Reviews: 50 Shades Darker, The Shack, XXX: Return of Xander Cage, The House, Rough Night

By | October 30, 2017

After positively reviewing some terrific documentaries, here’s a fresh batch of new-to-DVD turkeys in case you worried I was going soft, including a Christian propaganda film and a Chinese propaganda Vin Diesel actioner…

xXx: Return of Xander Cage…It’s not every day you get to see a (seemingly) braindead, generically unappealing action turd that’s actually a very subtle piece of Chinese propaganda. This Vin Diesel threequel (following the pattern of the “Fast and Furious” franchise, he skipped the second one) was financed by Chinese money, primarily designed to appeal to a Chinese audience (it got a massive rollout there, and emphasized “Rogue One”‘s Donnie Yen over Vin in the marketing campaign), and features a not-so-subtle plot where Chinese hackers are actually the good guys, and the “real bad guys” are elite American soldiers and clandestine spies led by Toni Collette who’s styled suspiciously like Hillary Clinton. This is an embarassing air-kiss to the world’s most powerful dictatorship (which now owns 25% of Paramount Pictures and AMC Theaters, having unprecedented access to what movies Americans get to see), and makes Matt Damon’s sell-out job “The Great Wall” (featuring greedy European merchants trying to steal China’s secrets, but either getting killed or coming to their senses to help their army against invading monsters) look relatively prestige by comparison. Grade: F…+

The Shack…Although almost no reviewers picked-up on the insidious overtones of “xXx,” it’s pretty hard to miss the Christian-message of “The Shack,” even if it does have much higher-profile stars than the usual Christian movie fair. You may find yourself puzzled as to how a movie like this got the maximally-bland “star” Sam Worthington (who you may only get if Joel Edgerton says no, but should at least be busy filming those “Avatar” sequels), Radha Mitchell, Alice Braga, and even Octavia Spencer, who was nominated for an Oscar for “Hidden Figures” at roughly the same time this was coming out. [Maybe she just couldn’t resist the chance to pull a Morgan Freeman and play God, and, to be sure, she’s the best thing in the movie.] It’s ironic that the film has been criticized by some religious leaders for its more univeralist-approach to Christianity, since this is the closest Christian film I’ve been able to stomach watching. Christian message movies may finally be getting their act together, finding a way to combine the bland uplift this thing does with an honest exploration of character (there are a couple of almost interesting scenes where Worthington is asked to really grapple with his past actions and traumas, before, inevitably, the film pulls back). And even if you don’t quite buy the film’s emotional “catharsis,” the sub-“What Dreams May Come” visuals are certainly better to look at than the usual Christian film, which falls somewhere between 80’s porn and sexual harassment seminar videos on the production values spectrum. Grade: C

Rough Night…If I have to be hard on Christian junk, and Chinese propaganda, then surely I should be just as hard on a soulless, message-less, ultimately frivolous piece of junk like this right? “Rough Night” doesn’t want to say anything, doesn’t want to be anything, and doesn’t much want to entertain us either, pulling back on its raunchiest jokes to the point of softening most of the laughs (there are stretches of this comedy where a joke is barely attempted). Ultimately, we’re left with a “Weekend at Bernie’s” style farce where five talented actresses have to find a way to stretch out a thin premise—must get rid of dead-stripper’s body—into a real movie. I think big actresses like Scarlett and Zoe signed on mostly for the chance to be in the rare female-ensemble comedy, but this sub-“Hangover” farce probably was more fun to make than to watch, as we wait for the inevitable deux ex machina ending where everything is magically resolved and none of our main characters go to jail. Grade: C

The House…Although “The House” is not technically better than “Rough Night” it operates from a better place by at least attempting to say something (as a lot of Will Ferrell comedies subtly do) about economics with Nick Kroll’s shady city councilman embezzling away a scholarship fund for Ferrell and Amy Poehler’s daughter, and disguising that crime by inflating the cost of an elaborate public project that may never get built. Although I’m not thrilled that the ultimate government crook—Trump’s Treasurey Secretary Steve Mnuchin—helped fund this movie. [Jesus, was there any Summer 2017 movie this guy doesn’t have his hands in?] Once again, as with “Going with Style” or even “Wonder Woman” this seems like a case of his personal values being the polar opposite of the message on-screen, and at what point does that message ring false? There’s a slightly sour feeling I get from cheering on people sticking it to banking crooks, then seeing that Steve Mnuchin made money off my underdog-patronage, kind-of like I’ve been paid for a sucker. [Oh, and “The League”‘s Jason Mantzoukas will be a comedy star in less than 5 years.] Grade: C

50 Shades Darker…Look, so many critics take shots at this franchise that I almost feel bad for it. Yes, it’s not a good movie, but does it really deserve some of the aggressive hate that it gets? Of course not, there are many, many worse franchises that routinely get rubber-stamped by critics (pretty much anything starring The Rock or Vin Diesel for example, and you don’t have to travel far even inside this article to see an example). What’s always struck me about the “50 Shades” films is how actually not sexy they are, and you wonder if Christian Grey’s control freak impulses spill over into the director’s chair as well, as there are rarely any raw, wild, unchoreographed scenes that feel like there’s real heat behind them. [It doesn’t help that—to me—Dakota Johnson and Jaime Dornan don’t have great chemistry.] The sex scenes here aren’t all that more explicit than just a typical mainstream movie made in the 70’s and it’s only in our quietly sex-averse movie age that they look so risque. I know that sounds like crap, but ask yourself how many non-indies even feature nudity or sex beyond fully clothed kissing? Even an R-rated sex comedy like “Rough Night” is more likely to incessantly talk about sex than show even a rogue nipple escaping from an overly clothed sex scene. For being the rare movie that at least takes sexuality seriously (and, apparently, looking “pornographic” for it), I’d rather watch another one of these than “xXx,” for whatever that’s worth. Grade: C

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