Dances with Wolves
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.Continue Reading
Good Night, and Good Luck.
Most of the movies directly about the horrors and political terrorism of the McCarthyism of the 1950s usually center on a dim schmuck who accidentally finds himself involved in the blacklistings. They’ve ranged from the good (The Front with Woody Allen working as an actor-for-hire), the bad (Guilty by Suspicion, the beginning of Robert De Niro’s slid towards mediocrity) and the terrible (Frank Darabont’s awful The Majestic with Jim Carrey, a movie that makes “Capra-esqe” a mortal sin). The usually simplistic genre helps make mega-star actor George Clooney’s second directing effort, Good Night, and Good Luck. (after the interesting but far from perfect Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), seem positively genius in comparison. Instead of piercing the blacklisting from the streets he sets it upstairs in the newsroom of the TV show See It Now, where the legendary broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow (played by David Strathairn in the performance of his career) dared to take on Senator Joseph McCarthy and his House Committee on Un-American Activities. Clooney (who also wrote the script with another one-time journeyman TV actor Grant Heslov) not only makes one of the most pointed films about this ugly period in American politics but also gives us a fascinating glimpse into the working of 1950s television. Shot in color and then transferred to a stunning black & white in post by cinematography all-star Robert Elswit (he’s shot all the Paul Thomas Anderson joints up to There Will Be Blood), Good Night, and Good Luck. really is a marvelous film, beautifully realized in its simplicity and a triumph on all fronts.
Murrow and his trusty producer, Fred Friendly (Clooney), fluctuate their television news magazine show between lightweight celebrity interviews (Liberace!) and more meaningful political pieces, where their heart really is - the fluff is a way to appease their sponsors and the higher-ups at CBS. Knowing that it could start a battle, they decide to take on the dangerous bullying tactics of Senator McCarthy, who was at the height of his powers. He was ruining careers of American citizens by accusing them of being Communists unless they groveled and told McCarthy what a great job he and his Committee where doing, and they were often forced to name others who may be Communists, just to give more names and more power to the often drunk lout Senator. Murrow and Friendly have to walk a tightrope when the Government begins to hint at an investigation of the station's employees and McCarthy himself falls on his old standby trick, accusing Murrow of being a Communist. Meanwhile the head of CBS, William Paley (Frank Langella, wonderful in the role), is forced to defend his star but also tries to keep him on a short leash (the moments between Langella and Strathairn are the best in the movie). The staff is under their own pressure. Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson play a secretly married couple (CBS policy did not allow employees to wed), and in another captivating performance, Ray Wise plays CBS News Correspondent Don Hollenbeck who admires Murrow but lives in terror of having his own lefty political background exposed.Continue Reading
With the film JFK, superstar editors Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia were able to do some of the most groundbreaking editing since Psycho and Battleship Potemkin, which would mean some of the greatest editing in film history. Combining actual news footage, historical recreations, and a dense investigation and courtroom story with literally hundreds of speaking roles, they were able to piece together a three-hour drama that, no matter what you feel about director Oliver Stone’s politics or often ham-fisted approach, this film is now the definitive pop-culture record on the murder of President Kennedy.
There was a phony outrage and assault thrown at the film JFK before it was even released or seen. Critics of Oliver Stone howled that he should not be messing with history, slanting it to fit his picture. But of course that’s what any good biography or historical account will do. The combination of news footage and recreations were called manipulative. But after thirty years of the "mainstream" press in lock step with the Warren Commission’s cover-up, it’s about time to see a "mainstream" movie question the events. No matter how much that news footage apparently confused some audience members, the bottom line is: this isn’t a documentary, those are actors. Not to mention, there are enough actual documentaries and books out there on this subject to fill a library. Some right, some wrong, some rational, some hysterical. If you need to hear from the other end of the spectrum, maybe the best made documentary on the assassination was Oswald’s Ghost, a very persuasive piece of filmmaking, but in the end it has Norman Mailer declaring there was no conspiracy.Continue Reading
The Big Chill
Don’t get me wrong, I hate yuppies as much as the next guy. And the thought of two hours of white bread yuppies reconnecting while bemoaning their lost youth and wondering where the dreams went, I would agree, sounds painful. The idea had been filmed once before by indie maverick John Sayles with his very boring Return Of The Secaucus Seven in ’79. But for the much better The Big Chill, director/ screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan was able to ensemble a dream cast of bright up and comers who brought magic to his incredibly complicated and witty script (written with Barbara Benedek).
Kasdan had been a hot go-to guy for scripts, having written The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders Of The Lost Ark. His first outing as a director was the steamy modern noir twister, Body Heat, starring the young William Hurt and Kathleen Turner (with an excellent little role for an even younger Mickey Rourke). The Big Chill was his personal take on a group of 1960s college friends reuniting fifteen years later for the funeral for their mutual bud, Alex (played in flashbacks by Kevin Costner, though those scenes were famously cut out of it. Kasdan would reward Costner with a plum role in his next film, the overrated gee-wiz Western, Silverado).Continue Reading