Kirsten Dunst

Hidden Figures (2016, Theodore Melfi)

In the first scene of Hidden Figures, the film makes it immediately clear there’s going to be quite a bit of self-awareness. The film is based on the true story of three black women who were instrumental to NASA’s–and the space program’s–success. They’re working at NASA in the early sixties, during segregation, doing harder jobs better than the white guys working at NASA. And there’s an awareness. Janelle Monáe, in the flashiest lead role, gets the least to do, but she does get tasked with offering commentary on the situations at hand.

Director Melfi, who co-wrote the screenplay with Allison Schroeder, depends a lot on his cast. Nothing in his direction gets any of the scenes done. For example, Melfi underplays it with Taraji P. Henson, who’s the closest thing the film’s got to a protagonist (but the film doesn’t want to have one, which gets to be a problem in the third act). While Monáe, albeit outside work, gets to have a developed relationship with Aldis Hodge (as her less than supportive husband) and second-billed Octavia Spencer gets to have this workplace unpleasantness with Kirsten Dunst, Henson’s got supportive boss Kevin Costner, who she never gets to have a moment with. She’s got wormy supervisor Jim Parsons, who she never gets to have a moment with. There are fill-in moments, but none suggesting Parsons and Costner are people and not caricatures.

It’d be fine if they were caricatures, maybe even appropriate (though Costner’s not–he gets a movie star scene in the film), but if they are caricatures, giving them their little unspoken courtesies to Henson is even more problematic.

Hidden Figures weathers those problems with some very reliable materials–the history is on the film’s side and all three lead performances are great. While Monáe gets to be showy for most of the film, only having to move aside towards the end, when it tries to become a special effects extravaganza thriller just to find a finish, and Spencer’s part is underwritten but convinces the viewer it isn’t, Henson gets the big stuff. And the script, even though she’s got a romance going on outside her saving Costner and Parsons’s butts with math, doesn’t like letting Henson do anything. Monáe does things, Spencer does things, Henson quietly does the math. And she’s exceptional doing the math. Melfi’s best direction is with Henson, simply because he’s just letting the camera watch her performance too.

Technically, the film’s solid without being exceptional. Mandy Walker’s photography is fine, but Melfi’s not ambitious. Maybe the score gets a little much at the end, when Melfi’s tackling the special effects extravaganza with absolutely no personality. Despite some gorgeous production design (courtesy Wynn Thomas), Hidden Figures is oddly absent mise-en-scène.

The ambition is instead with the film itself, presenting these three women completely aware of their exploitation, completely aware of their constraints, and excelling regardless. The sad part of Henson not getting resolution is how well Spencer and Monáe make out with it. Spencer and Dunst’s arc is an uncomfortable, angering one. But it’s a mature way of handling it. The script’s got a narrative arc for that subplot. For Henson? Well, it’s got the Friendship 7.

Not to rag on Melfi too much more, but there’s a difference between acknowledging other films’ handling of the same material without just giving up and pretending to be Apollo 13 for fifteen minutes. It’s his lack of personality. Even Costner’s got some personality, even if it’s nonsensically only for Parsons’s benefit, as they have a moment together.

Hidden Figures is a movie fully aware white guys don’t have to be the leads but it’s the white guys who get that learning moment together. And let’s not even touch on the problematic nature of superhero John Glenn (Glen Powell is fine, it’s just a bland part).

But once you get through the problems and appreciate the film’s accomplishments–and those lead performances–it’s clear Hidden Figures’s success isn’t contingent on a flawless narrative structure. It’s historical, after all, and a positive “real life” moment is hard to resist, but it does distract from its characters. Because even if what was happening in reality was important, in Hidden Figures, it’s Henson, Spencer, and Monáe who are important and deserve the time.

Melfi just doesn’t know how to build tension. Thank goodness he’s got actors who know how to essay it however.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Theodore Melfi; screenplay by Allison Schroeder and Melfi, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly; director of photography, Mandy Walker; edited by Peter Teschner; music by Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams, and Benjamin Wallfisch; production designer, Wynn Thomas; produced by Peter Chernin, Donna Gigliotti, Melfi, Jenno Topping, and Williams; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Taraji P. Henson (Katherine Goble), Octavia Spencer (Dorothy Vaughan), Janelle Monáe (Mary Jackson), Kevin Costner (Al Harrison), Kirsten Dunst (Mrs. Mitchell), Jim Parsons (Paul Stafford), Mahershala Ali (Colonel Jim Johnson), Aldis Hodge (Levi Jackson), and Glen Powell (John Glenn).


Small Soldiers (1998, Joe Dante)

I remember liking Small Soldiers the first time I saw it. I was wrong.

This time watching it, all I could think about was how Dante and DreamWorks studio chief Steven Spielberg ignored they had a terrible script.

Of course, Dante still does a good job. He has a fantastic Bride of Frankenstein homage, which brings up the target audience–along with the action figures being effectively voiced by the Spinal Tap and Dirty Dozen casts.

The casting has some problems. Kevin Dunn plays Gregory Smith’s father (prepping for Transformers in the distant future no doubt) and he’s really bad. Dunn’s usually good, but his character is just too terribly written for him to work with it. All of the characters are terribly written–except maybe David Cross and Jay Mohr’s characters, who are disposable and funny.

Smith is supposed to be playing a problem teenager–it’s never explained why, but presumably has something to with Dunn’s bad parenting. Smith and Kirsten Dunst are supposed to be fifteen–too young to drive–and they show the real problem. Small Soldiers is a kid’s movie made by people who don’t know how to dumb it down enough.

Dunst’s actually okay. Denis Leary does his schtick. Phil Hartmann’s great. Wendy Schaal is wasted. Dick Miller’s got a good part. Ann Magnuson has some excellent scenes.

It works best as a showcase for outstanding practical and CG effects. Thinking about the movie just hurts one’s head, especially when they get into the science.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Joe Dante; written by Gavin Scott, Adam Rifkin, Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio; director of photography, Jamie Anderson; edited by Marshall Harvey and Michael Thau; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, William Sandell; produced by Michael Finnell and Colin Wilson; released by DreamWorks Pictures.

Starring Gregory Smith (Alan Abernathy), Kirsten Dunst (Christy Fimple), Phil Hartman (Phil Fimple), Kevin Dunn (Stuart Abernathy), Ann Magnuson (Irene Abernathy), Wendy Schaal (Marion Fimple), David Cross (Irwin Wayfair), Jay Mohr (Larry Benson), Dick Miller (Joe) and Denis Leary (Gil Mars).

Starring Frank Langella (Archer), Tommy Lee Jones (Chip Hazard), Ernest Borgnine (Kip Killagin), Jim Brown (Butch Meathook), Bruce Dern (Link Static), Sarah Michelle Gellar (Gwendy Doll), Christopher Guest (Slamfist / Scratch-It), George Kennedy (Brick Bazooka), Michael McKean (Insaniac / Freakenstein), Christina Ricci (Gwendy Doll), Harry Shearer (Punch-It) and Clint Walker (Nick Nitro).


Jumanji (1995, Joe Johnston)

Jumanji is a thoroughly decent film, mostly due to good production values and Johnston’s direction.

It’s sort of hard to talk about the film due to the plotting. The film’s not real time, but the present action is still short… or not. In some ways, it’s twenty-six years, in others, it’s a day and a half and, in even others, it’s five minutes. Or three hours and five minutes. It’s not a problem for the film, which is just an amusement. There’s no attempt at any depth, just competent presentation of depth in the moment.

Jumanji doesn’t even work in a way one could take it seriously.

The casting is solid, though Bebe Neuwirth gets the short end of the stick. Adam Hann-Byrd is rather good. Robin Williams is fine, even if the script loses track of how to treat his character after a certain point. David Allen Grier and Bradley Pierce are both good. It’s hard to believe, between Pierce and Kristen Dunst (the kids in the movie), Dunst is the one who still acts professionally.

There’s a nice little James Handy cameo.

The film just has a good feel to it, something James Horner’s music helps.

The special effects are fine. While from the early days of CG, Jumanji would be impossible without it… as opposed to using CG instead of practical effects.

Whenever the film’s ambitious or attempts something, it succeeds. It doesn’t try to do much… but when it does, it does them right.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Joe Johnston; screenplay by Jonathan Hensleigh, Greg Taylor and Jim Strain, based on a story by Taylor, Strain and Chris Van Allsburg and on a children’s book by Van Allsburg; director of photography, Thomas E. Ackerman; edited by Robert Dalva; music by James Horner; production designer, James D. Bissell; produced by Scott Kroopf and William Teitler; released by TriStar Pictures.

Starring Robin Williams (Alan Parrish), Bonnie Hunt (Sarah Whittle), Kirsten Dunst (Judy Shepherd), Bradley Pierce (Peter Shepherd), David Alan Grier (Carl Bentley), Bebe Neuwirth (Nora Shepherd), Adam Hann-Byrd (Young Alan), Laura Bell Bundy (Young Sarah), Jonathan Hyde (Sam Parrish), Patricia Clarkson (Carol-Anne Parrish) and James Handy (Exterminator).


Spider-Man 3 (2007, Sam Raimi)

After having two decent Danny Elfman scores similar to his two Batman scores, Raimi brought in composer Christopher Young, who does a terrible job, sure, but also mimics the (non-Elfman) score to Batman Forever. The music in this film makes the ears bleed.

In theory, following the great financial and critical success of Spider-Man 2, Raimi should have been able to do whatever he wanted with this entry. And maybe he did. But if he did, his truest intent for a Spider-Man movie was to make an unbearable one.

It’s real bad. The only thing the film has going for it is James Franco. It ought to have Thomas Haden Church in the plus column too, but the handling of his character is exceptionally bad. Haden Church barely gets any screen time and the film ends without resolving whether his innocent, sickly daughter is going to die or not.

Topher Grace’s villain, the evil Spider-Man, is exceptionally lame. Have I already used exceptionally in this response? I’ll use it again. Just awful, awful writing. Grace is almost mediocre, but can’t essay the character properly; he instills too much sitcom charm.

Tobey Maguire apparently didn’t even bother getting in shape for this one. Raimi gives him an evil mop haircut at one point, for his evil scenes, so the viewer knows he’s bad.

J.K. Simmons is good and Elizabeth Banks finally gets some decent lines.

So it’s not a completely awful film, just extremely close to one.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Sam Raimi; screenplay by Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent, from the screen story by Sam Raimi and Ivan Raimi and based on the comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko; director of photography, Bill Pope; edited by Bob Murawski; music by Christopher Young and Danny Elfman; production designers, Neil Spisak and J. Michael Riva; produced by Laura Ziskin, Avi Arad and Grant Curtis; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Tobey Maguire (Peter Parker/Spider-Man), Kirsten Dunst (Mary Jane Watson), James Franco (Harry Osborn), Thomas Haden Church (Flint Marko/Sandman), Topher Grace (Eddie Brock), Bryce Dallas Howard (Gwen Stacy), James Cromwell (Captain Stacy), Rosemary Harris (Aunt May), J.K. Simmons (J. Jonah Jameson), Theresa Russell (Emma Marko), Dylan Baker (Dr. Curt Connors), Bill Nunn (Robbie Robertson), Elizabeth Banks (Miss Brant), Ted Raimi (Hoffman), Perla Haney-Jardine (Penny Marko), Willem Dafoe (Green Goblin/Norman Osborn), Cliff Robertson (Ben Parker) and Bruce Campbell (Maître d’).


Spider-Man 2 (2004, Sam Raimi), the extended version

Ah, so the only other film Raimi directed Panavision was the unwatchable For Love of the Game. His Panavision composition here–with Bill Pope shooting it–is exquisite. Raimi and Pope correct, from the first scene in the film, the problem Raimi had with the original–Spider-Man 2 takes place in New York City. When a bunch of New Yorkers help Spider-Man here–regardless of if they filmed the sequence in Chicago–it’s an honest scene, not some kind of jingoistic garbage.

For the majority of the film–there are some transitional missteps when it has to be a regular action movie again, third act (but the end recovers beautifully)–it’s about a bunch of miserable people. Tobey Maguire’s miserable because being Spider-Man’s ruining his life, Kirsten Dunst is miserable because she doesn’t have Maguire, James Franco’s miserable because his dad’s been murdered, Rosemary Harris’s miserable because she’s a widow. For about seventy minutes, it’s a bunch of unhappy people being unhappy. It’s luscious.

The acting helps. Harris was barely in the first film, but here she develops into a character. Alfred Molina’s a good villain (Raimi doesn’t overuse the villain here, like he did before). Franco’s really good. Maguire’s great, sort of shockingly great. Dunst is fine. She’s effective without being good. J.K. Simmons and Donna Murphy are also fantastic.

Two problems besides the transitional stumble–there’s an awful “talking to himself” scene with Molina and then a dream sequence–otherwise, it’s perfect (except Elfman’s music).

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sam Raimi; written by Alvin Sargent, based on a screen story by Alfred Gough, Miles Millar and Michael Chabon and the comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko; director of photography, Bill Pope; edited by Bob Murawski; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, Neil Spisak; produced by Laura Ziskin and Avi Arad; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Tobey Maguire (Peter Parker/Spider-Man), Kirsten Dunst (Mary Jane Watson), James Franco (Harry Osborn), Alfred Molina (Dr. Otto Octavius), Rosemary Harris (May Parker), J.K. Simmons (J. Jonah Jameson), Donna Murphy (Rosalie Octavius), Daniel Gillies (John Jameson), Dylan Baker (Dr. Curt Connors), Bill Nunn (Robbie Robertson), Vanessa Ferlito (Louise), Aasif Mandvi (Mr. Aziz), Willem Dafoe (Green Goblin/Norman Osborn), Cliff Robertson (Ben Parker), Ted Raimi (Hoffman), Elizabeth Banks (Miss Brant), Gregg Edelman (Dr. Davis), Elya Baskin (Mr. Ditkovich), Mageina Tovah (Ursula) and Bruce Campbell (Snooty Usher).


Spider-Man (2002, Sam Raimi)

I wonder what kind of movie Spider-Man would have been if the filmmakers hadn’t been so concerned with a “proper” film post-9/11. I know they added the New Yorkers attacking the Goblin to defend Spider-man and I’m wondering if that American flag ending was another addition… this kind of inane jingoistic nonsense ruins movies, but it can’t ruin Spider-Man. You can’t ruin a picture something else has already fouled.

The big problem isn’t the special effects; it’s the mediocre writing. Besides the atrocious narration, there isn’t a single distinctive bit of writing. Willem Dafoe’s villain arc is terrible, as is Dafoe’s performance.

Another problem is Danny Elfman’s score, which is for a Batman movie.

But there’s not much chance of this film being good with Laura Ziskin producing. She lets Raimi do some Raimi-esque stuff, but not really. All the quirkiness is lip service and there are some really lame conceptual decisions (the Flatiron Building and the Goblin costume come immediately to mind).

Besides Dafoe, the acting is indistinct. Either good, okay or dreadful. Wait, J.K. Simmons is fantastic.

Raimi’s New York is completely absent personality–combined with Don Burgress’s way too crisp cinematography, the film looks like the biggest budgeted Mentos commercial ever.

The CG special effects are often terrible, but a lot of the action set pieces are at least well-composed (the bridge sequence, for example).

While it’s not a complete waste of time, but Spider-Man is a definite failure.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Sam Raimi; screenplay by David Koepp, based on the comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko; director of photography, Don Burgess; edited by Bob Murawski and Arthur Coburn; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, Neil Spisak; produced by Laura Ziskin and Ian Bryce; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Tobey Maguire (Peter Parker/Spider-Man), Willem Dafoe (Norman Osborn/Green Goblin), Kirsten Dunst (Mary Jane Watson), James Franco (Harry Osborn), Cliff Robertson (Ben Parker), Rosemary Harris (May Parker), J.K. Simmons (J. Jonah Jameson), Gerry Becker (Maximilian Fargas), Bill Nunn (Robbie Robertson), Jack Betts (Henry Balkan), Stanley Anderson (General Slocum), Ron Perkins (Dr. Mendel Stromm), Michael Papajohn (Carjacker), K.K. Dodds (Simkins), Ted Raimi (Hoffman), Elizabeth Banks (Betty Brant) and Bruce Campbell (Ring Announcer).


Dick (1999, Andrew Fleming)

Andrew Fleming’s Dick has an irresistible premise (slow-witted teenage girls take down Nixon, not Woodward and Bernstein), but it turns out not to be enough for a movie. Not even a ninety-four minute movie. Besides inspired casting of Watergate figures (Dave Foley as Haldeman is probably my favorite, but Saul Rubinek’s Kissinger is the best–and Dan Hedaya’s a perfect Nixon), Fleming doesn’t really know what to do with his story. He covers some of the Watergate stuff, but not enough. He dumbs down the revelation of evidence and so on, not really taking advantage of it for his story. Once he’s established Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams in the White House, he does a couple montages and throws in Williams’s positively icky on Nixon, but the movie’s mostly on its way toward the end. Neither Dunst or Williams really have characters–which is fine, given Dick is a farcical comedy–but Fleming doesn’t have ninety-four minutes of story either.

Dick gets long after a while, once the laughing out loud stops–usually whenever Dunst and Williams are in charge of their scenes, instead of Foley, Hedeya, or Rubinek–and I don’t think there’s a single big laugh for the film’s last hour. There’s a good Foley scene, but it’s amusing, not laugh out loud. Given the lousy pacing of that last hour, I wonder if Fleming cut some stuff out to make the movie shorter, but I doubt it. Kirsten Dunst’s character doesn’t have a story, she has a brother. Devon Gummersall, as the brother, is good. Except he’s just a funny pot-head and the film’s better when he’s around because he says funny pot-head stuff. Dunst ranges from awful to bad. She’s worse when she’s alone. Michelle Williams, halfway through, goes from dumb to not-so dumb and she’s fine in the second half. The contrast between her and Dusnt’s acting prowess is stunning. One also gets the feeling Williams heard the word ‘Watergate’ before filming the movie.

We rented Dick because a) we’d just watched All the President’s Men and b) I thought it was funnier. I remembered it being funnier. But it isn’t. The film only makes it through the second half because of Hedeya, Williams, and Will Ferrell and Bruce McCulloch as Woodward and Bernstein (Bernstein’s such a jackass I wonder if Fleming consulted with Nora Ephron). The film also benefits–more than it deserves–from the great use of the 1970s music. The end is–as I remembered while watching it–a real kicker set to Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain.”

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Andrew Fleming; written by Fleming and Sheryl Longin; director of photography, Alexander Gruszynski; edited by Mia Goldman; music by John Debney; production designer, Barbara Dunphy; produced by Gale Anne Hurd; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Kirsten Dunst (Betsy Jobs), Michelle Williams (Arlene Lorenzo), Jim Breuer (John Dean), Will Ferrell (Bob Woodward), Dave Foley (Bob Haldeman), Teri Garr (Helen Lorenzo), Ana Gasteyer (Rose Mary Woods), Devon Gummersall (Larry Jobs), Dan Hedaya (Dick), Bruce McCulloch (Carl Bernstein), Ted McGinley (Roderick), Ryan Reynolds (Chip), Saul Rubinek (Henry Kissinger), Harry Shearer (G. Gordon Liddy), Len Doncheff (Leonid I. Brezhnev), G.D. Spradlin (Ben Bradlee) and Checkers (Brunswick).


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