Dances with Wolves

Dir: Kevin Costner, 1990. Starring: Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene, Rodney A. Grant. Westerns.

It’s easy to be cynical about Dances with Wolves. Some might call it a three hour goody-goody vanity project for director and star Kevin Costne. Some may laugh at his blown-dry '80s mullet. For most, its worst crime was beating Goodfellas for the Oscar for Best Picture back in 1990. It’s no Goodfellas, but don’t blame Costner; blame the stupid Oscar voters and take Dances with Wolves for what it is. For the less cynical it’s hard not to be totally engrossed, even mesmerized, and eventually heartbroken by the film. Dances with Wolves was beautifully shot by cinematographer Dean Semler, who earlier shot the amazing The Road Warrior (1981) and would later shoot the stunning Apocalypto (2006). The film uses its South Dakota/Wyoming landscapes beautifully to elicit the loneliness of the frontier and the self-reliance of Native American culture.

I’m not sure if there ever was a “Western” before that so strongly presented such a powerful Native American point of view. After decades of offensive Indian stereotypes and John Wayne, by the late '60s attitudes were changing and the Western was evolving. Even John Ford tried a sympathetic approach to the plight of the Indians with Cheyenne Autumn (1964). There was Paul Newman’s half-breed gunslinger, Hombre (1967). Richard Harris was a Brit who took over a tribe in A Man Called Horse (1970). Dustin Hoffman brought a pro-Indian satire to the genre as Little Big Man (1970). Sergio Leone had a lot to say with Duck, You Sucker (1971). Ulzana's Raid (1972) went out of its way to showcase the brutality of the white man, and Clint Eastwood had an interesting fresh take on old stereotypes with The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). Since that golden age of “revisionist Westerns,” Jim Jarmusch got all post-moderny (or something) with his Dead Man (1995). Now, generally, the Indian is no longer automatically the bad guy or a monster. But what really makes Dances with Wolves notable is, though it stars a white man and the Indians are supporting characters, the film still manages to bridge cultural divides as well, if not better than any of its predecessors.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Dec 24, 2013 1:22pm

Doctor Zhivago

Dir: David Lean, 1965. Starring: Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Rod Steiger, Alec Guinness. Classics.

The third film in director David Lean’s "How To Make An Epic" Trilogy, Doctor Zhivago followed The Bridge On The River Kwai and Lawrence Of Arabia. It may not carry the same critical cache today - some find it too soapy and less "important" - but it’s just as entertaining and just as impressive as his previous two epics. This period for Lean from ’57 to ’65 followed his rather dated Criterion Collection endorsed British period of the '40s and early '50s. And then his follow up to Zhivago five years later, Ryan’s Daughter, does not quite hold up today. But his follow up to that, his final film, the underrated A Passage To India in ’84, is rather interesting and showed the seventy-something director still working with all his powers, if not quite the scope.

Doctor Zhivago could be used for any class on film symbolism. It‘s constant: the leaves falling from the sunflower, the melted snow, the electricity of the cable cars, the deliberate use of the color red standing out among the drab colors. Robert Bolt’s concise script helps to spell out the character's feelings without the actors ever having to proclaim them. It all works to boil down Boris Pasternak’s epic novel of adultery before, during, and after the Russian Revolution. In terms of history class, along with Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, Franklin Schaffner’s Nicholas And Alexandra, Warren Beatty’s Reds, and Woody Allen’s Love And Death, you have everything you could ever want to know about that period in Russia, or at least everything I know about it.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
May 6, 2010 12:01pm

In The Heat Of The Night

Dir: Norman Jewison, 1967. Starring: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates, Lee Grant. Drama.

In the Heat of the NightThe racial politics of In The Heat Of The Night may not be as shocking or edgy today as they were back in the bad old days of 1967. Matter of fact, it may even be a little corny and perhaps the drama can feel obvious, but as a piece of detective pulp it’s solid, and as a showcase for the great Rod Steiger at his scenery-chewing best it’s more than watchable. This was a period full of Southern dramas with some then socially hot elements - Hurry Sundown, ...tick…tick… tick…, The Liberation Of L.B. Jones, The Klansman, even The Chase. While those films are all utterly dated (they would seem a little more brave if they had been produced ten year earlier), In The Heat Of The Night holds up fairly well, because it’s a mystery film first, with a lot of style, and an all-star team behind the camera. It’s also the best of Sidney Poitier’s groundbreaking run of films in the '60s that made him the first black box office superstar.

In Sparta, Mississippi patrolman Sam Wood (the great character actor Warren Oates) makes his nightly rounds, after peeping at a topless woman he makes a startling discovery – the murdered body of wealthy Industrialist, Philip Colbert. Newly installed police chief Bill Gillespie (Steiger) sends him to check out the pool hall and bus station for any drifters, and wouldn’t you know it, Wood finds a well-dressed black man with a wallet full of bills waiting for a bus. The cops think they have an open and shut case, until they find out the black man, with a clear alibi, is actually Virgil Tibbs (Poitier), a Philadelphia homicide detective just p...

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jan 2, 2012 1:48pm

Reds

Dir: Warren Beatty, 1981. Starring: Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton, Edward Herrmann. Drama.

RedsIn 1981, with newly elected rah-rah American president Ronald Reagan taking office, an anti-Communist, anti-Soviet ardor was in full swing. So it was extra amazingly audacious that pretty-boy actor Warren Beatty was able to get his giant bio of Communist journalist John Reed made. Reed, the only American buried in Russia’s Kremlin, isn’t exactly a household name and Reds the movie, clocking in at an epic 194 minutes, wasn’t exactly a sure thing at the box-office (matter of fact, despite winning a bunch of awards, it was considered a financial disappointment in its day). Reds really is a tribute to the passion of Warren Beatty’s grand vision; he produced, directed, and co-wrote the screenplay with British playwright Trevor Griffiths (with uncredited contributions from Elaine May) and managed to put together an impressive cast to back him up (Diane Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Edward Herrmann, Paul Sorvino, Maureen Stapleton, Gene Hackman, etc). Ironic: a rich movie star makes a big expensive movie (with corporate funds) about an anti-wealth guy. In the Doctor Zhivago tradition, Reds is one of those sweeping literate love stories which was shot for over a year in five different countries; but underneath that sweep it’s a very personal and intimate little movie.

After covering events in Russia, journalist John Reed (Beatty) returns to his home town of Portland to raise money for his ultra-left newspaper. There, he meets and has a fling with a married socialite named Louise Bryant (Keaton) and invites her back to New York's bohemian Greenwich Village where they both hang with many of the famous radicals of their day, like the outspoken anarchist Emma ...

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Apr 25, 2012 5:08pm

Topaz

Dir: Alfred Hitchcock, 1969. Starring: Frederick Stafford, John Forsythe, Dany Robin, John Vernon. Classics.

Topaz posterEasily the most underrated film of the great Alfred Hitchcock’s massive career, Topaz is a perfectly constructed little cold-war thriller with many cool little filmmaking flourishes. It’s truly a wonder why this film has not been rediscovered by Hitchcockian enthusiasts and given its proper due. As a follow-up to his other cold war thriller in the '60s, the Paul Newman dud Torn Curtain, perhaps audiences were just weary of the subject matter. Perhaps because it had no stars it wasn’t taken seriously. Or maybe by the late '60s audience tastes had changed and by then the Grand Master was considered "old hat." Of course he would follow it with another often over-looked gem, Frenzy, which was his chance to finally go balls-to-the-wall with the sex and violence (and no stars). Like Billy Wilder’s cold-war comedy One Two Three, another lost gem, both films were financial flops, but both are actually great examples of what the two directors do best. In Wilder’s case, of course, it’s cynicism (though One Two Three was more slapstick than his usual cool) and with Topaz, Hitchcock again demonstrated how to create suspense with just camera pans and small pieces of information.

Based on a novel by Leon Uris (Exodus) with a script by Samuel A. Taylor (Vertigo), Topaz jerks around in different directions and, at 143 minutes, is Hitchcock’s longest film. It opens in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1962 (pre-Cuban Missile Crisis), with a Soviet military bigwig, Boris Kusenov (Per-Axel Arosenius, a Swedish actor who in real life died setting himself on fire as a tax protest), his wife and teenage daughter sightseeing and are being followed by their KGB handlers. Aided by an American spy, Michael Nordstrom (played by John Forsythe who would become a big star on TV’s Dynasty), they make a daring escape, defecting and getting shipped out to Washington, DC. While debriefed the Americans learn of a pact between the Soviets and Cuba. Nordstrom hooks up with his French counterpoint, André Devereaux (Frederick Stafford), who is vacationing with his wife Nicole (Dany Robin), daughter and her UN reporter husband (Michel Subor) in New York. Here the film totally shifts and becomes Devereaux’s. A classically suave spy, he seems to be cozy with the Soviets but is still willing to help the Americans, even when his wife objects. In a great scene, Devereaux enlists the help of an undercover French florist, Philippe Dubois (Roscoe Lee Browne), to steal some incriminating papers from a visiting Cuban delegate, Rico Parra (John Vernon, Dean Wormer of National Lampoon’s Animal House, here doing his best Che). In an effort to find out what’s really going on Devereaux jets off to Cuba where his beautiful mistress (Karin Dor, a Bond Girl in You Only Live Twice) also happens to the widow of a Cuban Revolutionary hero and secret leader of the anti-Castro forces. The two work to get evidence of Russian missiles and for a while the film becomes an escape from Cuba adventure.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Oct 1, 2013 6:08pm
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