of the FiLM
Kirsten Dunst has been acting since she was a toddler,
but she first made pop culture contact in 1994 in the difficult role
of Claudia the child vampire in the long-awaited Interview With
a Vampire. After a Golden Globe nomination for her efforts in
that film, she worked steadily in features as varied as Jumanji,
Get Over It, and Wag the Dog until she grew
into leading-lady age. In the past three years she has come into full
actorly blossom, exhibiting enormous range in a quartet of stellar performances.
first of these, Dick (directed by Andrew Fleming) featured
Kirsten and Michelle Williams as two teen girls obsessed with President
Richard Nixon. Dunst shows heretofore unrealized comic sparkle and gives
the film many fresh and funny moments that more seasoned or less gifted
performers might have missed. Her ease with the zany material is obvious
and her joy in performing it infectious. Then came a truly eye-opening
star turn in Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides. As Luxx,
the "stone cold fox" who was the soul of the film, she gave a performance
of inspiration and mystery, embodying adolescent unknowability in her
tiny frame and sad distant eyes. Just as we were recovering from that
film, she brought the house down again with her exuberant take on cheerleading
captain Torrance in Peyton Reed's terrific Bring It On.
she topped that impressive triple hitter last fall with her soul searching
portrait of reckless love undone by alcoholism in John Stockwell's crazy/beautiful.
Her rapport with her co-stars in this film is palpable, and she has
this quality through all her performances. The girl gives good chemistry.
Whether it be a friendships, familial bonds, love affairs - you can
feel in her work a strong connection to the other players. The film
crazy/beautiful was a sad casualty of Hollywood interference,
its edges softened by concerned executives. But Kirsten's work survived
After this series of artistic highs, Dunst was in the
position to take on anything. So it was with great anticipation that
I awaited her next move. This month brings us a happy treat, a double
helping of Dunst - a twin set reminder of what she can accomplish onscreen.
"The whisper told most often..." is the tag line
to The Cat's Meow, a comeback hopeful from director Peter
Bogdanovich, he of The Last Picture Show fame. The whisper does
not, other than perhaps in self-referential jest, refer to Bogdanovich's
infamous exploits with young female co-stars. Nor does it refer to his
much maligned career trajectory from Oscar winner to has-been. No, "the
whisper told most often..." refers to a widely forgotten (outside of
certain circles) Hollywood tale involving the sudden suspicious death
of producer Thomas Ince shortly after a yachting trip he took with other
20s era luminaries. Onboard were publishing magnate and multimillionaire
William Randolph Hearst, young silent actress Marion Davies, world famous
movie star Charlie Chaplin, and gossip luminary Louella Parsons, among
a moviegoer hears this setup, he's bound to be intrigued. It seems like
an ideal film showcase for Old Hollywood style, exuberant wit, and period
hijinx. But sometimes premise and execution meet at the great divide
of budget, and part company. I'm not sure what it is aside from the
stage-bound feel (it takes place on a yacht but you never seem to see
the ocean), but the film feels unfairly hemmed in. There are moments
when it threatens to leap out of its stockings; there's a running humorous
conceit of the passengers yelling out "Charleston" when things get uncomfortable,
which makes for sudden dancing diversions. There are also hints of the
glamour, intelligence, and silliness that one expects from the material.
You can see them in beautiful grace note scenes like the one in which
the passengers of the yacht screen Marion's upcoming silent film. But
for most of the running time what should have been a stinging and witty
retro piece seems like a minor period drama with a wet blanket thrown
on top of it.
film also suffers from what appear to be less than enthusiastic performances
onscreen. It shocks me to say it, but normally outrageous comic performers
like Eddie Izzard and Jennifer Tilly seem to miss laughs that they should
be able to elicit in their sleep. The fact that they're playing the
larger-than-life figures of Chaplin and Parsons makes this lack of comic
energy stranger still. There's a muted tone to the acting that I would
have to guess comes from the direction, since it seems so consistent
among the players. The killjoy atmosphere seems to hit long before any
dark plot developments occur.
this muted tone of performance doesn't deter Kirsten Dunst. She stays
within the overall tonal framework, but comes up smelling like a rose
with this understated portrayal of Marion Davies. Her performance is
quieter than usual; sometimes her voice is like a whisper itself. All
the better to illustrate the tentative and precarious state of mind
that Davies finds herself in aboard the yacht. She's torn between her
lover Hearst, her would-be lover Chaplin, and the doomed man, Thomas
Ince (Cary Elwes), who wants her allegiance in the business. It's an
affectionately drawn characterization, and Dunst exhibits a perceptive
mix of adult and child qualities. She's nailed the war of temperament
between Marion, the grown loving woman and star, and the remnants of
Marion the flighty teen-ager.
importantly, Dunst really sells the triangular relationship that the
film's tragedy spins on. She pulls you into her foolish dalliance with
Chaplin, despite little help from Izzard. And she also quite magically
conveys Marion's love for Hearst (Edward Herrmann). Younger woman/older
man and gold digger/millionaire relationships are a dime a dozen in
both the movies and in Hollywood history, so it's something of a Herculean
task to sidestep audience preconceptions of these unions. But she does
just that, gently guiding the audience to its own conclusions about
Marion. She believes in her character and the unlikely love affair -
consequently, you do too.
Though it falls short of being her best work, it's still
a clear indication of the remarkable actress she's become. She's far
and away the best thing about this tentative little movie, and she even
sings (beautifully) over the closing credits. As her voice trailed off
and the film ended, I felt more than a little bittersweet about the
experience. I had hoped that the film would rise and soar above its
whisper to become a full bodied comic or dramatic gem, but I'll take
it for what it is. I'll just retitle it The Kitten's Meow so
I can love it a little more.
the other hand, Spider-Man doesn't need another name.
But he does have one. To invert a line from the picture: "Do you really
want to know who he is? He's Peter Parker." In fact, Peter Parker is
even better than the web slinger. Of all the superheroes of significant
fame, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc., Spider-Man is the only one
who remains interesting as a civilian. Peter Parker may feel like a
dork in his every day life but he's that rare superhero who maintains
his fascination sans mask.
said, it was a mark of true inspiration to find a real actor to play
the 'real' character of Peter Parker. Leave Spider-Man for the stuntmen
and visual effects gurus. They have some bugs to work out still, but
they do a decent job of visualizing our lithe hero. While I have never
been a great fan of Tobey Maguire's work, I'll concede that he is perfect
for this part. Thanks to his conviction in the role, Peter Parker's
journey from awkward teenager to friendly neighborhood superhero is
never less than believable.
of my favorite sequences is Peter's slow discovery of his powers. Maguire's
acting style, which tends to border on the somnabulistic, actually works
like a charm this time out. He ever so slowly shifts from purely stupified
to amusingly bewildered. Then he turns Parker gradually towards joy
and the thrill of discovery. This lengthy 'training' sequence is funny,
heartfelt, visually interesting, and giddily played. It's a hoot.
the visual high of watching a superhero leaping across rooftops or swinging
through the air at incredibly dangerous speeds, the film is really a
love story. Peter Parker tells you as much right from the start in annoying
voiceover. Love stories don't usually go over well in action blockbusters
- they tend to feel like token screenplay points. The most they ever
manage to become is a non-annoying subplot - think The Matrix
or Terminator or the first and third installments of the Batman
series. The love stories fail because the action is the principle selling
here, things are much different. The role of Mary Jane Watson is not
much of an acting opportunity, but Dunst nearly steals the film anyway.
She imbues the token girlfriend role with such warmth and game spirit
that the audience falls in love right along with Spidey. The normal
collective response while watching action blockbusters goes all topsy
turvy as a result. "Enough with the fighting - cut to the chase and
give us a kiss!" When the moment arrives, upside down in the pouring
rain, it's a keeper. As Spider-Man zips back up on his web into the
skyscrapers, Mary Jane looks so suddenly and happily skyward, that I
felt a little dizzy with affection myself.
The rest of the cast, however, is a mixed bag. James Franco,
so great last year in the James Dean biopic on television, is something
of a non-presence as Peter Parker's best friend. And there are other
missteps. While I appreciate the film's straight faced take on the superhero
mythos, the old-fashioned feel seems forced at times. I wanted less
and less of the corny home dynamics of Aunt May and Uncle Ben as the
finally, in the crucial villain role, things go considerably wrong.
Spider-Man's villains were never as grandly conceived as the evil that
Batman had to face, so I was hoping that Sam Raimi's inventive qualities
as a director would come into play here. Screenwriter David Koepp and
actor Willem Dafoe work hard to juice the Green Goblin up by concentrating
on his inherent Jekyll and Hyde melodrama. Unfortunately, it doesn't
work. Dafoe gives an overheated star turn that reads as embarassing
theatrics rather than psychological chills. It's not entirely his fault,
though. Dafoe has to deliver many of his lines while wearing the cheap
green metal mask that the production team inexplicably placed atop the
Green Goblin's head, and his acting takes on the annoying over-sell
cadence that often affects star voice work in animation.
aside these errors in judgment or performance, the film is rich in pure
entertainment value. The fight sequences work splendidly, despite their
obvious computer generated and cartoony look. The last battle, in particular,
really ratchets up the tension. But what makes it stand out in the world
of summer blockbuster films is its heart, which, with Maguire and Dunst
all goo goo eyed for each other, is in the right place - on its webbed
aware that in praising Kirsten I'm probably preaching to the converted.
Yes, Dunst is hardly lacking for press at this point. Forget the 'Next
Big Thing' moniker. To this filmgoer she achieved that hopeful title
years ago. If young Hollywood has ever given us a clearer candidate
for The Future of Movies, I haven't seen her.
©2002 Nathaniel Rogers