Movie Review: ‘Teen Spirit’ is a Sublime Musical Journey for Elle Fanning and for Us, the Audience

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CREDIT: LD Entertainment/Bleecker Street

Starring: Elle Fanning, Zlatko Burić, Agnieszka Grochowska, Rebecca Hall

Director: Max Minghella

Running Time: 92 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for A Little Bit of Drunkenness

Release Date: April 12, 2019 (Limited)

Does watching Elle Fanning sing her heart out to Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” sound appealing to you? Because, let me tell you something: when I witnessed that moment happening in Teen SpiritI was absolutely spellbound. Now, this is an actress I have enjoyed for quite some time, but with this performance, she has transported me to a realm of cinematic satisfaction that I was not fully prepared for. She plays Violet Valenski, an English teenager of Polish descent who makes her way from a tiny town on the Isle of Wight into the glitz and blinding neon of the titular reality singing competition.

I don’t know if Teen Spirit is the name of an actual British reality show or not, but it doesn’t matter, as it might as well be called “Generic Singing Contest.” The plot is thin and predictable, but that’s not a big deal. First-time feature director Max Minghella (probably best known as Nick on The Handmaid’s Tale) is more concerned about capturing the emotion of the moment. That is the approach typically employed with music videos, but what works over four or five minutes can be difficult to stretch out after ninety. But Minghella has pulled it off, with his camera often focusing on emotionally intense close-ups and fluid bodily movements. One standout scene features Violet letting loose in her bedroom, inviting everyone into the transcendence that can be experienced by just plugging into the music.

Joining Violet on her journey is Vlad (Zlatko Burić), an aging opera singer enamored by her star quality who decides that he simply must be her manager. This could so easily be a character who is plotting to take advantage of our protagonist in any number of ways. But instead, he just wants to see her triumph, and he has some well-earned wisdom to offer for how she might go about succeeding. It’s always lovely when you’re watching a movie and suspecting the worst but instead you see a whole village having the main character’s back. Is global superstardom in Violet’s future? Perhaps, but what’s important now is that she has busted out enough of what she feels deep inside herself to share that joy with a grateful audience.

Teen Spirit is Recommended If You Like: Sing Street, Bye Bye Birdie, The music of Robyn, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Tegan & Sara

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Explosive Choruses

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Professor Marston and the Wonder Women’ is a Love(s) Story Like No Other

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CREDIT: Claire Folger/Annapurna Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in October 2017.

Starring: Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote, Connie Britton, Oliver Platt

Director: Angela Robinson

Running Time: 108 Minutes

Rating: R for Getting It On Unapologetically

Release Date: October 13, 2017

I think every man, woman, boy, girl, or whatever personal nomenclature you prefer should go and be inspired by Wonder Woman. I also want to recommend just as wholeheartedly Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, the story of Wonder Woman’s creator and his inspiration, but fair warning: William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) lived an unprecedented life, by any era’s standards. His biography is not absolutely necessary to understand the context of Diana Prince, but it is enlightening. His story is also alarming, but also ultimately joyous, and that is true especially in light of the Wonder Woman film so pointedly emphasizing Diana’s prerogative to protect all life.

To get right into it: Marston did not come into comic books through publishing or 9-to-5 hackery, but rather psychology and academia. He is noted for developing DISC Theory, which proposes that all human behavior can be categorized as either dominance, inducement, submission, or compliance. To be clear, this is not just sexual behavior he is talking about, but all human behavior. If you’re wondering if a guy like this would be intrigued by sexual bondage, then your instincts are correct. However, if you’re also thinking that this part of the story has nothing to do with the creation of Wonder Woman, you clearly have not read her early issues. Marston is also famous for inventing an early lie detector prototype, and now that are you are remembering the Lasso of Truth, it should be abundantly clear how his ideas have lived on.

But while all that history is important to the film, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is a love story through and through, and an unapologetically nontraditional one. Marston and his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston (Rebecca Hall), a fellow psychologist, lived with another woman, Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), lover to them both. If this arrangement sounds like misogyny lurking underneath a supposed ally of women, well, this staunchly feminist does not see it that way, and neither do its staunchly feminist characters. Instead, Bill, Elizabeth, and Olive, in their decision to live together in defiance of society’s standards, are positioned as self-sacrificing heroes ahead of their time. This is true perhaps in the sense that as the inspirations of an iconic fictional character, the ladies’ legacy lives on. But it is not exactly true (at least not yet) in the sense that polyamory is still far from normal.

Personally, I do not object to polyamory on any moral grounds, but rather, because I find the prospect emotionally exhausting. But damn if Professor Marston doesn’t have me cheering for those who believe in it. There is no doubt that this trio are in fact deeply in love with each other. A series of lie detector scenes make that effervescently clear. These moments may be cinematic contrivances, but I don’t care, as they are so entertainingly bold! Indeed, it is rare to find any major theatrical release whose social and romantic politics are so unapologetic, and for that, it should be cherished.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is Recommended If You Like: Wonder Woman comics – the classic and the obscure stuff, Jules and Jim, Shakespeare in Love, Secretary

Grade: 4 out of 5 Lie Detectors

This Is a Movie Review: If ‘The Dinner’ Has Its Way, You Will Lose Your Appetite

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This review was originally published on News Cult in May 2017.

Starring: Steve Coogan, Laura Linney, Richard Gere, Rebecca Hall

Director: Oren Moverman

Running Time: 120 Minutes

Rating: R for Children Getting Up to No Good and Their Parents Yelling About It

Release Date: May 5, 2017 (Limited)

Steve Coogan, Laura Linney, Richard Gere, and Rebecca Hall invite you to a very special evening. Coogan and his wife Linney are on their way to meet Coogan’s brother Gere and his wife Hall at the fanciest restaurant in town. Coogan is dreading the evening and would much rather stay home, but alas, there is no wiggling out. This is family, and there is an outstanding issue that must be addressed. Coogan is caught snooping around his son’s cell phone, so that should tell you something about what sort of father he is. It should also be noted that Gere is a politician in the middle of an all-consuming campaign, so that just gobbles everything in its vicinity.

The deal is that both couples’ teenage children have gotten themselves into extraordinary trouble. Far be it from me to reveal any specifics, as the film’s whole raison d’être is gradually revealing the details. But suffice it to say that the event in question has legal and ethical implications that are unavoidably disturbing. They are the kinds of consequences that no child should ever force their parents to face, especially when mental illness, the public eye, and years of seething resentment are in the mix. The formula is set for the most unpleasant outing ever for this foursome and for the audience. It is thrilling to watch a quartet of thespians like The Dinner’s volley vitriol back and forth, but ultimately this meal is more frustrating than anything else.

The Dinner is designed to be challenging, as any story with a clinically depressed character at its center should be. It is unreasonable to expect a cheerier arc, or even necessarily some possibility of relief. But what there ought to be is a chance for understanding. The structure consists of frame devices within frame devices, as flashbacks fill out the motivations forged over the past several weeks and the past several years and lifetimes. When in the outermost frame, The Dinner is naggingly difficult to pierce, but when it opens up to its deepest core, the viewer can say, “I accept you for who you are.”

The Dinner is Recommended If You Like: Having Your Stomach Knotted Like a Fist

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Courses