Category Archives: movies

friday five: movie gimmicks that will never, ever work again.

KeatonEvery so often, a film comes along that breaks the rules. It turns the structure and the traditional concept of filmmaking upside down. Sometimes, it’s sheer and utter brilliance (Citizen Kane, Pulp Fiction). Other times, it fails spectacularly.

Then, there are gimmicks; some that worked—often prematurely hailed as “brilliant”—and others that didn’t. Either way, they will likely not be repeated anytime soon. Here are five examples I’ve culled for your reading pleasure. As always, in no particular order. Feel free to agree, disagree and/or offer examples of your own in the comments.

Hank & AshaHank and Asha
You never saw it. It’s a small, independent romance film with only two characters who share a long-distance crush via SnapChat-type videos. Credit director James E. Duff for making the viewer feel the connection between two characters who never actually share the same space for the duration of the film.

I’d give Hank and Asha three out of five stars. It’s clever, kinda charming and had characters for whom you could root. Using internet video letters (of sorts) as a device was an interesting way to move the story along, but it also left a sense of longing for more. It’s a decent gimmick, but let’s not do that again.

I know. They’re remaking this film for some inexplicable reason. Seems unnecessary to mess with Memento since they nailed it the first time. It’s a great story with fascinating characters, peculiar twists and a plot that feels like a puzzle. Oh yeah the story is told in reverse. We’re not talking about nonlinear storytelling here. We’re talking a completely backwards movie.

Memento starts at the end and leads you back to the beginning so as to understand how and why we ended where we ended. It was great, but I don’t see how another filmmaker could borrow that storytelling device and make it seem unique. Memento ruined it for everyone else.

The ArtistThe Artist
A black-and-white, silent picture in the 21st century. It was fun and interesting, but in my mind, it was NOT the best film of 2011. It won its Oscar on the back of its hype and its anachronistic feel. Don’t get me wrong. I liked The Artist when I first saw it, but I immediately recognized this was a gimmick movie. That’s okay, but slow down with your finger snaps and orgasmic praise, art school, hipster nerds! You glommed onto The Artist as though Michel Hazanavicius re-invented the entire medium in a manner that became an oracle into the human condition. No. He didn’t.

In fact, he did the exact opposite. He aped a pre-talkies film technique nearly a century later and people went nuts sort of the same way they went nuts for Dane Cook when he first got famous. Pretty soon, people realized Dane Cook wasn’t funny. Or interesting. I’ll say The Artist was entertaining, but a pure gimmick.

Tree of LifeThe Tree of Life
Perhaps not so much a gimmick, unless you consider a steaming pile of shit a gimmick. For the sake of my list (where I make all the rules), I shall call it a gimmick in the hopes that no one ever tries to repeat the mistakes of this pretentious twaddle. No, art school, hipster nerds, I’m not “too American” to understand it. I completely understand The Tree of Life. I understand it sucks.

Perhaps I’m saying Terence Malick should never be allowed to direct another film. There. I said it. I seriously hated this movie and Malick owes me $10.

BirdmanBirdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Right out of the gate, I must admit I truly love this film. It was my favorite movie of 2014. I love everything about it. I love the performances, the visuals, the set…everything. I also love that it was shot as a single-camera, one-take sequence.

Sure, it’s a total gimmick, but it fit perfectly in telling a story about producing a Broadway play. Unlike movies and (most) TV shows, stage productions are performed live, in one take. There are no do-overs. Perfect or not, the audience takes it all in from one, single perspective. Using a single camera in one, long take goes hand-in-hand with the theme and was truly a joy to watch unfold. I suppose it could work again in another film, but why bother trying? Birdman perfected it.*

Too Late* Full disclosure: I wrote this Friday Five more than two years ago. Around the same time Birdman was being produced, independent film director Dennis Hauck was shooting Too Late, which employs a similar, single-take concept. And it worked very well here, too. Too Late stars John Hawkes and is worth checking out.




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if i were casting a real oscars ballot…

0305_oscarWhile I fill out a ballot each year to try and predict the winners, I like to keep a side-ballot of the Top Six awards, selecting the nominees I want to win. Here’s a quick rundown of what I’d like to happen vs. what I think will happen.

Best Picture
Call Me by Your Name
Darkest Hour
Get Out
Lady Bird
Phantom Thread
The Post
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

What I want to win: This is a toss-up between Get Out and Three Billboards. They are, hands down, my two favorite nominated films this year. I think I’m going to say Three Billboards. It was truly fantastic.

What I think will win: Three Billboards. I’ve just got a hunch.

Best Director
Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk
Jordan Peele, Get Out
Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird
Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread
Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water

Who I want to win: Jordan Peele, because Get Out was so unique, so layered and so subtle. It is truly a brilliant film that makes viewers think differently by the end of it.

Who I think will win: Guillermo del Toro. In fairness, The Shape of Water is fascinating and enjoyable, but I thought Get Out was better because of the director.

Best Actress in a Leading Role
Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water
Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Margot Robbie, I, Tonya
Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird
Meryl Streep, The Post

Who I want to win: Of the performances I saw, Frances McDormand brought so much into her character that I can’t imagine anyone else playing her role. Sally Hawkins was great, too, evoking so much emotion without using her voice, but I gotta go with Frances.

Who I think will win: Frances McDormand.

Best Actor in a Leading Role
Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name
Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread
Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out
Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Who I want to win: This is a tough one. I loved Gary Oldman, but Daniel Kaluuya carried a pretty deep movie with a strong performance of his own.

Who I think will win: Gary Oldman. And he would deserve it.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Mary J. Blige, Mudbound
Allison Janney, I, Tonya
Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread
Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird
Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water

Who I want to win: Based on the performances I saw, it’s between Lesley Manville and Laurie Metcalf. Both were fantastic, but I’ll go with Metcalf. Her character juggled many emotions throughout Lady Bird and Metcalf played her perfectly.

Who I think will win: Laurie Metcalf. But wouldn’t be surprised to see Lesley Manville win.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project
Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water
Christopher Plummer, All the Money in the World
Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Who I want to win: Richard Jenkins and Woody Harrelson were great. Harrelson might even win it were it not for one problem: Sam Rockwell blew everyone else out of the water. Rockwell gets my vote.

Who I think will win: Sam Rockwell. No question.

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the best picture nominees, ranked.

In order of worst to first, here’s how I’d break down tonight’s Best Picture nominees.

Phantom Thread_Breakfast9. Phantom Thread
This movie sucked and sucked hard. I’m getting kinda tired of Paul Thomas Anderson. You’ve become Jack Horner in the limo, dude! It’s been downhill ever since Boogie Nights. But I do love Daniel Day-Lewis’s hair, so there’s that.

The Post Streep Hanks8. The Post
No, I haven’t seen it, yet. But I’m pretty sure it’s better than Phantom Thread!

Call Me7. Call Me By Your Name
Pleasant, visually breathtaking and well acted.

Darkest Hour_Train6. Darkest Hour
Gary Oldman is spectacular as the iconic Winston Churchill.

HarryStyles-920x5845. Dunkirk
Well-crafted, fast-moving film that sheds light on a major turning point in world history. Should be watched in same sitting with Darkest Hour.

shape_water.04. The Shape of Water
Stunning for its cinematography, story and acting. Michael Shannon was robbed. He should’ve been nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

ladybird23. Lady Bird
Lovely, relatable storytelling that doesn’t beat you over the head to make its point. Ohhhhh…THAT guy actor Bob Stephenson KILLS in one of my favorite scenes in the movie.

GetOutChris.02. Get Out
Arguably the most original nominee this year. It’s as important and relevant as it is entertaining.

billboards1.01. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri
I love everything about this movie. That’s really all I can say about it.

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for your consideration: three billboards outside ebbing, missouri.

Three BillboardsThree Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017 Fox Searchlight Pictures/Blueprint Pictures/Film4 Productions/Cutting Edge Group)
Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage.
Written and Directed by Martin McDonagh.
Producers: Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin, Martin McDonagh. Music by Carter Burwell. Cinematography by Ben Davis. Edited by Jon Gregory.

A mother personally challenges the local authorities to solve her daughter’s murder when they fail to catch the culprit.

What a fantastic movie. Truly. This is the shortest movie review I’ll probably ever write, but only because I don’t know how else to say it. Three Billboards is a dark movie with enough of salty language to make a sailor blush, but it delivers on every level. The beauty of the performances is they don’t feel over exaggerated. These are everyday people in small town America dealing with a tragic and complex situation. Of course, they make all the worst decisions when they address it, but that’s only where their journeys begin.

Exploring anger, redemption, vengeance and, ultimately, love, Three Billboards takes the audience through a town’s own sins as a grieving mother refuses to let them forget her daughter’s savage death. As Mildred, the grieving mother, Frances McDormand turns in one of the best performances of her career. Sam Rockwell’s been an underrated talent for years. After playing rogue cop, Dixon, in Three Billboards, I don’t think we’ll ever say he’s underrated ever again.

I’ll just leave it at that and say, thus far, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is my favorite Best Picture nominee.

STARS: ****1/2 (out of five)

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for your consideration: call me by your name.

Call Me By Your NameCall Me By Your Name (2017 Sony Pictures Classics/Warner Bros. Pictures/Frenesy Film Company/La Cinéfacture/RT Features/M.Y.R.A. Entertainment/Water’s End Productions)
Starring Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, Victoire Du Bois.
Directed by Luca Guadagnino.
Producers: Peter Spears, Luca Gudagnino, Emilie Georges, Rodrigo Teixeira, Marco Morabito, James Ivory, Howard Rosenman. Story by André Aciman. Screenplay by James Ivory. Cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. Edited by Walter Fasano.

In 1980s Italy, a romance blossoms between a seventeen year-old student and the older man hired as his father’s research assistant.

A coming-of-age story about a teen boy recognizing his own sexual awakening. I suppose that’s interesting enough as a drama, but aren’t these things often played out as comedies? (American Pie, Porky’s, etc.) I’m joking. Call Me By Your Name reminded me, on some level of Summer of ’42.

Timothée Chalamet was boring as hell in Lady Bird (because his character was slightly vapid), but he was phenomenal as Elio in Call Me By Your Name. Playing the part of the 17-year-old boy who forms a deep crush on his father’s assistant, Oliver (played by Armie Hammer), Chalamet captured the age, the moodiness and the emotion of being a teenager in love.

Understandably, some may question the appropriateness of the relationship between Elio and Oliver. Not because they’re both male, rather, the age disparity. It’s a fair point. Were this a relationship between a 24-year-old man and 17-year-old girl, it would take on a much different tone. But analyzing this relationship in Call Me By Your Name requires the acceptance that Elio is not being preyed upon. He is neither confused nor ashamed of his romantic feelings for Oliver. And Oliver is not predatory toward Elio. Their attraction to one another is genuine and sincere. Sure, Elio may have a bit of infatuation with Oliver, but isn’t that true of any relationship with a bit of an age gap? Others may feel differently and I get it, but I wouldn’t reject this film out of hand over that.

The last thing I’ll say about Call Me By Your Name is Italy was as much a character in this film as the people. The scenes, homes and landscapes were simply breathtaking.

STARS: *** (our of five)

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for your consideration: the shape of water.

The Shape of WaterThe Shape of Water (2017 Fox Searchlight Pictures/TSG Entertainment/Double Dare You Productions)
Starring Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer.
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Producers: Guillermo del Toro, J. Miles Dale. Story by Guillermo del Toro. Screenplay by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor. Music by Alexandre Desplat. Cinematography by Dan Laustsen. Edited by Sidney Wolinsky.

At a top secret research facility in the 1960s, a lonely janitor forms a unique relationship with an amphibious creature that is being held in captivity.

One word kept coming back to me as I watched The Shape of Water: fascinating! Everything from the story to the sets to the characters, lighting, etc., it was a truly engrossing experience watching this movie. Sure, it’s sort of a Beauty and the Beast meets Splash, but that’s just the backdrop. The central theme throughout the entire film is simple: loneliness. Everyone is trying to connect to someone…anyone; starting with the lead character, Elisa, portrayed perfectly by Sally Hawkins.

Lacking the ability to speak, Elisa is a bit of a loner, but maintains relationships with her neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins) and fellow cleaning lady at the research lab, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). It’s at this lab where Sally encounters a mysterious creature and forms a bond with it. Where the researchers are prodding it and torturing because they fear it, Sally’s inability to speak allows her to communicate with it in unique, gentle ways.

Bring in Michael Shannon as the vicious security director, Strickland, and you’ve got your bad guy you love to hate. Seriously, this guy is like watching David Letterman’s evil clone wreak havoc in other people’s worlds. And it’s AWESOME to watch. Shannon is creepy, funny, disturbing and downright sadistic.

I’m sure there’s a deeper subtext to this story, but even on its surface, The Shape of Water is an accessible, fun film. Guillermo del Toro created a world in The Shape of Water that feels like old-school sci-fi. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen made ample use of green (and a sprinkle of reds) throughout The Shape of Water to create a visually fascinating backdrop. The color green comes up more than once in the plot. What does it mean? Maybe something. Maybe nothing. But its presence is blatant.

The Shape of Water is fun, a little weird and sometimes sad. But its core themes about fear, loneliness and redemption keep the story from being too dark. Maybe a little predictable, but so what? The Shape of Water is captivating from beginning to end.

STARS: **** (out of five)

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for your consideration: phantom thread.

Phantom ThreadPhantom Thread (2017 Focus Features/Universal Pictures/Annapurna Pictures/Ghoulardi Film Company/Perfect World Pictures)
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville, Vicky Krieps.
Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.
Producers: Paul Thomas Anderson, Megan Ellison, JoAnne Sellar, Daniel Lupi. Music by Jonny Greenwood. Edited by Dylan Tichenor.

Set in 1950’s London, Reynolds Woodcock is a renowned dressmaker whose fastidious life is disrupted by a young, strong-willed woman, Alma, who becomes his muse and lover.

If Woody Allen and Merchant Ivory Productions took a crap in the English countryside then decided to film it for two hours and make us watch it, you might have Phantom Thread. But along comes David Lynch to sprinkle some of his magic dust over the third act of this turd to turn these wretchedly boring characters into crackerjack nuts and—poof!—now you’ve got Phantom Thread!

I don’t know what happened to Paul Thomas Anderson, but his movies have gotten increasingly boring and utterly pointless!

Supposing Phantom Thread is a character study with a throwaway plot, it still fails. Daniel Day-Lewis is arguably the best actor in a generation—and he acted well in this film—but it doesn’t matter if the movie spends two hour sucking the air out of the theater. Sure, his character seemed interesting and Day-Lewis is convincing as a clothing designer, but still…what’s the point?

The only bright spot for me was Lesley Manville as Reynolds’s sister, Cyril. Manville deserves the hell out of her Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. She made the most of her economy of dialogue in this otherwise snoozy, talky British film.

Sorry, folks. This was just not my cup of tea. This is one of those typical Oscar bait films that leave mainstream audiences saying, “uhh, what?”

STARS: *-1/2 (out of five)

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