Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Johnson; 2017)

This week’s review is going to be different than my normal.  When I review a film I assume that the people coming to my site have not yet seen it and are reading what I have to say in an attempt to decide whether it is a film worthy of their time and money.  This is not the case with Star Wars: The Last Jedi.  Since the majority of the world’s population is going to see this film no matter what reviews say, this week’s write up will be less review and more deconstruction.  I intend to talk about parts of the film in far more detail than I usually do and without trying to avoid talking about surprises and plot points which means there will be major, surprise ruining spoilers ahead.  I will write my usual Final Verdict section first without any spoilers, and from there on out do not read any farther unless you have already seen Star Wars: The Last Jedi or you don’t care at all about spoilers.

Final Verdict:  Star Wars: The Last Jedi very nearly, but not quite, manages to both take the Star Wars series of movies in a new direction while also remaining the Star Wars which enraptured us from 1977 – 1983.  Almost.  The film never quite has the guts to fully commit its bold changes to the Star Wars Universe’s usual moral tropes nor its strict adherence to the typical Hero’s Journey, but it does explore a less black and white view of morality often and maturely enough to raise eyebrows in a positive way for those who want a more modern Star Wars and in a negative way for those who find the white hat/black hat dichotomy the strongest part of Star Wars’ appeal.  The Last Jedi should appeal, and therefore I recommend it, to most audiences except for those who have never seen a Star Wars movie before, but I don’t see many coming away with it as their favorite Star Wars film.

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Establishing a universe is more than writing a story

Arguably the biggest challenge the makers of the new series of Star Wars films face is establishing a coherent universe in a series that really didn’t need one before.  We didn’t need to know how the Empire came to power, who the founders of the Rebellion were, nor what the relationships of one planetary system was to another in order for the original Star Wars trilogy to work.  We just needed to have characters we could invest ourselves in and an exciting, engaging story.  In fact, once George Lucas decided to start telling a story which needed to involve politics and a larger galactic timeline the seams of the universe Star Wars is set in not only started showing but also unraveling.

A lot has happened in the larger storyline which wasn’t created with an abundance of detail in mind, but now that we have a context of 8 films plus television shows plus a plethora of novels and even a few video games which take place in this galaxy far away questions which were unimportant before are necessary to establishing a decent amount of suspension of disbelief and show that these new films are an actual story and not just a cynical cash grab via nostalgia and toys.  After The Force Awakens, we were left with many questions.  Who are Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) parents and why is she such a natural at using the Force (and anything else she puts her mind to)?  Where did The First Order come from and how did they rise to power and crush the government created by the Rebel Alliance so quickly?  Who is Snoke (Andy Serkis), and why had we never heard of him in any of the other films before now?  What caused Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) to turn to the Dark Side of the Force?  Why did Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) go into hiding?

When you’re making a trilogy, most understand that not only do you not need to tell everything in the first installment but it’s actually best if you hold quite a bit back so you can create tension in the mystery and entertainment value from the reveal.  Since you want to establish your story and characters in the first installment and bring the story to its climactic finish in the third, most of these reveals will take place in the second installment.  The Last Jedi does hold to that pattern for the most part but it fails to answer a handful of important questions and many of the answers we get are at best unsatisfying and occasionally infuriating.

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We learn, for instance, that Rey’s parents were no one special.  They were just scavengers who abandoned her on Jakku.  There’s nothing wrong with that explanation, in fact, it’s rather nice that the makers of the film didn’t feel a need to tie her into the grander storyline through a shoehorned in explanation and went with something believable and realistic.  If that is her origin, though, how do we explain her extraordinary number of talents?  She could have learned to repair a starship and how to fight from her time scavenging, but how did she become an expert pilot?  How does she speak Wookie?  Or droid?  If she’s such a natural at using the Force, why did it never manifest itself in the many, many years she was struggling to eke out an existence before the start of the film?  The answer we’re given to Rey’s parentage is satisfying in that it is not the typical grandiose origin we expect, but it’s entirely unsatisfying in that it raises just as many questions as it answers, and in this case, those questions are not due to a mystery but due to sloppy character writing in The Force Awakens.

The reveal of Kylo Ren’s turn to the Dark Side is far more satisfying.  In fact, the two short scenes which deal with his turn are far more effective and engaging than three entire films dealing with Anakin Skywalker’s turn were.  We see his story from both Luke’s perspective and from Ren’s himself, and this sort of mini “Rashomon” shows how a character can become a Sith with far more nuance and true characterization than anything Star Wars has done before.  Luke senses Snoke’s influence in Kylo Ren, and in a moment of panic and doubt decides its best to kill Ren before he kills everyone else.  But, Ren wakes up at the last second, manages to defend himself, and Luke’s rash decision causes Ren to do exactly what Luke feared he would.  This shows that heroes in this universe are subject to panic and bad decisions, though we have seen that in good guys who aren’t necessarily the heroes before in Star Wars films, but more importantly it shows that the villains in a Star Wars story can have recognizable realistic motivations for their wrongdoing.  Sure, Snoke metaphorically whispered in Ren’s ear and planted some seeds of doubt, but it was Luke’s attack, his betrayal, which actually turned Ren.

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Examining the storylines

 The primary focus of the film is the relationships between the users of The Force.  In an obvious reference to The Empire Strikes Back, The Last Jedi starts with Rey seeking training from Luke which Luke is dead set against due to his past with Kylo Ren.  Shortly after we learn that much to their surprise Kylo Ren and Rey have some sort of mental link with each other through which they can see each other, but only each other and not their surroundings, and through which they can communicate.  It’s an odd situation which doesn’t entirely work, but it does accomplish something very important to The Last Jedi‘s plot, themes, and tone which is that the primary protagonist and primary antagonist can relate to and truly understand their opposite.  This link means that they are not just opposing forces needing to get the other out of the way to achieve a goal, but that they are mirror images who see in the other what they are seeking in themselves.  This is even more nuanced and three dimensional than the relationship Darth Vader and Luke had and it’s accomplished without resorting to familial relations and without a need for one of the characters to be ignorant of their ties.  We take this journey along with them, and that makes for a more organic and multi-faceted relationship than we are used to between hero and villain particularly in a Star Wars movie.

Luke and Snoke are also mirror images of one another in the film due to the fact that both have at one point been masters to Kylo Ren, one for the Light Side of the Force and one for the Dark.  This mirrored relationship is not as nuanced and important as that between Kylo Ren and Rey, though.  This is partially due to the fact that these two are more traditional Star Wars hero and villain, but the primary reason this relationship fails is that Snoke himself is such a nothing character with no obvious connection to any of the heroes in the story.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that with no explanation of where he was during any of the other films, where he came from, how he came to lead The First Order or any other background of any kind other than he’s Kylo Ren’s master, Snoke is less a character and more a simplistic plot device.

The way the confrontations play out between these four is also highly uneven in quality.  Snoke, once again, is nothing but a mouthpiece for stereotypical villainous dialogue –  threatening and glowering but never actually doing anything which drives the story.  When Kylo Ren kills Snoke it was so obviously telegraphed that it would have been far more surprising had Kylo Ren attacked Rey as Snoke was continuously monologuing he would.

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However, the confrontation immediately after between Rey and Kylo Ren largely makes up for the disappointment with Snoke.  This is where we see the two main characters recognizing in the other traits they need.  Ren killed Snoke where Rey couldn’t have and it was the fact that he is steeped in the Dark Side which allowed him to do it.  In Rey Ren sees the balance he needs to keep from losing himself entirely to his rage.  In earlier films, the “join me” invitation is one which comes from a tactical power grab.  Darth Vader and the Emperor get a powerful subordinate to help them in their quest for more power, but they are never prepared to make nor view their invitee as an equal.  This offer from Kylo Ren to Rey adds a new twist to this now familiar Star Wars trope.  You can tell he does view Rey as an equal, as a true partner, and this offer to join him is less a power grab and more a warped marriage proposal.  This is a great twist which gives new depth to the Star Wars Universe and its characters as we glimpse the fact that balance between the Light and the Dark does not necessarily mean an even conflict but can instead mean the two sides learning to combine their strengths and counteract their weaknesses.

Finally for this storyline is the climactic confrontation between Kylo Ren and Luke.  This is a highlight of the film cinematically and dramatically, but a lowlight thematically. Since the two major plotlines come together at this time, I’ll speak on that after I talk about the other major plot in The Last Jedi.

The other major storyline is that of the Resistance and primarily of Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran).  I found this to be the more interesting storyline of the two as here the writers had the guts to flip the usual Hero’s Journey story on its ear and also had the guts to commit to it unlike the primary storyline involving the Force users.  This is a subplot which seems to be the usual impetuous hero comes out on top by disobeying orders and showing his superiors that his way may not be by the book, but it is the best.  As we continue down the path Finn, Rose, and Poe (with BB-8 along for the ride) decide to take, though, we see that what they are doing just keeps making things worse and worse and the eventual payoff we’re expecting doesn’t appear to be coming into reach, and ultimately we learn that the more practical and less flashy plan the leaders of the Resistance came up with would have worked, but because Poe and Finn decided to buck command and be heroes, the Resistance is all but destroyed.  That is so un-Star Wars like as to be completely unexpected and is the real heart of The Last Jedi, in my opinion.  The second act of a trilogy is meant to leave the heroes at their lowest point, but it’s rare that that low point is reached due to their own arrogance and incompetence.  That is exactly what happens here and leaves room for a redemption storyline for the characters who are not Force users in Episode IX.

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The opening of the film in which Poe single-handedly confronts a First Order fleet in his X-Wing sets up this dynamic as his flyboy antics lead him to call in an entire bomber wing against the wisdom of his commanders, and while the target he wanted to destroy does get taken out, the Resistance loses nearly every pilot involved in the attack including every single bomber in their fleet.  This gets Poe demoted, but it doesn’t reign in his cockiness so when most of the Resistance leadership is killed (and Leia (Carrie Fisher) put into the hospital in a scene which is pure fan service and very out of place with the film’s overall tone) Poe refuses to listen to the deputy leaders thinking himself far more clever and instead ropes Finn and new character Rose into a desperate plan to save the few remaining members of the Resistance.

The actual implementation of the plan inside the casino is the weakest element of this storyline as not only is it tonally all over the place but also visually chaotic.  Finn and Rose seem absolutely lost as they try to take in everything around them and figure out how to find the master code breaker, and unfortunately, the audience shares that state of mind with them.  I imagine this was intended to be the most humorous scene in the film, but most of the comedy on display here falls flat (a lot of the film’s humor does as it seems to be aimed squarely at children, young stupid children, for the most part) and the attempt to make the setting look like a large, bustling playground for the rich just ends up becoming a dizzyingly busy crowd of CGI effects thrown at the screen.

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After the bit in the casino, and things calm down, the storyline really gets down to business again as we see Finn and Rose in their desperation to be heroes make bad decision after bad decision including trusting the enigmatic DJ (Benicio Del Toro) who ends up being one of the most mercenary characters in the Star Wars universe who isn’t a straight-up gangster or bounty hunter.  While DJ was definitely entertaining, he was another inconsistency in the film’s story.  I loved the fact that he was interested only in whomever could pay him the most, but seemed to want that person to be one of the good guys.  He seemed to have a political awareness and pragmatism rarely seen in epic stories and never before in a Star Wars film, but he was also so incredibly skilled and well equipped you had to wonder how he found himself inside a cell in the first place, especially since he demonstrated he could escape instantly at any time he wanted.

The inevitable capture during their mission to crack the First Order’s tracking system and subsequent betrayal by DJ is the ultimate payoff of this section of the film.  Finn’s confrontation with Captain Phasma is so disappointing that it would probably have been best not in the film at all, but aside from that the payoff of Leia and Vice Admiral Holdo’s (Laura Dern) being discovered by the First Order directly due to the arrogance and impetuousness of Poe and Finn is the most powerful moment in the film from a thematic standpoint.  The villain’s to date haven’t been that organized, intelligent, nor impressive.  The heroes fail not because the villains beat them, but because the heroes are undone by the foolhardiness of some of their own.

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The climactic scene

After those few left in the Resistance make their way to the salt planet Crait they are joined by Luke, Rey, Chewbacca, and the attack force led by Kylo Ren.  The concept of a planet made up of red salt covered with snow makes for some truly spectacular visuals.  The red and white powder being thrown into the air by the fast-moving vehicles and the impact of weapons fire is reminiscent of blood on a battlefield and makes for a gritty visceral feel you can’t normally get in a film made with a younger audience in mind.  Add to that the sense of scale and motion between the gigantic slow moving weapons used by The First Order versus the speedy but small and decrepit vehicles of the resistance followed by Luke standing on his own against an army of AT-AT Walkers and  we are treated to one of the most visually spectacular scenes ever put in a Star Wars film.

The resolution of the final conflict is also satisfying as it comes down to a battle of psychology.  By projecting his image onto the planet as Rey helps the survivors in the Resistance escape, Luke keeps Kylo Ren’s focus exactly where he wants it to be, on Luke, and plays off of Kylo Ren’s uncontrollable anger to distract him just long enough that the true objective of keeping the Resistance alive for a little while longer can be secured.  It’s also a pretty great payoff to the audience when we realize that Kylo Ren has been played and he was defeated not by greater power or skill, but by his own emotional weakness combined with the cunning of his opponent.  The only problem I had with the resolution of the final conflict was wondering why we had never seen a Jedi do something similar before with the Force.  Once again, creating a consistent universe containing numerous films, television shows, and books is far more difficult than creating a single contained story.

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Finally, we end with the death of Luke.  This was a strange choice which seemed to come from nowhere to me.  It seems almost a given that he will appear as a ghost in the next film, so unless I am completely wrong in thinking that and Mark Hamill is still contracted to appear in the next film I see no dramatic reason why he should just die alone far away from anyone he knows and apparently due to stress rather than an unnatural cause.  The wisdom of this choice will hopefully become apparent in Episode IX, but it certainly isn’t now.

So, in the end, The Last Jedi is one of the better installments in the Star Wars universe.  It still has a few too many poorly handled elements such as humor which doesn’t connect, fan service which is more distracting than pertinent, and clunky dialogue to be an honestly great movie like Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, but there are some glimpses here into true genius and talent.   Hopefully, next time around the cast and crew can continue their exploration of more realistic themes but without chickening out and returning to the standard black and white morality of the Star Wars films of the past.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Disaster Artist (Franco; 2017)

Plan 9 From Outer Space.  Troll 2.  The Room. Ask any film lover what the worst film of all time is and you will most often get one of these three as your answer.  Whichever they answer will also be a film they will tell you you have to see to believe with a sort of gleeful sado-masochism glinting in their eye.  That’s because these films really aren’t the worst ever made, they are the most ineptly made. They are movies that make you wonder at how they could possibly have been made, at how any producer would willingly give money to such a project, and at how any director could have missed how horribly any single line of dialogue was delivered let alone every single line in an entire film.  In short, at how could a film in which every single element is so badly botched that individually they could have never passed muster in even the most mediocre of films, and yet here we have an entire film made up entirely of such elements.

If there’s anything Hollywood likes more than stories about itself, it’s an underdog story, so when Tim Burton made Ed Wood in 1994 about the director who made Plan 9 From Outer Space it was lavished with film awards and nominations.  Twenty-three years later it looks as if Hollywood history is about to repeat itself with The Disaster Artist, a film chronicling the life of The Room‘s creators Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero played by James Franco and his brother Dave Franco respectively.  The Disaster Artist starts in the late 90’s (1998 if I remember correctly) when Tommy and Greg first met in an acting class, and chronicles the story of their friendship and primarily on their decision to make their own movie as they get rejection after crushing rejection from Hollywood studios and talent agencies.

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I’ll just start with what makes The Disaster Artist a fantastic film, and that is James Franco.  He is not only the star of the film but also its director, and his attention to detail in both of these roles is borderline mind-boggling.   Just after the film’s finale but before the end credits begin to roll The Disaster Artist in a moment of entertaining and well-deserved bragging shows scenes from the actual film The Room and those same scenes as recreated in The Disaster Artist, and from the acting to the set design to the camera angles to the costumes everything is impressively close to spot on.

It’s in Franco’s portrayal of Wiseau, though, that the attention to detail really pays off.  Tommy Wiseau is James Franco’s Rain Man or Forrest Gump, except that where those characters were a dedicated performance of a series of quirks, Franco gives us a fully realized character in Wiseau who is most assuredly strange, but he’s also passionate, lonely, craves attention, is hard to work with, but is also incredibly generous.  Underneath the strange accent and tics is a fully realized, completely sympathetic person with a depth rarely seen in a film.  I’m sure it helped that the real Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero are still here and had at least some interaction with the cast and crew of The Disaster Artist, but just because Franco had help most actors don’t get doesn’t make the performance any less impressive.

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The Disaster Artist is a comedy at its core, I would call it more comedy than drama at any rate, and it’s a film which could easily fall into mockery given its premise.  It doesn’t.  Watching Sestero and Wiseau bring their dream to life is hysterical, but the film always manages to take the high ground by focusing more on the passion and heart of its characters than on their ineptitude.  This makes the film into a skewed inspirational story with a message that seems to be saying the pursuit of our dreams is more important than the actual achieving of them, and who knows, you may still achieve greatness in the last way you want or expect despite yourself.

Do you need to have seen The Room in order to understand and enjoy The Disaster Artist?  I have seen The Room once before, some time ago, and part of me wishes that I hadn’t.  It didn’t ruin my enjoyment of The Disaster Artist in any way, far from it, but I believe that the experience each person has is going to vary greatly depending on whether they are a fanatic of The Room whose seen it over and over at midnight showings and at home, whether they’ve seen The Room a time or two and at least know what it is, and if they’ve never seen The Room at all.  The fanatic is going to see a movie about the creation of a thing they already know and love, the one-time viewer will get the story but won’t have near the investment, while the person who’s never seen The Room will get an off the wall inspirational biography.  All three of these people will get an entertaining, hilarious, and at times heartwarming movie, but all three will come away with an entirely different take away from the experience, and part of me wishes I could start at the beginning and experience The Disaster Artist from all three perspectives (though, I don’t know when I’d find the time and the energy to see all those midnight showings).

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Final verdict:  The Disaster Artist is just a little too oddball to be a film I recommend to everyone, but that’s the only reason I wouldn’t.  James Franco gives a performance so incredible he very well may garner his first Oscar, and while it’s more of a long shot, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to see him get a Best Director nomination, as well.   The Disaster Artist is both one of the best biopics and best comedies of the year, and that’s a combination you don’t see often at all.  If you’ve seen Ed Wood, you’ll already be familiar with what you’re getting in The Disaster Artist, but even then you will still be awed by the attention to detail in both the performances and the recreations.

 

 

Hollywood So White

In Iron Man 3 The Mandarin, a traditionally Chinese character, was played by white Englishman Ben Kingsley (who also many years earlier played Gandhi in the movie of the same name).  Then in Doctor Strange Marvel replaced the traditionally Asian character The Ancient One with Tilda Swinton, another white person from the United Kingdom, although at least this time the replacement was a she so there was some form of minority representation.  Then, on Friday, March 31st, 2017, Ghost in the Shell was released with the main character of Major, a Japanese woman, being played by Scarlett Johansson.  These are just the most recent and most highly publicized instances of the whitewashing of Hollywood.  For other examples, we can go back to Mickey Rooney’s horribly caricatured portrayal of an Asian man in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Peter Sellers turn as a blacklisted Indian actor in The Party, nearly every portrayal of Charlie Chan by anyone in any type of media, and so on.   The list of Asian characters being played by white actors is a long one which goes back to Hollywood’s beginnings and seems to be an area in which Hollywood has had no improvement whatsoever despite the general public being very aware of the trend.

How racist is Hollywood, exactly?

There are a great many stereotypes associated with those who work in Hollywood, but one of the most prevalent and probably most true is that Hollywood is a bastion of liberalism along with everything that entails.  Sure, the Hollywood elites may be kind of kooky, a little unfocused and preachy, but they really care about social justice and taking care of the disadvantaged.  Just look at the Hollywood movies the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honor every year with awards.  If you’ve made a movie about someone socially disadvantaged (with bonus points if they are physically or mentally disadvantaged, too) and the topic is treated with any sort of maturity and empathy whatsoever then you are almost sure to be nominated for an award, and the same holds true doubly if you make a film about someone confronting and overcoming racial prejudice.  Driving Miss Daisy and Crash are two Best Picture winners that make nearly everyone raise their eyebrows in a salute to “what the hell was the Academy thinking?”, but there they are the holders of a golden statuette all the same.  So, you would think that Hollywood would have the most racially integrated workforce in all of the United States of America.  The reality is just the opposite.

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The data from the latest US Census in 2010 shows the United States has a racial makeup which is 64% White, 16% Hispanic, 12% Black, 5% Asian, and the remaining 3% including Indigenous Americans, mixed race, and the like.  The makeup of Hollywood however, does not correspond to these numbers.  If you are an actor, and you are male, then the numbers actually do line up fairly well, with the only group being seriously overrepresented being, of course, Whites and the only group underrepresented is Hispanics (from 2007-2014 of the 30,000 speaking roles portrayed in Hollywood 73.1% were White, 12.5% Black, 5.3% Asian, 4.9% Hispanic, and 4.2% Other).  However, if you work behind the scenes the statistics show a very different story.  Of the 355 people who directed a Hollywood movie in the year 2015, 5.3% were Hispanic, 5% were Black, 4% were Asian, and a mere 1% fall into that Other category, leaving 84.7% of Hollywood directors being White.

The director’s chair is actually one of the most well represented behind the scenes jobs in Hollywood jobs for minorities, too, even with those pathetic statistics.  While it’s much harder to find exact figures for racial breakdowns in jobs such as cinematographers, film editors, and the like, looking at the Academy Awards we can see that in its 89 year history only twice have black people been nominated for Best Cinematography, four times for Costume Design, twice for film editing, and so on.  Asians fare slightly better than their Black counterparts behind the scenes, though much worse for acting awards, and the pattern for Hispanics is very similar to that of Black filmmakers.

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This article is about racism but in my research, I found that sexism is an even more serious problem in Hollywood.  This chart is worth 1,000 or more words.

 Enough with numbers!  I come here to read words!

So, essentially what this means is that Asians are the only minority group in Hollywood where the ratio of those who work in Hollywood is near the same as the ratio of United States citizens.  That is assuming you’re male if you’re a woman all these stats get much, much worse, but from this point on that is going to be assumed for the rest of this article and I will put that factoid aside as a possible future article.  Another assumption I am going to make is that the ratio of those working in Hollywood being the same as the ratio of the racial makeup of U.S. citizens is a positive thing, and I recognize that this assumption is one which can definitely be argued against.  The only way we can be sure that Hollywood isn’t racially biased in its casting and hiring decisions is when no one even thinks of race as a factor, and while I am writing this article because I want that to be something we as a country and as a planet work toward, I am nowhere close to naive enough to think we are anywhere even remotely in the vicinity of reaching that ideal.

Ironically, while these statistics show that Hollywood does, in fact, have a serious problem with racism, its problems are not the ones that are largely publicized and being shouted about by the general public.  The “Oscars so White” cry of a couple years ago really isn’t true of actors as a general rule.  In fact, while Blacks make up 12.5% of the U.S. population, they have received 15% of the Academy Awards given out for acting.  Not a skew large enough that it shows favoritism, but we can definitely say that the Academy is not prejudiced against Black actors.  Behind the scenes, however, as was stated, it is a very different story.  African Americans are almost never nominated for directing, cinematography, and technical awards, let alone win them, but that wasn’t really what the “Oscars so White” cry was about, even though it probably should have been.  Hispanic and Asian people do fare far worse at the Oscars for acting awards and nominations than Black actors, do, but Asians fare far better behind the scenes while Latin Americans, once again, get screwed.

One thing that is somewhat misleading about these statistics, though, is that it doesn’t mention the quality of the roles.  Asians would seem to be treated perfectly fairly in every way in Hollywood, for instance, if you just look at the percentage of citizenship versus percentage working in the film industry, but when you look at movies headlined by Asians the numbers get far worse.  They are so bad, in fact, that the numbers can’t even be listed as a percentage.  In Hollywood’s history, looking at both film and television, there are only two or three years in which more than two films and television shows combined had an Asian lead actor.  So, while the percentage of Asians working in Hollywood aligns with the population, the high profile jobs don’t come even close.

And, then, there’s the fact that no matter which stats you look at, Latinos in Hollywood are just outright screwed.

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 Why does Hollywood hate so much?

Now we get to the purely speculative and opinion based part of this article as I have no real inside information to speak of, but I’ve been researching Hollywood for long enough that I can make some very educated guesses as to what is going on in the industry. Hollywood is one of the most liberal bastions in the United States.  Heck, even their conservatives are liberal when it comes to social issues, for the most part, so you would think that if there is anywhere in the entirety of the U.S.A. that would make sure races are fairly represented, it would be Hollywood.   But, Hollywood is still a business first and foremost, and their goal is to sell their product to as many as possible.  That means in the United States that they are catering to an audience which until very recently has been primarily white and male.  Sure, they have made niche films for minorities so they can be proud of themselves and give themselves a pat on the back every now and then, but the films which allow them to keep the doors open have primarily been aimed at the white male audience because that is the audience which has the money to pay for the movies.

That’s been the longtime assumption Hollywood executives have held, but recent trends have to make one wonder if those assumptions are close to reality or are just another form of racism couched in practicality.  As televisions get larger and less expensive with the same holding true for home theater sound systems, the internet allowing us to stream and outright steal films so we don’t have to pay theater prices and not even leave our homes, and as economic realities are making the middle class in the United States less able to afford family night’s out at the movie theater, Hollywood studios are having to make more and more of their income from the International Market.  This has meant changing who they cast and how they market their films.  The major stars don’t change much because they are still worldwide box office draws, but slowly casting has become more and more diverse for all but lead roles, and we’re finding that not only does it not change box office numbers much at all, it shows that films like Girls Trip with an almost entirely African American cast, and the four headliners women at that, can be one of the 10 biggest summer box office draws in the United States.  Not only is diversity not chasing away the customers, broadened representation is bringing in new ones.

Hopefully, I’m not giving Hollywood too much credit and based on recent evidence like the ever-diversifying line up of The Avengers films, the aforementioned Girls Trip, the wide release of films like Get Out, and the tentpole action film Black Panther having a nearly entirely black cast when it’s not even a “black issues” film I don’t think I am.  With Coco having the biggest box office in Mexican history, Black Panther about to shatter the February box office records set by Deadpool (that is my prediction, and I don’t think I’m stepping out too far on a limb in making it), and the attention so many movies with diverse casts but without niche subject matter are getting that I believe Hollywood may finally get over its fear and start representing a more diverse audience in its films.

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But, that just addresses the problems with actors.  What can be done behind the scenes?

That, I honestly have no answer to.  I imagine Hollywood’s racism in the crews as opposed to the casts of its film comes in large part from a bit of nepotism, a bit of centuries of racism making the education needed to get these jobs out of the reach and attention of way too many minorities, and a bit of good old-fashioned “I’d prefer to hire white but Asians are okay, too” racism.  That’s a problem that unfortunately will probably have to be resolved in the same way our national racism problem will be solved, which is “I don’t know for sure, but education and protest seem like good places to start”.

To Sum Up

Hollywood is absolutely racist, but arguably not in the ways that are getting the most attention.  Whitewashing doesn’t seem like a big deal outside of the United States and it can avoid studios making bad racial stereotypes in their films, but it does take away choice parts from minority actors.  Black men are well represented at the Oscars, and in their roles in films in general, but their roles in genre films have been hard to come by until recently and black women do not enjoy the representation their male counterparts do.  Aside from leading roles, Asian men are represented proportionally to their overall population in the United States.

However, if you are Hispanic, you are woefully underrepresented in every single way in Hollywood circles, Black men have nearly no representation behind the scenes, White guys get 64% of the good leading roles, and if you are a woman of any race then none of this applies to you and you are woefully underrepresented in every way, too.  So, yeah, Hollywood is racist and it’s even more sexist.

But, recent events show that things may be changing.  I hope so, and I really look forward to seeing what that change can bring.  But, if I’m wrong, it’s up to us to show Hollywood what we want in a film.  When they release a cast made up of minorities, make sure you get out there and see it to send a message, and when they pull another live-action The Last Airbender and cast what should be a cast full of minorities as almost entirely white, send them a message by staying home.  Even if unlike The Last Airbender that movie happens to be good.

 

Lady Bird (Gerwig; 2017)

Lady Bird has a lot in common with last year’s The Edge of Seventeen.  Both are teen movies focused on a central female character going through one of their last years of high school (Junior year in The Edge of Seventeen, Senior year in Lady Bird).  Both movies are smaller independent films.  Both movies feature the mother-daughter relationship of their primary character prominently, and most importantly neither movie views their protagonist as an angel, a tortured soul, nor a lovable scamp as is the standard for teen movies as long as the genre has existed.

There is one very significant and important difference (well, more than one, but one I’m going to mention) between the two, and that is while The Edge of Seventeen is so far as we know purely fictional, Lady Bird is the semi-autobiographical story of its writer and director Greta Gerwig.  Greta Gerwig is not the biggest of names in Hollywood, but she has acted in 40 films, written 10 screenplays, and Lady Bird marks her second appearance in the director’s chair, so while the name may not immediately be recognizable it’s probable you’ve at least seen her before.  As the last film I reviewed Roman J. Israel, Esq. showed, it’s very difficult for a writer/director to keep the distance from his own work needed to bring it an objective, critical eye, and I can’t imagine how much more difficult it must be when not only are you writing and directing the movie but also that that movie is about yourself in a transformational year of your life.  Greta Gerwig not only manages it, though, she truly impresses and makes it look effortless.

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The one thing character studies have in common is, of course, their focus on a character and his or her personal journey.  They can have a standard plot in which the arc of the character mirrors a standard story arc complete with all the classic elements of story writing.  Or, they can be a more slice of life style piece in which putting the audience in the characters place is what is most important.  Lady Bird manages to be both.  Gerwig takes a year of her life and manages to be self-aware and objective enough to make that year an honest, sometimes brutally sometimes heartwarmingly so, look at a teenage girl yearning for independence from her family, but scared and unsure of exactly how to go about doing so and what the consequences will be once she succeeds.  She also knows enough about storytelling and dramatic license to give the story structure we rarely see in a film that relies so much on being so true to life.  She obviously distanced herself from the story at least a little as our protagonist is named Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan)  and not Greta Gerwig, but however much she distanced herself it was enough to allow her to make a story that paces itself like big studio manufactured biopic but with the genuine intimacy of a small indie piece.  Its insight into the emotions and thoughts of a young woman right on the cusp of adulthood is as deep as I’ve ever seen in a teen film, but that insight never once causes the movie to lose its light-hearted, comic tone and thus it remains thoroughly entertaining at the same time it causes us to raise our eyebrows and stroke our chins in thought and discovery.

It probably goes without saying that when a film has great insight into its characters that it implies those characters avoid generalities and stereotype in any form, but Lady Bird does give us some very real characters that will most definitely be recognizable by all, but refuse to fit neatly into any sort of box we may want to put them in.  It’s a film which seems to instinctive understand the thoughts and emotions which motivate us and therefore gives us characters that act and react organically to the world and the people around them rather than to what would make the story interesting, but whether due to an incredible storytelling instinct or due to luck that the events of Gerwin’s life just happened to make for a Hollywood story, those very organic actions still lead to an engaging story with very recognizable moments of self-discovery and excitement.

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What I and many others loved about The Edge of Seventeen was how its central character was something of a self-absorbed jerk who made her own problems for the most part, and had plenty of people around her willing and wanting to help her but she refused them all purely so she could feel unique and make herself into a martyr.  When she discovers, in the end, the kind of person she was and manages to change it wasn’t entirely organic, but the message was such an insightful one, very unique Hollywood but all too familiar in real life, that it was refreshing to see it dealt with on the big screen.  Lady Bird gives us largely the same character and gives us largely the same message, but even more organically and taking the character study to the next level.  Lady Bird doesn’t just realize that this is a type of person we all deal with if we aren’t that person ourself, but it also gives more insight into why the self-imposed martyr feels they need to act that way and what it is that drives them to become so overly self-aware and self-absorbed.

One thing which Lady Bird does better than any film I’ve ever seen for sure is portray and understand the mother-daughter relationship.  I suppose never having been a teenage girl myself, I can’t speak to Lady Bird‘s authenticity in this regard with a great amount of authority, but I walked out of the theater feeling like I finally understood the feeling between mother and daughter that simultaneously makes them each others closest friends and also strongest rivals.  Never before had I so honestly seen the sort of tug of war involved in the mother-daughter relationship in which they at once become both a surrogate and a matter of pride for the other.  They each want the other to truly be their own person, but that comes into conflict with the fact that they would be happiest if that own person was exactly like themselves.

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It goes without saying at this point that I think the cast of Lady Bird was remarkable, but while I may not need to say it, I should and I find it odd that I’ve written this much without saying so.  Saoirse Ronan as Christine “Lady Bird” herself is at once hysterical and captivating.  She portrays a girl who obviously is unsure of herself in nearly every way but feels she needs to hide that fact from the world excellently.  But, as nuanced as her performance is, Laurie Metcalfe as”Lady Bird’s” mother Marion McPherson is astounding.  If I did not know better I would assume that these two really were a mother-daughter pair and these were not roles they are playing, but that they are legitimately being captured on film.  Metcalfe plays her role with such a genuine hysterical love I have only recognized before in a parent, that it’s obvious she’s not only drawing on personal experience but that she’s well aware of how she really acts and reacts in her personal experience.  Lucas Hedges as “Lady Bird’s” first real boyfriend, Tracy Letts as her father, Odeya Rush and Kathryn Newton as her on again off again best friends, and honestly too many more to name without making this review look like a list of names from the Old Testament are all absolutely fantastic in their roles.  Gerwin must not just be an excellent writer but is also amazing as a casting director or at getting the most out of actor’s performances, or both.

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Final verdict:  I could probably go on about Lady Bird, but I think you get the idea and this is already becoming the longest review I’ve ever written, so I’ll stop there.  As much as I gush about Lady Bird, it is not the best movie of the year, though it is definitely one of the best teen movies I have ever seen and a film which should appeal to nearly everyone but the most cynical.   It’s a film that relies entirely on its script and its performances, but when those are both so perfectly nuanced, insightful, funny, and entertaining that’s all you really need.  This is not Greta Gerwig’s first outing as a writer nor as a director, but this is the film for which she will be remembered for a very long time.  I wholeheartedly recommend Lady Bird to nearly everyone, and excitedly look forward to whatever Gerwig brings us next.

 

 

 

Roman J. Israel, Esq. (Gilroy; 2017)

The film Roman J. Israel, Esq. opens with the titular character (Denzel Washington) typing up a court transcript in which he is making himself both the prosecutor and the defendant, and apparently also the attorneys, the judge, the jury, and everyone else involved with his imaginary case.  It’s an opening that does grab your attention.  Who is Roman J. Israel?  What did he do that would make him feel he needs to be put on trial?  What sort of person would go to all the trouble of actually typing out an entire false trial in judgment of himself?  This fantasy trial transcript never goes past the point of declaring the plaintiff and defendant at any point in the film, however, and so this transcript becomes an allegory for the entire film.  It’s an interesting premise that is ruined by the fact that it never explores any of its ideas past the introductory concept and even then it doesn’t seem to understand much about people, law, nor storytelling.

First and foremost of the things to talk about in this film is the central character Roman J. Israel, Esq. himself.  After the short introduction is finished, we flashback a short period in time to find that Roman starts the movie a law savant working in a very small criminal defense law firm in which he does all the behind the scenes work while his partner appears in court and performs all the other duties which involve contact and conversation with people.  The savant angle of Roman’s character is the focal point of the film as we a watch person who has entire volumes of legal decisions and case law memorized down to specific subsection numbers but understands next to nothing of the arts of politics and diplomacy which are also so essential in the legal profession.  Yet, we never learn what makes him this way.  Is it a form of high functioning autism?  Is it a form of OCD?  A combination of factors?  Is it just the way he was raised?  We never learn any of these answers and they could very well have a strong influence on how the audience perceives him and his actions in the film.

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It should also affect Washington’s portrayal of the role.  You can tell that this film is more than just a paycheck in the passion he brings to the role.  This is Denzel at his most magnetic and intense.  You can tell that he loves this character, and wants to do everything he can to make us love and understand him, as well.  This is a case, though, of the devil being in the details.  If he’s playing an autistic savant, then there are far too many cases of suave, smooth Denzel making its way to the forefront.  If he’s playing OCD, we never see any of the habits or tics which would define such a person.  Even in the things we know for sure about the character he seems to miss details, making for a character we really want to like and appreciate, but can’t due to a lack of understanding who he is and his motivations from inconsistencies.

These inconsistencies are not solely the fault of Washington, though, the script and direction from Dan Gilroy not only do him no favors but are actually the real source of the majority of this film’s woes.  It’s a script that doesn’t know what kind of film it wants to be.  It’s sort of a character piece, sort of a legal drama, sort of a crime drama, sort of an activist statement, but it never manages to commit to any one plot nor theme so we’re ultimately left with a film full of half-realized plots and thoughts.  These problems extend into every element of the film, from Roman himself to every supporting character and subplot.  Which is too bad, because like Denzel you can tell that Gilroy is passionate about this subject matter, but his passion overrode his common sense and objectivity it seems as he wasn’t able to recognize his film for the inconsistent mess it is.

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Putting the plot and characters aside, though, the technical elements of Roman J. Israel, Esq. are well handled.  The camerawork adds a lot to the tone of the film, showing us Los Angeles through the eyes of Roman himself and how his view of the city and himself change as he makes his own major life changes throughout the film.  The art direction and costumes also add an impressive amount to the atmosphere with the choices of costume in particular almost doing more to let us understand these characters than the writing and the acting do (and, the film seems to know this on some level with the amount of time spent commenting on what Roman is wearing).  It’s a movie that knows when to be pretty and when to be ugly, and obviously loves Los Angeles for its flaws just as much as its glory.

The film’s fatal flaw, though, even worse than its handling of its characters and plot is its handling of its themes.  It’s a movie that seems to want to be an even-handed film showing that people have layers and that an evil act does not make an evil person and vice versa or perhaps that being successful does not make one unethical or perhaps its meant to be a simpler don’t judge a book by its cover style of message.  Due to the fact that its characterizations are so messy, though, I don’t know.  Compare Roman J. Esquire to a film like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri or Lady Bird (review forthcoming) and you will the difference between characters and story which are complex and realistic and those which are merely inconsistent and not well thought out.

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Final verdict:  Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a mess of a passion project.  It’s a movie that I really want to like because you can tell that the people behind it really believed in what they were doing.  That very belief, however, seemed to blind them to the reality which is that this movie was trying to do so much that it couldn’t accomplish much of it effectively.  As a visual testament to the city of Los Angeles and to the maxim of clothes making the man the movie hits, but aside from that, it spins its wheels never letting us really understand who these people are nor what they are trying to say.

Coco (Unkrich & Molina; 2017)

Pixar’s latest Coco is the story of Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), a Mexican boy who wants to be a musician but was born into a family of music-hating cobblers.   His long dead idol Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) always told people that they needed to seize their moment, but when Miguel decides to do just that by showing what a great musician he is in front of everybody at a Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festival he instead becomes cursed and is sent to the Land of the Dead himself alongside a stray dog named Dante.

Since Toy Story in 1995, Pixar Studios have been the masters of bringing us formulaic but hilarious and heartwarming family entertainment with an emphasis on the family.  The standard Pixar story is one we’ve become incredibly familiar with – fish out of water characters are forced into and ultimately embrace something outside of their normal comfort zone and learn a lesson which makes them a better part of their community and a happier person – and, they have done it so well over and over again that except for a handful of missteps they are some of the most beloved family films ever put to screen.  They always manage to skew the familiar just enough that our brains don’t ever have to put too much effort into being entertained, but we also manage to come away with what seems like a new, original perspective every time.

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Coco is quintessential Pixar.  By using Mexican folklore, and in particular their holiday and lore surrounding the afterlife, they give us the framework needed to make the familiar family-oriented story something new as well as finally giving Hispanic culture a much needed big budget major release representation.  The ties between familial generations and a passion for music give us the story element we need to relate to, and the spirit guides, flower petal bridges, and rules of the great beyond are what give Coco its spectacle and wonder.

The animation on display in Coco is not the best we’ve seen from the studio, but it is impressive in how much thought the animators put into the details of the afterlife and its color palette is at times a true wonder.  Having to work with primarily skeletal figures for the major characters, however, does tend to hamstring variety as when every character is a skeleton with eyeballs, the only real differentiating factors are height and clothing.  This makes for an animated film in which the best animation is often in the background as that is where the artists can truly let their creativity loose.

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Coco‘s script is a heartwarming one, but aside from a neat bit of writing prestidigitation in which they change the film’s message part way through, it is all quite predictable.  It’s a fantastic script for children who may not have seen these particular plot twists over and over again and therefore will actually be surprised, but the adults taking the kids to the movie will have to rely more on the humor and charm of the movie over its story for their entertainment value.

Final verdict:  This review is a little shorter than normal because Coco is a Pixar movie through and through and most already know the drill.  You’ve seen the story over and over before, but the Pixar variations on the theme are so well handled per their usual craftsmanship that you can overlook and possibly even enjoy the film more despite that.  Coco will make you laugh, cry, and smile and it will make you do all three exactly when they want you to.  Sure, it’s a manipulative film, all Pixar films are, but with master manipulators like these at the helm it’s a pleasure to allow them to do so.

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P.S. The short film before Coco, Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, was merely so-so.  More an advertisement for the upcoming Frozen 2 than anything else, it really didn’t have the usual low key pizzazz the Pixar opener’s usually do.  But, it does have excellent animation and Idina Menzel’s gorgeous vocals, so it gets at least a bit of a pass.  You have to watch it to get to the main event, anyway, so may as well enjoy it.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (McDonagh; 2017)

Mildred’s (Frances McDormand’s) daughter was raped and murdered seven months prior to the events which begin Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (which I will from here on out abbreviate as Three Billboards).  The case is cold and Mildred has heard nothing from the police in a long time.  On her drive home one day she notices the three long abandoned billboards which sit aside a road no one uses anymore unless they are lost and gets an idea to get the local police working on the case again.  She rents out these three billboards to send out a message in 20-foot tall letters, “Raped while dying” “And still no arrests?” “How come, Chief Willoughby?”  When the local morning newscast reports on the story of the meaning behind these three billboards, Mildred’s family’s tragedy not only becomes a hot topic dividing a town between those who defend local Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and those who defend Mildred, but also spirals out of control seemingly contagiously spreading tragedy throughout the small town of Ebbing.

The dramedy is an art form which seems to have been gaining popularity since the late ’90’s or so and has now become so popular it is practically trite.  Three Billboards, however, despite its marketing is not a movie I would apply the term dramedy to.  I would call Three Billboards the far less often used tragicomedy.  This is a film in which horrible decisions are made and horrible things happen to people who themselves are not horrible over and over again.  It’s a story about how the way we react to the troubles in our lives can spread and spiral out of control until our own personal tragedies have now inflicted tragedies on those all around us.  Before you stop reading right here wondering why you would ever want to inflict such misery on yourself as entertainment, that is only the beginnings of this film’s wisdom.  The way it handles these tragedies can be heartbreaking or can be very funny depending on the depth of the catastrophe, but Three Billboards always handles the hurdles it throws at its characters with the film’s messages and the character’s personalities and motivations in mind.

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The movie isn’t about torturing its characters for comic or tragic effect, though.  There is a very deep, very needed message behind the suffering going on in Ebbing.  While I won’t come right out and say what that message is, I will say that it is embodied in showing the difference between how Mildred, Willoughby, and Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) each handle their own grief.  While this lesson is poignant, the wisdom of the movie surpasses even the knowledge of how tragedy and grief work, beyond the central lesson of its three primary characters, but also manages to show us that writer and director McDonagh understands first and foremost that none of us can ever be perfect and therefore does everything in a completely non-judgmental, non-preachy way.  He simply gives us very realistic, three dimensional, relatable characters in a very recognizable situation and lets it all speak for itself, except with far more clever dialogue than normally comes out of the mouths of normal people.

It will be no surprise to learn that with this cast (in addition to McDormand, Rockwell, and Harrelson, we also have Caleb Landry Jones, Abbie Cornish, Lucas Hedges, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, and Zeljko Ivanek – you’ll know him if you look him up) the acting is incredible.  In a story that demands it has truly real people dealing with truly horrible situations the entire experience rides on the shoulders of the ensemble, not just their personal performances but on how well they work with each other, and they exceed expectations.  Not a single action seems forced, not a single spoken word awkward, and no one tries to steal some spotlight when it isn’t their turn to shine.  Special mention in this department needs to go to Sam Rockwell.  Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson do what they do here, and they do it well, but Sam Rockwell gives the performance of a lifetime so far above and beyond anything I’ve seen him in before, I really had no idea he was capable of this level of performance, and yes, I have seen Moon.  He has to play a character who is seemingly contradictory, who is at times the most loved and other times the most hated person in the entire story, and who for a good chunk of the climax of the film has to carry the movie’s emotional weight on his shoulders, and he not only pulls it off but he does so in a way which doesn’t draw too much attention to himself.

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The visual part of the storytelling in Three Billboards definitely does justice to the phenomenal writing and acting on display.  It’s far from the most spectacularly shot film this year, but its still quite gorgeous and enhances the mood nearly perfectly.  Perhaps even better than the cinematography is the editing.  The film does have a minimal amount of stunts and action, but the vast majority of the film relies on speech and silence for its power, and those who put together the final cut got that pacing exactly with never a moment that seemed like it was dragging, nor a scene which seemed rushed.  We linger on a moment exactly when the emotional power demands it and we move on before that emotion is lost.

Ultimately what Three Billboards does best is give us perspective.  Not all cops are bad, but neither are they saints.  Victims are not always innocent, but neither do they “deserve it”.  Three Billboards examines subjects like domestic abuse, racism, police brutality, and no matter what your political leanings and intellectual and emotional state you will see something from a new, surprising point of view which will make you sit up and realize that nothing in this world is as black and white as we would like it to be.

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Final verdict:  I don’t recall having ever seen a film that understands grief and tragedy quite as well as Three Billboards.  I’ve certainly never seen one that handles it in quite the same manner.  This is a film that understands both the intellectual and the emotional elements of tragedy, and how our reactions to our own tribulations can affect any and all around us.  It’s a movie about the cause and effect of being human and can be heartbreaking one moment while bringing absolute joy the next without ever being judgmental, manipulative, cloying, nor sentimental.  It uses humor not so much to make us laugh but to enable us to keep watching and to ferret out the wisdom which seeps through every element of this fantastic film.  This film may be difficult for some to watch, but even for them, I am labeling Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri essential viewing.  I’m not quite ready to slap the label of masterpiece on it, yet, but it’s close enough that I am very tempted and wouldn’t be remotely surprised if I decide it is in the future.