OnScreen Review: "Phantom Thread"

OnScreen Review: "Phantom Thread"

After sitting with it a few weeks, and not having the time to write about it immediately after seeing it, the things that kept me from loving it initially have faded while the eccentricities and odd little moment of humor have heightened a bit, leaving me to wonder what an eventual second viewing might hold in a few years. Perhaps my tastes will be more in tune with it’s high fashion by that point, and it’ll be something I can enjoy rather than just appreciate.

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A Journey Across the Small Screen: An Interview with Stephanie Rogers

A Journey Across the Small Screen: An Interview with Stephanie Rogers

We have all had dreams of being a TV/Movie star from when we were young. A small percentage of us try to make that dream a reality. An even smaller percentage of those people actually make in front of millions of viewers. I had the opportunity to speak with one of those people who made her dream a reality, the talented Stephanie Rogers, who has appeared in shows like Saturday Night Live, The Blacklist, The Knick, 30 Rock, Law and Order SVU, Smash, and many others. How did she get there, what has her journey been like, who have been the best movie stars to work with, and what advice would she give to anyone else who wants to live the dream.

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OnScreen Review: "Godzilla: Planet of Monsters"

OnScreen Review: "Godzilla: Planet of Monsters"

Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters is a new Japanese CG anime kaiju film.  It was produced by Toho Animation and was animated by Polygon Pictures. It is the 32nd feature film in the Godzilla franchise and the first animated take on Godzilla. It was co-directed by Kōbun Shizuno and Hiroyuki Seshita, with a screenplay by Gen Urobuchi. It was recently released worldwide via Netflix.

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OnScreen Review: "The Post"

OnScreen Review: "The Post"

Steven Spielberg is a director who normally operates in two types of modes; alternating projects between big blockbusters and serious filmmaking with awards in mind. His latest, The Post, makes no qualms about what kind of film it wants to be, landing firmly with both feet in the latter camp. Spielberg has never been shy about making films with a message, but they rarely have been so deliberate in their intent to speak to the relevant news of the present.

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OnScreen Review: "West Side Story"

OnScreen Review: "West Side Story"

Musicals are not my favorite genre of film, in fact, they may be my least favorite.  Having said that, I have been trying to make an effort to see some of the classics and approach them with an open mind.  Similarly, I was not a fan of the western genre for a long time either, but have come to appreciate the genre quite a bit.  My exposure to movie musicals is very limited.  I remember having to watch Fiddler on the Roof in music class in 4th grade as well as West Side Story at some point in elementary school.  I either did not pay attention or I forgot much of it (though I do vividly remember “If I were a rich man…!” from Fiddler).  

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OnScreen Review: 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi'

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

(This is an incredibly spoiler-free review of the film.)

Carrying expectations into a movie theater is a dangerous game to play. With the Star Wars franchise, this is practically unavoidable. Generations of kids grew up on these stories from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. I have to admit that I was particularly susceptible to the expectations game with this film. Not only do I love Star Wars, but I am also a huge fan of Rian Johnson, a director I have been on board with ever since his first film, Brick, came out over a decade ago now. I made a concerted effort to avoid as much news and talk about reviews within the last week or so before seeing Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Episode VIII in the Star Wars franchise. I tried my best to suppress the way I wanted things to play out and embrace the story that Johnson and others had brought to the big screen in this new entry in this new trilogy.

My best efforts were in vain, when the credits rolled, I was certainly on a high, but it was tempered with something I did not want, or perhaps did not expect: a twinge of the bittersweet. I didn’t expect to have to leave the theater trying to figure out how I felt about the movie. Maybe I was overthinking it, maybe I still am. But the more I thought about it and the movie I had experienced settled into my mind and replaced the ethereal idea of the movie that had been in my mind for the last two years, I really began to appreciate what Rian Johnson has made with this film and how he had subverted my expectations and gone in an interesting direction.

(I realize I’ve been using “I” a lot, and if you’re reading this you probably care less about my personal experience and want to know about the movie itself. I swear, going forward will be less about me.)

So what were my expectations going in? I bought into the notion with The Force Awakens that J.J. Abrams was laying a foundation, to play it a little safe, and make sure the new trilogy didn’t get off on the wrong foot. Being a rehash of A New Hope is a very fair critique of The Force Awakens. The Last Jedi, as best I can tell is not a rehash of any of the previous films. However, there are definite nods to several previous films, including A New Hope, certainly The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and surprisingly Revenge of the Sith.

Some of these nods are lines of dialogue that are similar, such as Obi Wan telling Anakin, “I have failed you” on Mustafar in Revenge of the Sith. A desert/salt planet shares a lot of similarities to Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back, and features a similar assault, though it doesn’t happen right at the beginning of the film. Still another is the royal guard around Supreme Leader Snoke; their stark red suits are meant to evoke the guards of Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi, though they are much more menacing and imposing. There’s also a particularly poignant nod to A New Hope involving the shot of Luke looking at the two suns on Tatooine and Leia’s message to Obi Wan.

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These nods to the past ground the story in the Star Wars universe, and are important because the new stories, really, are not about the old characters as much as the new characters. It is great to see the old faces again, and Luke and Leia get greatly expanded roles compared to The Force Awakens. Carrie Fisher gives a great final performance as Princess Leia, reminding us that she was the beating heart of the rebellion back in the day by leading this new resistance, a resistance that teeters on the edge of a knife for much of the film, and much of the plot is about their survival. Their survival rests partly on getting Luke Skywalker off the sidelines and out of self-imposed exile.

Luke is a very different person than he was at the end of Return of the Jedi; despite the pleadings of Rey (Daisy Ridley), Luke is adamant that he is where he belongs and that he cannot be swayed. Few people are the same person they were thirty years ago, and how his character has been aged and how Mark Hamill portrays that is really well done. In fact, how Abrams, Johnson, and company have believably aged the Han, Leia, and Luke characters over these two new films and how the actors bring that to life is really nice. We want to see the characters we love treated with the love and care they deserve, and that has been done here.

But one thing that Rian Johnson has successfully pulled off with this film is a fluid, definite, and full transition from the previous generation of characters to the new class. There is no doubt after this film that Rey, Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac), and, yes, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) are the primary figures in the story now. And there are some fine supporting figures to round things out too, none less so than Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), a resistance fighter who embarks on a risky mission with Finn.

One of the unavoidable things of The Force Awakens was that the new characters were scrutinized for comps to the old characters, similar to how a college basketball player is compared to another current or former NBA player for the sake of context. For instance, “Rey is a mix of Han and Luke.” For me, at least, that fell completely by the wayside here. These characters are their own established persons now. Rey, Kylo Ren, Poe, and Finn all get interesting and clearly defined character arcs that change them from the person they are at the beginning of the film to who they are when the credits roll. And that growth brings them into cooperation in some ways and conflict in other ways.

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One of the things Star Wars is known for is the interesting creatures and locations in these films. In the most minor of spoilers, the Porgs are not like the Ewoks, they actually reminded me of the Tribbles from Star Trek more than anything. There are some great little visual flourishes and glimpses of things that make planets feel like a fully realized place in the galaxy. There is one shot of Luke high up on the mountainside of the island he is on; behind and below him, the tail of a monstrous-sized creature appears briefly before submerging again. There is one visual in particular in space that has to be mentioned, it is one of the best visual moments in the entire saga, and it involves lightspeed; I almost got goosebumps in the theater.

Is there anything to be said against this film? A few details hold it back slightly for me. There is one scene involving Leia that didn’t quite work for me. The middle of the film gets bogged down a bit with Rey and Luke on his exile planet. Snoke is a mysterious figure that people had a lot of questions about after The Force Awakens. The lack of back story for him could frustrate some. And it could be argued that the story doesn’t advance the trilogy much, as it seems like it picks up right off the heels of The Force Awakens whereas with the original trilogy and the prequels felt like a significant amount of time had elapsed between films. To some, that could make it seem slight compared to the other films in the franchise.

However, once the final act kicks in, things really pick up and the last 45 minutes of this film are nothing short of a delight. And it should also be noted that the use of The Force in this film has been expanded in new and interesting ways that have not been depicted in previous films. I found this expansion exciting.

I had very little doubt going into Star Wars: The Last Jedi that I would enjoy it, but I came out of the film surprised at the way that I ended up enjoying it and why I wanted to see it again, and possibly for even a third time. It was a very different experienced than I expected. Rian Johnson has succeeded in making a Star Wars movie that is exciting, filled with some great action, and full of engaging characters. It also has some nice nods to previous films without being a retread. I could see it being a divisive entry in the franchise for some, but for me, pun fully intended, it is a force to be reckoned with.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Review: 'The Disaster Artist'

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

There is a mantra I stumbled across a few years ago that says, “Life’s too short for bad movies,” or something to that effect. It’s a good mantra that I try to follow as best I can. Bad movies are a dime a dozen. But there is the “so bad it’s good” phenomenon that occurs with some bad movies. Most of the time, movies that people claim fit this category are really just bad. There are probably several factors that going into a movie being so bad that it’s good, but two factors that work in tandem seem to be a lack of self-awareness and a high level of unintentional comedy. These are abundantly available in Tommy Wiseau’s infamous 2003 movie, The Room. Having finally seen it within the last two weeks, I can personally vouch for its reputation for being as entertainingly bad as people claimed it was. James Franco’s The Disaster Artist details the making of the The Room and gives us a glimpse at the unique Tommy Wiseau.

Franco, in addition directing the film, stars as Wiseau, an enigmatic figure who aspiring actor Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) meets in an acting class in San Francisco. While Sestero is meek on stage, Wiseau goes big doing a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire, shouting “Stella!” while climbing and writhing all over the place in an unforgettable introduction to the character. They quickly bond and Wiseau’s eccentric boldness brings Greg out of his acting shell. They push one another to pursue their dreams, eventually moving the Hollywood to get into acting, and eventually making their own movie when opportunities fizzle.

The problem is that neither is actually a very good actor and Tommy is not a very talented writer or director. And yet, somehow, The Room gets made. When watching The Room and then looking up information about it, I was shocked to find that the estimated cost of the production was over $6 million. For the life of me, I cannot figure out how it cost that much to be made. Over a decade later, there are no clear answers, either, as to where Tommy got the money to make the movie either, and The Disaster Artist hints at theories, but embraces the mystery of it and the mystery of Wiseau, whose age, where he grew up, and where his money comes from are never explained.

The Franco brothers dominate the film, with James doing a fairly strong Wiseau impression with a funky Eastern European accent (that Tommy claims is because he is from New Orleans) that occasionally sounds like it dips into a Valley Girl tone. Dave Franco’s Greg is essentially the straight man in a very bizarre double act where Tommy, due to his eccentric personality, is the comic relief. Greg, while not a great actor, is more self-conscious and far more self-aware than Tommy. 

An important feature of the film is that it is not just about Tommy and Greg, but about the making of The Room. The glimpse behind the camera into how this movie got made is an interesting one and a funny one, even if it becomes a creative hell for some of them. People sometimes complain that Hollywood loves making movies about itself and the creative process, but this one felt different, maybe because The Room is such an atypical filmmaking experience. It really is a train wreck of a movie set, with Tommy Wiseau clearly someone who is in over his head, but he’s the one paying for it, so people tolerate it. Even when he’s at his most unlikeable, it’s still entertaining because it’s so bizarre.

The cast is filled out with all kinds of people who are friends with Franco and little cameos of various comedians, including Seth Rogen, Ari Graynor, Alison Brie, Paul Scheer, Jackie Weaver, Josh Hutcherson, Zac Efron, June Diane Raphael, Megan Mullally, Jason Mantzoukas, Hannibal Buress, Nathan Fielder, and small appearances by Sharon Stone, Melanie Griffith, Bob Odenkirk, and Judd Apatow as various acting coaches, agents, and producers, along with numerous other small cameos including Wiseau and Sestero. Rogen, Scheer, Hutcherson, Graynor, Weaver, and other bring the behind the scenes stuff on set to life reacting to the incongruities of the scenes, the frustrations at the multiple takes, and the stress of working with Wiseau.

In the end, The Disaster Artist is not a typical biopic or movie based on a true story, because Wiseau is not a typical subject and The Room is not a typical Hollywood success story. It ends up being as much about the process and the struggle to be creative, how difficult it can be to succeed, but how trying it can be to fail too. But sometimes failure leads to its own kind of success, as The Room has turned into a movie with a cult following. As difficult as someone like Tommy Wiseau may have been to work with, there is something to be said that he had the courage of his convictions and actually get it made, and everyone involved was part of a unique experience. The Disaster Artist embraces the disaster and shows that even if Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero didn’t become Hollywood stars, they did become something: cult heroes.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

A Review in (exactly) 250 words: Pop Up Screens' Cinema in the Snow

Harriet Wilson

  • OnStage Blog United Kingdom

Wondering what could be more festive than curling up to watch a Christmas classic like Elf, Love Actually or Home Alone? Well, what if you had just walked through a magical wardrobe? What if you were surrounded by … definitely 100% real … snow, and fir trees? Most importantly, what if there was mulled wine?

This Christmas, Pop Up Screens are running a 'Cinema in the Snow' season at the Hackney Showroom in East London. The season features the screening of a whole host of Christmas classics, as well as some newer films such as La La Land.

Although quite low key once you get inside, the screening room looks really festive, and entering via wardrobe is always going to be a strong start. Doors open an hour before each film starts, giving you plenty of time to enjoy the festivities and indulge in some popcorn and mulled wine. If you want to arrive earlier, there's also a selection of food stalls just outside the venue.

It would be hard to leave the screening without feeling festive, especially after seeing so many kids playing in the 'snow', making snow angels and even attempting a snow ball fight (which, although not the greatest success, would have made the Grinch himself smile).

The 'Cinema in the Snow' season is perfect for anybody local to Hackney who wants to get into the festive spirit. Children’s ticket prices start at £10, with adults' tickets starting at £20. The season is running until Christmas Eve.

OnScreen Review: 'I, Tonya'

Noah Golden

A movie like “I, Tonya” shouldn’t work. A serious and true story about crime, abuse and Olympic gold shouldn’t be treated with the winking, broad delivery of a Coen Brothers comedy like “Burn After Reading.” A biopic of a famous figure skater shouldn’t be led by an actress who consistently looks a decade older than her real-life counterpart and performs in a blur of obvious CGI wizardry. A piece of historical non-fiction shouldn’t feel so much like the mix between a tar-black Christopher Guest mockumentary and one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s sprawling tales of human shortcomings.

And yet.

“I, Tonya” is both eclectic and electric. A fresh, energizing, fascinating and fearless film that’s both highly disturbing and wildly entertaining. It’s also a messy hodgepodge that tries to have its cake and eat it too, dispensing some unnecessary cinematic styles and gimmicks along the way. Yes, “I, Tonya” may be uneven – and I can imagine more than a few people being turned off by its questionably glib approach to serious topics like domestic violence – but not even its most fervent opposer can fault the film for being boring or unoriginal. Say what you want about Craig Gillespie’s feature, but this is a director swinging for the fences in a daring and incredibly exciting way. 

“I, Tonya” tells the (mostly) true story of figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), who became a household name in the early ‘90s. At the U.S. Championships before the 1992 Winter Olympics, Harding was the first skater ever to complete the ridiculously difficult triple axel jump in competition. But Harding was different than most of the other figure skaters. She was stockier and foul-mouthed, a self-proclaimed redneck who fixed cars and went hunting on the weekends. After her browbeaten father left during Tonya’s middle school years, she was raised exclusively by her mother LaVona (Allison Janney), a bitter, abusive dragon lady with a faux fur coat and perpetually lit cigarette. In the “modern” interview segments that frame the film, LaVona (now with oxygen tubes running in her nose) inserts dry, cruel quips with a parakeet perched on her shoulder. If the image brings to mind the malicious Jafar, you wouldn’t be too far off, both in the character’s motivation and subtlety.

During training one day while still in high school, Tonya meets Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), a seemingly sweet lug who often hangs around with his obese, dim-witted friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser). After a violent altercation with her mother, Tonya moves in with Jeff, sparking a long and turbulent relationship and marriage. Once Tonya’s career picks up, Jeff becomes increasingly possessive, angry and violent. During more than a few skating competitions, her heavy make-up covered black eyes and bruises.

But the most famous part of Tonya’s story occurred during the trials for the 1994 Olympics when her competitor Nancy Kerrigan was assaulted by a hired thug. Jeff and Shawn both spent jail time for masterminding the ordeal. How much Tonya knew about the attack is an unsolved pop culture mystery, one that is inventively sidestepped by screenwriter Steven Rogers.

The second half of the film, which concerns the crime and its aftermath, is more than a little reminiscent of “Fargo” with its bad liars, poor coincidences, and wildly inept criminals. Take for instance the attacker Shane Stant who, when waiting outside Kerrigan’s gym in Massachusetts, reparked his car every half hour for multiple days on end to avoid suspicion. That level of stupidity seems right out of a “Blades Of Glory” sequel, yet truth really is stranger (and funnier) than fiction.

  Far from a straight-forward biopic, Gillespie (most known to me for the bittersweet indie “Lars and the Real Girl”) films Tonya’s story with bright colors, striking camera choreography and (staged) talking head interviews, which turn the characters into their own Greek chorus. That device, with dialogue and even costuming taken directly from primary sources, works well and incorporates a nifty meta element to the film. The use of fourth wall breaking asides in a few key narrative scenes, though, reads as unnecessary and a touch too smug.

Even with wild cinematic mood swings, the cast is totally game. Robbie’s portrayal of Tonya is gutsy and vulnerable and nearly pitch-perfect. Stan, who unbeknownst to me is most famous for playing Marvel superhero Bucky Barnes, is utterly convincing as the schlubby Gillooly while Hauser delivers a hilarious performance as Shawn Eckhardt. Perpetually stuffing food in his mouth and purporting to be an international spy (despite living in his parents’ basement), his Shawn has an IQ not far above Patrick Star’s and is equally entertaining. Perhaps my biggest gripe with “I, Tonya” lies both in Allison Janney’s performance and the screenwriter’s treatment of LaVona. It’s a big juicy, showy role and Janney is unsurprisingly fantastic as a demonic Mama Rose variant. But, they paint LaVona in too broad, unidimensional strokes that renders her performance into a finely tuned caricature rather than a compelling human being. Even if that’s how Tonya saw her, a glimmer of humanity under her acid-tongued haranguing would have been appreciated.

But that gripe also lies at the very forefront of “I, Tonya.” Whose truth is being represented here? Can we trust the narrative being shown to us? Are we, the audience, being lied to? Where does the truth come from? Does it even matter?

As Tonya says near the end of the film, “There’s no such thing as truth. Everyone has their own truth.” In that sense, “I, Tonya” is the flipside of “Fargo,” a fictional film that pretends to be based on a true story. Here is a film actually based on a true story that toys with its made-up elements like a cat with yarn. But the endgame isn’t merely to confuse the audience or concoct a more compelling tale. Gillespie wisely uses this piece of early ‘90s history to tell an altogether contemporary parable, one of how the insatiable 24-hour news cycle (which was born just months before Tonya’s scandal broke) can shape the details of our reality.

Tonya Harding, Jeff Gillooly and Shawn Eckhardt are pretty regular people, but the narrative of their lives (at least to the public eye) has been written not as much by their actions, but the way media framed those actions. Journalists and TV producers turned a messy, complicated story into a modern-day farce with recognizable tropes: the trailer trash wunderkind, the elegant athlete, the domineering stage mother, the incompetent criminals, the fat, nerdy mama’s boy. They gave viewers the narrative they wanted to see. But at what cost to the people involved? What does “fake news” means to those whose real life is neither one of those things?

You could make a movie about Tonya Harding, the Olympic hopeful who currently lives far from the spotlight in Oregon with her husband and child. It might be restrained and realistic and bent on getting all the facts right. But Gillespie isn’t making a movie about that Tonya Harding. The “Tonya” in the title is rightfully in quotation marks. She is the product of countless television shows, late-night jokes, tabloid rumors and news packages. Now, her story is being reshaped and rehashed again in a daring and creative film with a lot of big ideas. It’s one of the most fascinating films of the year.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Method Acting: A Response to 'Jim & Andy' on Netflix

Erin Fossa

If you’re an actor, acting coach, acting teacher, or just plain fascinated by the craft of acting, you must watch Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond on Netflix. The docu-mentary follows actor Jim Carrey and details his journey from beginning to end as he played his idol Andy Kauffman in the 1999 movie The Man on the Moon. Not only does the film document his acting journey as Andy Kauffman, but it also dives into the complicated and brilliant mind of Jim Carrey himself as an actor and a hu-man being. 

Jim didn’t just pretend to be Andy Kauffman during the filmmaking process, he claims Andy essentially possessed him from the day he was told he got the part until the film was complete. He refused to answer to “Jim” on set and spoke only as Andy, often doing strange and reckless things in order to fully embody his comedic idol. Some would say he took things a little too far, causing heated arguments, emotional turmoil and even physical pain to himself and his colleagues on the film set. He was chastised by some as an extreme method actor. 

This documentary was incredible and brought up so many thoughts on method acting. If you are familiar with Jim Carrey at all, you know he has been somewhat of a poster child for existentialism in Hollywood. In his personal life, he has experienced tragic loss, tremendous success, and everything in between. So hearing how particular roles have affected this journey of self (and vice versa) over the years was simply fascinating. You cannot listen to his words without considering your own mortality for at least a brief second. 

But for me, it sparked the question, is the term method acting being used correctly in Hollywood and elsewhere for that matter? With such a negative connotation, and more so now after this documentary, is method acting something we should idolize or criticize? What is method acting and what is it NOT? Did Jim Carrey take method acting too far? 

What is method acting?

The term “method acting” has evolved from the teachings of legendary acting teacher Lee Strasberg. Strasberg taught a style of acting based on that of Constantine Stanislavsky- Russian acting teacher who is the most important person in the history of acting. (Nearly all methods of acting are based at least in part on Stanislavsky’s teaching.) His style of acting came to be known as The System, and Strasberg’s style based on The System came to be known as The Method. 

The essence of Lee Strasberg’s The Method is this: an actor must use affective memory to bring about real emotion. The focus is on the details of a particular situation in order to create a remembered emotion. 

For example: if we think back to a particularly emotional event in our past (the death of a loved one, the birth of a child, ect.) we should be able to recreate the emotion by calling to mind all the sensory details that were involved. What were you wearing? How did the room smell? Was it cold? Hot? Humid? Who was there with you? What were they wearing? What did they say? By recalling each and every detail, we can essentially bring back the natural emotion now in a controlled environment. 

Sounds a little more complicated than the term “method acting” that gets thrown around a lot, right? 

What method acting isn’t.

The term “method acting” has come to be known as the crazy actions of an actor who takes his or her role too far, doing things they would never normally do for the sake of becoming the character. Method acting does not mean diving off a cliff because it’s what your character would do. It does not mean dying your hair and wearing strange clothes just for the sake of understanding this person you are playing. It is a series of training techniques in which the actor learns to use affective memory to bring up true emotion. It’s possible that wearing certain clothes or try-ing to experience specific sensory details would help in achieving that affective memory. But method acting is not simply an extreme game of make believe. 

Film actors often lose or gain substantial amounts of weight for a particular role. They often train relentlessly at the gym, learn a language or an instrument, and even sometimes uproot their lives for a period of time in order to experience what their character has experienced. These things are typically referred to as “method acting”. But by definition, the actor who quietly uses exercises from the Strasberg method like relaxation, concentration, and sense memory would also be a method actor. 

As actors, I think it’s important to make this distinction and defend our craft against the negative stigma that the dreaded “method actor” has come to possess. The truth is every actor uses some sort of method, whether Strasberg’s or a number of others. All acting methods use varying degrees of techniques to achieve a believ-able character. Where you draw the line between those exercises and reality is up to you. Jim Carrey just happened to draw that line far, far beyond what most actors would. Some would argue that makes him the best in the business. Some would ar-gue that makes him partially insane. I say, watch the documentary and decide for yourself. 

OnScreen Review: 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri'

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

“All this anger, man, Penelope said to me the other day, ‘It just begets greater anger,’ you know? It’s true.”

“Penelope said ‘begets’?”

Living where you have to drive 30 minutes to get anywhere can be pain. Sometimes, though, it can be a benefit. Sometimes it’s good to have the time to sit and ponder while driving. After getting out of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri the other night, I decided against putting on a podcast to pass the time and instead just sat with the film fresh in my mind while I drove home. Martin McDonagh’s latest is one that deserved some pondering over because it is not an easy film and I kept coming back to the exchange at the top of this review.

I have been eagerly anticipating Three Billboards all year; it came in at #5 on my most anticipated list back in January. McDonagh’s darkly funny debut film, In Bruges, is one of my favorite films this century and his follow-up, Seven Psyhcopaths, is also dark and twisted and funny. McDonagh blends the comedic with the dark in a way that most directors would not be comfortable with. Consider the twist in In Bruges where we find out what led to Ray and Ken being in Bruges in the first place. McDonagh has deftly balanced the light and the dark in his previous films. Three Billboards was the first time when I wondered to myself if the balance was off.

Frances McDormand stars in the film as Mildred Hayes, a woman whose teenage daughter was brutally raped and murdered months ago. After the case has gone cold and no suspect has been found, Mildred rents three billboards challenging the local police, in particular Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), as to why there has been no progress. Willoughby, while sympathetic to Mildred’s situation, is nonetheless perturbed by the manner she is expressing her frustration. The billboards make Mildred a divisive figure and infuriate members of the police force, most notably Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an officer who is a drunken mama’s boy with anger issues that Willoughby constantly has to reign in because he is so easily provoked.

Two themes stuck out to me as I was driving home from seeing this film and trying to decide whether I liked it. The first is exemplified by the quote I opened with, of anger begetting greater anger. It’s a comedic moment in the film as Mildred is on a dinner date when her ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) walks in with his extremely younger girlfriend, Penelope (Samara Weaving). Penelope, as demonstrated earlier in the film is not the brightest of bulbs, so the fact that she said ‘begets’ leads Mildred’s date James (Peter Dinklage) to question the validity of what Charlie is saying, which leads to an even funnier payoff shortly thereafter. But the quote itself, that anger begets greater anger, stuck with me.

Mildred’s daughter was brutally killed. Her grief and her guilt have morphed into anger and it has consumed her. It is practically all she has time for, even to the detriment of her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges), who finds out about the billboards after the fact and their continued existence is a strain on their relationship. Her inability to move on is possibly costing her the relationship she has with her son, because she doesn’t seem to have room for it. Maybe because it was because Lucas Hedges appears in both films, but the inability to move on reminded me a lot of last year’s Manchester by the Sea, only the end result of tragedy in that film is that the main character is broken. But in a way, so is Mildred. Like Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler, she apparently can’t beat it. She can’t live with the injustice of it. And she’s blinded by it.

Her anger begets more anger. People in the town hold Willoughby in high esteem, so her billboards ruffle feathers. This leads to a confrontation with her dentist that concludes with a hole in this finger. Dixon views Willoughby as a father figure and takes matters into his own hands, initially threatening the man who rented to billboards to Mildred, Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), before further escalating the situation with Red and others in an attempt to put indirect pressure on Mildred to take down the billboards. Halfway through the film, someone burns the three billboards which leads to a further, misdirected escalation by Mildred.

The other recurring theme I picked up on was fire. The body of Mildred’s daughter was burned after she was killed. The billboards are set on fire. At one point, Molotov cocktails are hurled at the police station and a character is surrounded by flames. When Mildred is desperately trying to extinguish the flames on the billboards, she climbs up one to try to put out the fire, standing above the flames as her message is consumed by fire. I think the fire perfectly illustrates how consuming the anger is that Mildred, Dixon, and others have. It’s only when a note of grace is delivered from Willoughby to both Mildred and Dixon that their burning anger is tempered in any way and represents a turning point in the story. By the end, though, the film ends on ambiguous ending where viewers are left wondering how long that will last, whether anything has changed for them, or if their apparent change is misguided.

McDormand gives one of the finest performances in a career full of fine performances. Harrelson and Rockwell, who both previously collaborated with McDonagh in Seven Psychopaths, are their typically great selves. In addition to Hawkes, Hedges, Dinklage, Jones, and Weaving (who may have been my favorite bit character), Abbie Cornish also has a supporting role as Mrs. Willoughby, while Clarke Peters and Zeljko Ivanek also have supporting roles as police officers.

Ultimately, I ended up liking Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri more than I did initially leaving the theater, but slightly less than I hoped to walking into the theater when I quietly harbored hopes it could be my favorite film of the year. While I walked out torn on the film, I’ve come around to it the more I’ve thought about it. Some films have storybook endings where good triumphs over evil and there is a clear-cut protagonist and antagonist. But some films are ambiguous and the characters have shades of grey, and serves as a cautionary tale of what happens if you go too far down a particular path. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a great cautionary tale about the dangers of being consumed by the fire of anger, even if it is anger rooted in grief, and how all-consuming that fire can be if unchecked.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

OnStream: December 2017

Ken Jones

OnScreen Chief Film Critic

Every month, Netflix and Amazon announce a list of movies they are adding to their streaming service. While I focus most of my attention on movies currently in theaters, this is alternative programming for people who can’t get to the movie theater on a regular basis. Here are 10 recommendations from the new streaming titles available in the month of December.

1. The Farthest: Voyager in Space (12/1 on Netflix)

This is a PBS documentary that details the journey of the Voyager 1 space probe through our galaxy and now beyond. Anyone who is a fan of sci-fi, space exploration, or science in general should probably check this out. Voyager has traveled the farthest from Earth of any man-made object. It looks fascinating.
Rotten Tomatoes score: 100%

2. Silence (12/1 on Amazon Prime)

Martin Scorsese’s Silence is a passion project that he had wanted to make for decades. He finally got it made and released it at the end of last year. It came and went from the box office without much fanfare. When I was still doing Netflix through the mail, I saw it this summer and was blown away by the story of two Jesuit priests who travel to a hostile Japan looking for their apostate mentor. I was touched by how deeply religious the film is. Plus, anything Scorsese does is worth seeing. Adnrew Garfield, Adam Driver, and Liam Neeson star.
Rotten Tomatoes score: 84%

3. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (12/5 on Netflix)

Vol. 2 was a big hit this summer as the Guardians of the Freaking Galaxy returned and recaptured most of the spirit of the first movie. This time around they’ve added Kurt Russell as Peter Quill’s dad and Pom Klementieff as Mantis. Characters like Yondu and Nebula get some expanded roles this time around. And the humor and action from the first movie is still here in abundance.
Rotten Tomatoes score: 82%

4. Crown Heights (12/8 on Amazon Prime)

Not a film that was on my radar until I was having a hard time coming up with 10 titles to list here, Crown Heights is a film based on a podcast episode of This American Life. It’s about a man who was wrongfully convicted of murder and the fight to set him free. Literally, the only reason I am recommending the movie is because LaKeith Stanfield stars as the lead, and I think he is one of the best up and coming actors right now (Get Out, FX’s Atlanta).
Rotten Tomatoes score: 76%

5. It Comes At Night (12/9 on Amazon Prime)

How best to describe the post-apocalyptic It Comes At Night? Well, it’s a horror, but an atypical horror film in that the menace is never really seen. It’s big on atmosphere and paranoia rather than blood and guts. The director is Trey Edward Shults, who made 2016’s Krisha, a low-budget horror story of its own (Thanksgiving with a dysfunctional family). I reviewed It Comes At Night back in June.
Rotten Tomatoes score: 88%

6. Nightcrawler (12/10 on Amazon Prime)

No, this isn’t an X-Men spinoff about the blue devil, Kurt Wagner. This is arguably the best film of Jake Gyllenhaal’s career. Written and directed by Dan Gilroy (Michael Clayton), it’s about the fast-paced, hyper-competitive world of stringers (freelance photojournalists), embodied in Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom. Gyllenhaal has maybe never been better than he is here as the chilling Bloom, and he has certainly never been creepier. Rene Russo gives a great supporting performance here too. Nightcrawler was one of the best films of 2014.
Rotten Tomatoes score: 95%

7. Bright (12/22 on Netflix)

This is a Netflix original film from director David Ayer (Suicide Squad, Fury, End of Watch, Training Day). While Ayer’s Suicide Squad may have been a misfire, he nails war/police thrillers. Bright looks like a fantasy version of the 80s movie Alien Nation; this time around it’s mythical creatures that exist in the real world alongside humans. Will Smith’s human cop works alongside an orc cop, played by Joel Edgerton in Los Angeles.
Rotten Tomatoes score: N/A

8. Creep 2 (12/23 on Netflix)

This is a sequel to a “found footage” horror movie from a few years ago. It stars Mark Duplass, who reprises his role from the original film as a man who hires a videographer and plays increasingly sadistic mind games that eventually stop being games. Having seen a trailer for this, I’m struggling to see how they change up the story from the first one, but I am encouraged by the Rotten Tomatoes score of 100%, so that means that they must have found some way to put a fresh spin on it.
Rotten Tomatoes score: 100%

9. Brawl in Cell Block 99 (12/31 on Amazon Prime)

I have yet to see a trailer for this film, but I have heard enough to pique my interest. Vince Vaughn stars in this thriller about a former boxer-turned-drug-dealer who is sent to jail. Once there, he discovers that his wife’s life is in danger unless he kills someone on the inside. I’ve heard that Vaughn’s performance is unlike anything he has done before.
Rotten Tomatoes score: 92%

10. Dave Chapelle: Equanimity (12/31 on Netflix)

Look, it’s been a rough year. But one of the highlights of streaming this year is that Netflix has made a dedicated effort to champion stand-up comedy. Dave Chappelle released a two-part stand-up special earlier this year and it was great. Some people go out and party on New Year’s Eve. Some people stay in on New Year’s Eve. Some people gather with friends and celebrate the New Year. Maybe you’re gathering with friends and playing games or hanging out until the ball drops. Why not pop on Chappelle’s latest and share a few laughs on Netflix before turning the TV to the ball dropping at midnight? There are far worse ways to close out 2017.
Rotten Tomatoes score: N/A%

OnScreen Review: 'Lady Bird'

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

I love Star Wars, superheroes, epic sci-fi, and blockbusters as much (maybe even more) as the next typical 30-something American male when it comes to movies. I’ve loved movies ever since I was a little kid growing up in the 80s. A seminal moment in my movie-viewing came when I got a Netflix subscription over a decade ago. It dramatically expanded what was available for me to see and experience; I love the variety of movies that are available now. I’ve found that I can enjoy just about anything in any genre now. The one thing I value and appreciate more than just about anything in film these days is when a film is personal. When a film is personal, it provides a glimpse of the world that I have never been to or a different perspective than my own. I think this is what people mean when they say that a director, writer, or actor has a distinct voice.

Almost from the first moment I encountered her in a movie, I thought Greta Gerwig was one of those people with a distinct voice. Damsels in Distress was the first time she really stood out to me. Since then, two Noah Baumbach films only further cemented my impression of her talent, Frances Ha and Mistress America. Both of those films she also co-wrote with Baumbach, and made people wonder just how much of those films and her amazing characters in both films belonged to her rather than Baumbach. With the arrival of Lady Bird, of which Gerwig is writer and director, I think it is safe to say that she was integral to those Baumbach films.

Lady Bird is a semi-autobiographical story from Gerwig in her directorial debut. From what I have read, none of the story is directly lifted from her life, but I do know that she is from Sacramento, where the film takes place, and she has previously talked about how she had a delayed appreciation for her hometown. And if you have seen Gerwig’s performances in Frances Ha or Mistress America, it is impossible to see Saoirse Ronan’s lead performance, hear her delivery, and not hear Gerwig’s voice come through.

The film feels like a love letter to Gerwig’s hometown, opening with a quote from another notable Sacramentonean (Sacramentean? Sacramentoite???), Joan Didion: “Anyone who talks about California hedonism has never spent Christmas in Sacramento.” This coming of age story, set in 2002, focuses on the life of Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson (Ronan) and her senior year of high school and slightly into her freshman year of college. It’s full of humor, emotional truth, and heart.

The film also focuses on the Christine’s relationship with her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), in one of the most realistic depictions of mothers and daughters I’ve ever seen in a film. Every relationship between a parent and teenager different, but almost all of them have some similarities. For the teenager, there is the angst and the desire to be your own person and butting up against the rules the parents have laid down. For the parent, there is the balancing act of giving this blossoming adult the right amount of space but still having authority and responsibility for them.

It’s a naturally caustic period, though hardly ever entirely always adversarial. This is what makes the relationship between Ronan and Metcalf’s characters so real and genuine; they can switch from being at each other’s throats in one moment and on a dime they are both marveling at how beautiful a dress looks. They’re both strong personalities and their relationship exists on a spectrum and things shift wildly day to day, sometimes moment to moment.

There is also a lot about Christine’s life as a senior attending an all-girl’s Catholic private school involved in the story and her desire to get out of Sacramento. Hoping to increase her chances of getting into east coast schools with more activities, she joins the school play, a joint production with the all-boys school. It’s there that she falls for Danny (Lucas Hedges). Later on, she falls for another guy, a musician archetype name Kyle (Timothee Chalamet), who plays guitar, reads Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, and fancies himself a pseudo-intellectual. She also slowly grows apart from her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) and bonds with one of the richer students, Jenna (Odeya Rush). Their friendship throws in some class shame into the picture, as Christine pretends to be from a more affluent part of town than she is. Her father (Tracy Letts) losing his job adds further stress at home.

Ultimately, though, the beating heart of this story rests with Christine and her mother. Ronan is an actress who has grown up before our eyes, first breaking through as young Briony in 2007’s Atonement. A decade later, she has emerged as one of the most talented young actresses in the world and this is almost sure to be an Oscar-nominated performance. Speaking of the Oscars, I have no hesitation in stating that I think the Best Supporting Actress should be shut down and the award handed to Laurie Metcalf at this point, who gives one of the best performances of the year as Christine’s mother. It’s a smart, layered, emotional, nuanced, and note perfect performance.

Star Wars, the latest Marvel movie, the big new animated film, and others all have their built-in audiences. When a film like Lady Bird comes along, it deserves to find an audience. It’s exciting to be able to champion a film like this. You want to tell others to find time to see it, to skip the so-so sequel to a holiday movie and check this out instead. So much junk gets released and seen by a wide audience that when a film like this comes along, you want to promote it and tell other people about it. Lady Bird is a tremendous debut from a writer/director coming into her own. It has two outstanding central performances, has a personal touch to it, and is an ode to hometowns, but Sacramento specifically. It’s the kind of film I want more of from Hollywood.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars