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. 


IMO: Life’s Eventful Extremes

What a difference a day can make.

My mother visited for a week and escaped the 15 below zero temps in Illinois. Jim and I hosted her before my children and grandchildren arrived later in the week to see her. On the first night of her visit, with supper finished and the evening open for entertainment, my mother chose the movie, Richard Harris in A Man Called Horse (1971). On the second night, I picked Battle of the Sexes. On January second, it was Jim’s turn to pick a movie.

What a surprise that he picked Moonstruck. The consummate chick-flick? Maybe he was inspired by our own Bella Luna, the Super Moon going on outside? January has two full moons this year and it has started several conversations about the differences between a Wolf, a Blue and a Super Moon. He loves the silly Dean Martin song, “That’s Amore”. I suspected he was trying to be a good sport and pick a film that would make my Mom happy. I hadn’t seen Moonstruck in decades. Sure, why not? So the music played, and I swooned with the luscious music of La bohème. Nicholas Cage was young and a sexy scene-chewer. Cher was gorgeous and almost convincing while Olympia Dukakis deserved her Best Supporting Oscar win. When the credits rolled, we all stood up and smiled. The ending was touching with the punctuation mark celebrating the family and validating the vows of love.

Jim left the room and returned. With the music still in the background, he got down on one knee and opened up a box with a silver wedding band. “I bought this for myself, but it won’t mean anything if you don’t accept the other ring I bought.” He opened up another box and in it was an engagement ring. “Cindy, will you marry me?”

That he asked me in front of my mother meant the world. That he did it in front of this romantic movie was a masterstroke. I remember when we were in Santorini, I wondered why hadn’t he asked me to marry him in arguably the prettiest place in the world? Instead, he asked me in our living room with my mother in attendance. We were all moonstruck.

I have been divorced for 26 years. What a strange, lovely state-of-being to be now engaged.

12 hours later, at noon, I felt a twitch under my upper rib cage. The twitch turned into a poke which turned into a gasping stab that became a constant companion. By three in the afternoon, I was in the emergency room. Jim was by my side, my children arrived that morning and were entertaining my mother. To breathe jiggled the knife in my chest as we waited for doctors and blood tests and sonograms and EKG results to whittle down the possibilities.  They found a baseball cyst connected to my liver, and the cyst was bleeding. Until the blood was absorbed, I would be in pain. Two doses of Dilaudid (stronger than Morphine) laterthey sent me home. I did my best to be calm and quiet, but by 3 a.m., the pain was still strong as ever and poor Jim had to take me back to the ER.

A few days have passed, my Mom has returned to the tundra. The house is quiet. I am feeling better. I looked at Jim and realized I was still engaged, and he was my fiancé, and I hadn’t thought about his question to marry him for days. He just walked by my desk just now.
“Why the living room instead of on top of a Grecian Island?”

He replied, “Home is where the heart is.” Good answer.

I asked him, “We don’t believe in bad omens, right?”

“Of course not.”

“Okay, good. It must have been the Belle Luna.

The ironies of life fascinate me. How about you? How extreme has a day been for you? 

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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