Drama

Teen Spirit

First Hit: This was a well-done film, and it’s Elle Fanning’s performance that seals the deal.

Although the formula for this story is well known it works because of the performances of the actors, the cinematography, and singing by Fanning.

A poor polish girl Violette Valenski (Fanning) living on the Isle of Wight with her mom Maria (Agnieszka Grochowska) in a big farmhouse. They work the farm, both work at jobs in restaurants, and Violette also goes to school.

They are poor, and they need all the money they can make. Both are sad, unhappy, and driven people. Violette’s father left them, and the two women are doing everything they can to keep the farm and survive. They are hanging on by a thread. The father left because Maria was unfaithful to him. They’ve not heard from him in many years. The story makes it seem that Maria is hopeful he’ll return, someday.

Violette is shown in scenes where she sings while listening to her iPod, in her bedroom, in the fields, and in the school church choir. We also see scenes of her dancing her heart out — privately. There is a scene with her singing at an open mic in a pub with maybe 4 people sitting, talking and paying no attention to her except one, an old bearded man named Vlad (Zlatko Buric). But it is us, the audience, that hears the beauty of her heart’s singing voice. Vlad, hears it as well and goes up and tells her that he thinks she sings really well.

She hears and then sees a poster about a contest called Teen Spirit. In this contest, the winner gets a record contract. She wants this and has no confidence in her ability to make it happen. When she talks with Vlad about this, he tells her he will help her but will require her to let him manage her for 50% if she wins. What makes this drunken man someone she can trust; he tells her he was an opera singer but took a wrong turn along the way.

Violette needs an adult to go with her to the auditions and Vlad agrees. When he signs the form as her guardian, the young man at the desk recognizes his name as his parent’s favorite opera singer. Watching the trust between the two building is beautiful.

The rest of the film is about Vlad teaching her how to sing, Violette trusting him and herself while putting herself out there in front of audiences. There are a few scenes with a record producer Jules (Rebecca Hall) attempting to sway Violette to sign a contract with her company before the finals.

I really loved the shot when Violette was called on to her final performance on the Teen Spirit stage, the walk from her dressing room to the stage was incredibly beautiful. The starkness of the halls, the red dress she was wearing, her nervous eyes and turned down lips, flashes of her mom and the congregation watching the program on television, flashes of Vlad standing there, excellent.

Everything was effectively created in the early part of the film so that when it comes together, she lets go and sings from her whole body and spirit. It is a fantastic performance.

Fanning was exquisite. I loved how she showed her sullen sad behavior and letting the volcano slowly build only to make it all erupt in the final singing stage. Buric was great. He was both a little scary and like Violette said at one point, a big teddy bear. His conversation with Maria about helping Violette was joyful and engaging. Grochowska was fantastic as Maria, the concern protective mother. Her joy at watching her daughter sing in the finals brought tears to my eyes. Hall was strong as the record agent putting the pressure on to make a deal before the finals. Max Minghella wrote and directed a wonderfully insightful movie. Some of the shots and the edits between all Violette’s been through were fantastic.

Overall: This was a very inspirational film, and the excellent acting put it as one of the better this year, so far.

Peterloo

First Hit: This historical event deserved a much better rendition.

In 1819 England was in turmoil because there was famine, unemployment, and the Lords in Parliament, along with King George III, were controlling the country with their own greed.

Wages for textile workers went from 15 Shillings a week down to 5 for the same period. Corn wasn’t allowed to be imported, so they had little to eat. Additionally, the people of Manchester did not have representation in Parliament which meant that almost all the people in Northern England weren’t thought about and were taken advantage of by the London led government.

This story is about how the people in Northern England decided to change their lot in life and support reform. They started by gathering and speaking to each other about change and what they needed. They also talked about bearing arms and doing whatever it takes to support a reform movement and get representation in Parliament. They want to be able to earn a living, not starve and have some say over their lives.

The leader of this movement for all of England was orator Henry Hunt. Hunt was a wealthy landowner who also wanted to support reform in England. His focus was to do it peacefully. The local Manchester group was to take arms against the government because talking hasn’t worked. However, Hunt won’t have anything to do violence, and before he spoke in Manchester, he required a commitment for no force and no arms.

The day of the rally, a Monday, where Hunt is speaking, 60,000 – 80,000 people show up. Unfortunately, so do representatives from the government who decide to teach the citizens a lesson, so they bring in the Army, who end up killing 15 and injuring 300 – 400 people.

This was a huge black mark in British history, and it was unfortunate that this film seemed to belabor conversations about suppression. I thought that the language and word vocabulary used by most the players was too sophisticated and really appreciated two women, during a woman’s meeting, speaking up saying they couldn’t understand the speaker. Yes, that was part of the point. But the words were used in this film didn’t seem specific or relevant to the time, and the speech making seemed way too sophisticated as well.

I didn’t think any of the actors really gave me enough to give me pause to write about performance. For example, Roy Kinnear as Hunt just seemed too out of touch with the time. He came off at too sophisticated and arrogant for even 20th-century speech making. Mike Leigh wrote and directed this film. The story is compelling, and this representation of it was weak.

Overall: This is a great story not done well.

After

First Hit: Good girl and bad boy, a predictable sappy story of young romance.

This film is made for young teen girls as witnessed by the number that showed up for the early Friday afternoon showing I attended. Cell phones screens lit the anticipatory faces of these young audience members and unfortunately, they kept looking at them during the film.

The Story: Tessa Young (Josephine Langford) is headed to college. Her mother Carol (Selma Blair) has worked hard to create this opportunity for her daughter. Tessa is smart, pretty, and wholesome. Her boyfriend Noah (Dylan Arnold) is a senior in high school and a year behind her in school. He’s wholesome and is liked by Carol.

Arriving at her dorm room, both Carol and Noah are taken aback by Tessa’s roommate Tristan (Pia Mia). She’s hanging out with another fellow girl on the bed, and she’s pulling on an electronic cigarette while dressed in a very skimpy outfit.

Carol immediately wants to go to the housing authority to find her daughter another room. Pulling her mother off the ledge of embarrassing her, Tessa tells her mom, “let me figure this out on my own.”

Getting to know Tristan loosens Tessa up a little and when she goes to a party Tristan knows about; she’s out of her element. At the party she meets the bad boy, Hardin Scott (Hero Fiennes Tiffin). During a truth or dare, Tessa is asked to kiss Hardin, she is lulled into getting close, but pulls away at the last second. Walking through the party’s house, she stumbles into Hardin’s room and sees all the books on his shelves. He comes in, she’s interested to follow through with the kiss, but she also wants to honor her relationship with Noah and pulls away again.

The stage is set because they both have had absentee fathers. We learn more about why Hardin has such a sad view of love and relationships through his upbringing which is demonstrated through a classroom discussion. We also see Tessa’s cautiousness towards intimacy because her father walked out when she was very young.

The story goes back and forth with Tessa and Hardin getting together and then splitting up. She’s naïve to some of the life that Hardin has lived. There are moments of wonderful tenderness between the two and then there are moments of coldness by them.

The pacing of this story is slow, and it isn’t difficult to know where the movie is going and why. I’m not sure how well it held the audience it was meant for, because a whole row of young girls got up and left two thirds into the film. Additionally, two others in the row in front of me left in the last fifteen minutes.

Langford was okay in this role. There was nothing outstanding about her performance and it was believable. It was good to see Blair again, it has been some time since she’s been in a film role and she was good. Tiffin was mediocre as the bad boy. It was predictable and there was nothing that really made his performance stand out. I didn’t think there was much chemistry between him and Langford. Arnold was good as the, wise beyond his years, high school boyfriend. Mia was strong as the slightly edgy fun lesbian roommate. Jennifer Beals and Peter Gallagher were good as Hardin’s new mother-in-law and father. It was a pleasant surprise to see Beals again. Susan McMartin wrote a slow-moving predictable story. Jenny Gage directed in a way that ended up feeling compromised and mediocre.

Overall: I patiently waited for this film to end and left knowing it wasn’t worth the cost of making it.

The Aftermath

First Hit: It took a while to develop, but Keira Knightley (as Rachael Morgan) made it work.

Keira Knightley has developed into a wonderful actress, and her look and presence are uniquely suited to period pieces.

The beginning shows Rachael on a train arriving in Hamburg, Germany. It’s a few short months after WWII has ended. She’s coming from England because her husband Captain Lewis Morgan is in charge of rounding up the remaining Hitler supporters, keeping peace in Hamburg, and trying to make things better for the ruined city.

This is a difficult position for him to be in and we see it in his face and demeanor. One thinks that having his wife join him that it will be better. But when he meets Rachael at the train station, there is a distance between them because they barely hug, and she turns her head away when he awkwardly attempts to kiss her. Something has happened between them, and this part of the story takes a long time to unfold.

Because of the distance between them, Lewis can’t share the difficulty he has with his job. He’s not only battling something that’s gone wrong with Rachael, but he is also facing own past actions in the war, and now he’s managing the aftermath of the war and its ugliness.

The Germans are giving up their surviving homes to the British who are managing this reconstruction. Because Lewis is the highest ranking, he gets the best home. They move into a large luxury home belonging to Stephen Lubert and his daughter Freda (Alexander Skarsgard and Flora Thiemann respectively).

Stephen’s wife died in a firestorm bombing by the Allied forces, and because of this, Freda acts out and is very resentful that the British are living in their home. Stephen and Freda are supposed to move to a camp, but Lewis’ kind heart convinces Rachael that he wants to offer the Luberts a place to stay.

The angst of Rachael and Lewis unfolds as the audience slowly learns that they had a son who died years earlier during a bombing run by the Germans over London.

Feeling very separate from her husband, Rachael’s inner passion is sparked to life by Stephen’s advances.

In another part of the story we see Freda and Rachael have a beautiful moment together at the piano but Freda’s resentment at the loss of her mother, home, and feeling distance from her father, she gets involved with Nazi sympathizers who want information to harm Lewis.

In addition to this, the inner conflict of Lewis is continually brought to a head by one of his fellow officers Burnham (Martin Compston) who is hell-bent on continuing to make the Germans suffer. Lewis is more reflective, seeing the pain of both sides, while Burnham wants the Allied victory to be oppressive and pronounced.

As Rachael and Stephen’s relationship grows, the distance between Rachael and Lewis becomes more pronounced, until the deep hurt and resentment come to the foreground. Will the attempt to heal their struggle be too little too late or can they reconcile.

That’s the point of the film. As I indicated it took a meandering path, and the story wasn’t really engaging, but because the camera stays on Knightley (as Rachael) it holds together because she made it work.

Knightley was excellent. She’s full of passion and approaches it angularly. I like how Kiera can project sexuality while also being proper. She’s very skilled. Clarke is keen as the embattled Army Captain who is battling both inner and outer battles. He’s effective at creating that hidden volcano look. Skarsgard was terrific as the lonely man attempting to deal with the ravages of war including the loss of his wife and the distance between him and his daughter. Thiemann was terrific as the young girl, lost. With no mother, distant father, finding some solace with a Nazi sympathizer teaches her what really is essential. Compston was good as the soldier wanting to assert his power over the Germans. Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse wrote the screenplay. It languished from time to time, but it did pay off in the end. James Kent adequately directed this film, but it was Knightley that made it really work.

Overall: It wasn’t a great film, and it did have something to say about sharing your pain with your partner.

The Best of Enemies

First Hit: I loved the story and the concept behind the story, but at times, the movie languished with its 133-minute running time.

Civil rights, the rights of all people, are a continuing subject in our country. This is shameful, shocking, and sadly mind-numbing to me. As Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) said in the film, “when any of us get cut, we all bleed the same red blood.” Or, at another time she says, “same God made you, made me.” This is the whole point of the film.

Atwater is an activist in her community of Durham, North Carolina. She fights city hall to help the causes of black people in her community. She’s brave and outspoken.

At the beginning of the film, she’s fighting for the rights of people who are renting from a landlord that wants to raise rents or kick people out of his buildings because they are black and want him fix the problems in his units. Some of the issues are no hot water, toilets that don’t work, and electrical issues which mean his renters are struggling to survive in their homes. She’s fighting the slumlord and the whole white part of town that seems to support him to fix the issues in the the homes.

When the black only school burns down, the black community wants her to take the lead to fix the problem of educating their children, and she’s up for it. She and the black community want the children of that school, including her daughter, to go to a white only school – in other words – she wants, what the US government says she’s entitled to, school integration.

To fight against this move, the white city council asks their local KKK President and Exalted Cyclops, C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell), to lead the charge against the integration.

The film spends time with both characters learning more about who they are and what they believe. We learn that Atwater clearly has a belief of what is right and she fights for what she thinks. She does this with angry outbursts, persistence, and fortitude. She also has a soft tender side which the film shows as well.

Ellis is shown leading his KKK Chapter at meetings and at the gun target practice range promising to uphold the charter of the KKK. He is married to Mary (Anne Heche) and has four children. One of the boys lives in a psychiatric hospital because of, what appears to be, autism. C.P.’s scenes of tenderness towards this son are lovely, and it shows that he does have a heart. Mary, however, does not hold C.P.’s racial views, but they somehow are able to make their marriage work, and I think it is because she knows the deeper C.P.

As the battle of whether the black children will attend the white schools grows, the city of Durham decides to bring in Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay) to lead a two-week charrette mediation program to appease the court-ordered school desegregation decree and to come up with a community answer about school integration.

Much of the film and at times, too much, is spent wading through the two weeks of the charrette in a high-level glossy way. Occasionally there is pointed discussion between Riddick, Ellis, and Atwater and we can see how they are slowly beginning to listen to each other.

The worst aspect of the community is when the film shows radicals from the KKK attempting to influence the outcome of the vote through intimidation.

Of course, this film wouldn’t have been made if the vote wasn’t favorable for integration, and the suspense is good enough to wait for. But the part that sickened me was the back stories of how the city council led by Carvie Oldham (Bruce McGill) believe that bending the rules and breaking the law, it is for the betterment of the whole.

Besides the beautiful gas station scene at the end of the film, it was such a nice touch to have short clips of the real Atwater, Riddick, and Ellis during the credits – make sure you see this part.

Henson was excellent as Atwater. She clearly provided the kind of intent and sense needed for the role. Some of her looks at Ellis were slightly overdone, but nothing that came across detrimental to the part. Rockwell is making a name for himself as being the guy on the wrong side of right and easing his character to the right side of freedom. As in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing. Missouri,” he faces and is the opposition to a tough woman but ends up becoming friends with them. Ceesay is terrific as the mediator for the charette. McGill was perfectly southern and arrogant to the plight of anyone but himself. Heche has a small but powerful role in this film as Ellis’ wife. Her clarity of purpose and her visit with Atwater was perfect. Robin Bissell wrote and directed this film. The best part was making this story come alive, but it felt long, and some judicious snipping would have helped.

Overall: The lesson is still alive today, we need to stop seeing people as different, we are one.