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Media Reviews: February 2018

Holiday Movie Roundup

December is always such a great month for movies, between serious Oscar-bait flicks and big holiday blockbusters. I always feel like I miss the good stuff, but I managed to get to a few fine films this year. Here’s what I saw:

The Shape of Water
Written and directed by Guillermo del Toro
Produced by Bull Productions, Double Dare You (DDY), and Fox Searchlight Pictures
December 8, 2017

This deceptively simple film is a thorough dismantling of the tropes of the 1950s sci-fi monster movie. There’s a gothic government laboratory with a design aesthetic of oppressive concrete, industrial pipes leading to nowhere, and a mysterious swamp-like aquarium in which a captured . . . something . . . lives. But instead of the usual collection of square-jawed scientists and their winsome assistants, this story is about one of the cleaning women who scrubs away the blood and severed limbs after things have gone terribly wrong. She must have always been there, right? We just never saw her before.

Elisa Esposito is mute. She sees a kindred spirit in the amphibious humanoid creature who can’t communicate with its captors. She knows what it’s like not to be heard, and so she starts teaching him sign language. Then, they fall in love. The story follows her through her daily life and her friends: her cleaning partner Zelda, a black woman who is always tired and frustrated with her husband; her neighbor, Giles, an unemployed advertising artist who pines for the guy working at the pie shop across the street (one of the more horrifying images in the film is the shop’s gelatinous key-lime pie, which Giles keeps buying as an excuse to talk to his crush and then not eating).

This film is about marginalized people. Without changing any of the other parts of the B-grade monster-movie story, the focus shifts to the cleaning ladies, the Russian spy who is a scientist first and appalled at both sides of the Cold War that would rather destroy knowledge than share it, and the gay artist who can’t find his place anywhere.

Deployed against them is Strickland, a caricature of pretty much literal toxic masculinity. Early on, the creature bites off Strickland’s fingers. The fingers are recovered and reattached, but unsuccessfully. They are rotting off his hand and pouring septic rot into his bloodstream. But Strickland is so afraid of appearing weak, of failing, that he won’t acknowledge that he has become grotesque. (Delightfully, at the showing I went to, there was a deep-voiced guy who made loud, horrified noises every time a shot focused on Strickland’s hand.) Toxic masculinity doesn’t mean that men are inherently toxic. It’s about a society that demands strict, and damaging, performative gestures of men. Strickland is determined to drive the right car, to live in the right town, to have the right perky wife, with two perky children who he won’t even look at. He’s so focused on himself, on the status he’s been promised if he plays by the rules, he’s incapable of empathy.

All Elisa is asking of anyone is to feel empathy for the creature. It’s the marginalized characters who are able to do so. They all—Zelda, Giles, the turncoat scientist Hoffstetler—unite to liberate the strange and wondrous creature when Strickland advocates for vivisection. The cast here—especially Sally Hawkins as Elisa and Doug Jones as the creature—are all great.

The film is also about loneliness and sex, whether it’s Elisa alone in her bathtub, the gay bachelor pining for the impossible, or Strickland’s wife formally offering sex and Strickland perfunctorily accepting. And then there’s Elisa and the creature. It’s telling that while her friends might be confused by the relationship, they’re not judgmental. They’re happy she’s found someone who really seems to care for her. It’s the only joyful intimate relationship in the movie.

The Shape of Water is a horror movie and not for the squeamish. But it’s also a kind, earnest, and even hopeful movie. Fans of Guillermo del Toro, especially of his more surreal and symbolic films like Pan’s Labyrinth, shouldn’t miss it. But I think it’s a film that most genre fans will enjoy for its handling of some of those classic monster movie tropes.

The Man Who Invented Christmas
Directed by Bharat Nalluri; screenplay adaptation by Susan Coyne
Produced by Mazur/Kaplan Company, The Mob Film Company, and Parallel Films
November 22, 2017

This is the story of how a single book—Dickens’ A Christmas Carol—changed the way Victorian England celebrated Christmas.

Charles Dickens is one of my favorite writers of all time, and I’ve been a fan of Dan Stevens since his leading role in the TV show Legion (maybe the most amazing superhero thing I’ve seen ever), so I was bound and determined to see this one. My favorite part of the movie, the part that made me cry, is a bit I didn’t know I needed to see until I saw it, but I know now the movie wouldn’t have been complete without it. Dickens took walks through London. He’d walk for hours, through all the neighborhoods, day and night. It’s where he got much of his material, his characters, his descriptions. He did it for inspiration, for mental health, and to stay in touch with his roots, his poverty-stricken childhood.

Dan Stevens’ Dickens walks. They’re not long walks, they’re connected to other parts of the story (as they should be). But his ease, his comfort in any part of London, his joy at just being in the streets of London—these couple of scenes are the only times he looks relaxed. It’s a lovely character moment.

I think people who spend their whole lives writing fiction forget how mysterious and magical the process looks like from the outside. It really is just this mundane slog of putting words together and then rearranging them and turning them into sentences that people will actually want to read. Which is, granted, usually much harder than it sounds. But gosh, it looks magical, doesn’t it? How is that one can create this thing out of nothing that goes on to have such a profound impact and become such a huge part of the culture?

The mystery of the process leads to a whole architecture of tropes that Hollywood engages about writers. Myths, even. You’d think that the screenwriters who write these stories would want to unravel these myths rather than reinforce them. Well, yes. But the tropes are a great deal of fun to play with. So we get The Man Who Invented Christmas, which covers some of the same ground as Shakespeare in Love, where the writer is snatching bits of dialog and characters whole cloth from the world around him and constructing them into the beloved story at hand, with a deadline to add some suspense. There’s a definite air of fiction to the whole thing. Not, This is what really happened, but What if this was how it happened?

But this means that it’s rare that I ever see a movie about writers and think, ah yes, that’s just how it is. On the other hand, there’s a moment where Dickens and his friend and agent go on a bender at a low-class pub. It’s not yet the Dark Night of the Soul, but Charles is on the way there, and he mutters, “Kate [his wife] doesn’t understand me.” And Forester looks at him and says good naturedly: “I’ve got news for you, Charles. Nobody understands you. You’re a freak of nature.” My friend reached over and patted me at this moment. Was he trying to tell me something?

The film could have gone one way—an author and his most famous character in a curmudgeonly, roommates-at-odds type comedy. And that’s partly there, when his office fills with his characters eagerly waiting for him to finish the story. But it also goes dark: Christopher Plummer’s Scrooge is an awful person. He doesn’t want to reform, and Charles can’t make him, until he confronts that part of himself that is just like Scrooge: his own insecurities about money, his terrible childhood working in the bootblacking factory that made him sympathetic to those in dire poverty but also deeply afraid of that poverty, his temper—the chains of his past, bearing him down. This part did ring true for me: that sometimes our best writing happens when we’re willing to face down the parts of ourselves we didn’t expect to find in it. This is the moment when Charles realizes the Scrooge isn’t just a character: he’s a warning. And the story comes together.

Ah, but those Dark Nights of the Soul would be so much easier if we knew we were writing something like A Christmas Carol.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Written and directed by Rian Johnson
Produced by Lucasfilm, Ram Bergman Productions, and Walt Disney Pictures
December 15, 2017

I’ve decided there’s not really much point in writing detailed, thoughtful reviews of either Star Wars movies or the Marvel Cinematic Universe at this point, since my reviews moving forward are essentially the same: Did you like the previous movies? Then you will probably like this one. Did you not like the previous movies? Then why would you ever spend time and money on this one?

There’s more to be said, of course. I can talk about it in terms of whether it’s better or worse than all the others, and how it moves the franchise forward or not. But these are the tedious discussions of baseball fans talking about batting averages, deeply important and completely opaque to outsiders.

I find so much of fans’ reactions to these movies are rooted in expectation. It isn’t about being good or not, it’s about meeting expectations. Where the problem comes is realizing that the best stories are often ones that go where you didn’t expect them to, where you didn’t want them to. (As the author of a long-running book series, I ran into this a lot. In the year it takes for the next book to come out, the fans are spinning their own versions of the story they want. The new books will never, ever match those versions. Some fans take it in stride. Others . . . don’t.) You can be angry that the story in your head isn’t what you got on the screen. Or you can step back and be open to the story that you never would have come up with on your own. Expand your expectations.

The big spoiler in this one: Luke Skywalker dies. Like actually and for real. And I wasn’t even sad because how it happened was triumphant and just perfect (unlike the broadly telegraphed and rather anticlimactic death of Han Solo). He displays a magnificently powerful Force ability we’ve never seen before—and the cost of him using that ability is death. The film sets it all up, lays out all the clues, and we’re still surprised-but-not-really. And the series is breaking ties with its predecessors. Yes, some scenes are callbacks to the previous movies, right down to the framing—but I recommend not focusing on the similarities, but on the differences. Luke stands defenseless as Kylo Ren sabers him in half—and he doesn’t vanish in a heap of collapsed robes as Obi Wan did. He’s untouched. We’re in new territory here. One of the themes of the film is letting go of the past. Letting go of our heroes, who are and always have been only human. This isn’t the only scene where this kind of reframing happens. It’s just great.

These days, my fangirling over these ridiculously huge and popular franchises is keeping me sane. Giving me something to think about that doesn’t have dire consequences in the real world. If ever there was a time for escapist entertainment—escapist entertainment that is also asking lots of questions about power, who has it and why, the responsibilities of power, the consequences of war and of failure, while also promoting the values of friendship and doing the right thing, etc., etc.—it’s now.

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Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn is the bestselling author of the Kitty Norville series, as well as the superhero novels Dreams of the Golden Age and After the Golden Age, the young adult novels Voices of Dragons and Steel, and the fantasy novel Discord’s Apple. Her recent books include Martians Abroad and Amaryllis and Other Stories, as well as her post-apocalyptic mysteries for John Joseph Adams Books, the Philip K. Dick Award-winning Bannerless, and its sequel, The Wild Dead. Her Hugo Award-nominated short fiction has appeared in many magazines and anthologies, from Lightspeed to Tor.com, as well as in George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards series. She lives in Boulder, Colorado. Learn more at carrievaughn.com.