Movie #71: Dances with Wolves (1990)

Director: Kevin Costner

Starring: Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Green, Rodney A Grant, and Floyd ‘Red Crow’ Westerman

Academy Awards (1991)

Best Picture: Jim Wilson, Kevin Costner

Best Director: Kevin Costner

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium: Michael Blake

Best Cinematography: Dean Semler

Best Sound: Russell Williams

Best Film Editing: Neil Travis

Best Music, Original Score: John Barry

Academy Award Nominations

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Kevin Costner

Best Art Direction-Set Decoration: Lisa Dean, Jeffrey Beecroft

Best Costume Design: Elsa Zamparelli

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Graham Greene

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Mary McDonnell

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Union soldier Lt. John Dunbar (Costner) requests a post on the American Frontier at Fort Sedgwick on the Great Plains.  He goes there to see the frontier, as he says, before it’s gone.  Though paranoid at first, he befriends the local Sioux Indian tribe and a wolf that always seems to watch him that he eventually names “Two Socks.”  Working through a clear language barrier with the Sioux, Dunbar learns the tribe has raised Stands With A Fist (McDonnell), a white orphan who does a lot of the interpreting.  Dunbar eventually falls in love with and marries her.

Transitioning from a Union soldier, Dunbar becomes known as Dances with Wolves by the tribe, and after his marriage to Stands With A Fist, spends all of his time with the tribe.  As the tribe plans to migrate, Dances returns to his fort to retrieve a diary he has kept telling of his experiences, only to find out more soldiers have arrived at the fort.  Their intent is to overtake the local tribes given the intelligence Dunbar had been sent out to gather.  Dances is conflicted and experiences the abuse of the gun-happy Union soldiers and has to decide whether he is an American or a Sioux.

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This film has a lot of things that appeal to my interests: American frontier history, Native American culture, romance, etc.  The story itself is very well done, and has a good balance of historical accuracy, though some liberties were taken.  There was a Fort Sedgwick in Colorado, Fort Hays, the place where Dunbar departs from at the beginning of the film, is in Kansas.  On the other hand, the film depicts the Sioux as peaceful and the Pawnee as the aggressors, though historically it was the other way around.

The story also does a good job of portraying the difficulty in overcoming the language barrier between the Native Americans and the Union soldiers.  Graham Greene does a great job as the Sioux Medicine Man ‘Ten Bears’, and he, Costner, and McDonnell all deserved the Academy Award nominations they received.  It was interesting to contrast Greene’s ‘Ten Bears’ character who was more inquisitive and demonstrated wisdom and patience, with Grant’s ‘Wind in His Hair’ who was more the aggressive warrior type.

Dunbar’s relationship with Stands With A Fist was very touching throughout the film.  McDonnell did a great job of portraying the conflicted woman who had to face her past prior to her being adopted by the Sioux.  Though guarded at first, she opens up and embraces her origins and overcomes the loss of her husband and falls in love with Dances with Wolves.

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The cinematography, given the scope and scale of some of the scenes, is top-notch.  Very little CGI was used in this film, as CGI was still in its infancy.  It makes scenes like the buffalo hunt all the more impressive.  They ended up using several thousand buffalo and shooting the scene over three weeks time.  Largely shot in South Dakota and Wyoming, Dances with Wolves has a lot of great scenery shots, which I think adds just the right touch to the film.

This was Kevin Costner’s first film to direct.  He broke two cardinal rules of new directors: filming with animals, and filming with children.  Though there was a lot of speculation on how well this film would do, it grossed over $400 million worldwide, and about $180 million in the U.S.  It cost about $22 million to make.

I think Costner had a real winner here.

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Dances with Wolves does a great job of telling a piece of America’s past.  Though it’s a fictionalized version or historical events, this film does a great job of communicating the plight of the Native American as he was kicked off his land and forced into submission by an outside invader.  For directing the film, its message, and the lasting impact on the image of the Native Americans, the Sioux Nation adopted Costner as an honorary member.

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I was incredibly disgusted with the trigger-happy Union soldiers who went straight to their guns when they saw Dunbar dressed as a Sioux Indian and their juvenile killing of Two Socks.  While I’m not a fan of killing, I was a little satisfied when the soldiers got their due for their arrogance.

To step into the political spectrum briefly, I think we as a country would have a far different attitude on the wars we enter into if we would just take the time to see things from the other point of view.  Perhaps we are hated because we’re trying to impose our way of life on others.  A film like Dances with Wolves makes me ask questions and have thoughts about these sorts of things.

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I would highly recommend this film, I thoroughly enjoyed the story, cinematography, and acting throughout.  It’s one I’ll probably revisit on a semi-regular basis.

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Movie #70: The Princess Bride (1987)

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Director: Rob Reiner

Starring: Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Mandy Patinkin, Chris Sarandon, Christopher Guest, Wallace Shawn, Andre the Giant, Fred Savage, Billy Crystal, and Peter Falk

A grandfather (Falk) reads his sick grandson (Savage) a love story that his father had read him, and he had read his grandson’s father.  It is the story of the beautiful Buttercup (Wright) and Westley (Elwes), the farm boy she falls in love with.  Westley leaves to make a fortune so they can get married, but his ship is attacked by pirates and he is presumed dead.  Buttercup agrees to marry Prince Humperdink (Sarandon), though Westley isn’t dead, and has returned to be with her.

Along the way Westley encounters Vizzini (Shawn), Inigo Montoya (Patinkin) and Fezzik the Giant (Andre), a trio that’s been hired by Humperdink to kidnap and kill Buttercup in order for Florin, his kingdom, to go to war with Guilder, a rival country he wants to go to war with.  Through the various obstacles (The Cliffs of Insanity, Screaming Eels, the Fire Swamp), Westley bests the three outlaws and eventually reunites with Butterup, revealing he has overtaken the role of the Dread Pirate Roberts, the leader who attacked Westley’s ship.  They eventually confront Humperdink, and in the end live happily ever after.

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Reiner does a great job of preserving the narrative format of this film, and Falk and Savage work well together as grandfather and grandson.  It’s nice to get small breaks in the story and return to present time and offer commentary from both a child’s and adult’s perspective.  I think this helps keep the story engaging and relatable for both young and older audiences.

The first time I watched this movie from start to finish was probably about 6 or 7 years ago.  It’s one that a lot of people have raved about, and while I knew some of the quotes and had seen bits and pieces, it’s just one I hadn’t taken the time to see all the way through.  It’s one that I haven’t seen enough times to have gotten stale or old, and I think the entertaining and funny antics throughout play a large part in that.

William Goldman, the book and screenplay’s author, said in one of the documentaries on the DVD that he came up with the name The Princess Bride because he asked each of his two daughters what kind of story he should write.  One said a story about a princess, the other a bride.  Funny how something so simple could make for such a fun story.  It’s also nice to enter an alternate reality because it’s done in an entertaining and engaging way.  That has a lot to do with both the script and the director.  The Princess Bride and This is Spinal Tap are probably two of Reiner’s best films, in my opinion.

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Without two strong leads this film wouldn’t work.  Although this was early on in Elwes and Wright’s careers, they work well together.  It’s been interesting to see where each person’s career has gone.  It’s been interesting to see Wright’s resume over the years.  Though she hasn’t necessarily had a whole lot of major roles, she’s been consistent and her performances have been very good.  Though Elwes hasn’t had as consistent or bit of a career as Wright, his performance in The Princess Bride is great because he does well with the youth and somewhat innocent charm of Westley.

 

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“Hello.  My Name is Inigo Monotoya. You killed my father; Prepare to die!” is a quote forever associated with Many Patinkin and this film.  It’s so simple, and yet it is so universally know.  Patinkin does a great job in this film as a troubled Spaniard out for revenge because his father was murdered by a six-fingered man, Count Rugen (Guest).

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Another thing I remember from a documentary is how Goldman was thinking of Andre the Giant when he wrote the character of Fezzik the Giant.  Something a number of the other cast members and crew noted was how Andre loved working on the film because he was treated like one of the guys.  His size didn’t set him apart from the other actors in their eyes.  Though a giant, he was an equal.  He does a great job in this film with some unexpected quick wit to his acting chemistry with Patinkin.  Though a big galoot, he’s got a soft and caring heart.

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Wallace Shawn’s Vizzini is also a fun character.  He fits the mold of that short guy who calls the shots and constantly insists on flaunting his intellectual superiority, largely because it’s the only card he has to play.

This film performed moderately at the box office, but since then has gained a strong cult following.  Goldman noted how the film got its wider audience once the film was released on VHS (and subsequently DVD and Blu-Ray).  Some have said it’s a Wizard of Oz for a new generation.  I can see some validity in that: the fantasy world, the young innocence yet wider appeal.

The Princess Bride has a good balance of appealing to a child’s young fantasy-seeking story while at the same time telling a nice love story.  It’s probably not for everyone, but it’s one I still enjoy watched semi-regularly.  I would recommend this one, and will probably see it again a few more times.  The screenplay, direction, and engage-able acting makes this a story that’s funny and a nice little escape from the real world.

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Movie #69: Mary Poppins (1964)

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Director: Robert Stevenson

Starring: Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, David Tomlinson, Glynis Johns, Karen Dotrice, and Matthew Garber

“With your feet on the ground you’re a bird in flight, with your fist holding tight to the string of your kite! ”

London, 1910.

Mary Poppins (Andrews) floats down  from the sky and into a nanny position for the Banks family.  George Banks (Tomlinson) works at the Dawes Tomes Mousley Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank and leaves the work of the home front to his wife and their maid, cook, and nanny.   Winifred  Banks (Johns) is a loving mother who is often distracted with the women’s suffrage movement.  As a result, Jane (Dotrice) and Michael (Garber) are largely raised by their nannies, and they cause so many problems for the nannies that they’ve gone through 6 in 4 months.

Poppins engages and helps the children to have fun while being responsible.  She, Jane, and Michael hop into a fantasy world through a sidewalk drawing by Poppins’ friend Bert (Van Dyke), have a tea party in the ceiling, and watch a bunch of chimney sweeps, including Bert, dance and enjoy a view of London not many get to encounter.  The children also accompany their dad to his work, where they inadvertently cause a run on the bank.  There is resolution in the end, though, as Mr. Banks realizes the importance of family and Poppins leaves presumably to go help another family.

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Walt Disney wanted to make a film version of P.L. Travers story for nearly 2 decades before the author gave her approval.  She felt that no one could do her books justice on the big screen.  After watching the premiere, Travers listed off a number of things she would do differently, to which Disney replied that they were far past the time for revisions.

This was also Julie Andrews first major movie role (she’d mostly done theater and TV movies to this point).  Ironically Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, which won Best Picture the following year, are probably the two biggest movies for which Andrews is known for.  They also were the two top-grossing films of 1965, with Goldfinger at third and My Fair Lady, which won Best Picture over Poppins, in fourth.

Though early in her career, Andrews does a great job of holding her own as the fun, fair, and firm title character.  She had originally been turned down for the lead role in My Fair Lady, but thanked Jack Warner at the Academy Awards for leaving her open to win the award for her performance in Poppins.  She has a good balance of being someone who follows the rules while having as much fun as she can.

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Dick Van Dyke is charming as the jack-of-all-trades Bert.  However, his accent is horrible.

Really horrible.

It is often cited for aspiring actors and actresses as what not to do.  This was also very early in his film career, but his talent was apparent, and he could do a wide range from comedy to a voice of reason for Jane and Michael after they ran away from the bank.

His chemistry with Andrews is also a lovely thing to look at in a different light for me being older now.  Though their relationship is platonic, there’s still just enough tension between the two to suggest the possibility of something more.  Although Van Dyke is 10 years older than Andrews, it really didn’t show in the film.

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This was also a film that does a lot of branching live action with animation in a way that hadn’t been done before.  It was one of the complaints from Travers, but I think they handled it well given the time period it was made in.  The sequences in the chalk drawing were entertaining.

One of the central elements of this film is the music, hands down.  That makes sense since it is a musical though.  My wife and I watched this movie together, and it was her first time watching it.  I’d seen it numerous times as a child, so a lot of it was familiar to me.  Though she hadn’t seen the film, my wife knew a number of the songs.  “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”, “A Spoonful of Sugar”, “Jolly Holiday”, “Chim Chim Cher-ee”, “Stay Awake”, “Let’s Go Fly A Kite”, “Feed the Birds”, and “Step in Time” are all ones that are fairly easy to recognize.

My personal favorite from the film is Step in Time, mostly because of the accompanying choreography from the chimney sweeps.

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My wife and I had the opportunity to see a local theater do the Broadway production of Mary Poppins, and I must say it was worth every penny we paid for it.  I wish I had watched the movie before seeing it live, as I’ve found I enjoy live productions of this and other films over the original film.  It was about an hour longer than the movie, and from what I understand was more true to the book.  It also went into further detail about George Banks’ childhood and how he became the man he was at the start of the film.  For any fan of the movie I’d highly recommend seeing it live.  It’s had a run on Broadway, and as of now is only in a handful of theaters across the country, however, it will be in far more live theaters next year to mark the 50th anniversary of the film.

Mary Poppins is a fun film that explores discipline and the balance of fun and responsibility.  It also promotes the importance of family and examining some of the more important things in life.  It does it in a way that’s entertaining, engaging, and full of memorable songs and dance routines.  It is one I’d recommend for all to see at least once, and it’s one I look forward to sharing for years to come.

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Movie #68: As Good As It Gets (1997)

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Director: James L. Brooks

Starring: Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, Greg Kinnear, and Cuba Gooding Jr.

“How do you write women so well?” “I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.”

Romance novelist Melvin Udall (Nicholson) is the world’s least romantic person.  He’s obsessive-compulsive, rude, prejudiced and selfish.  He eats at one restaurant, with his own plastic cutlery, where waitress Carol (Hunt) tolerates him.  When Melvin’s gay neighbor Simon (Kinnear) is beaten up during a robbery, Melvin is enlisted to take care of his dog Verdell.  As Melvin grows fond of Verdell, his relationships change with both Simon and Carol as he gains his humanity and in the end cares about these people.

This role was made for Jack Nicholson, and he gives one of the best performances of his career.  He is one of the few people who can be so over the top, offensive, and still be able to pull it off.  He’s so matter-of-fact with his disdain for others in a way that not many actors can accurately portray.  His flair and complementary one liners also provide a lot of the comedy in this film.

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Melvin learns Carol has an asthmatic son, Spencer, and sends a doctor (portrayed nicely by Harold Ramis) out to diagnose and take care of him.  This happened after Melvin befriended Verdell, and it’s a nice way of showing how Melvin is changing.  He doesn’t understand a lot of social norms and assumptions, though, and frequently goes over the line.  Here is another place where Nicholson’s talent shows through.  He does this random, offensive things in a way that he doesn’t realize why or how he’s being offensive.

Melvin and Carol’s relationship is at the heart of the story.  Even though there’s a vast age difference between Nicholson and Hunt, they complement each other well in this movie.  Each won lead acting Oscars for their roles in As Good As It Gets, and I think it’s both a reflection of their own talent and their chemistry.  Mark Andrus and James L. Brooks do a great job of writing their banter and making each person very real.  I’ve said many times I enjoy films far more when they reflect real life, and Carol and Melvin, the unlikelihood of their relationship, and the natural chemistry they have with each other are all real things that can reflect everyday life.

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Greg Kinnear also received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, though he didn’t win.  I always go back and forth with his performances.  He’s talented, I won’t argue that.  Getting work in Hollywood is usually a reflection of talent, but Kinnear’s roles are hit and miss for me.  I liked him in this one, though he got painfully obnoxious at times, but I didn’t care for him too much in The Matador or You’ve Got Mail.

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As Good As It Gets was a film that I had no strong feelings for or against the first time I watched it.  I thoroughly enjoyed it this time around though.  Though the overarching story (grumpy guy goes soft) is a tad cliché, this film is set apart because of an entertaining and fun story, along with two strong leads who bring it to life.  I’m now going back and forth about whether to buy it or not.  I’d highly recommend this one for Nicholson fans, it’s one of his best performances in my opinion.

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

 

Movie #67: Downfall (2004)

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Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel

Starring: Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, Corinna Harfouch, Ulrich Matthes, Juliane Kohler, and Heino Ferch

Berlin: April, 1945.

With the Russian Army approaching and overtaking Berlin, Adolf Hitler (Ganz) and many in the upper regiment of the Nazi Party spend the final days of World War II in the Führerbunker.  Based on the accounts of Traudl Junge (Lara), one of his secretaries, it shows the final downfall of the Nazi Party and the Western Theater of World War II.

A film like this is difficult to gauge.  The content matter itself is tricky.  A criticism of Downfall is how it humanizes Hitler in a way that the Final Solution isn’t addressed.  It somewhat makes sense though since this is the final week of the war.

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I’d find taking a role in this film could be a kiss of death to someone’s career.  Ganz took a tremendous risk with this, but he thoroughly researched his role and performed in such a way that Hitler historians thought he accurately portrayed the Fuhrer in his final days.  He remained defiant to the end, ultimately believing he would not be defeated.   Thankfully he was.  Alexandra Maria Lara does a good job of playing Hitler’s young and naive secretary.  Juliane Kohler also does well as Hitler’s girlfriend, Eva Braun.

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There is also a sense of loyalty in this film that reminds me to an extent of Letters From Iwo Jima.  As the Japanese soldiers killed themselves if they didn’t keep their post, a number of Nazis in this film killed themselves when they knew they had lost and Hitler had committed suicide.  It’s unfortunate, especially in the case of Magda (Harfouch) and Joseph Goebbels (Matthes).  Though Joseph was a chief propaganda officer and his wife was a devout loyal Nazi, they didn’t need to kill their kids.  That’s just wrong in so many ways.

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The film starts and ends with Junge expressing her regret over her role as Hitler’s secretary.  While she says she justified her role at the time, she wasn’t aware of the killing of the Jews, in the end she said that was no excuse.  I’m glad those clips were included in the film.  Junge died in 2002, the same year her autobiography Until the Final Hour was released.  Accounts such as hers are important to have.  They are the firsthand accounts that are being lost as these people die.

Given its historical content, Downfall is a movie that’s an uphill battle from the word go.  A strength of this movie is Ganz’s portrayal of the Nazi Dictator.  This film certainly won’t change people’s’ minds about the man and what he did, no film can.  It does, however, do a small part in humanizing Hitler: he was kind to his secretaries and cook and cared for his dog Blondi.  He had, in the end, lost his mind, and I think Ganz does a good job of balancing and portraying the humanistic and crazy sides of Hitler in the final days of World War II.

This is not a movie I will see again, but these types of movies need to be made.  People need to know about our history, otherwise we’ll only be doomed to repeat it.

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.