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The Shape of Water: Guillermo del Toro’s gorgeous blood-curdler is as epic as a fairy tale.

The Shape of Water is a slippery beast. It’s the sort of mythic, sensuous fairy-tale that can only come from the mind of Guillermo del Toro – part girl-meets-boy romance, part Cold-War spy thriller, part B-film horror – even part classic musical.

Said girl is Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman who lives alone in a crumbling Baltimore apartment and whose morning routine involves boiling eggs, taking a bath and pleasuring herself while the timer ticks. The boy is a kind of merman, discovered in a South American river and confined to a murky tank at the Occam Aerospace Research Center, in which Elisa works nights as a cleaning lady. Elisa sneaks into the lab (forget about the unfeasible level of access she’s allowed to this guarded government secret) to seek him for strange lunch dates of boiled eggs and jazz records, and the two develop a nonverbal feeling.

The villain of the piece is the mean-jawed, Cadillac-driving Colonel Richard Strickland (played with dastardly dexterity by Michael Shannon), the facility’s electric cattle prod-wielding boss with a penchant for bullying, bigotry and workplace sexual harassment. A caricature maybe, but it’s one that is much needed to ground the more fantastical elements of the plot. Strickland is hellbent on vivisecting the amphibious ‘asset’ in the hope that his remarkable respiratory system can provide the US with an edge in the space race.

Into the melee finds Michael Stuhlbarg (strengthening his odds of glory by featuring in a third award-fodder movie this season, after Call Me By Your Name and The Post) in the role of Robert Hoffstetler, a scientist-cum-Soviet spy assigned with keeping the monster’s secrets out of American hands, and, deep down, a good guy.

Filling in Del Toro’s band of happy misfits are Elisa’s bustling, down-to-Earth friend Zelda (played by Octavia Spencer from The Helps) and middle-aged, homosexual neighbour and best friend Giles (Richard Jenkins). Together they conspire to spring the monster from his watery jail and sequester him in Elisa’s bathroom while they await the prime moment to release him into the wild. Meanwhile, Elisa is no longer alone in the bath…

Hawkins carries the movie with a generous, lithe performance in the role of Elisa; delicate and halting yet also playful and courageous. Her ability to portray a character with such weight and spirit without saying a syllable must definitely make lesser, more word-reliant actors quake. Doug Jones – who has portrayed all Del Toro’s best beasts since Pan’s Labyrinth’s nightmare-inducing Pale Man – plays the monster through full prosthetics with a grace and humanity that could never be equaled in CGI.

Visually speaking, the film is pretty much a movie of two halves. While Elisa’s apartment with its cracked subway tiles and grim damask wallpaper could have come to life from the dusty pages of a leather-bound storybook, the brutalist concrete and glass of Occam are its harsh, utilitarian foil. Harmonizing the two are greatly rendered cinematography, a perfect score reminiscent of Amélie, and an ethereal green light of the kind you might expect to find while diving among a shipwreck.

The Shape of Water is a ravishing, genuine and disorientating movie, which, on leaving the cinema, seems instantly like something from a half-remembered dream.

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The Shape of Water: A one-of-a-kind romance

THERE exist monster films and then there is The Shape of Water. Following a career built on fantastical beasts, this is Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece.

MEXICAN film director Guillermo del Toro knows monsters.

From Pan’s Labyrinth to Hellboy, his filmography has been filled with fantastical creatures that others find terrifying but del Toro finds beautiful. The director finds little difference between Frankenstein’s beast and Pinocchio.

Collecting his Golden Globe award last week, he says he has been saved and absolved by monsters since childhood — he calls them the “patron saints of our blissful imperfection”.

As a wide-eyed six-year-old, del Toro was so struck by a scene from Creature from the Black Lagoon, that it became the genesis of his latest flick, The Shape of Water.

A visually stunning fairy tale, The Shape of Water is a dazzling movie with an emotionally resonant core, completed with a masterful performance from the effervescent Sally Hawkins.

Set in the post-McCarthyism, Cold War-era of the early 1960s, Elisa (Hawkins) is a mute janitor at a highly classified government facility. She and her friend from work, Zelda (Octavia Spencer) are almost invisible to the men around them, left to mop the floors and scrub the toilets.

One day, while cleaning a room, a water-filled tank arrives with a mysterious creature (Doug Jones) captured from a river in South America. The tank is watched by Strickland (Michael Shannon), a ruthless army Colonel with a violent streak and seemingly no capacity for empathy — he believes washing your hands after peeing is a sign of weak character.

Elisa is immediately drawn to the exquisite blue and gold aquatic creature chained to the pool and regularly brutalized by a cattle prod-type weapon. She gives him eggs and plays him music; he doesn’t care about her disability. These small acts of kindness lead to an inter-species connection between two outsiders whose power is overlooked by others.

When Elisa learns that Strickland wants to kill and dissect the creature, she plots a plan to rescue him with her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins).

The Shape of Water’s technical achievements are astonishing, giving you, at the very least, a jaw-droppingly gorgeous movie to look at. Its vibrant outfits, sumptuous art direction, cinematography and Alexandre Desplat’s romantic score all add to this picture’s magical tone.

The sound of water — a running tap, the rainfall — and endless shades of blues and greens — sea foam, teal, aqua, mint, sapphire, duck egg and more — layered through every sequence are all effective and evocative. It’s part of what makes this film more than just enjoyable.

Hawkins’ performance as Elisa is warm, defiant and understated, another stunning turn for an actor with a career full of stunning turns, while every supporting actor makes their characters feel like not supporting roles.

The Shape of Water begins and concludes with Jenkins’ voiceover, calling Elisa as the “princess with no voice”. Elisa and Giles’ apartments are located above an old-school movie theatre and there are clips of Hollywood classics played throughout. Del Toro’s brilliant film is wrapped up in volumes of stories and storytelling, giving it that magical and otherworldly feel.

This film comes from a place of love and affection for outsiders and the idea that, sometimes, the real monsters have human faces.

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The Shape of Water Is Just Wonderful!

The Shape of Water” is, in some parts, a code-scrambled fairy tale and a GM monster film, and entirely amazing.

Guillermo del Toro, the writer and director, is a passionate genre geek. Every so often, his enthusiasm can overpass his discipline, offering misshapen (but never completely uninteresting) films like “Pacific Rim” and “Crimson Peak.” At his best, even though — in “The Devil’s Backbone,” “Pan’s Labyrinth” and now, finally, again — he fuses a fan’s ardor with a romantic sensibility that is surprising in its sincerity. del Toro leans on classic films, comic books, mythic archetypes and his very own continuous visual imagination to create films that feel less made than discovered, as if he had plucked them from the cultural ether and offered them color, sound and shape.

The most evident reference moment for the film comes from “Creature From the Black Lagoon,” a Cold War-era camp-horror epic about a weird beast, quasi-fish and sort-of human, found in the rain forests of the Amazon. In Mr. del Toro’s upgrade, such “monster” is brought to Baltimore in the early 1960s and held in a tank at a government research lab, where he is subjected to horrifying torture in the name of science and national security.

“The Asset,” as his minders refer to him, poses no threat at all. He is, as wild things tend to be portrayed in films nowadays, an innocent at the mercy of a cold-blood predatory species, which is to say human. His particular enemy is Richard Strickland, a government-issue, square-jawed square portrayed with reliable threat by Michael Shannon. Strickland lives in a suburban split-level with his wife and two kids, drives a Cadillac, reads “The Power of Positive Thinking” and is into mechanical missionary sex (and workplace sexual harassment). His all-time favorite accessory is an electric cattle prod, a thing that connects him to the Southern sheriffs occasionally shown terrorizing civil rights demonstrators on TV.

A caricature? Perhaps. Yet also a flawlessly plausible baddie, and in his diabolical all-American normalcy an essential foil for the picture’s loose rebel coalition, a band of misfits who come to the Asset’s defense. The most important of all things is Elisa (played by Sally Hawkins), a member of the lab’s nighttime cleaning staff, who plays jazz records for the creature, feeds him hard-boiled eggs and before long falls in love with him.

You may marvel at just how far Mr. del Toro takes this interspecies romance — all the way, basically — and also at how natural, how un-creepy, how pure and right he makes it seem. And why not? Folklore is stuffed with frog princes, beauties and beasts. Classical mythology has its satyrs and centaurs, its shape-shifting gods and metamorphosing nymphs, whose commingling and canoodling is part of the human heritage.

 

Our lead girl’s interest is stirred less by curiosity than by recognition. Because of her muteness, she is looked at by others — and sometimes regards herself — as “incomplete,” something less than fully human. Her two best friends are Zelda (Octavia Spencer), an African-American woman who works with her, and Giles (Richard Jenkins), a gay man who lives next door. The understated, intuitive sympathy among these outcasts gives this fable some political bite.

Bigotry and meanness flow through every second like an underground stream; however, kindness can always exist, and so is beauty. “The Shape of Water” is made of vivid colors and deep shadows; it’s as gaudy as a musical (and briefly turns into one), bright as a cartoon and murky as a film noir. (The cinematographer is Dan Laustsen. The score is by Alexandre Desplat.) The film’s busy storyline moves quick — the presence of Russian spies never hurts, particularly when one is portrayed by Michael Stuhlbarg — except when our director lingers on a moment of fragility, a smart-made gag or an eruption of grace.

Ms. Hawkins and Doug Jones, soulful and charming under his shimmering carapace of blue-green scales, offer most of those. As neither Elisa nor the Asset has the power of speech, they communicate via gestures and, since both can hear, through music. Ms. Hawkins, delivering a silent performance in a sound picture, will perhaps inevitably bring on Charlie Chaplin, and she moves her body and her facial features with Chaplin-esque grace, closing the gap between acting and performcing, turning physical comedy into corporeal poetry.

Mr. del Toro, although he has dabbled in huge-scale, series-ready moviemaking, has never succumbed to the authoritarian aesthetic of the Hollywood blockbuster. He is a reflexive democrat whose underdog sympathies haven’t curdled into glum superhero self-pity. The most welcome and wonderful aspect about “The Shape of Water” is its generosity of spirit that extends beyond the main couple. Zelda and Giles, an artist whose career in advertising has no longer played an essential role, are not just side characters. They own miniature films of their own, as does Mr. Stuhlbarg’s scientist-cum-spook. And so, for that matter, does Strickland, though it isn’t a movie anyone else would want to be in, not least because it feels the closest to reality.

In Mr. del Toro’s world, though, reality is the domain of rules and responsibilities, and realism is a crabbed, literal-minded view of things that can be opposed only by the forces of imagination. This will never be a fair or symmetrical fight, and the most important reason to make movies like this one — or, for that matter, to watch them — is to even the odds.

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“The Shape of Water”: Something’s off!

In James Whale’s movie “The Bride of Frankenstein” (1935), the monster (played Boris Karloff) says, “Alone: bad. Friend: good!” That’s what Guillermo del Toro’s latest film “The Shape of Water” is all about, the loneliness of those born before their time, born different. The film doesn’t turn into the fairy tale promised by the optimistic opening.

The Shape of Water” makes its points with a jackhammer, wielding symbols in blaring neon. The mood of swooning romanticism is silly or moving, depending on your perspective. The movie begins in a wavering green underwater world, with a woman floating in what seems like a drowned Atlantis. The image is otherworldly, magical, and Alexandre Desplat’s score is wistful and bittersweet. Richard Jenkins helplessly asks, narrating: “If I spoke about it, what would I tell you” about what happened to the “princess without a voice”?

The “princess without a voice” turns out to be the mute Elisa (Sally Hawkins), who mops floors in the cavernous underground tunnels of a Baltimore-based corporation (the word OCCAM—as in razor?—in towering letters over the entrance). Rubbing shoulders with our heroine is Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who offers constant running commentary through the day, answering to Elisa’s sign language with a torrent of words. The year is 1962, the background is the space race and the Cold War. The chef honcho is a sadist racist known by the name Strickland (Michael Shannon), who swaggers around holding a cattle prod (which he calls an “Alabama howdee-do”). Whatever is done at the corporation is top secret, and everyone is paranoid about the Russians, especially once “The Asset” arrives in a portable tank. The Asset in the film is the Amphibian Man (played by Doug Jones), found in the Amazon, once worshiped as a god and now kept in a tank, enduring occasional torture through Strickland’s howdee-do. The scientist Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) pleads for mercy on the creature’s behalf. The Amphibian Man should be studied, not destroyed.

At the same time, Elisa is drawn to the “monster,” and starts a secret campaign to gain his trust. She offers him hard-boiled eggs. She plays him Benny Goodman records. She teaches him sign language. The courtship scene is the most victorious in the movie, calling to mind the captivating first half of “The Black Stallion” when the shipwrecked boy tries to tame the wild horse, or the early scenes of “E.T.” when the kid and the alien begin to communicate. Monster movie references abound throughout “Shape of Water”: “King Kong,” “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” “Starman,” and—most of all—Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast,” with one scene in particular an explicit homage.

Production designer Paul D. Austerberry has a field day, creating various atmospherically rich worlds, so real you can literally smell the dank rot in those basement hallways. Elisa’s apartment is green-tinted, with green bathroom tiles, green water in the tub. (Green, as we are told endless times in various contexts, is “the future.”) Even more symbolically, her apartment is above a giant movie palace, and she lives amidst the echoes of the fantasy world below. Strickland’s suburban home is a psychotic “Mad Men” set, so yellowy-bright it’s clearly not “the future” but the delusional complacent past. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen creates a clammy wet mood, windows streaming and swirling with raindrops, shadows wavering on the walls, the overall feeling being submersion into the underwater world of The Asset. The film looks like a dream.

Elisa teeters on the verge of being “twee,” and there are times when Hawkins crosses the line into self-consciously lovable spunkiness. When she stares starry-eyed at a pair of red shoes (i.e. ruby slippers) circling in a shop window, it’s really pouring it on a bit too thick. What’s new about the character is her bravery and resourcefulness, and her brisk matter-of-fact mind about her sexual needs. (She masturbates every morning after setting an egg timer so she doesn’t get behind schedule). Elisa stares at Amphibian Man—his nictitating membrane, his 12-pack abs, the Ken Doll mound between his legs—dazed by attraction. She confides in Giles, her gay neighbor (Richard Jenkins, in the best performance in the film) who is tormented by unrequited love for a young guy who works at a diner. Giles’ television is always tuned to old movies, so he can revel in Betty Grable, Alice Faye, Bojangles and Shirley Temple tap dancing up a stairway.

The Shape of Water” features over and over again the demonizing of the “Other,” the ruthlessness of denying living creatures dignity. The film is on certain footing when it’s focusing on the brutal treatment of the monster, the “voicelessness” of Elisa, the lonely pre-Stonewall gay man. They all come from “the future,” before their time. But when the movie depicts contemporary real-life events—the African-American couple told they can’t sit at the counter, Strickland’s racist words regarding Zelda, the news footage of fire hoses turned on actual civil rights marchers—the fragile fabric of the movie is tore. There’s something disturbing about using these things as “atmosphere,” even as the moments dovetail with the overall theme. At its worst, using these real-life events feels like a shorthand, a too-obvious pointing out of the similarities between the real world and the fairy tale, in case we didn’t get it.

As Elisa, Giles, and Zelda team up to attempt to rescue the Monster, the movie jerks away from the single-minded energy of the dreamlike courtship scene. The second half of the film—choppily episodic, drawn-out—is noticeably weaker than the first half. The film feels much longer than it is. There are elements that work beautifully and elements that don’t work at all.

A great artist doesn’t have to set out to please the audience but to please himself. Sometimes the two things merge, and in the best of del Toro’s movies, they do. His is an enthusiastic and passionate mind. The strong effort of an artist—whether it’s Leonardo da Vinci, The Troggs, John Cassavetes, Chantal Akerman,…—to what turns them on is catching, and viewers feel it. In a corporate-run franchise-driven industry, del Toro’s flicks are refreshingly personal. All of this is true to “The Shape of Water,” but still, something’s off.

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Netflix’s Gerald’s Game turns one of Stephen King’s worst novels into one of his best films

Some Stephen King adaptations are easier than others. 1922 writer-director Zak Hilditch had it comparatively easy: his film has to contend with a period setting and a horde of rats, but it’s a small, straightforward character piece, carried more by actors than effects.

The makers of Spike’s The Mist series had it more challenging, between the challenge of living up to an existing popular movie adaptation, and the expense of delivering a citywide supernatural mist full of monsters. (They compensated by keeping the monsters under wraps as much as possible.) The people behind the latest Dark Tower film had an even bigger burden: the challenge of introducing a whole series of mythology, sprawled throughout multiple worlds. (The muddled, conflicted results hint that they never did make up their mind about what was crucial to keep.)

But Stephen King adaptation difficulty settings don’t get much higher than they are on Gerald’s Game. King’s novel takes place originally in the head of a woman who’s talking to herself as she slowly loses her mind, and the actual action loosely consists of that woman lying in a bed. It isn’t a physically dynamic scenario, and it’s hard to see how to open up a story that’s so staid and limited. It’s arguably one of King’s worst novels to date, a novel that wholeheartedly devotes to his worst tendencies to have a main character’s magically knowledgeable inner voices decode the world and unveil information. Those voices in the book are quaint, weird characters that emerge from the main character’s psyche, and the whole story winds up feeling claustrophobic in a limiting way rather than a scary one.

That makes it all the more interesting that writer-director Mike Flanagan (Hush) and co-writer Jeff Howard have turned Gerald’s Game into one of the most astounding, eerie, remarkable Stephen King adaptations to existence.

WHAT’S THE GENRE?

Straight-up horror, mostly of the psychological variety, though there’s some out-and-out gore as well.

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) and his significantly younger spouse Jessie (Carla Gugino) are trying to make their dying 11-year marriage revitalized. Her timidity and uncertainty about their relationship is evident in everything she says or does around him: the way she responds uncomfortably to his touch, her faltering smile when he attempts to make sure that the vacation they’re about to have will be good for them, and the way she fakes positive reactions to him when she obviously isn’t enthused.

He tries to turn the situation around and books them time in a beautiful remote cottage, where he’s stocked the fridge with gourmet food and given the cleaners the weekend off. He’s also come up with an idea to try something new in their bedroom: a little light bondage. But once Gerald has Jessie handcuffed to the bed, he pulls out a rape fantasy that infuriates her. During the ensuing fight about their marriage, he has a heart attack and dies, leaving her far from help, handcuffed to a really solid bed, and facing a slow, painful death by dehydration — or some of the other, more instant threats that emerge, either from her mind or from the neighborhood.

WHAT’S IT REALLY ABOUT?

Metaphorical and emotional bondage topped with the physical and sexual side. As Jessie’s ordeal stretches out and she begins to hallucinate, she recalls all those buried memories from her past, and how a childhood betrayal led her into a tendency to escape from her problems, submerge her emotions, and look for other people’s protection. Chained up with no way to escape her current problem, she comes to understand the unhelpful ways she’s escaped her past problems, and she deals with both at once.

IS IT GOOD?

It’s a heightened, sometimes stagey take on a trashy exploitation movie, but it is captivating. Flanagan and Howard pull off something simple but brilliant: King has Jessie barraged by weirdly specific colorful internal characters, like her college friend Ruth and “Goody Burlingame,” a fairly literal representation of Jessie’s puritanical side. But the screenwriters decided to have Gerald and Jessie herself take on those inner-voice roles, conveying an internal conflict that appears logical rather than arbitrary and faintly comedic. Imaginary Gerald is to be seen as Jessie’s self-hatred, self-judgment, and fear. He’s an antagonistic force who mocks Jessie with her failures and repeatedly reminds her of the vulnerability of her situation and the ugliness of the death waiting for her. Imaginary Jessie, on the other hand, is a strong, beautiful, confident version of Jessie that has her back, but doesn’t have the power to just hand her solutions. She hints and nudges. She’s written as that bickering back-of-the-head voice that suggests something essential has been forgotten, or that it’s time to put two and two together.

The three-way conversations between these characters work phenomenally well. Setting up Jessie’s lifelong traumas as a true face-off between the external and internal aspects in her life is a clever, symbolic move that makes King’s internal voices shtick more resonant and convincing. And as a director, Flanagan uses the mobile characters’ physical interaction with Jessie and each other to give the staging an intensity and dynamism that’s hard to imagine in the book. He’s like a natural gifted theater director, figuring out how to make a talky one-set play visually captivating and energetic.

Gerald’s Game loosely bases on King’s novel, even though, for the twists and progressions that form the story’s shape, and for the kind of deeply unnerving, eerie moments that the author uses to fuse tension and anticipation into his stories. Flanagan and Howard approach King surprisingly close, straight to throwing in an oddball, self-indulgent crossover with King’s book Dolores Claiborne, a short Dark Tower reference that the poorly received film more or less stagey, and even added with a Cujo joke. While they scheme King’s formula to play better on-screen, they show respect to his story, which is a solid recipe for King-adapters in general. But the movie relies just as much on the actors. Greenwood is a joyful force of alternating solicitousness and spitefulness. His character is a despicable lawyer who’s used to charming people, but has a touch of palpable sneakiness up his sleeves, and Greenwood evokes both those levels of his personality without being obvious or showy about it. Similar to Imaginary Jessie, Gugino is vibrant and intense, and Flanagan has some powerful imagery out of the unceasingly remarkable gap between her and Real Jessie, who progressively gets more worn out and drained throughout the movie. But both versions of her are charming and sympathetic in different aspects.

All this said, Gerald’s Game does have its imperfections. Some, like the extended, voiceover-based endgame formula, come from King’s book. Others are built into the film, like the suspiciously theatrical lighting that makes Jessie’s prison/room seem like a stage setting, or the conscious artificiality of the entire story. The flashbacks to Jessie’s big secret are melodramatic and forced. Those sequences keep aggressively shoving the audience toward emotional responses that just don’t work with the content.

The film does the most crucial thing for a Gerald’s Game adaptation: it reflects the originality while bringing it precisely to the screen, and it provides audiences with both the character-rich, internal aspect of King’s work, and the startling, visceral respect. The movie never gets better than the low, malicious monologue Greenwood delivers about the approach of death. As much as Flanagan pushes to open up the Gerald’s Game outside the room where Jessie is trapped, the movie’s power comes from how well he pulls off what takes place in that room, and how the script and the actors come together to deliver the terrible inevitability in Jessie’s situation.

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Netflix’s “Gerald’s Game” is a graceful, mold-breaking adaptation of Stephen King’s novel

Unlike the majority of Stephen King movie adaptations, the new Netflix film Gerald’s Game, about a woman who is trapped in a remote vacation house after her husband dies, doesn’t announce itself as relying on a King novel. In a year when King is everywhere, that may be surprising — but it’s also indicative of how different both Gerald’s Game and its source novel are from most of their peers.

That’s a good thing for fans of Stephen King, not only because Gerald’s Game is quite good, but because it proves that Hollywood is stepping outside of the typical Stephen King zone to seek stories that challenge our expectations of King as an author, as well as our expectations of horror itself.

Gerald’s Game is a timely, feminist locked-room horror movie

One of the greatest aspects about this film is its smallness. Almost the entirety of the movie takes place in a single room — the master bedroom of the remote lake cottage that Jessie (Carla Gugino) and her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) have rented for a tranquil getaway-weekend. With no neighbors anywhere near, they’re excited to engage in a few sexual games to reignite their old marriage — until it soon becomes clear that they haven’t fully discussed their respective boundaries and longings, and Gerald’s “game,” a crude rape fantasy, instantly falls apart.

But instead of abandoning the idea right away, Gerald resists. And then he dies suffering from a heart attack, leaving Jessie handcuffed to the bed. At that point, still recovering from the trauma she’s just experienced, she must get away to save her own life, lest she ultimately die of starvation. Rising up the stakes are the presence of a starving stray dog, a weird reaper-like bone collector dubbed the Moonlight Man who may or may not be a hallucination, and Jessie’s own returning memories of childhood sexual assault.

Gerald’s Game is a work of director Mike Flanagan, who scored two horror blockbusters in 2016 with Hush (also a Netflix exclusive,) and Ouija: Origin of Evil. Although Flanagan has rightly earned critical acclaim for his brilliant pacing and well-crafted storytelling, his films — all of which he has written or co-written — have consistently felt short, especially regarding their writing. Gerald’s Game is his first feature movie adapting someone else’s work, and the difference is immediately obvious. By reducing the book’s cast, cutting much of its final act, and confining most of the film’s action to its one-room set, Flanagan strips King’s source novel to its core elements, in a way that allows the drama of Jessie’s predicament to unfold while centering her interior life in a way that we rarely see in horror.

The resulting installment is flawed; its weakest moments arise when Flanagan and his co-writer Jeff Howard step away from the original King tale and get preachy about men controlling women, or wash down an already fundamental view at BDSM and female empowerment into something even more oversimplified. Yet, Gerald’s Game is still a taut, gory thriller with tons of tension and a few surprising moments of grace — especially when a hallucinated Gerald tries to persuade Jessie to give up and welcome death. In those cases, King’s understated idea gains full force, as we realize Jessie’s struggle is not just to flee from the bed but to break away from a lifetime of feeling trapped.

Most Stephen King novels follow certain themes. Gerald’s Game upends them all.

As the record-breaking triumph of the latest remake of It reminds us, the quintessential “Stephen King movie” tends to own a distinct style and tone. These films are often took place in small towns with dark underbellies and are full of deep-rooted nostalgia, concepts of male bonding (especially between men and boys) and boys growing into men, and allegories for the creative process. Even his non-horror classics like Stand by Me and The Shawshank Redemption exhibit many of these traits, and his most well-known works, like The Shiningand It, comprise pretty much all of them.

Gerald’s Game, on contrary, engages in none of these things. The novel came out in 1992 (during a period of low acclaim for King’s work after critics had panned 1991’s Needful Things), followed six months later by another novel, Dolores Claiborne. Initially intended to be part of the same work, both stories stand apart from the King canon for their description of women going through domestic abuse and sexual assault.

But where the character of Dolores Claiborne found her agency through violence, King vibrantly builds, through Gerald’s Game’s Jessie, an allegory for the lived experience of surviving sexual assault via a single concept: A woman is tied to a bed where she has recently gone through a rape attempt, and has to break herself free.

In Gerald’s Game, not only the classic King tropes are absent, but King intentionally distorts many of them. Flashbacks to Jessie’s childhood are filmed through with terror, not nostalgia; her coming of age is formed by survival instead of empowerment. Family bonds are twisted and corrupted, and it’s female bonding — a side that’s unfortunately significantly reduced in Flanagan’s movie — that helps ensure Jessie’s survival.

This is all wildly unusual for a Stephen King book, let alone a screen adaptation of one. Flanagan has made a habit of directing female protagonists in cramp spaces (Oculus and Hush both show female protagonists stuck in a single location, for example), and the parameters of Gerald’s Game let him do what he does best — explore his female characters while stacking up tension.

The story’s supernatural elements, which are deliberately ambiguous in the novel, are explicitly negated in the film. But there’s still a touch of magical realism present, particularly in the couldn’t-be-timelier element of a solar eclipse that occurred the day of Jessie’s past assault. And it’s this part of the story that grants Flanagan a one-of-a-kind cinematic opportunity. Thanks to the director’s surreal solar eclipse filter, we see the world through blood-colored glasses; that cynical stylization shows just how refreshing this assured adaptation of an unusual King story is, and reminds us of how timely King’s mysterious powers of social observation and humanizing terror can be in the upside-down landscape of 2017.

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Movie Review: Dunkirk – Christopher Nolan’s apocalyptic war epic is his best movie to date

Britain’s great pyrrhic defeat or inverse victory of 1940 has been brought to the screen as a terrifying, shattering spectacle by Christopher Nolan. He throws you into the chaotic evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from northern France after the disastrous clash of Dunkirk – with the help of the now legendary flotilla of small civilian craft. It is part disaster movie, part compressed war epic, and all horribly appropriate for these Brexit times.

Nolan’s Dunkirk movie owns that type of astounding big-screen certainty that I last witnessed in James Cameron’s Titanic or Paul Greengrass’s United 93. It is very different to his previous feature, the bafflingly overhyped sci-fi convolution Interstellar. This is an impressive, superbly made movie with a story to deliver, avoiding war porn in favor of something miserable and apocalyptic, a beachscape of shame, littered with soldiers zombified by defeat, a darkly male world with hardly any women to be seen.

It is Nolan’s best film so far. It is also topped with Hans Zimmer’s best musical work: a frightening, keening, groaning accompaniment to a nightmare, switching ultimately to quasi-Elgar variations for the deliverance itself. Hans Zimmer creates a continuous pantonal lament, which imitates the dive bomber scream and queasy turning of the tides, and it works in counterpoint to the deafening artillery and machine-gun fire that pretty much took the fillings out of my teeth and sent them in a shrapnel fusillade all over the cinema auditorium.

The film is, of course, on a massive Nolanesque scale. Dunkirk full movie is traditionally seen in terms of a miraculous underdog littleness that somehow redeemed the disaster. The plucky small boats countered the memory of a British army dwarfed by Wehrmacht strategy and a British establishment humiliated by the suspicion that it was only Hitler’s miscalculation or mysterious realpolitik in halting the German advance that permitted the evacuation in the first place. A different kind of Dunkirk film might have had High Command scenes in Berlin featuring the generals arguing with the Führer about exactly this. Maybe Nolan didn’t want his film hijacked by a lot of satirical fake-subtitle YouTubers.

The event itself entered Britain’s pop-cultural bloodstream after the war by way of the opening titles to TV’s Dad’s Army, with its Nazi map-arrows pushing north and the Flanagan theme inspired by Leslie Norman’s 1958 film Dunkirk, starring John Mills and Richard Attenborough. But Nolan is not having any morale-raising laughter or chirpiness. His disaster is big; the stakes are high, the anxiety unbearable.

We are forced into eardrum-perforating action straight away. A squaddie named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) scrambles desperately to the beach through the Dunkirk streets under heavy fire and sees the bad-dream panorama in front of him: hundreds of thousands of stranded French and British soldiers waiting all over the sand. Corpses are being buried there. There are no ships to rescue them and – apparently – no air cover to prevent them being picked off. Tommy is to encounter fellow soldier, Alex (Harry Styles, making a perfectly influential acting debut). Meanwhile, RAF pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) is, in fact, engaging the enemy overhead and taking desperate risks with fuel. A gray-haired naval officer portrayed by Kenneth Branagh – evoking Jack Hawkins in The Cruel Sea (1953) – broodingly scans the horizon. And on the home front, a Mr Dawson, laconically played by Mark Rylance, takes his little cruiser, joins the people’s armada, encounters a traumatised officer (Cillian Murphy) and endures a terrible sacrifice, which he lives to see mythologised and falsified by the press.

In military terms, Dunkirk full movie is almost entirely static for most of its running time: the battle is over before the film has begun, and there is no narrative context of the sort offered in Leslie Norman’s version. Nolan encircles his audience with chaos and terror from the outset, and stunning images and dazzlingly accomplished set pieces on a huge 70mm screen, especially the pontoon crammed with soldiers extending into the churning sea, exposed to enemy aircraft. It is an architectural expression of doomed homeward yearning. There is a tremendous image when some of the soldiers are able to scramble aboard a destroyer, and are welcomed with tea and that now vanished treat, bread-and-jam, and so tiny rectangles of red surreally speckle the grey-and-khaki image. It is also persuasively horrible when soldiers wait by the surf’s edge, which has become a lapping scummy froth, as if these are the survivors of some horrible natural disaster.

Christopher Nolan might have found some inspiration from the Dunkirk sequence in Joe Wright’s 2007 work Atonement, but otherwise he provides his own colossal and very distinctive confidence to this tale. It’s a visceral piece of film-making.

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Cardboard Gangsters – flawed yet enjoyable gangland thriller

There’s a lot of energy swirling around this flawed, but punchy and watchable gangland thriller from Irish film-maker Mark O’Connor, who directed the bareknuckle fight drama King of the Travellers in 2012.

This too features John Connors, who is also credited as co-writer. He plays Jason, a tough dude and occasionally work as DJ in north Dublin. He hangs out with his crew, some of them are rappers, all are on the dole but dreaming of vaguely making it in the music business. In the meantime, the plan is to get some startup cash by robbing an off-license so as to trade for some heroin from a local wholesaler, to retail on the streets – to the quite considerable displeasure of the area’s chief drug dealer, whose wife (Kierston Wareing) Jason also is coincidentally having an affair with. What on earth can his life insurance premiums be like?

O’Connor puts the pedal to the metal with this picture and drives it like he stole it, as they say – with some exhilarating results. There is some touch from Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah, and maybe also something borrowed from Nick Love. It’s not perfect – the ending starts to lose focus – but it has some style.

Six years ago, Mark O’Connor, an inventive young Dubliner, amazed festival folks with his rough-hewn debut Between the Canals. Few young film-makers moved the camera with such confidence or were so economical in the creation of character. The picture was somewhat of a mess, but our antennae stayed alerted. Since then he has grown into one of our most intriguing oddballs (that is meant entirely as a compliment). King of the Travellers over-reached itself. Stalker was everything you would want from an experimental psycho-comedy.

Cardboard Gangsters is O’Connor’s most complete film yet. The picture, took place among small-time criminals in Darndale, has wonderful kinetic sweep and a sharp sense of the absurdities of city life. The picture does lack story and structure. But it is so interesting on a scene-by-scene basis that it proves impossible to care.

The charming, unshakeable John Connors – who also owns a screenplay credit – plays troublesome young operator Jay. He has his share of problems. Hoodlum landlords are threatening to throw his ma out of her house. His girlfriend may be pregnant. The social welfare folks are threatening to halt his dole as he does the odd gig as a DJ. Soon he and his pals are contemplating an assault on the upper rungs of the ladder. They rob an off-licence. They move from flogging weed to shifting heroin. We’ve seen enough crime movies to suspect their path will not be unimpeded.

The star of the show is Michael Lavelle’s camera. O’Connor has persuaded him into taking long shots that follow the characters’ trail all the way down the street and into busy houses. He sets the scene at a party by taking us all around the action in one enormously busy take. Jay’s DJ set buzzes with delicious, oily energy. The punch-ups and pursuits are crafted with an invention that stops just short of inappropriate great enjoyment. The movie is intriguing, but it is unlikely to inspire much copycat behavior.

The filmmakers are always on the lookout for a colorful aside or a humorous confrontation. Watch as one fellow smokes when he realizes that – after describing a “masterpiece” sandwich over the phone – the restaurant refuses to deliver to Darndale. Nothing appears quite so strange as the cheeky Northern Irish kids who muscle in on business. They may as well be from Hispaniola.

Occasionally, the movie’s stylistic flourishes summon up a bum note. If intercutting a sex scene with the frothy opening of a champagne bottle was deliberate then it demonstrates vulgarity. If the juxtaposition was accidental then it shows carelessness. It’s a shame the story doesn’t have a little more shape and originality.

Given all that, O’Connor has – with a help in no small measure by a towering turn from Connors – reach as near to a Dublin Boyz n the Hood as we could have expected. It’s noisy, loud, violent and sad. Cult popularity beckons.

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MOVIE REVIEW: The Mummy Returns – Full of violent and nudity

During the last summer’s The Mummy Returns, World Wrestling Federation super-hunk Dwayne Douglas Johnson—better known as The Rock—made his big-screen debut as the threatening Scorpion King. That short appearance as a bow-wielding, centaur-like, half-human/half-arachnid made quite a strong impression to the audience. Producer Kevin Misher recalls, “We were blown away by his charisma and presence in those first dailies for The Mummy Returns. Even though he was speaking his lines in Egyptian, he was incredibly compelling. We started coming up with a project for him right then and there.”

The installment, an action-packed spin-off neatly titled The Scorpion King, is a prequel following the character’s rise to power over 5,000 years ago. The Rock plays Mathayus, a muscle-bound Akkadian assassin. He’s appointed by a group of otherwise antagonistic tribes that come together as a last resort to thwart Memnon, a cold-blood tyrant who threatens to wipe out their clans, one by one. Memnon’s army has never experienced failure thanks to a beautiful sorceress called Cassandra whose mystical visions give the despot the information he needs to achieve victorious from any battle. It’s Mathayus’ duty to execute her, therefore allowing the newly allied tribes to fight legitimately for their lives. But she’s such a knockout, Mathayus can’t bring himself to destroy her. So he kidnaps her instead. The rest of the movie’s meager 89 minutes give the duo an opportunity to fall in love amid nonstop fighting scenes that build to an ultimate clash between Mathayus and Memnon.

positive elements: Mathayus shows mercy to a few folks, sparing enemies who then turn into his friends. Forced to choose between shooting Memnon or rescuing a young boy, Mathayus helps the lad. During fighting scenes, the good guys put themselves on the line for each other. Cassandra tries to stop the killing by telling Memnon that murder can never bring peace. Mathayus defends Cassandra. On two occasions, she puts her life on the line to protect him. Told that he will die if he confronts Memnon, Mathayus refuses to give in to fatalism, determining, “I make my own destiny.” He also wants to establish a peaceful kingdom.

spiritual content: Polytheism reigns, with many references to “the gods.” Cassandra is a sorceress who, on one occasion, uses the ancient equivalent of a Ouija board to help her summon visions. At other times she goes into trance-like states or channels healing power.

sexual content: Nothing raw, but lots of cheap titillation and peekaboo nudity. Cassandra is naked in some sequences, with hair or other objects covering key anatomy and barely preserving the movie’s PG-13 rating. It is hinted that her mysterious powers are contingent on her virginity, which she gives away to Mathayus. Nubian king Balthazar wakes up beside not one, but two women. Most of the females in this movie (even the warriors) are dressed in immodest clothing revealing much cleavage. A group of prostitutes propositions Mathayus as he wanders across a marketplace in Gomorrah. Later he winds up in a harem full of lustful young women. A young boy tosses a coin into a wishing well, from which shows up a nude Cassandra (shown from behind, though it is indicated that the boy gets an eyeful). While trying to treat his injuries, Cassandra straddles Mathayus in an extremely sexual manner.

violent content: Doubtlessly, The Scorpion King has the highest death count of any movie so far this year. One minute passes through the film, a man gets hit in the face with a flying metal star. That sets the tone for what is a quite bloodless, yet headache-inducing barrage of violence. Countless folks get shot with arrows, run through with blades, stabbed with knives (airborne and otherwise), chopped with axes, thrown from great heights or decapitated. An ambitious prince brags about having killed his father, and proves it by showing the severed head. Some of the more graphic deaths (for instance when Mathayus’ brother gets his throat slit) take place just out of the frame, but leave little to the imagination. Several soldiers are consumed by quicksand. Another is impaled on a stalagmite. Still other bad guys are defeated with bone-crunching punches in the face, hung by the neck, consumed by raging fire ants, or incinerated in a climactic explosion. Also, violent acts are committed by and against women and children.

crude or profane language: Crude slang for urine, one exclamation of “good lord,” and a few sexual innuendoes.

drug and alcohol content: None.

other negative elements: Mathayus’ hatred of Memnon is loosely fueled by vengeance over the death of his brother. Similarly, just before killing a traitorous brat, Balthazar takes pleasure in being the one to administer payback. These “heroes” cut a swath through their enemies unfettered by moral conscience.

conclusion:”The assassin and the sorceress. How romantic,” hisses the evil (and strangely European) Memnon upon finding Mathayus and Cassandra together. When you stop to think about it, they are a strange pair to be rooting for. The hero is a killing machine. The heroine is skilled in the occult. Hollywood sure has a way of convincing us that evil can be good. But even more disturbing to me was the movie’s relentless violence mixed with intermittent sexuality, a potent adrenaline cocktail aimed squarely at preadolescent males. Although this isn’t a particularly good film at anylevel, expect to see more of WWF champ The Rock who, based on this Conan-esque role, could be the next Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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“The Scorpion King” Review: For a Prequel to the ‘Mummy’ franchise, a Mountain of Muscle Makes a Parody

”The Scorpion King” may seem like a film, but it feels like a food fight. As this messy barrage of muscle flexing, swordplay, fireballs, raw digital effects and comic-book quips throws itself off the screen, it’s like having some garbage cans full of stale pizza, lukewarm cola, soggy French fries and greasy, ketchup-stained tissues emptied over your head.

The best way (maybe the only way) to enjoy the film, directed by Chuck Russell, is to turn off your thought, give up all expectations of logic and dive in an accumulating chaos that finds you waist deep in trash by the end of the film, which is available today nationwide. The movie is so devoted to remaining a continuous high-decibel commotion that it lacks all narrative coherence, and its chases, sword fights and brawls are too separated to convey tension. The little excitement is elevated by the frantic action and noise and by the viewers’ response. At the preview I attended the film was greeted with contemptuous laughter and praises.

As everyone’s aware of, the key attraction of ”The Scorpion King,” which bills itself as a prequel to the ”Mummy” series, is the star featuring of that mountainous hunk of flesh called the Rock, who made his screen debut in ”The Mummy Returns.” If the ”Mummy” series digs itself out from under the litter left behind ”The Scorpion King” for another round, it will be due to the wrestling superstar shows off heavy box office clout this weekend. But I wouldn’t count on it.

The Rock may be the first film action hero made of flesh and blood who seems more digital than real human. With his bulging eyes, skinny plucked-looking brows, heavy-metal back and monotone voice, he evokes a lobotomized Billy Crystal on stilts and steroids. But it’s his body language more than his physiognomy that makes the Rock reminiscences something made from a digital laboratory. The muscle-bound star moves diligently, as if beneath all that bulk a normal human being were straining to maneuver an extra hundred pounds of grafted-on muscle and tissue.

The Rock’s role, Mathayus, is felled several times in the film. Every time he rises himself up from the dirt, it is like witnessing one of Steven Spielberg’s wounded dinosaurs come to life. Where action stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone have symbolized themselves as semi-human action figures, the Rock comes closer than any movie star to date to embodying an emerging type, the action hero as Creature.

For certain, ”The Scorpion King” doesn’t take itself distantly seriously. In its crude way, it is a parody of a parody. The two previous entries in the series, you may remember, were themselves good-natured spoofs of vintage movie serials with their love for ancient Egyptian mumbo-jumbo and bogus archaeological solemnity. What the series adds to the genre (and incidentally, there are no mummies in ”The Scorpion King”) is an aesthetic of gigantism that is consciously self-mocking.

In ”The Scorpion King,” the balance between digital effects and live action tips so decisively toward the artificial that the whole film appears like an overblown cartoon. The special effects appear deliberately tacky. One scene finds Mathayus facing down an invading army of giant red ants while buried up to his neck in the desert. As they start crawling over his face, he chews a couple up in his mouth and haughtily spits them out. But in less than a minute, the ants have been dispersed. Later on when a digital sandstorm rolls out of nowhere, the movie doesn’t even bother to make it awesome. Rather than a dramatic device, it’s just a reference boasted with the attitude that as we know it’s fake, what’s the point of making it look half-real or scary?

The Rock seems to be the movie-star embodiment of cinematic gigantism carried to ludicrous extremes. And the film has delivered a suitable foil for him in Michael Clarke Duncan, who plays the Rock’s foe-turned-ally, Balthazar. A giant Nubian warrior whose voice is a caricature of virility, Mr. Duncan matches the Rock in oversize ridiculousness. Which is more macho? Moments after Mathayus is seen waking up next to a beautiful woman, the camera features Balthazar flanking in bed by two languorous beauties, and the audience cheers its appreciation.

The story is negligible. Five thousand years ago, the film imagines, a warlord called Memnon (Steven Brand), with the advice of a stunning sorceress (Kelly Hu), sought to take over the known world from his palace in the city of Gomorrah. The few tribes not under Memnon’s thumb recruit Mathayus, the leader of an assassin clan, to eliminate the sorceress. Instead he kidnaps her and wins her over, and with the help of Philos (Bernard Hill), a rebellious court scientist who invents gunpowder, they besiege the palace.

Most of the film’s jokes are brought by Mathayus’s madly loquacious sidekick, Arpid (Grant Heslov), who is given to chirping non sequiturs like ”It isn’t the size of the hump, it’s the motion of the camel.” Even the Rock has his moment of wit. His opening line is a single word, ”Boo!” spoken softly with a half-smile. Boo indeed.

The Scorpion King” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Although the movie is packed with violence, it is cartoonish with minimal gore. It has sexual situations, but they’re left vague.

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