January 2018 Pop Culture Roundup

Five items for the first month of the year...

1. One of my first books of the year was Endure by Daniel D. Maurer. I've enjoyed several of Maurer's other books the past few years and was glad he'd produced another. Here he explores different spiritual assets for being resilient during hard times. The bulk of the book is stories from people who have had to navigate some of life's most difficult battles, including a family of Syrian refugees, several women caught in the cycle of abuse, and a member of the military. In each story, Maurer identifies one of the primary spiritual assets each relied on to get them through, such as acceptance, forgiveness, hope, and gratitude. The stories were compelling and heartbreaking, and Maurer teased out themes very well while being true to what each person shared.

2. I finally watched the movie Silence, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver as two Portuguese priests who travel to Japan to look for their friend and mentor, Father Ferrera (Liam Neeson), whom they heard apostatized his faith. The film does well at building a world of small peasant villages who go to great lengths to show devotion to the priests and their secret religion, as well as a regime trying to snuff it out. It explores questions of what real dedication might ask someone to do, what forms "suffering for your faith" might take, and what saving others really means in the eyes of the church vs. in the eyes of God. It does not present any easy answers to these issues, but instead leaves the viewer (as the book does the reader) to wrestle with them. It's a beautiful, complicated movie that I'm glad I finally got to see.

3. We also went to see The Greatest Showman, starring Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum, aspiring to create a unique attraction that will entertain and excite people. After some initial struggles he comes up with the idea to feature "unique persons" (he himself never uses the term "freaks"), which brings in customers but also offends a certain cross section of the populace. Among his acts are two African-American trapeze artists (one played by Zendaya), and he gains a partner in a well-to-do playright (Zac Efron) who is still seeking his place in the world. The film explores themes of inclusion on multiple levels and shows Barnum's rise to prominence in a fun, if not altogether historical way. The songs are incredible and the entire presentation was very well done. I didn't really go in with any expectations and was blown away.

4. Since December I've been watching the first season of Happy!, starring Christopher Meloni as Nick Sax, an ex-detective who now spends his days drinking too much and taking jobs as a contract killer. Then one day two things happen to him: he kills a mobster's trusted son but not before being given a very crucial password that surviving members want, and a young girl's imaginary friend (voiced by Patton Oswalt) comes to him for help after she's kidnapped. He juggles both issues with varying amounts of success and decorum. The show is violent, dark, funny, and clever; in some ways a detective show with some weird and original twists.

5. I heard about British rapper Stormzy on a recent podcast, and decided to take a look at his debut album, Gang Signs and Prayer. Some of it is typical braggadocio, but with brilliant lines like in "Shut Up:" "Couple man called me a backup dancer/Onstage at the BRITs, I'm a backup dancer/If that makes me a backup dancer/The man in your vids, backup dancer." But he also delves into other themes like relationships and faith. Here's one of his singles, "Big for Your Boots:"

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