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
Like the original noir of the 1940s, the later '70s neo-noir, (if it’s fair to call it that, admittedly the definition is being stretched pretty thin), is a direct reflection of its times: Vietnam, Watergate, institutional paranoia. (The original noir often reflected the crumbling American dream). Chinatown, The Long Goodbye, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Prime Cut, and Taxi Driver might represent one end of the '70s noir spectrum while institutional paranoia can be found more handily in All The President's Men, The Conversation, Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, and even Jaws. Arthur Penn’s Night Moves falls somewhere in the middle. Gene Hackman takes on a Sam Spade/Mike Hammer role, a cynical tough guy who thinks he knows all the answers, but his latest case makes him realize the world is a lot more unpleasant than even he thought. And like one of the seminal '40s noir flicks, The Big Sleep, here all the pieces don’t always add up. But what is especially fun when the film is over is the discovery that what often felt like overwritten '70s mumbo-jumbo dialogue proves to have its purpose as all the pieces fall into place in the grand puzzle.
Harry Moseby (Hackman, in his mustache and hairpiece years), an ex-football player and now down-on-his-luck Los Angeles private detective, is hired by a rich retired actress, Arlene Iverson (Janet Ward, excellent in just a couple scenes) to find and bring back her sixteen-year-old daughter, a baby-voiced nympho, Delly (played by the very young Melanie Griffith back when her voice matched her face). Like in the best of noir, the missing person is only a small part of a bigger picture. Following the swath of young men Delly has left in her path (including James Woods, still looking like a juvenile, but as intense as ever), fairly quickly Harry finds the teen in hiding in Florida, with one of her mother’s exes ('60s & '70s TV staple John Crawford) and his girlfriend (Jennifer Warren). Meanwhile, he has to deal with his own crumbling marriage; his wife ('70s B-actress Susan Clark, sporting a David Bowie haircut) wants him to be more ambitious, but he lives by his own code and has to be true to himself. Like Nicholson in Chinatown, Hackman’s pursuit takes him way out of his comfort zone, as he is exposed to a new world that includes movie stuntmen, statutory rape, dolphin breeding and finally the smuggling of ancient Yucatan artifacts which all stem from the ugly underbelly of the institution known as Hollywood (with creepy Florida also playing a role).Continue Reading
After his death, Steve McQueen reached rebel-cool icon status based on his off-screen machismo (racing cars and motorcycles, martial arts with Bruce Lee, stealing Robert Evans’ wife) and partly on his actual film resume, which in retrospect isn’t as great as you would expect. His peak years start in ’63 with his one masterpiece, The Great Escape (he did the overrated but still influential Western The Magnificent Seven a few years earlier), a couple of big hits that now feel more like remake-bait time capsules (The Thomas Crown Affair and The Cincinnati Kid), and of course there is also Bullitt, largely famous for its amazing high-speed San Francisco auto chases. But for the most part the late sixties were rounded out with forgotten melodramas (Love with the Proper Stranger, Baby the Rain Must Fall and The Sand Pebbles). The early seventies include a couple lesser collaborations with Sam Peckinpah (Junior Bonner and The Getaway) and the super cast/super dud The Towering Inferno. But besides appearing as himself in the Oscar-winning motorcycle documentary On Any Sunday, McQueen’s best film since The Great Escape is the epic Papillon, a film that has been written off by some as overly long and cold. But for my money it’s one of the best prison escape movies ever, as well as an eye-opening look at worlds I knew little about. (ALSO OF NOTE: I first saw it as a very young kid, in its second run at a drive-in, and there are some moments of violence that then confused me, but have stuck with me ever since.)
Based on the questionable autobiography of French petty criminal Henri “Papillon” Charrière, (played by the very American McQueen and shot in exotic locations all over the world) the script is credited to blacklisted legend Dalton Trumbo (Spartacus) and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (one of the creators of the '60s Batman TV series). The film begins in pre-WWII France with Papillon and other convicted criminals being marched through town and on to a boat to be shipped off to a French penal colony work camp. On the long and brutal ship ride, Papillon strikes a deal with a wealthy and rather famous forger, Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman in full nebbish mode), for protection. With a promise to keep the meek embezzler alive, Dega will finance any escape attempts. Through the course of time, the two strike up an unlikely friendship (a prison adventure Midnight Cowboy). The film covers years in swampy, tough malaria-plagued conditions, finally ending on the infamous Devil’s Island. The film is loaded with wonderful set pieces, including long and short escape attempts, a leper colony, sadistic guards, creepy prisoners, solitary confinements and lots of double crosses (even a nun stabs Papillon in the back). It’s a survival saga and a friendship story, though the survival aspect is the highlight.Continue Reading