This Is a Movie Review: Could Kirsten Dunst Shock Wood if ‘Woodshock’ Could Be Good? (Spoiler Alert: It’s Not)

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CREDIT: A24

This review was originally posted on News Cult in September 2017.

Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Pilou Asbæk, Joe Cole, Lorelei Linklater, Jack Kilmer

Directors: Kate and Laura Mulleavy

Running Time: 100 Minutes

Rating: R for Drugs, I Guess?

Release Date: September 22, 2017 (Limited)

The headline for this review was originally going to be “‘Woodshock’ Strands Kirsten Dunst in a Bunch of Random Images,” but then I decided that it would be much more appropriate to go with something nonsensical so as to keep with the spirit of the film. The directorial debut from fashion designer sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy feels like the creation of people who have never seen a movie before and only understand the medium theoretically. It essentially amounts to an academic (or anti-academic) exercise to determine the meaning of “montage.”

The plot, such as there is one, follows the perpetually on-edge life of Theresa (Dunst) and her husband Keith (Pilou Asbæk). She has recently lost her mother and is probably suffering from depression. They run a marijuana dispensary together … I think. People’s jobs and relationships to each other are not always clear. There is a tragic accident that neither the characters nor the film can come to terms with in any meaningful way.

At some point, according to the synopsis, Theresa ingests an especially potent mind-altering substance. I genuinely do not remember this, though, probably because there is no noticeable shift in the nature of the film at any point. There are some hallucinatory images, a few of which manage to be striking regardless of the context (most notably a house hovering a few feet above the ground amidst a shock of light). But if the drug has any noticeable effect on Theresa, it is perhaps in how it makes her suddenly unable to take a shower or bath. Good lord, there is a huge chunk of the running time devoted to Kirsten Dunst standing still in front of the bathroom mirror.

It is worth wondering why Woodshock fails so spectacularly while similarly subjective and inscrutable works like the oeuvre of David Lynch manage to be so powerfully affecting. Perhaps it is because even if it is not clear what the meaning of the latter is, it is not hard to intuit that there is some meaning. Maybe the Mulleavys do have something worthwhile to say, but they do not yet know how to get that across in cinematic terms.

Woodshock is Recommended If You Like: 2001, but like, on earth; Upstream Color, minus the auteurist bona fides

Grade: 1.5 out of 5 Pleasant Summer Evenings

This Is a Movie Review: ‘The Beguiled’ Proves Sofia Coppola Still Knows How to Weave a Spell

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This review was originally published on News Cult in June 2017.

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning

Director: Sofia Coppola

Running Time: 94 Minutes

Rating: R for Natural, Untamed Sexuality

Release Date: June 23, 2017 (Limited)

Comparing films unfavorably to sitcoms is a useful technique in the critic’s arsenal. It is typically applied to movies set in the present day that features characters just hanging out, with few, if any, aspirations beyond that. It is rarely, if ever, applied to films that take place 100 or more years ago. Part of that is because television did not exist then, so the comparison would not make much sense. But it is also perhaps because if a period piece were to achieve a sitcom-esque vibe, it would actually be praiseworthy instead of ill-advised. Weirdly enough, this is how I found myself thinking while watching Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, which achieves that sitcom vibe in its quieter moments, which are plenty.

It is not just the characters who are beguiled, but also the audience, as the premise is not one obviously ripe for humor, at least not of the good-natured variety. Based on a novel by Thomas P. Cullinan (previously adapted into a 1971 film directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood), The Beguiled tracks the volatility of human behavior in a small corner of a world that has fallen out of its natural order. Set during the Civil War, the film finds injured Union Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) discovered by the residents of a Southern girls’ boarding school. They debate whether to give him up to passing Confederate soldiers or provide him shelter out of the kindness of their hearts. They choose to let him stay, though it is never fully clear why. The firm, but ultimately vague stance from headmistress Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) sets the tone for the tension that permeates the rest of the film.

The sitcom vibes shine strongest in the middle stretch when the ladies and McBurney have brokered a peace, forming the premise for a show that would be titled something like The Southern Belles and the Yankee Soldier or Everybody Lusts Burnie. But like so many sitcoms, there is a layer of psychopathy or some other propensity for violence lurking just beneath the charm and just rearing to burst out. On TV, it usually never comes to that, at least not to the point of no return. But The Beguiled is all about exploring the scariest implications of a national house divided against itself crossed with burgeoning and repressed sexuality. It is as combustible as it sounds. The passionate ways of nature can be tamped down only so much by human control, and each cast member has their own beguiling and beguiled way of summoning their most passionate whims to demonstrate why that is.

The Beguiled is Recommended If You Like: Cold Mountain, Interpersonal gender dynamics, Double Indemnity

Grade: 4 out of 5 Mushrooms

This Is a Movie Review: Hidden Figures

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hidden-figures-janelle-monae-taraji-p-henson-octavia-spencer

This review was originally published on News Cult in December 2016.

Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons, Kirsten Dunst

Director: Theodore Melfi

Running Time: 126 Minutes

Rating: PG for the Everyday Realities of Racism

Release Date: December 25, 2016 (Limited), Expands Nationwide January 6, 2017

Hidden Figures tells the true stories of African-American mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, who were essential employees to NASA during the Space Race. Let me reiterate: this is a TRUE story, but somehow these ladies are not an iconic part of the fabric of American history. Surely, there is institutional sexism and racism at play here, but less insidiously, there is also the fact that most workers at NASA who remained on the ground are not household names. But also, come on! – Katherine Johnson was John Glenn’s trusty confidant, relying on her for accurate calculations during his time in the stars.

As Hidden Figures kicks off, we know we are in good hands. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe (Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson, respectively) are stuck on the side of the road due to a broken-down car while on their way to work. I think I speak for most of humanity when I say I would happily watch these ladies just hang out and do anything. The white Virginia traffic cop who pulls up to inspect their situation apparently feels the same way. This scene looks like it is about to play out like a typical example of civil rights-era Southern racism, but instead the officer is impressed that these ladies know their science and offers them an escort service.

This is how much of the film plays out. The racism and sexism these “hidden figures” experience are institutional and not personal except insofar as any instance of discrimination is personal. Everyone in this story wants to see America succeed above the clouds, and these women meet resistance only when their efforts get in the way of standard practice. For Henson, that means a hilarious/heartbreaking routine of racing 20 minutes each way across the NASA campus to the nearest colored restroom. Indignities like these are eventually beaten into submission, and the crowd-pleasing meter is constantly at its highest level.

I would be remiss not to mention the wholesome and sweet love story between Katherine, a single mother widower, and her second husband Jim. I don’t know if the real-life Johnsons are as gorgeous as Taraji P. Henson and Mahershala Ali, but I am convinced that they must have been. Otherwise, Henson and Ali are miracle workers.

Hidden Figures is the sort of movie that you take your mother to see because you know she is going to love it. It is also the type of movie whose relatively unambitious filmmaking techniques you might criticize, or at least excuse. But in the case of a story as inspiring as this one, that feels unnecessarily petty. Hidden Figures does not gussy itself up, because it will be inspiring even without all the frills. Besides, putting on such airs would be anathema to its humble origins.

Hidden Figures is Recommended If You LikeApollo 13A League of Their OwnThe Help

Grade: 3.75 out 5 Hammers to Racism