluggish.
Leaving aside for the moment the sheer moral dubiousness of the plot - naive young virgin Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) becomes the sex slave of hunky billionaire control freak Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan in a potentially career-ending role) in return for a lifestyle of utter fabulosity - there are considerable problems with Fifty Shades of Grey, the main one being that it simply isn't remotely erotic in any way.
The on-screen chemistry between Johnson and Dornan is non-existent, the pair not generating a joule of the heat displayed by, say, Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger in 9 1/2 Weeks.
Once we do get to the sex scenes - the first one about 40 minutes in if you're interested - Taylor-Johnson feels, ahem, constrained and actually rather perfunctory.
Still, I suppose making a just-about-tolerable if ridiculously long film from dreadful source material is something of an achievement in itself.
And while more than 70,000 tickets have been sold for its opening weekend in this country, I wouldn't expect too many repeat viewings. People may be susceptible to hype, but they're not stupid.
LOVE IS STRANGE
(Drama. Starring John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, Marisa Tomei, Darren Burrows, Charlie Tahan, Cheyenne Jackson, Manny Perez, John Cullum, Eric Tabach. Directed by Ira Sachs. Cert 15A)
In a week when the main, multiplex-gobbling release concerns an abusive excuse for a relationship, it's more than refreshing to discover that a distributor has seen fit to go up against that behemoth with this subtle, beguiling and thoroughly believable wee gem of a film.
On the surface, Love is Strange couldn't be more topical for audiences here, considering that a same-sex marriage lies at its core, but it covers much more profound ground than that particular subject.
At the centre of Ira Sachs' story is the relationship between Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina), who've been together for the best part of 40 years and are such exemplars of sophisticated art-loving Manhattanites that in lesser hands they could border on parody.
Ben is a semi-retired painter while George has been teaching piano and conducting choir practice at a school for more than a decade, and it's the latter's changing circumstances that drive the film.
Availing of New York state's decision to allow same-sex marriage, the pair tie the knot and look forward to seeing out their twilight years in their lovely apartment.
However, the school George works for is a Catholic one and the local bishop invokes a morality clause in his contract of employment, leaving him looking for work. Forced to sell the place where they've lived for 20 years, they come up against prohibitive New York prices and are obliged to live, temporarily (they hope), with other people.
George moves in with two gay NYPD cops on the floor below while Ben finds himself off in Brooklyn with his nephew Elliott (Darren Burrows), his writer wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) and their teenage son Joey (Charlie Tahan).
We soon find that the lovers are truly lost without each other and cut off from a life they came to depend on. The partying lifestyle of the cops leaves George flummoxed, while over in Brooklyn the increasingly fragile Ben feels frustrated, as does Kate who's trying to work from home and is beginning to find his presence annoying.
At the heart of Love is Strange is an examination of being old, in the way and out of sync with a changed world. The performances of Lithgow and Molina are perfectly pitched, the former delivering a career-best turn, while the supporting cast are never less than excellent. Needless to say, the way Sachs shoots Manhattan makes it look like heaven on earth - low autumn sunlight on Central Park always does it for me - but his film is not only a love letter to his home but a love letter to love itself. A beautiful and moving story told with skill and panache, Love is Strange shouldn't be missed.
(Drama. Starring Samantha Castillo, Samuel Zambrano, Nelly Ramos. Directed by Mariana Rondon. Exclusively at the IFI)
Set in the slums of Caracas, Maria Rondon's documentary-style feature looks at the struggles of a young widowed mother, Marta (Samantha Castillo), trying to make ends meet as she strives for a job as a security guard while at the same time bringing up her young son Junior (Samuel Zambrano).
As if her economic circumstances weren't difficult enough, she also has to come to terms with the fact that Junior is obsessed with having his hair straightened, leading her to fear that he's gay, which wouldn't exactly make life any easier in the macho culture of urban Venezuela.
Well-intentioned and convincingly acted, especially by the newcomer Zambrano, Pelo Malo is a welcome addition to world cinema, even if it ultimately runs out of steam and doesn't tell us anything we didn't already know about the hardships of life in the less-privileged margins of society.
ALSO RELEASED THIS WEEK
The IFI is celebrating the weekend that's in it with a most welcome re-release of The Philadelphia Story, George Cukor's timeless romantic comedy which features sterling repartee between Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart, who won his only Oscar as a pompous magazine reporter. Truly, they don't make 'em like this any more.