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Posts Tagged ‘Kirsten Dunst’

Overheard in a cinema in the Earth Year 1994, prior to a revival of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver:

‘Did you see that Clint Eastwood film on telly the other night?’

‘Oh yeah – he goes into that girls’ school and has them all wrapped right round his little finger, right up until the moment when they [spoiler redacted]. Top movie.’

Overheard in a cinema in the Earth Year 2017, after a screening of Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled:

‘So, what did you think?’

‘Well, I thought he was perhaps suited a bit more to the part than Clint Eastwood was…’

‘Well, Clint Eastwood’s not a very good actor, is he?’

(I had to absent myself from the vicinity of the conversation at this point, lest an eruption occur.)

Perhaps I should make clear that the people I was earwigging in 1994 were both youngish men, while my companions for the new version of The Beguiled were somewhat older ladies. Does this tell us anything about the differences between the 1971 version of the movie, directed by Don Siegel, and the remake? Well, perhaps.

Like the original, Sofia Coppola’s movie is set during the latter stages of the American Civil War, in and around a finishing school for girls in Virginia. Due to the turmoil of the conflict, only a tiny group of pupils remain, along with a couple of staff members – headmistress Martha (Nicole Kidman) and teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst).

One day, one of the girls is out picking mushrooms in the woods near the school when she comes across John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a wounded enemy soldier. She helps him back to the grand old house in which the establishment is located, at which point the question becomes one of what they should do with him. Obviously, the sensible thing to do would be to call in the authorities of their own side straight away, but somehow it doesn’t seem quite so simple – McBurney would probably die on the way to a prison camp, so the charitable thing is surely to keep him around until he feels better, isn’t it?

There is, not to put too fine a point on it, a little unrelieved tension in the air, as the presence of McBurney has an alarming effect on a group of women and girls who have apparently been living without masculine company for far too long. McBurney’s own natural charm and manipulative nature don’t help matters much. The women are soon all under his spell, and he seems to be on to a very good thing at the school. But has he underestimated the strength of the emotions his arrival has unleashed?

Being a hate-filled fanatically misogynistic crypto-fascist (apparently), I am constantly surprised by the fact that I frequently admire and enjoy films directed by and starring women, but there you go. I did not catch Sofia Coppola’s last couple of films, but I did see Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette, and had a pretty good time watching them both (even if my review of the latter does contain the suggestion ‘would have been much improved by the addition of a story and some decent dialogue’). The Beguiled is likewise not a film which anyone is likely to decry as an offence against cinema, but at the same time I can’t see it becoming as big a critical darling as some of this director’s films.

I mean, the actual carpentry of the story holds together pretty well, though it would possibly have been better if we’d got more of a sense of what life in the school was like prior to McBurney’s arrival. Creating atmosphere is one of Coppola’s strengths as a director and she duly creates a strong sense of unspoken tension between the various women as they slowly begin to compete for McBurney’s favours. The performances are universally strong, although everyone seems to be operating very much within their comfort zone as a performer. I’m sure I’ve seen Nicole Kidman do that mannered southern lady schtick before, and the same is true of Kirsten Dunst’s repressed schoolteacher. Elle Fanning perhaps does something slightly new as a somewhat out-of-control young girl. On the whole this is the kind of film you would expect it to be – atmospheric, fairly intense, and not especially light on its feet.

Then again, perhaps I’m biased, for I have seen the original Don Siegel movie on which the new one is based (although admittedly not recently). The 1971 Beguiled always seemed to me to be very much framed and marketed as a Western, although that may just be down to the presence of Eastwood and Siegel. The new movie is much more open about its identity as a drama (perhaps even a melodrama) in the Southern Gothic tradition, though perhaps this is also the result of the story being seen from a more openly feminine perspective.

Even so, this is hardly a radical new interpretation of the story – all the key plot beats survive very much intact (at one point someone is sent to fetch a book on anatomy and a saw), but I suppose the characters are drawn a little differently – McBurney is less of a sexual predator, perhaps, and the incestuous elements of the original story have been removed. The movie has also drawn flak for, would you believe it, a lack of diversity, because the character of a slave who featured in the Siegel version has likewise gone. (In her defence, Coppola has said that she felt that it would not do justice to the importance of the issue of slavery to just touch on it in passing, as would most likely have been the case had she included a single minor character in this way. Sounds reasonable to me, but, hey, I’m apparently not the best person to judge this kind of issue.)

I would imagine you are more likely to enjoy watching the new version of The Beguiled if you are not familiar with the one starring Eastwood, simply because the plot will contain a few surprises for you. This is a well-mounted, well-played, capably-directed movie, but it doesn’t really add that much to an original which was a memorably unsettling and quietly powerful psycho-drama in its own right. A moderately engaging piece of entertainment, I think: not much more than that.

 

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When I was considerably younger I was lucky enough to live in Hull, which was blessed with a range of cinema-going options: there were a couple of multiplexes, plus a sort-of art house cinema, and also a rather nice old three-screener which specialised in showing films that had finished their initial release but weren’t out on VHS yet (yes, it was that long ago). I remember going along the day I finished my final university exams and seeing Leon, Interview with the Vampire, and Stargate back-to-back, all for under £5. Bliss it was in that dawn, and so on.

These days a broadly comparable service is provided by the Silver Screen strand at the sweetshop, which likewise shows films from a couple of months ago that people may have missed. The prices have gone up a bit, but at least there are free biscuits available now. The films on offer are generally only ones which are judged to be of interest to your senior citizen (just another chance to patronise older people, if you ask me), but it’s better than nothing, and this week’s offering was Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures.

This is another one of those fairly timely films dealing with the thorny subject of race relations in the USA, but with this being the divisive issue that it is, the film-makers have decided to take a more historical perspective. The angle adopted on this occasion is the role of African-American women in the space programme in the early 1960s.

One of those facts that often gets reiterated is that NASA put a man on the Moon using less computing power than you could find in most digital watches (a tiny fraction of that in a modern smartphone, I expect). The film indicates that NASA didn’t acquire its first computing machine until 1962 (an engaging historical revelation is that when the van-sized unit arrived, it was too big to fit through the doors of the room allocated to it) – prior to this point, the only ‘computers’ employed by the agency were mathematicians tasked with working out any calculations required. A sizeable contingent of the human computers at NASA’s Langley, Virginia facility were women of colour, and the film tells the story of three of them.

Most prominent is the tale of Katherine Johnson (nee Goble), played by Taraji P Henson. Johnson is a widowed single mother and former mathematical prodigy (Beautiful Mind-esque geometric figures jump out of the wallpaper at her as a child) who ends up attached to the Space Task Group at NASA under the director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). Here she has to contend not just with some fairly tricky sums (converting a parabolic orbit to an elliptic one – hmm, that’d be shoes and socks off time for most people, I expect), but also with the entrenched institutional racism and sexism of the culture in which she works. Subplots deal with two of her friends – Janelle Monae plays Mary Jackson, an aspiring engineer who has to get a court order in order to be able to study at an all-white high school (Virginia was still a segregated state at this point), while Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughan, forced to do a supervisor’s job without the accompanying title or salary and ceaselessly patronised by a white superior (Kirsten Dunst).

All this is going on against the backdrop of the early years of the Space Race, with the USA in danger of slipping behind their Soviet rivals. Can everybody put aside their various issues and grievances in order to make John Glenn’s groundbreaking orbital spaceflight a reality?

I have to confess to not being especially excited about the prospect of seeing Hidden Figures when it initially came out a couple of months ago: I seem to recall I had the choice of seeing either this film or The Founder, and eventually opted for the latter on the grounds that it had the same period Americana setting, untold-story theme, and well-received performances, but also promised to be surprising and challenging in a way that Hidden Figures probably wouldn’t.

And, what can I say, but ‘nice one, me’: Hidden Figures is by no means a bad movie, being well-acted and decently put together, but there is very little about it that you wouldn’t be able to predict from seeing the trailer. There are some engaging historical details, to be sure, and parts of it are certainly shocking to a right-thinking modern viewer, but surprising? Not really.

From the opening scenes it’s fairly obvious that this is going to be about the parallel, life-affirming stories of women who refuse to be ground down, and use their natural talent and determination to overcome the dreadful obstacles history and society have conspired to place in their way. And there’s nothing wrong with telling that story, of course, nothing at all. But you can’t realistically be subversive or too challenging when you’re making a mainstream film about either the civil rights movement or the US space programme,  both significant elements of the American national mythology, and so Melfi is obliged to fall back on a sort of all-purpose sentimentality to engage the audience’s attention. I am afraid that I am highly resistant to this sort of thing, which may be explain why much of the film made little impact on me.

I mean, the early space programme itself is a fascinating topic, too little known these days, and the civil rights movement is likewise an important piece of recent history. However, this is presumably a film aimed at a female audience, and so in addition to both these things there’s quite a lot of slightly soapy material about the personal lives of the principle characters (Henson gets a chocolate-box romance subplot with a character played by Mahershala Ali, who at least gets to survive past the middle of the story for once).

People who worry about these things have raised the point that, for a historical movie, Hidden Figures takes some pretty spectacular liberties with what actually happened – the movie is set in 1961 and 1962, but some of the events it features actually took place in 1940s and 1950s, always assuming they aren’t completely fictional – the bit you may have seen in the trailer with Costner’s character (himself a complete fiction) smashing the segregated bathroom signs never happened, nor did all the preceding material with someone having to run half a mile every time they want to use the bathroom. Does it matter? Not really, if you accept that the message of the film is more important than the actual facts of history – I think my problem is that this willingness to amend events just makes it more clear that the audience is essentially there to either be preached at or complimented for having properly progressive attitudes: the historical story is just a delivery mechanism.

Given that this is the case, the climax of the film is really an shift of emphasis, as it concerns the problems that befell Glenn’s Freedom Seven flight. None of these concerned maths, or indeed civil rights, and so the moments of tension thus created do feel a bit contrived and arbitrary following everything that has gone before. On the other hand, they are based on historical fact: the film really does seem to take a sort of cafeteria approach to this.

You honestly can’t fault Hidden Figures for its intentions or its principles, but being beyond criticism on moral grounds doesn’t necessarily make a perfect or even particularly great movie. The performances are the best thing about it, although I must confess I was more pleased to see Costner and Dunst back on the screen than anything else. There are a plethora of great movies to be made about NASA in the 50s and 60s, I’m sure: this felt a little bit bogged down by the need to make its points slowly, carefully, and obviously. Crediting the audience with a bit more wit and intelligence would probably have resulted in a better film.

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I realised from a comparatively tender age that I was destined to be one of those sci-fi types – BBC2’s run of classic movies from the 50s, 60s, and 70s on Tuesday nights in early 1983 probably did for me, if it wasn’t already the case – and so as I staggered into adolescence I diligently recorded and watched any movie which was tagged as even vaguely SF in the TV guides. Some of these I enjoyed (Westworld, Trancers, Teenage Comet Zombies), some bored me nearly unto death (Quintet), some freaked me out entirely (The Man Who Fell To Earth), and some I found totally unmemorable (…um, I’ll get back to you). And a lot of them were just really obscure and undistinguished (I expect I am the only person in the world who remembers films like Starcrossed, Cherry 2000, and Circuitry Man… actually, Cherry 2000‘s not bad). Nevertheless, I persisted, I stayed loyal, I always watched to the end.

midnight_special_poster

Young people of the future with similar tendencies would probably find themselves watching… (What am I thinking of…? Who patiently scours the TV guide for obscure SF movies any more? Sometimes I feel like a chunk of history that just hasn’t quite stopped moving yet) …speaking hypothetically, if Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special had shown up on BBC2 or Channel 4 when I was about 14, it’s exactly the kind of film I would have made a point of watching just for its genre elements. Would I have found it particularly rewarding experience? Well…

The film opens with two men, Roy and Lucas (Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton) on the run with a young boy, Roy’s son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher, and I don’t know how to pronounce that either). They are on the run from the members of a cult-like religious group, the police, and the government, all because Alton has unusual qualities, such as being able to listen in on satellite communications without the need of technology, although on the other hand he can’t go out in the sunlight without starting to explode and nearby machinery breaking down. The trio are on a mission to get Alton to somewhere in the vicinity of Tallahassee, Florida at a particular time.

However, the various government agencies interested in exploiting Alton’s powers have working the case top analyst Paul Sevier (that bane of galactic furniture Adam Driver, in a role which allows him to give free rein to his essential spoddiness). Sevier has figured out where they are going, but perhaps he sees Alton as something more than just an asset to be studied…

(Kirsten Dunst is in it as well, in a resolutely non-glam role as Alton’s mum, and she’s pretty good too. Shame she doesn’t do more movies.)

Midnight Special (no, the title doesn’t really get explained) plumps for a sort of in media res beginning, with the guys on the run from everyone, the FBI descending on the cult, Sevier already having done a lot of the spadework on Alton, and so on. This isn’t exactly an exposition-heavy movie, so I really had to figure out what was going on for myself, which wasn’t a problem at first. However, as it went on and on without very much really being explicitly articulated, I did find a certain sort of fatigue threatening to set in.

What is it with this current trend for genre movies without what I would consider acceptable levels of exposition? Here are some people. They are doing something. What does it signify? Why are we showing them doing it? We’re not going to tell you. You’ll just have to figure it out for yourself. I mean, I’m not demanding every film have a super-simplistic storyline that’s slowly and carefully articulated in the foreground of the movie, but currently everyone seems to be trying to be Shane Carruth with a frankly quite variable success rate.

Well, in the end, it all turns out to be quite a lot like many other things you will probably have seen before – there’s a substantial dollop which could have come from any number of X Files episodes, more than a dash of John Carpenter’s Starman, and so on. These are very respectable sources, but the tone of Nichols’ film isn’t quite right to do them justice – everything is quite dour and restrained. Michael Shannon’s performance sets a note of sombre intensity which colours everything else on the screen. What we are watching is very serious and profound: there is no danger of anyone ever forgetting that. Important and meaningful things will be happening. Why they are important and what the meaningful things actually mean are questions that the film doesn’t actually get around to answering, unfortunately.

I mean, I can understand the urge to do a piece of serious-minded SF or fantasy – Midnight Special probably wants to be the former but is actually the latter, I would say – without surrendering to the perceived need to be all ironic or zany, but this film takes itself so seriously for so little apparent reason that it’s ultimately rather impenetrable: cold, austere, easy to admire but almost impossible to truly like. I suppose you could argue that the film is much more about important things like theme (paternal devotion, presumably) and atmosphere than ephemera like back-story and plot, but I think that other stuff is important and normally included for good reason.

I wanted to like it, for the subject matter is my sort of thing, the performances are strong, and the production values are excellent, but ultimately I found it all to be hard work. I know that Nichols and Shannon have very respectable indie reputations – presumably why Shannon has turned up in big movies, for example Zach Snyder’s festival of gloom masquerading as a superhero film – but this project really doesn’t do their talents justice.

 

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Well now, the sun is shining and the UK is basking in wholly unseasonable good weather. The scent of barbecues drifts gently on the afternoon breeze and the sound of young people at play floats up to the window of my attic. All is well with the world. In these circumstances, what could make more sense than to talk about the futility of existence and the destruction of all life as we know it, both things which feature strongly as elements of Lars von Trier’s latest offering, (wait for it) Melancholia.

Kirsten Dunst plays Justine, a young PR woman who’s just getting married to a man who’s clearly devoted to her. They arrive for their wedding reception at a golfing hotel owned by her sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland), which is where nearly all the movie takes place. Numerous friends of Justine are present, along with members of her family, and an ostentatiously dysfunctional bunch they are too.

As the evening goes on it becomes clear that not all is well with Justine: she seems to be struggling, merely going through the motions and not as happy as she affects to be. Amongst other things, she keeps sneaking off to secluded parts of the golf course to do things that would outrage the greenkeepers if they found out about them. She develops a strange fixation with the sky, and an odd sensitivity to something anomalous happening to the constellation Scorpio.

Some time later, we find that Justine is in a state of near-catatonic depression and being cared for by her sister and brother-in-law. The wider world is anticipating a more significant event: the approach from deep space of a new planet, Melancholia, which is due to pass close to Earth in only a few days time. The coming of the new world has different effects on the two sisters: Claire becomes increasingly nervous, while Justine seems to make a recovery. Claire’s husband assures her not to worry – there is no danger of the two planets colliding.

He is of course wrong, and the audience is fully aware of this from the start. The most striking and memorable sequence in Melancholia is at the very beginning, when apocalyptic tableaux depicting heaven and earth in chaos and concluding with the annihilation of the planet unfold, all to the strains of Wagner on the soundtrack (the relevance of von Trier’s choice of music, given the ongoing is-he-or-isn’t-he-a-Nazi-sympathiser debate, I leave to others to decide). We know how this is all going to end even as it begins.

So, you may be wondering, what’s the point of it all? A very reasonable question, and I think to some extent this movie reviews itself – the plot is about the extinction of life as we know it, the theme is the effects of depression, and the name of the thing is Melancholia – what do you think it’s like to watch?

However, that said, there is much interesting stuff going on here. All the stuff about the dysfunctional family and co-workers in the first half does feel a bit stagey and contrived but it does at least partially explain Justine’s depression, which for a long while was what I thought this film was about. Her slide into ill-health begins as the first signs of Melancholia’s approach become apparent (even the name of the planet is a bit of a giveaway) – you could even interpret this as the planet being her illness made manifest, drawn down out of the depths of space. Certainly her reaction to Melancholia’s approach seems one almost of rapture rather than disquiet: one striking scene has Claire discovering Justine basking in the light it gives off.

And yet the second half of the film is Claire’s story as much as Justine’s, and Claire’s response to the looming cosmic encounter is much more straightforward. It’s the difference that is crucial here, I suppose – calm acceptance as opposed to nervous agitation. Certainly the film strongly suggests that the more rational your mind, the less well-equipped you are to cope with extraordinary circumstances like these.

This is a hard film to categorise – the very vague plot similarities with the likes of Armageddon and Roland Emmerich’s oeuvre have led some to go down the route of ‘hmm, SF and psychology – must be a bit like Solaris, then’. This seems fairly fatuous to me as the level of accuracy in the celestial mechanics is about what you’d expect from an episode of Space: 1999. A much better comparison, to my mind, would be with Black Swan – both are to some extent about mental health issues, both feature striking performances from actresses best known for much more mainstream fare, and both toy with genre material for their own ends (though I should point out that Melancholia features considerably less ballet dancing and girl-on-girl action).

Kirsten Dunst is extremely good in what must have been a fairly challenging role, but Charlotte Gainsbourg is equally accomplished in a less showy part. Von Trier has managed to attract an extremely strong cast – John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling, Udo Kier, Jesper Christensen – who do the best they can with some faintly melodramatic material. This does add to a faint sense of artifice throughout – von Trier isn’t afraid to repeatedly remind you that you’re watching a movie – but given this is established from practically the first moment it’s not really a problem.

But it does feel like it goes on forever without a great deal of importance actually happening for long stretches at a time, and given the Big Themes that are not terribly subtly woven into the story, I was hoping that in the end the film would have something more significant to say than actually appears to be the case. It’s a stunning-looking movie with some very strong performances in it, and it may well be that with Melancholia Lars von Trier has made another profound and very important cinematic statement. But if he has, I have absolutely no idea what it is.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published June 13th 2002:

A conversation, c.1980 :

Me:Dad, dad! Can we go to the pictures?’

My Father:Why, what’s on?

Me:The new Spider-Man film!

[This was actually Spider-Man: The Dragon’s Challenge, a Spidey-versus-evil-kung fu American TV movie starring Nicholas Hammond that somehow got itself a theatrical release in the UK.]

My Father:What does Spider-Man do in it?

Me:He climbs up buildings, throws his web over people, slides down a lift shaft! It looks great!

My Father:Oh, I suppose so…

A conversation, c.2002 :

My Father:Hey, hey! Let’s go to the pictures!

Me:Why, what’s on?

My Father:The new Spider-Man film!

Me:What does Spider-Man do in it?

My Father:He climbs up buildings, throws his web over people –

Me:Does he slide down a lift-shaft?

My Father:Not in the trailer I saw. Can we go? Can we can we can we?

Me: (remembering the rubbish Hammond film and feeling rather guilty about forcing him to see it) ‘Oh, I suppose so…

Well, there’s the cycle of the generations writ large for you. Actually I needed no persuasion whatsoever to go and see this movie: one of the most exciting and overdue developments in mainstream cinema over the last few years has been that Marvel Comics and their characters have finally begun to punch their weight on the big screen: recently we’ve had Men in Black, Blade, and X-Men, and within the next year we’ll see Ben Affleck in Daredevil and Ang Lee’s take on the Hulk. And obviously, a Spider-Man movie, done right, has the potential to be a fantastic movie.

Sam Raimi’s film falls roughly into two acts. The first of these is the story of overlooked nerd Peter Parker (a tremendously likeable Tobey Maguire) whose life is transformed after he’s bitten by a genetically engineered spider. His delight and excitement as he discovers, one by one, the different powers this gives him is utterly irresistible, and the story is told with the same self-mocking humour that characterised the original comic-books. But along with the powers come responsibilities and drawbacks (not least Peter’s new inability to climb out of the bathtub unassisted) and Peter is in for a harsh lesson…

The Spider-Man origin story is the finest in all superherodom, essentially a fable concerning guilt and loss and redemption, and Raimi tells it near perfectly: so much so that you barely notice the radical re-conception of one of Spider-Man’s signature powers. The actual effects set-pieces are a long time coming but well worth the wait, and you really don’t mind such are the warmth of the performances and wit of the script.

Of course, every hero needs a villain to contend with and Spider-Man spends the second act of the film doing battle with the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe, displaying a hitherto-unseen talent for manic hamming), a millionaire weapons designer driven insane by exposure to experimental performance-enhancing drugs. To be honest this part of the movie is slightly less impressive, being more formulaic superhero stuff. But the characterisation and energy continue unimpaired and the various bouts between hero and villain are visually startling. Most impressive of all is the ending, which isn’t your standard blockbuster fare, but is entirely in keeping with the source material.

Spider-Man is a treat: not only the most faithful and impressive comic-book adaptation yet, but a genuinely terrific film in its own right (much better than The Dragon’s Challenge, anyway), with great performances (apart from Maguire and Dafoe, Kirsten Dunst is great as the love interest, James Franco does a slow burn as Peter’s best friend and Cliff Robertson is just right as Spidey’s Uncle Ben), fantastic visuals, and a wonderful script from David Koepp. Hugely entertaining and pretty much not to be missed – go see! Go see!

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published January 25th 2007: 

Moving swiftly on, we turn to Sofia Coppola’s follow-up to Lost in Translation, which I was not surprised to learn would probably not have been made had that movie not turned out to be such a hit. If you walk into the offices of film companies (even ones owned by your dad) and announce you want to make a bio-pic of an 18th century aristocrat, starring an actress best known for playing Spider-Man’s other half and with a soundtrack somewhat derived from Malcolm McLaren’s back catalogue, it helps to have a big hit and an Oscar in your recent past.

Kirsten Dunst indeed plays Marie Antoinette and although the chronology of the movie is rather vague, it covers her life from her arrival at the court of Versailles in 1770 to the Royal Family fleeing the premises at the onset of the French Revolution. In between come many scenes concerning court ritual, her initially-non-consummated marriage, very big wigs, and lots of shoes, but not a great deal of plot as it is traditionally understood. We had a bit of an excursion to see this at the Serial Killerplex in Chiba (mainly, it must be said, because we weren’t aware that The Departed was already showing) and afterwards the consensus was that that this movie would have been much improved by things like a story and some decent dialogue.

The tone is rather uneven, with some bizarre casting decisions – Marianne Faithfull plays the Empress of Austria, Steve Coogan her ambassador to Versailles (Coogan is rather restrained in this role) and Rip Torn is Louis XV. (Everyone uses their natural accent, which is arguably a mistake.) At first this just looks like a rather dull costume drama and then about half-way through everyone starts dancing to Bow Wow Wow and Siouxsie and the Banshees as Parisian Balls. And this is another film that doesn’t really bother with an ending – I’m not saying I feel cheated of seeing Kirsten Dunst get guillotined, but I did come out wondering what the point was.

That said, it is interesting that, for a figure synonymous with decadence and excess, Marie Antoinette is presented entirely sympathetically throughout this movie. Dunst plays here as a sweet girl who finds herself helplessly sucked into the wild debauchery and bedhopping frenzy of court life (a bit like the expat scene here come to think of it), much more likable than (for example) the Duchess de Polignac, one of her cronies, richly played here by the lovely Rose Byrne (interestingly, she and Coppola both have stints as Naboo handmaidens in their past careers). The film’s depiction of overindulged rich girls with outrageous dress sense and obsessions with tiny dogs seemed to me to be drawing an explicit parallel with the likes of Paris Hilton. If this is intentional, then the movie is in some way suggesting that many often-excoriated aspects of modern culture are in fact nothing be ashamed of. This is not a point of view I am much inclined to agree with, but it’s one I’m prepared to listen to. That said, it’s not particularly well-presented here.

I’m not entirely sure if this is a bad movie or not. It’s certainly diverting and passes the time pleasantly enough, but it does seem rather superficial and Dunst doesn’t quite have the chops to pull off a role as significant as this. She gets a number of decorous nude scenes which are bound to raise her internet profile, but I think the one who should be worrying about cries of ‘The Empress has no clothes on!’ is the director.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published July 22nd 2004:

[Following a review of Thunderbirds.]

Oh well, onto a movie I can confidently describe as a success in all departments: Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, currently mounting a serious challenge for the title of all-time box office champion. Readers with long memories and short attention spans may recall I was rather impressed with the original when it came out just over two years ago – something not diminished in the slightest by this second instalment.

Two years on from the events of the first movie – which are helpfully recapped in another stylish title sequence – things have changed a bit for Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) and his amazing friends. The lad himself is juggling responsibilities as Spider-Man and Pizza-Delivery Boy and not making a very good job of it, his love interest Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) is mixing occasional interludes of dangling-in-jeopardy with a successful acting career, and his best friend Harry (James Franco) is now a suit at his dad’s old corporation, and obsessing over Spider-Man (who he believes killed his father). Basically, being a super-hero is making Peter incredibly miserable as his work and relationships are constantly suffering. Does he really still want the gig?

Things don’t get any better when a freak accident with an experimental fusion generator – er – fuses brilliant scientist Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina on fine form) with four malevolent cybernetic tentacles. Restyling himself Doctor Octopus, he sets out to recreate the experiment, no matter what the risks to the city. But he needs Harry’s co-operation to do this, and Harry’s price is the head of Spider-Man…

After a couple of Affleck- and Bana-shaped wobbles last year, Spider-Man 2 should put Marvel Comics’ film division back on course for world domination. This is thanks to a production in which performances, script, and direction all come together to produce a film which is thrilling, moving, and funny in all the right places. The style of the original film is continued seamlessly, with several gags and motifs re-used (Bruce Campbell pops up again in another wittily-performed cameo).

Where it surpasses its predecessor is in its freedom to just pick one story and follow it through, rather than combining the Spidey origin with various Goblin-related clashes. And it’s a very human and personal story, very much focussed on the troubled personal life and guilty conscience of Peter Parker. While people are probably going to go to the cinema to see Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus duking it out on the sides of buildings – and the battles themselves are terrific, the villain impressively realised – this isn’t really at the heart of the story. Given this it’s a shame the climax boils down to a rather generic special effects set-piece that only loosely ties in to the themes of the script. (And if anyone knows how Spider-Man finds out where Doctor Octopus’ lair is, I’d love to hear from them.)

But never mind. The performances of the cast are every bit as memorable as the special effects. Normally in a superhero movie you’re glancing at your watch when the lead character’s in secret-identity mode, but Maguire manages to be utterly engaging as Peter Parker (and seems to be quite a good sport about the achey breaky back problems which nearly cost him the role). Dunst is fairly touching, even if Franco seems ever so slightly over-wrought in a slightly one-note part.

All this just adds into the overwhelming impression of supreme confidence this movie gives off: it’s not afraid to go from quite sombre personal moments to offbeat visual humour, to include wild directorial flourishes, or even to run the risk of seeming camp and goofy. It’s also not afraid to shake things up and plan for the future: the relationships and situations of the main characters at the end are very different from how they stand at the beginning, and while it’s fairly obvious who one of the villains of Spider-Man 3 will be, the script also plants seeds for at least two others somewhere down the line.

It shouldn’t really come as much of a surprise if I tell you that Spider-Man 2 is going to be the biggest film of the summer. But it may if I add that the success is thoroughly warranted by a film which mixes thrills, jokes, maturity and heartache to absolutely winning effect. Highly recommended.

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