L13FC: For the love of characters or why ‘The Shape of Water’ was better than ‘3 Billboards’

Let’s talk about the two leading films of the year assuming you have by now watched them. One annoyed the heck out of me and the other one pleased me on a number of levels. I’ve been thinking about why I utterly disliked Three Billboards and why I liked The Shape of Water. Structurally, the problem for me was the characters. Let me explain.


When telling a story, there have to be good guys and bad guys. It’s fine if your protagonist has faults, but if they are utterly unlikeable, then I can’t invest emotionally in their plight. In 3 Billboards there is only one character that garnered my sympathy. The son. The rest are obnoxious and deplorable. The big problem of the film is the unlikeability of Mildred Hayes played by Frances McDormand. I should feel the compassion of a mother experiencing a tragedy. What’s the point of the only flashback to the daughter showing them fighting and insulting one-another in a Jerry-Springer-low-brow dysfunctional fight? Mildred kicking two students at the curb and her speech to a priest who came to visit are two examples that made her unlikeable. Martin McDonagh’s script slaps the audience with shock statements instead of building an emotional relationship between the characters and the audience. What’s missing is subtlety and depth. The film never goes deeper than verbal insults, physical insults, unrealistic conversations, and motivations. It was painful to watch. A rare exception to this is when Woody Harrelson’s character Chief Bill Willoughby earns my emotions when McDonagh employs the voice over to show the chief’s remorse. Obviously, a lot of people loved the dark comedy. Frances’s Best Actress award was a shoe-in, but I thought her character was boring.

In The Shape of Water, the 1960s fairytale includes subtle references to social ills at the time. All the characters are endearing except for the obvious bad guy, governmental henchman Richard Stickland, played perfectly by Michael Shannon. Showing instead of telling, the story shows the fears from the 1960s such as fears of difference–Russian ideology, segregation, and homosexuality. The creature was part of the allegory, a wish by the characters to live in a fairytale world like the movies Elisa and Giles watch on the television set, manifested in their bubble world, all outcasts from the real world, the mute, “dumb” Elisa, the lonely Giles whose illustrations have become old-fashioned and replaced by photography, and we love him because his rejections refuse to destroy him. The fairy tale is full of depth and subtlety. It’s a far more interesting film. Add the beautiful set designs of the Orpheum theater, the windows in the apartment building, the teal colors of water, and a romantic, satisfying score by Alexandre Desplat, all add up to an instant winner in my book. I’m glad it won Best Picture.


So what are your thoughts on the balance of characters? If you liked Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, I’d like to know why you thought it was a well written, dark comedy. 


L13FC: The Long Careers of Actors

Today is my lucky day! You’ve decided to stop by and add to the discussion to this month’s film topic on my double-nickel birthday. Thank you!

Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert Duvall are lifetime friends who bunked together while honing their craft back in the late 1950s. It’s a fascinating trifecta. Read Flip the Movie Script 2016 article, “A Brief Time in History with Friends Hackman, Hoffman, and Duvall” found HERE.

Considered character actors, they catapulted to stardom when their breakout roles were part of an Oscar winner for Best Picture. (Dustin Hoffman in 1967 with The Graduate, Gene Hackman in 1971 with The French Connection, and Robert Duvall in 1972 with The Godfather) Hoffman and Hackman won Oscars for Best Actor, and Duvall was nominated for his supporting role. As generational friends and colleagues, they’ve grown old on the screen and we’ve watched them do it. Their longevity is remarkable. According to IMDb:

Gene Hackman, b. 1930:  100 credits, 2 Oscars, 30 other wins

Dustin Hoffman, b. 1937: 84 credits, 2 Oscars, 60 other wins

Robert Duvall, b. 1931: 143 credits, 1 Oscar, 55 other wins

Having read Allan Hunter‘s biography Gene Hackman, after his win for Popeye in The French Connection, there was a battle within Hackman. How to navigate a career? Should your choices be picky for art’s sake, daring to fall out of favor if your film bombs? Or should you accept any role because you are afraid your flame will burn out quickly if you don’t maximize Oscar success? For Hackman, he never thought “this ugly mug would be so lucky.” By the middle 1970s, he accepted whatever script was offered, and it deflated his high-quality acting persona. Then in the 1980s and 1990s, he seemed to be cast in the same role over and over. The bastard. The son-of-a-bitch. He became “the man” everyone wanted to stick it to.

Please welcome my co-host, Nancy, my mother who has watched these three actors their entire careers. I asked her, “Because Gene is ordinary looking and plays ugly characters does he become repellent to you? If Gene were gorgeous and played ugly characters would he be as repulsive? Or sexier?” 

Nancy’s observations:

Gene Hackman’s looks have nothing to do with it. To me, he comes across as arrogant, even in comedies.  I don’t see him really “acting”, only playing parts that are him.  I love Robert Duvall.  Every character is different, good or bad, such as The Great Santini, Tender Mercies, and as Lt. Col. Kilgore. I don’t have an opinion on Dustin Hoffman one way or another.  Most of his roles aren’t memorable to me. None of them radiate sex appeal. Not like Richard Harris.

Cindy’s observations: 

Gene Hackman said in Allan Hunter’s biography that he knew if he couldn’t get the girl in the film, he would never become a “movie star” like, well, Richard Harris. His talents were utilitarian to a script that needed a smug, corrupt leader. He was perfect and predictable like a favorite dish at a restaurant. If you didn’t get what you expected, you’d be disappointed.

With actors who have sustainable longevity in the business, there seems to be a young version and an older version of themselves. Actors who play diverse roles are my favorite. They are the artists. One wonders after playing 80 + films, like an old horse down a hoof-beaten path, it’s not acting anymore, it becomes, as Nancy suggested, just the man on the screen. The originality of the initial spark that captivated an audience at the start of a career has long since burnt out.

Since many people have a say in the outcome of the film, it would be hard to know which film to pick. What seems like an interesting, meaty role, could end up being an unbalanced disaster beyond the actor’s control. It is the brave artist on screen who bears the criticism of good chemistry gone sour. For career actors, who make 80+ films, I have to wonder if they feel that filmmaking is a hit or miss endeavor. Maybe if one can count four or five excellent roles in a fifty-year career, that’s a job well done at the end of a life?

Considering Hackman, Hoffman, and Duvall, why do you prefer the one you picked? Their best role?

Are You Not Entertained?


Tom Hanks optioned the rights to Erik Larson’s nonfiction bestseller, In the Garden of Beasts six years ago with intentions of starring in the historical adaptation. Add to that rumors of securing Natalie Portman to the cast with Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist) as the director. What’s it all about? Chicago historian William Dodd passes the interview with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and becomes the American ambassador in Berlin in 1932. Dodd thinks it will be a simple job that allows him the time to be with his family and complete his historical research regarding the Old South. Instead, he walks right into the wasp’s nest as Hitler gains momentum and the insipid Nazi agenda poisons Berlin. It’s his beautiful daughter Martha that makes the story fascinating as her sexual promiscuity with Nazi leaders becomes the source of malcontent and disenchantment. I loved Erik Larson‘s The Devil in the White City. This one is just as good, if not better because it focuses on the American family trapped and pawned by leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. Highly recommend. 4.5/5.


Other than a bunch of Gene Hackman films for which I’ll get to posting about soon, these recent films entertained me:

The Shape of Water (2017) It’s an adult fantasy film. Don’t take your kids. Who doesn’t like a love story? Even if it’s with an amphibian? If you love Pan’s Labyrinth, you will probably enjoy the latest contribution by Mexican director/writer Guillermo del Toro Gómez. Set in 1962, the mute Eliza works as a cleaning lady at a hush-hush government facility ruled over by the sinister Strickland played perfectly by Michael Shannon. Eliza comes in contact with “the asset” and their friendship grows into love. Octavia Spencer played her character Zelda with snappy one-liners we all love, but the best acting performance goes to character actor Richard Jenkins as Eliza’s neighbor and closet homosexual. The ending may be predictable, but there’s abundant charm that outweighs the incredible scenes that ask the audience to play along. Magical Realism is fun. With the right mindset, you will enjoy the fable. Best detail: Eliza trails water on a bus window and the water takes shape. The poem at the close of the story is beautiful. 4/5.

The Last Jedi (2017) I liked it because they smartly melted enough of IV into the VIII to feel the roots of the saga. For example, it was nice to see Yoda again. I remember having a crush on Luke Skywalker in 1977 when he stood on that rock and looked at the sunset and his face turned orange with his name song in the background. John Williams, you are still the supreme manipulator of emotions! To see Luke do it again, different rock, a sunset, and his song, well, the 13-year-old in me shed a tear. It took me half the film to decide if the character wearing the foxy brown suit with the purple hair played by Laura Dern was a good guy or a bad guy (lady). I usually like contrasts, but my biggest flaw with all the Star Wars movies is “they” include all the cool technology and high vernacular that only an engineer would understand and then follow up that dialogue with a corny one-liner. It never felt right to me. That, and the puppets now have turned CGI, but they were never convincing. Frog nuns. Hmmm. 4/5

 The Meyerowitz Stories (2017) American comedy-drama film directed and written by Noah Baumbach (Francis Ha and Wes Anderson collaborations). The film stars Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman, Elizabeth Marvel and Emma Thompson. It’s popular to hate Adam Sandler, but when the man isn’t doing stupid comedy and sticks to dark, he’s very good at it. There’s a lot to love about this movie from Emma Thompson‘s hippy-drunk wife to the perfectly annoying patriarch, Dustin Hoffman, giving a convincing performance and supported by everyone in the cast. Want smart and realistic dysfunctional? You’d like this dark comedy about siblings learning to overcome and tolerate their overbearing father. 4.5/5.

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