Tag Archives: Kirsten Dunst

“The Beguiled”



It’s almost as if Sofia Coppola ‘s period piece “The Beguiled” was tailor-made to divide audiences, and I place the blame solely on the studio’s marketing department. Chalk this one up for one of the most intentionally misleading movie trailers of the year. For the odd mainstream moviegoer who is tricked by the preview into buying a ticket, it’s going to be a near guaranteed letdown.

The Southern gothic, atmospheric thriller is Coppola’s take on remaking the 1971 Clint Eastwood film of the same name (which was based on the novel by Thomas Cullinan). The story takes place during the Civil War at a boarding school for girls. A group of students (Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice), their headmistress Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), and teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) take in Yankee soldier McBurney (Colin Farrell), who is wounded with life-threatening injuries.

The women agree to give him a safe place to recover but with a hunky (and forbidden) male in the house, sexual tensions begin to simmer beneath the surface, sparking unspoken jealous rage among the young women. After McBurney gets back on his feet, the story takes an unexpected “fox in the henhouse” turn with potentially dire consequences.

The idea and story are great, I just wish Coppola hadn’t been so restrained with the material. There is so much more that is begging to be explored here but her film only barely skims the surface. When the big “unexpected surprise twist” occurs, it’s a real letdown and quite frankly, doesn’t even make that much sense. Even the motivations and circumstances leave little impact. Oh what a disturbing and vengeful feminist rivalry tale this could’ve been.

Still, the film is beautifully shot and directed with its hauntingly pretty (if often claustrophobic) setting. Think of this film as refined without enough complexity. The underlying tension isn’t nearly tense enough, and there’s a lack of any sense of desperation. danger, or despair. At least the period costumes are intricately detailed, the acting is proficient across the board (with Farrell being the real standout), and the film’s deliberate pacing serves the story well.

This movie should’ve and could’ve been shocking, seductive and disturbing and while it’s a well rounded film, in the end there just isn’t much to it.

“Hidden Figures”



If you think a movie about the U.S. space program in the early 1960s mixed with a history lesson about civil rights with a bit of high-level computational science thrown in for good measure sounds boring, think again. The unknown and overlooked history of three African-American women who worked at NASA on the Friendship 7 project is terrifically entertaining (even if it is the cinematic equivalent of cotton candy). The movie is fluff, but it’s good fluff with a great message and a noble purpose.

“Hidden Figures” tells the incredible true story of crackerjack mathematicians Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), three black women who quietly played major roles in one of America’s most significant operations in the space race: launching astronaut John Glenn into orbit. These heroines overcame great societal obstacles in their professions (and lives) and are an absolute inspiration to women (and men) everywhere. That I had never heard of them before this movie is pretty absurd; this is a part of American history that needs to be told, needs to be taught, and needs to be celebrated. Immediately after seeing this movie I began conducting research and reading more about these fascinating women and their considerable contributions to our country’s scientific and social advancement.

How fantastic it is to see a movie where one of the core messages is that society should highly value education and intelligence, making America a place where anyone can strive to rise above what they’ve been dealt instead of hurtling towards an idiocracy. These are strong, brainy, sassy women, and the three leads are perfectly cast in their roles. All three women are believable as resourceful ladies who faced so much segregation and sexism that they not only pushed back at the racism, they pushed up. The film’s greatest strength, with the exception of the true life subjects on which it’s based, is the charming cast. It’s hard not to instantly love this sharp trio.

Rounding out the cast are the forgettable Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons as NASA bosses, and a nicely romantic turn from Mahershala Ali as a hunky love interest. It goes without saying that this movie belongs to Spencer, Henson, and especially Monáe.

As you’d expect, the movie touches on some pretty heavy racial themes, but it’s not done in a preachy way and is quite subtle considering the subject matter. Of course there are a couple of over-the-top scenes of forward thinking tolerance that most likely never really happened exactly as they are portrayed, but it doesn’t really matter because they still play as rousing crowd pleasers to adoring viewers.

It warmed my heart to see the sheer diversity of my audience in terms of race and age. It’s great when a movie like this can bring so many different people together, all of us cheering at the same moments of approval and acceptance that are shown in the movie. It gets slightly corny in parts, but this is an irresistible, uplifting movie with a positive (and important) message that’s still relevant today.

Note that this film is a very mild PG rating, making it suitable for most members of your family. It’s the sort of movie where you can happily and comfortably take grandma and your five year old with you to the theater.


“Midnight Special”



I’m a fan of writer / director Jeff Nichols and his other work (including the truly original “Take Shelter” and the fully engrossing “Mud“), but his latest effort didn’t work for me. The tone is very similar to Nichols’ earlier films and he stays true to himself when it comes to his inventive storytelling style and engaging filmmaking techniques. I give serious credit for the audacious originality and grand intentions of “Midnight Special,” but this movie just isn’t very entertaining.

The mystery elements are especially critical in building a rich tension early on, and they are fantastic. These shrouds of mystery provided a compelling hook that kept me guessing, but the movie begins its downhill slide as more of the story is slowly revealed. This movie is pretty great for the first half then sadly peters out in yet another ambitious but unsatisfying conclusion that is reminiscent of “10 Cloverfield Lane” (“Midnight Special” reminded me a lot of that one, actually, especially how I thought the story was going in one direction but ended up doing a U-turn into another).

The film sets a very high bar then ends with a yawn. The muddled middle is messy too, jumping around with plot elements including everything from a kidnapping, religious cult, fugitive escape, sci-fi fantasy, bloody shootouts, car crashes and government spies, with a little bit of “The X-Files,” “Tomorrowland” and “Big Love” thrown in for good measure. The movie feels like an attempt to reinvent the genre that has gone awry. (I’m not sure if the heavy-handed Superman allusions were intended to be tongue-in-cheek funny or genuinely serious).

As usual, Nichols is able to elicit intense performances from his impressive roster of talented actors including Michael Shannon, Adam Driver, Joel Edgerton, Jaeden Lieberher, and Kirsten Dunst. Sadly, none of them truly made me care about the story or the characters. There’s no big payoff to the excellent set-up.

This movie is just plain weird — and not in a good way. It plays more like a bad episode of “The X-Files” than a feature length movie.


“Midnight Special” is an ambitious and auspicious science fiction work by experienced director Jeff Nichols (“Take Shelter,” “Mud”). Supported by a strong cast featuring Nichols mainstay Michael Shannon along with Joel Edgerton, Adam Driver, and Kirsten Dunst, “Midnight Special” at various times can be riveting, and at other times head-scratchingly bizarre.

Nichols’ experience as a director shows. As the movie opens, the viewer is immediately dropped into a kidnapping / standoff situation with Roy (Shannon) and Lucas (Edgerton) armed to the teeth with the young Alton (Jaeden Liberher) nearby. As we listen to the news report playing on the television, our perceptions of the situation and the type of men Roy and Lucas are quickly shaped – and our sympathies cast — only to have those views quickly challenged as we learn more and more about who these men are, and what Alton represents to them.

It is these opening scenes (the first 20 minutes or so) where Director Nichols is at his best – weaving together elements of the story, thread-by-thread, until we finally feel grounded and aware of exactly what is going on, and decide with who our sympathies lie. This is “show, don’t tell” storytelling at its finest. Those first 20 minutes are shockingly engrossing and an example of some of the best directorial and editing work I’ve seen in recent memory.

Unfortunately, the film can’t sustain its momentum. As story elements continue to unfold and the science-fiction aspects come into play, it loses a little bit of its effectiveness. We learn more about Alton, Roy, Lucas, Sevier (Driver) and Sarah (Dunst) and how they came to be in this situation. It is in these moments that the characters come into their own, but at the same time it is at these story points when the film loses ground. The look and feel of the picture has a gritty realism that, mashed together with some of the Warren Jeffs-inspired story elements feels ripped from the headlines. But then, we witness something fantastic and incredible that – while kinda cool – inevitably results in a disconnect between what’s come before and what we are watching now. These sci-fi elements all build together towards a big reveal that pushes the boundaries of credibility just a little too far.

Don’t get me wrong – the movie is worth seeing for fans of the director, these actors, story-driven indie films, and science-fiction that is anything but cookie-cutter. It’s a solid film. It disappoints me only because (particularly given the strength of the first act) it could have been great. It’s not.