Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

Monthly Archive: December 2017



December 2017



The Shape of Water is a Profoundly Human Masterpiece

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Guillermo del Toro is a singular filmmaker in the industry. His delicate approach transcends the conventional patterns for the science fiction/horror genres, giving movies like Hellboy & Pacific Rim a much stronger emotional resonance than an audience might expect from their blockbuster aspirations. Other films such as Pan’s Labyrinth & Crimson Peak offer narrative complexities with all of the visual wonders you might expect out of an installment of the Transformers. The Shape of Water is a carefully crafted spectacular that should finally deliver some long overdue awards show recognition for one of the most innovative directors currently making movies.

Set against the backdrop of the Cold War and all the anxiety it brought to the nation, The Shape of Water takes place in a Baltimore research facility in the 1960s. Sally Hawkins’ Elisa is a mute woman who works alongside Octavia Spencer’s Zelda as a night-shift janitor, whose fairly routine life is disrupted as she begins to form a bond with a humanoid fish creature, initially known as the “Asset,” who’s brought to the lab after being captured by a team led by Michael Shannon’s Colonel Strickland, a man who embodies the worst prejudices of his era.

The heightened anxieties of the era are largely absent from Elisa’s life. She has a close bond with Zelda, along with Richard Jenkins’ Giles, finding warmth in less than perfect circumstances. She takes pleasure in listening to music, dancing, or even simple conversation while many live in fear of nuclear annihilation. I’m not sure if del Toro meant that as a commentary on the present era, but there’s a certain sense of optimism conveyed in the way Elisa goes about her life, smiling when many might see nothing but dread.

Despite the presence of a magic humanoid fish creature at the heart of the narrative, The Shape of Water is a deeply human film. Hawkins, Shannon, and Richard Jenkins portray fundamentally broken characters searching for the missing pieces in their lives. Hawkins expertly conveys her character Elisa’s emotions through sign language, working off of Jenkins, Spencer, and the “Asset” in a way that never feels as though a barrier exists between the characters. It is through this simple act of conversation, even at times without words, that The Shape of Water truly stands out.

For all the visual wonder that we’ve grown to expect from del Toro’s work, the performances allow the film to exist on an intimate level with its audience. This may be both a period piece and a science fiction film, but it makes its strongest investment in its characters. Jenkins’ Giles is a lonely closeted artist struggling to have his work noticed. Shannon’s Strickland is a scorned officer, who blindly shields his vulnerability with anger and abuse. Doug Jones’ performance as the “Asset” makes him out to be both intelligent and at the same time, a wild beast. These are fully fleshed out characters. Films often struggle to juggle both their casts and their narratives, but The Shape of Water allows its immensely talented cast to shine at every moment, even when Spencer’s Zelda is simply rambling about her family while she and Elisa mop the floor.

At its core, The Shape of Water is a film about being seen as a person without any asterisks. Elisa is mute, Giles is gay, Zelda is a person of color, and the “Asset” is a magical fish creature. These are details about these people, not singular traits that define their entire existence. We live in a world that often forgets to see people as people, or simply chooses not to. The film triumphs most when it flips this scenario, presenting characters who live and love without considering all the factors that set them apart.

Guillermo del Toro has always been an expert at crafting the world he wants his audience to exist in for the duration of his films. He ups the ante with The Shape of Water, a film that not only wows the viewer, but forces one to think about the way we view each other in a nation where diversity is often weaponized as a political tool. It is certainly his best English language script and may very well be his finest film. As a director who’s primarily worked in the sci-fi/horror genres which are rarely acknowledged in the major awards categories, del Toro has hardly gotten his due as a master filmmaker. Hopefully, that changes this year, but regardless,  The Shape of Water is one of the year’s best and well worth the price of admission.

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December 2017



A Look at the State of the DCEU

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The DC Extended Universe is a mess. Four of the five films released have been critical bombs, and the relatively disappointing box office gross for the Justice League suggests that fans are beginning to sour on the idea of paying exorbitant ticket prices for a subpar product. While the dark and gloomy tones of the Snyder directed efforts seem to match the general mood toward this disaster of a franchise, there is plenty of reason for optimism. Believe it or not, things are not as dour as the tone of these movies might suggest.

This franchise can be fixed with two simple changes. Warner Bros. needs to send Ben Affleck away and cease all future collaborations with Zack Snyder. This should have been done last year after the utter disaster that was Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, yet for some reason, both appear to still be involved with the franchise. Affleck is set to reprise his role as the Caped Crusader in the upcoming Flash movie, possibly for the final time, even though he’s given up directing the solo Batman film and likely won’t even appear in it.

Ben Affleck has the rare superhuman ability to communicate his unhappiness for playing Batman wherever he goes. Rumors surrounding his departure from the role have generated substantially more publicity for the franchise than any positive feedback for his performance, though to be fair, there’s been very little praise for the somber crusader. Sadness is not a trait we tend to expect from actors playing superheroes. Playing Batman makes him sad. It appears to make the audience sad too. Life is too short to be sad during a Batman movie.

Recasting Batman mid-franchise is not as daunting as it seems. It has been done before. Batman Forever and Batman & Robin may have been terrible, but as good as Michael Keaton was in the Tim Burton films, Val Kilmer & George Clooney are hardly to blame for the failure of their movies. Mark Ruffalo replaced Edward Norton in the MCU without ruining The Avengers. Prior to Pierce Brosnan’s casting as James Bond, each changing of the guard occurred two years after the previous movie’s release. The notion of recasting roles like Wolverine and Iron Man is complicated by the fact that both characters rose in popularity in tandem with the actors who played them.

The solution is simple. Insert a new Batman before the new Flash movie, preferably without a mustache that needs to be removed via CGI, and carry on with the movie. It isn’t inconsistent to have a new Batman. It would be better because presumably, this Batman would enjoy playing Batman. The DCEU would be wise to rip the gross moldy band-aid that is Ben Affleck off its franchise as soon as possible. No one will miss him.

Zack Snyder constructed the DCEU as a solemn place without joy. Superhero movies don’t need to all be as funny as Guardians of the Galaxy or Thor: Ragnarok, but Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman were dark for the sake of being dark, unlike the Burton incarnations which offered a picturesque world where the aesthetics fit in line with the template offered by Batman writers such as Alan Moore and Frank Miller. I say that as someone who loved Snyder’s take on Moore’s Watchmen, though more for the stellar casting that the adaptations’ faithfulness to its source material, which was likely too tall an order for a single movie. I don’t wish to rag on Snyder, whose family has endured an unimaginable tragedy, but his style of filmmaking was not particularly conducive to world building for a major franchise.

We live in a world where superhero movies no longer solely serve their own interests. There’s always the next movie to start building toward, leaving the conclusion incomplete often at the expense of the narrative that the audience paid to watch. Wonder Woman’s largely self-contained story demonstrated the power that these films can have if they focus their attention on being movies. Being entertaining is often the best way to build excitement for future incarnations. Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad spent far too much time spinning their wheels in the introductory phase that they forgot to deliver actual entertainment.

Despite its incoherence, Justice League had a few things going for it. Gal Gadot continued being the best thing that ever happened to the DCEU and Ezra Miller, Jason Mamoa, and Ray Fisher were all delightful to watch, even if the latter’s backstory was rather half-baked. The idea that Batman and Superman are the two weakest links on the team is actually good news. They can be fixed without missing a beat, as the audience is already familiar with them. Fortunately, the man of steel’s problems are much more narrowly confined to matters of digitally removed facial hair. Henry Cavill is actually a pretty decent Superman. If he’s a little stiff, well, that’s kind of the problem with a character that powerful.

The DCEU is off to a rough start, but the franchise has enough things going for it to right the ship. It does have more than a few compelling characters. A massive connected universe can be a fun asset, but the MCU never succeeds based on the ability of one of its films to relate to another. People don’t sit and watch Captain America: Winter Soldier wondering how the film set up Marvel’s Runaways. The Arrowverse has managed to navigate this web quite well, offering team-ups and crossovers that don’t require a person to sit and watch all four series each week. For some reason, the DCEU looked at that template, and decided to plot an alternative course. 

One of the best things that the Arrowverse has going for it is that its cast genuinely seems to like being there. Talent like Stephen Amell, Grant Gustin, and Melissa Benoist speak with enthusiasm about their work in a way that never forces one to question how much they enjoy this line of work. Sad Ben Affleck could use some pointers on that front, though after failing to play compelling superheroes twice now, maybe he should just hang up the tights. No part of this massively connected franchise will miss him.


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December 2017



The Last Jedi Offers Aimless Entertainment

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Note: This review does not contain spoilers 

There’s one line in the film, “Let the past die,” that defines The Last Jedi’s internal struggle. One could look at that as a fairly ironic utterance considering The Force Awakens was essentially a remake of A New Hope and that Disney’s Star Wars seems quite poised to never die, but there is a sense of truth in this character’s statement. As the franchise tries to figure out its identity in a post-George Lucas world, Star Wars may look to its roots for narrative inspiration, but it isn’t quite sure what course to plot for its characters.

The Last Jedi does not have much of a plot. Without diving into too much detail, the main conflict between The Resistance and The First Order bears more resemblance to O.J. Simpson’s slow-speed car chase than the asteroid field that Han & friends had to navigate through in Empire Strikes Back. Rey’s visit to Luke’s island Dagobah fairs much better, but there’s still lingering questions as to what exactly happened to the world post-Yub Nub that is never really answered.

I initially faced pushback for being critical of The Force Awakens’ lack of plot explanation from people who suggested that the film already bore the unenviable task of “resetting” the franchise after the prequels, and couldn’t be bogged down with too much exposition. Supreme Leader Snoke can be added to the list of things that are literally never explained. The audience is never once told who this man is or how he came into power, and yet the film goes on as if viewers should be expected to fear a villain who serves as little more than a cardboard cutout version of Emperor Palpatine.

Darth Vader is one of the most menacing villains in cinematic history. While Emperor Palpatine’s Machiavellian mechanics were largely saved for the prequels, Return of the Jedi Palpatine had the luxury of existing in a Star Wars world where the Empire was the only “big bad” in town. The Last Jedi is the eighth movie in the main series and yet it doesn’t really have a single compelling villain. Kylo Ren is neither scary nor convincingly evil, Captain Phasma is the most useless character in the new trilogy, and Snoke is barely anything at all.

Part of the problem is that The Last Jedi has a lot of characters, but it never really seems all that concerned about doing anything with any of them. Original trilogy characters are used as little more than window dressings, which I’d be more okay with if this new trilogy had big plans for its new leads. Director Rian Johnson has commented publicly on how this is Rey’s hero story, not Luke’s, but this trilogy has never really been able to answer the question of what this story is supposed to be. The basic questions that some people don’t think need to be answered in The Force Awakens carry a lot more weight if this next film is the conclusion of this newer story. It seems very possible that this new incarnation of Star Wars could end before the audience was ever given a reason to care. We live in a world where big franchises are always playing for the next movie. The Last Jedi forgets to live in the present.

Audience members may identify more with the suave Han Solo or the powerful Leia Organa more than the whiny kid from Tatooine, but the original Star Wars trilogy belongs to Luke Skywalker. This new trilogy does not make Rey the focal point in quite the same way, but its reluctance to commit to its new heroes forces one to question how old icons like Luke and Leia were deployed to serve the film’s purpose. Carrie Fisher delivers an emotionally satisfying send-off in her final role, but Luke’s place in all of this is still treated in a fashion that “it’s not his story” never really satisfies. Some people waited thirty years to see this character on a screen again. Rian Johnson tosses this notion aside without fully considering how fans might react in the absence of an alternative nucleus.

As someone who grew up a Star Wars fanatic, who bought a Sega 32X just to play Star Wars Arcade and wrote poetry about Chewbacca not getting a medal after the Battle of Yavin, I’m increasingly okay with the fact that this Disney version of Star Wars isn’t ever going to be the thing fans spent decades speculating about. Rogue One served as the benchmark for how to enjoy a movie in a franchise I used to obsess about. I won’t be buying the expanded universe novels, or eulogizing them should Disney ever decide to retcon them again. These are movies. Sometimes, that’s enough.

Despite this fairly harsh assessment, I did enjoy The Last Jedi. I had fun sitting in a movie theatre for two and a half hours while some explosions happened and some people did some things. When Solo: A Star Wars Movie comes out, I’ll go and see it. I’ll write my review, if only to reflect on the time in my life when this franchise meant something to me. I’m not the person who needed every single incarnation of Han Solo action figure and Star Wars isn’t the franchise that spurs debate over the ethics of blowing up the second Death Star. The person in me who still puts Boba Fett in my mother’s terrarium can still enjoy the franchise that still has a place for R2-D2. I like that there are new Star Wars movies being told, even if I’ll spend my review point out the very legitimate issues. As C-3PO might say, wonderful!

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December 2017



A Transgender Perspective on Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

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Rudolph with your nose so bright, won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?

The seminal question posed to popular culture’s most diverse reindeer by a revered holiday hero. The 1964 Christmas special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer offers a chilling account of the kind of bullying and harassment that was tolerated at the North Pole under the leadership of Mr. Claus and his wife, Mrs. Claus. This broadcast is replayed each year around Christmastime to remind children of the reindeer who was needed to guide a sleigh that could fly in the air, but apparently could not be fitted with high beams at the dealership.

I can’t feel excited when I see this special advertised, because we as a society should not be comfortable with the message Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer sends to children, that if you bully someone, they should still be counted on to save Christmas later. This special is a broadcast lacking in basic moral decency, which is hardly rectified by the regret expressed by Santa and various other citizens of the North Pole. Particularly troubling is the presence of Comet, the children’s coach and member of Santa’s sleigh crew, who bullied Rudolph from a position of power and refused to allow him to participate in any reindeer games at all. Given that Ruldoph’s own father Donner, another member of Santa’s team, rejected him as well, there is a very concerning culture of abuse that’s allowed to flourish at the North Pole.

It’s not as if Rudolph was the only person bullied. Hermey was ridiculed for resisting the pressure to put his true desires aside so that his labor value could be milked from his hands to prop up the capitalist regime of Santa workshop, where the proletariat elves serve merely as tools of the commercial industrial complex. There was a whole island dedicated to toys who were banished for the crime of not fitting into the cookie cutter version of idealistic materialism propagated by Santa Claus and his far-right lobbyists, who see children’s desires only in dollar figures. In Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the North Pole only serves to provide a Christmas of Ayn Rand’s wildest fantasy. There is no place for people like Rudolph and Hermey on that December 25th.

When the wheels of capitalism failed and Mother Nature struck back against Santa and his corporate cronies, why would Rudolph care to save an industry that offered no seat for him at its table? Why use his diversity to help those who rejected him for that which would give him his strength? Why save a Christmas that looked at him and offered nothing but coal? Bigots like Santa use children as a shield to justify their horrific behavior, putting Rudolph in the untenable position where he could choose between helping those who called him a freak and embodying the image of the monster they projected onto his identity. Instead, Mr. Claus should have seen the errors in his regime, and resigned from his position.

As a transgender woman, I know how it feels to have society view you as a pariah. Sometimes people who put you down want something later on in life. You know what I say to those people?


Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is a children’s special that fails to offer consequences for unacceptable behavior. Children are supposed to be taught that it is never okay to bully someone for being different. Rudolph demonstrated that it was okay for adults to discriminate when it comes to matters of reindeer games. That is never okay.

A proper ending would have been for Christmas to be cancelled and for a special counsel to appointed to investigate how the Island of Misfit Toys came to exist under Santa’s leadership. Instead, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer lets people in power off the hook with a few measly apologies. It is a morally bankrupt broadcast that places the value of presents above basic decency. The Year of the Groper has shined a light on unsavory aspects of our culture that have been allowed to prosper for far too long. This Christmas, it’s time to keep the sleigh grounded. Rudolph’s talents are best deployed elsewhere, for people who don’t need the fear of losing presents to see the humanity in diversity. No sleighs should be guided for people whose actions have certainly earned them a place on the naughty list.

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The Transgender Manifesto