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Kirsten soldiers...

by Nathaniel

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.

The 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.

Finally 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 the intrusion.

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 several others.

When 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.

The 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.

Luckily, 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.

Most 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.

On 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.

That 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.

One 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.

Despite 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 point.

But 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 film progressed.

And 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.

Leaving 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 sleeve.

I'm 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