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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Worse than the First
by Frank Wilkins

E.L. James fans just couldn't keep the allure of mainstream theatrical S&M inside their pants when the big screen debut of the first chapter in the author's Fifty Shades novel trilogy, Fifty Shades of Grey hit theaters back in 2015. They set trailer view records with over 114 million hits in the first 24 hours, and eventually dropped over a half billion dollars into theater coffers to see Melanie and Don's kid get naked with Ireland's newest hunk as mainstream bondage fantasy invaded the neighborhood cineplex. The story followed the rocky relationship between literature student Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and handsome yet tormented billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) as the two fell in love and struggled with dark and mysterious carnal desires. Though the film didn't quite live up to the kinked-out expectations of the novels' rabid fans --  even less so with critics, it did foster a healthy anticipation of a follow-up to the torture saga.

But with much of the overwhelming novelty having worn off, it doesn't take long to realize that the sequel, Fifty Shades Darker, isn't any better than the first. In fact, it is much worse. The plot is virtually absent while Johnson and Dornan, once again, display a striking absence of chemistry -- a huge problem for a story that looks to get its lift from sparks and romance. As far as their relationship goes, there's very little in the way of character building or revelatory back story, other than a few short scenes that touch on Christian's abusive past.

The screenplay, this time around from Niall Leonard (author James' husband), strips whatever bit of beguiling menace Christian had and replaces it with on-the-knees groveling and a limp-fish push for relationship reconciliation. He wants to renegotiate the terms of their relationship with "no rules, no punishments, and no more secrets." Where's the fun in that? It's all just plain dull from here on out.

Even a masked ball -- with guests who wear those masks with long pointy curved noses -- that conjures thoughts of Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut is handled poorly by director James Foley. A sex-crazed boss, a couple of villains who pop up from time to time, and a tacked on helicopter accident, do nothing to energize the lifeless plot. The occasional appearance from Christian's "Mrs. Robinson" -- his sensei, so to speak, in the ways of S&M -- in the form of a plastic-faced Kim Basinger feels more disruptive than complementary.

As for the sex scenes, there's lots of licking, fondling, rolling around naked, and even some wickedly peculiar sex contraptions and genital stimulation gadgets that push the film's R rating to the brink. Perhaps, if you're into soft-core mommy porn, or if your carnal fantasies are charged by whips, chains, fur-lined leather cuffs, or things that require a key to get out of, then perhaps this one will do it for you. Otherwise, pick your viewing partner carefully. It is very deserving of its MPAA rating.

Not sure, how, or why, but Fifty Shades Darker is even sillier, dumber, and less erotic than the first. And no... more sex scenes does not, in this case, equal sexy. This one is mostly just Anastasia and Christian endlessly diddling about on one another, with no concerns as to whether they are actually right for each other or whether Christian can really change. It's soft-core love of the flesh only. Despite the introduction -- into the movie-going mainstream --  of S&M's tools, implements and warped eroticism, the only real pain and punishment in Fifty Shades Darker comes from finding something -- anything -- positive to write about. Actually, here's something: Darker makes us look back at the totally ineffective original with such fondness.

(Released by Universal Pictures and rated R for strong erotic sexual content, some graphic nudity, and language.)

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