June got away from me with finally GETTING MY MASTER’S DEGREE and all. I just got back from the Mythmoot conference, which doubled as my Master’s graduation ceremony. If you’d like to watch me give the welcome at graduation, along with watching the entire ceremony, you may do so at the link. There are also videos of the presentations, special speakers, and more of the Mythmoot conference on Signum University’s Twitch channel as well.
Anyway, onto what you’re really here for–my long-awaited mini-reviews of the movies I saw in the theater in February 2018. Per usual, BOLO for the SPOILER WARNING should there be any major spoilers, but overall, I try to keep my reviews spoiler-free.
The Greatest Showman – I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a bit of a novice when it comes to musicals. I always enjoy them when I watch them, but they aren’t usually at the top of my list of things to watch. That being said, several of my friends wanted to see The Greatest Showman, and me being the extrovert that I am, am hard-pressed to decline an invitation to an evening of fun with my buddies. Also, my personal head canon of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) dancing and singing while being the ringmaster of a circus is the perfect X-Men Musical Circus AU I’ve been waiting for.
There are several things I enjoyed about The Greatest Showman. The music was phenomenal. All the songs are catchy and the choreography was quite entertaining to watch. I admit to getting chills upon first hearing, “Never Enough,” (performed by former The Voice contestant Loren Allred), and being particularly moved by “This is Me.” One of the things that increased my respect for Zendaya (who I already enjoyed as MJ in Spider-man: Homecoming) was learning that she did all of her own trapeze stunts in the film. The cinematography was stunning. I particularly enjoyed how lighting, shadow, and color were used in the film. Even in scenes that didn’t take place at the circus, these elements helped to give each scene a big top-type feel. I also enjoyed the overall theme–stay hungry, but don’t lose sight of what you already have. This was a nice contrast for me since this was the musical team behind La La Land, which had great music, but had a troublesome theme in my view.
If I have one complaint about The Greatest Showman, I’ll say that the story fell a little flat for me. Part of this is because I’m not interested in venerating historical figures who weren’t actually good people in real life. Take a look at P. T. Barnum’s actual history to learn a little more about who he really was. Or, if you’d like to take a more comical look at history, check out the Honest Trailer for The Greatest Showman.
All that being said, I know a lot of folks enjoyed The Greatest Showman, and that’s certainly your prerogative to do so. However, if I want to enjoy it again, I’ll probably just stick with the soundtrack.
The Shape of Water – My favorite movie from 2017 is The Shape of Water. Guillermodel Toro’s response to a childhood obsession with Creature from the Black Lagoon for me is the ultimate sort of fan wish fulfillment possible. From the standpoint of someone who has obsessively engaged in analysis and creative response to film/television/literature/story my entire life, thinking about The Shape of Water from that perspective, if you’ll forgive the pun, blew me out of the water. However, the film does much more than engage in a bit of childhood wish fulfillment. I will try to keep my thoughts brief, but I could go on for hours about this film. If you’d like to dialogue with me more about the film, leave a comment and we’ll talk.
I will also give the caveat that The Shape of Water is not for everyone. Be advised that there is nudity and sexual content. However, the overarching theme and the way that particular theme is conveyed is worth discussing, especially for me as a Christian.
First of all, there are no bad actors in The Shape of Water. I had never seen Sally Hawkins in anything before and she completely melted my brain with her ability to convey emotion with no spoken dialogue. Her Oscar nomination for best actress was well deserved. Michael Shannon as the villain, Richard Strickland, was positively despicable. Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, and Michael Stuhlbarg all performed their supporting roles magnificently as well. The brilliant character actor Doug Jones, one of the kindest actors I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, gives one of his finest performances, also with no spoken dialogue.
Secondly, The Shape of Water offers up a sort of magical realism type of fantasy/science fiction tale. It is conveyed majestically through the cinematography and particularly its use of color and water. Water is often displayed visually in different manners to convey different ideas or themes–boiling water, bath water, the river, rain, etc. The darker sea green hues that color many of the scenes throughout much of the film give an underwater feel. The film’s use of music, as well as the concept of film/the theater really speaks to Hawkins’ character and del Toro’s response to Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Finally, the questions raised by The Shape of Water are what ultimately make this my favorite film of 2017 and has solidified the movie in my top 10 favorite films of all time. These questions are “What does it mean to be made in the image of God?” and “How do we treat people who are in the minority, be it racially, sexual orientation, politically, or ability?”
[What follows contains the dialogue of a powerful scene. Consider this your SPOILER WARNING].
There is a scene where Michael Shannon’s character (Strickland) is sizing up Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer’s characters (Elisa and Zelda). The dialogue is as follows.
STRICKLAND: [to Zelda and Elisa] Let me say this up front: You clean that lab, you get out. The thing we keep in there is an affront. Do you know what an affront is, Zelda?
ZELDA: Something offensive?
STRICKLAND: That’s right. And I should know, I dragged that… filthy thing… out of the river muck in South America all the way here. And along the way we didn’t get to like each other much. Now. You may think, “That thing looks human.” Stands on two legs, right? But – we’re created in the Lord’s image. You don’t think that’s what the Lord looks like, do you?
ZELDA: I wouldn’t know, Sir. What the Lord looks like.
STRICKLAND: Well, human, Zelda. He looks like a human. Just like me… Or even you. A little more like me, I guess…
If there was ever a scene that made me utterly despise a character more in a film, I can’t think of one. As a Christian, the fact that a supposed “christian” or “God-fearing” person would ever think or utter those things is beyond deplorable and angering to me. If a viewer is skeptical of Strickland’s character at that point, there is no doubt afterwards that he is evil and irredeemable. The deep offense of this line of dialogue though is effective in highlighting the film’s main questions I mentioned earlier. The film ultimately answers those questions with its finale–all those created in the image of God should be treated with dignity and respect. What is even more fascinating to me about this film is that del Toro would describe himself as somewhere between an atheist and an agnostic, yet the more of his films I watch, the more Christian themes I find (see most notably Pan’s Labyrinth–another fairy tale for adults).
The Shape of Water really made me consider how I treat and view those different from me. Do I see them has someone created in the image of God, or do I think of them as different or “other” from me and therefore somehow less? It is a question worth asking and something to keep at the forefront of the mind.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle – I have long been fascinated by reboots, sequels, and adaptations. I initially thought Welcome to the Jungle was another needless reboot, but then after reading a little more about it, learned it was actually a sequel. I was still a little confused about why one of my favorite childhood films, Jumanji, needed a sequel, but I really liked the cast (I have a love for The Rock that I can neither explain or deny), so I figured, why not? Also, from all accounts, it was supposed to be pretty funny and I’m never one to turn down a good laugh.
The film did not disappoint on the laugh front. One of the things that I really liked about it was the way the film changed the Jumanji board game into a retro game console that was a hybrid of an Atari 2600, a Sega Genesis, and a NES. The change fit perfectly for the time period. What I also liked was that each of the video game characters fit a mid 90s beat’em up adventure game stereotype. There’s a bold adventurer, a comical sidekick, a brilliant but clumsy scientist, and the tough and beautiful female adventurer dressed like Lara Croft. The film did a great job highlighting the problems with each of these stereotypes. My one take away from the film was that I left the theater feeling like I had just watched a play-through of a mid 90s adventure game on Sega Genesis. As a self-diagnosed retrophile and nostalgia addict, that alone made Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle worth seeing. Definitely check this one out for an all around fun popcorn movie.
Black Panther – While I’ve been a Marvel fan from the time I was very young, I’ll confess that my knowledge of T’Challa, the Black Panther, was quite limited before this film. However, by the end of the film, I’d found my new favorite Avenger.
Black Panther tackles many different and hard issues in a very delicate and nuanced manner. It is an origin story that breaks the mold of a traditional superhero origin story. It tells the story of a hero who must deal with the ramifications of a less than perfect familial past while also balancing the nuances of responsibility in running a nation with more power and advancements than others.
There are so many things that are worth discussing about this film–its handling of race, colonization, isolationism, family heritage, the many different portrayals of women, its villain, and more. It is difficult to discuss these things at length because 1). I am not a person of color and do not feel qualified to comment on many of these things, 2). I want you to watch this film yourself. I will however say a few things about the topics I feel somewhat qualified to address.
First, one of the things I adore about Black Panther is its many different portrayals of women. There’s not one particular type of woman figure–you have a mother, but not just a mother, a Queen. You have a brilliant and witty scientist who also happens to be a Princess, a warrior, an advocate who fights for the rights of those in need. It is so refreshing to me, as someone who’s never wanted to be the damsel in distress (give me a sword or a lightsaber any day), to see women who are like me in some way on screen. There are lots of different types of women in the world, we should be seeing more than one type reflected on screen. What I especially love about this film is that none of the male characters are diminished by any of these powerful females. Everyone has their own strength to bring to the table and they all work together for a common good.
Second, Erik Kilmonger is my favorite Marvel villain. He is a villain to which you can relate. He is someone that perhaps given a different set of circumstances, maybe he would have made different choices. Maybe he would have been someone like T’Challa. Michael B. Jordan truly brought out the intricacies of the character. While Kilmonger isn’t wrong about the injustices he’s seen and experienced, his method is one of violence, while T’Challa seeks to be peaceful.
Finally, I think what is the most important to me about Black Panther is the matter of representation. Something I have done my entire life is process my emotions through the lens of fictional characters. When I met Brienne of Tarth, I really wanted to weep because I felt like I’d finally met someone that told my story. I know how powerful that was for me. I love that so many other people got to experience that too.
There are so many things to unpack about Black Panther that I can’t even begin to scratch the surface here. It is rare to find a superhero film so multilayered and complex. This one is worth watching and worth discussing.
Honorable Mention: Get Out – I wanted to bring up Get Out for a few reasons. While I didn’t get to catch this one in the theater, I did stream it on HBO. Get Out to me, brings out the best parts of both The Shape of Water and Black Panther. It asks the same question as The Shape of Water–“What does it mean to be made in the image of God?” and it treats with the nuances of subtle and less than subtle racism that Black Panther does.
When the big reveal is made about the true nature of the Armitage family, I couldn’t help be think of Henrietta Lacks. If you’ve not heard of her, check this out. While different situations entirely, the principle is the same–removal of cells/DNA without consent for the purposes of genetic advancement.
I was discussing Get Out and The Shape of Water with a friend around Oscar season. We were both fearful that Get Out might not get a fair shake for best picture because of the way it chose to highlight racism, but also because of its genre. It made me think about how both films essentially asked the same main questions, but Get Out was a science fiction horror film and The Shape of Water was a modern-day parable wrapped in the trappings of magical realism. Neither genre has ever gotten a fair shake outside of the technical realm, but particularly the horror genre. Only 6 horror films in the history of the Academy have ever gotten nominated for best picture, including Get Out, and only one has won the award, The Silence of the Lambs. So really, does best picture really come down to your genre preferences? It’s something worth considering. It’s also interesting to me to think about The Shape of Water through the lens of a parable. Parables function to highlight moral questions, which The Shape of Water does beautifully. Parables, also for many, can make a hard lesson go down easier–a spoonful of sugar and all that jazz. Maybe that’s why it won over Get Out. I don’t know. I don’t claim to understand the Academy. But what I do know is that Get Out is incredibly important and not to be missed. It’s a film you can sit and chew on for a while. It’s also one worth discussing. Add it to your short list if you’ve not seen it yet.
There you have it. Those are the films I got to see in the theater in February. My March list is a little shorter. I saw Black Panther a second time (this was before MoviePass changed to their 1 viewing per film policy), Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and Ready Player One. I won’t be covering Black Panther again unless I think of something I’d like to add to this review. Thanks for reading!