From the Archives: Fifty Shades Freed review

From the Archives: Fifty Shades Freed review

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on Cinema76.

Anyone who reads this site knows that I am unashamed of how much I enjoy the Fifty Shades movies. No, I’ve never read the books, but I did get about six hours into the first audiobook and while it wasn’t to my taste, it was painfully clear what I was listening to: a spank novel. These books exist for no other reason but to create a sordid sexual fantasy for its intended audience (Mom, Aunt Karen), and as I’ve said in my reviews for the previous entries, this is a good thing. The fact that people feel no shame reading adult fiction in a public space is awesome. In a world where we’ve branded the term “kink-shaming,” we sure do still act like a bunch of prudes, and Fifty Shades is responsible for curbing our archaic notions of sex at least a little.

But that’s what makes this film series so special to me. There’s something magical about taking a spank book and trying to make a mainstream, non-pornographic film out of it. These novels are the perfect candidate for a trashy XXX adaptation but instead, the powers that be have seen fit to try to class it up and treat the Fifty Shades saga like it’s a story worth telling. Such an odd notion indeed for a cinematic version of a spank book to be our yearly Valentine’s Day release, but you know what? I love it.

Sure, I’d be happy to put these films in the hands of a Paul Verhoeven or a Peter Strickland who could make proper smut or high art out of it (respectively). I’d even be happy to see the return of the plot-driven porno (no, parodies do NOT count). But as it is we’ve got a series of half-committed, adult-in-concept-only tales of … stuff.

I maintain that the first entry was legitimately pretty good. If it were in French, and existed outside of its own notoriety, the arthouse crowd would’ve gone gaga for it. The sequel leans a little harder into its trashy nature (there’s a scene where some, uhh, beads were yanked from their, uhh, home, but it’s all off camera). It comes complete with a dastardly villain, slap-fighting spinsters, and a helicopter crash. It’s pretty bonkers, and even though it’s not necessarily “good,” it serves up something that no other mainstream film does, and I can’t help but appreciate it, even if I can’t really compliment it.

So here we are at the end of the trilogy. Fifty Shades Freed, which should’ve been titled Fifty Shades Threed, promises to be our finale. Our climax. It’s even being released in IMAX, which should be touted as CLIMAX, but I don’t make these sorts of decisions, so we’ll have to just take it as it comes. Ha.

This is where we last left off: Anna and Christian have decided to get married after surviving a helicopter crash. I seem to remember Kim Basinger and Marcia Gay Harden exchanging words and slaps, and Anna’s old boss pulled a gun out at some point because of reasons. But all of this was just random plot wedged between scenes of kinda-steamy, naughty-ish, softcore sex scenes. And that’s really it.

Fifty Shades Threed (yes, I am committing to that) begins where we left off, I guess. Anna and Christian are on their honeymoon when someone breaks into Grey Enterprises and steals some computer files. This prompts the newlyweds to return home and handle that situation. They do, but a series of other situations arise, all of which are handled pretty quickly and without much conflict. None of these situations overlap, and all are separated by half-cooked scenes of naughtiness. Sometimes they lick ice cream of off each other’s bodies, other times they use an off-screen vibrator. A lot of it is admittedly titillating, but none of it lasts long enough to serve the function of the source material (spankin!). Instead the film moves on to the next plot point, followed by the next, until the movie ends.

And it’s not like there’s some overarching plot which needs resolving. The end comes when our characters basically run out of things to do, and therefore stop doing them. I sound like I’m making fun, but I’m not. Well maybe a little. The thing is, I was never bored. I was happy to be marveling at the weirdness onscreen. It’s a playful weirdness that comes from a film that seems to think it’s being bad (and in a few ways it is), while working hard to behave itself enough to get past the MPAA. Truly fascinating.

Perhaps the best example of this strange juxtaposition comes right at the outset of Fifty Shades Threed. While at a topless beach, Anna wishes to remover her bikini top. Christian chastises her, indicating that he wouldn’t appreciate others ogling his wife’s body. She scoffs and points out that literally everyone at this beach is topless. But we never see anyone else at this beach, because doing so would push this R-rated romp into NC-17 territory. The camera stays tight while Anna incredulously gestures at unseen topless bathers all around her. So we have a scene which hinders itself by going out of its way not to show mass nudity, despite it being somewhat integral to the moment. No, I’m not saying that depicting boobs everywhere would’ve fixed it, I’m just pointing out that when a film stops using proper cinematic language to tell its tale all in the name of obtaining an acceptable rating, DESPITE BEING BASED ON A SPANK BOOK, it’s going to be weird.

The soundtrack is more of the same — mostly solo singers doing throbbing covers of classic songs — but it’s a good thing. There’s a cover of INXS’s Never Tear us Apart by Bishop Briggs that I wouldn’t mind having on in the background while I do the dirty. Even Jamie Dornan (who puts in a considerably weaker performance here than in the previous entries) gets in on the fun by serenading his wife with McCartney’s Maybe I’m Amazed.

Dakota Johnson, once again, gives a performance well above the movie she’s in. Anna Steele-I-mean-Grey is a pretty thankless role, but Johnson makes her feel real. The same can’t be said about anyone else, but that’s par for the course. I reiterate: this is a non-pornographic movie based on a pornographic novel that began its life as Twilight fan-fiction.

Follow your dreams, folks. ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE.

Here’s the thing. I have reviewed all of these delightfully oddball movies for Cinedelphia, and all three screenings rank amongst the most fun I’ve had in a theater. The crowd is always packed with people who are genuinely curious about the movie, myself included. The Fifty Shades screenings always have a buzz about them. I look around and see that, amidst the sea of “mom’s-night-outers” there’s a rather diverse crowd. Some of them are there because they are fans of the books. Some because they are fans of the films. Some are noobs who just want to know what the deal is. Some are critics like myself who legitimately enjoy the film. Some are critics who wish only to poke fun at it. But everyone is happy. What I’m saying is that against all logic, the Fifty Shades franchise has a little something for everybody. In that way, it IS a porno. Whether we want to enjoy it, hate it, marvel at it, or in the rare minority, obtain sexual gratification from it, we’re all there to have a certain expectation met — to get off on it in whatever way we see fit. So yeah, it’s dumb. It’s way too mainstream for its own good. It’s got a host of questionable ethics. But it succeeds in getting a theater of people off. Take that as you will.

No, I have no clue what the title means. Nobody does and that’s fine.

I should also note that there was a sex toy/party planning booth in the lobby. This was not the case for Den of Thieves.

Fifty Shades Freed opens today in Philly area theaters.

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