Tag Archives: Dances with Wolves

A True Hollywood Story: From the set of “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”

An inside exclusive by Tom Kapr

Director Kevin Reynolds sits beside the camera. “Okay everyone,” he says, “quiet on the set! Rolling film. And… ac–”

“Hang on,” Kevin Costner interrupts.

“What’s the problem?” asks Reynolds.

“I’m not ready,” replies Costner.

“But we’ve been prepping for hours for this one scene of dial–”

“Okay, I’m ready. Action!” Costner shouts.

Reynolds looks at the ground dejectedly. “Action,” he mutters to the cast inside his head, where Robin Hood is played by Daniel Day-Lewis.

Morgan Freeman is looking at Reynolds. He then looks over at Costner, who has his face bent toward the ground, his eyes tightly closed, obviously trying very hard to be English.

Freeman rolls his eyes, takes a deep breath, centers himself, and speaks: “Christian!”

“What?” says Christian Slater, standing just off-camera.

Everybody looks at Slater, who is focusing on Morgan Freeman, one eyebrow cocked, waiting. Freeman looks at Slater and nods subtly toward Costner, who still has his eyes closed. Slater cocks an eyebrow in Costner’s direction. “Oh, right,” says Slater. “My bad.”

Reynolds sighs. “Cut!”

“No, no, it’s okay,” says Costner. “Keep rolling, we’ll go again.”

“Let’s try it again,” mutters Reynolds. He has a brief flashback to the set of Fandango. His eyes twitches.

Morgan Freeman is still looking at Christian Slater. He then looks back at Costner, who is again concentrating on the Saxon warrior within. Freeman takes another deep breath, trying again to center himself. It’s a bit harder this time, but suddenly he has a vision of a tall man on a beautiful Mexican beach fixing a boat, and is overcome with peace. He opens his eyes, full of Moorish fire, and bellows: “Christian!”

“Hm?” says Christian Slater, cocking an eyebrow toward Freeman. Costner keeps his eyes closed. Freeman desperately clings to his vision of tropical paradise.

Reynolds sighs. “It’s alright, just keep ‘em roll–”

“Cut!” yells Costner. He walks off to nearby line of trees.

“Ah… it happened again, I’m sorry,” says Slater. “Maybe Kevin’s character should have a less confusing name? Hm? Are the writers on-set?”

Costner is gazing into the distance, imagining rolling plains covered with millions of the majestic tatanka.

Reynolds is unconsciously muttering to himself about a post-apocalyptic world in which all the glaciers have melted and covered the world in water. Surely, he thinks, that would be better than this.

Freeman has his eyes closed, and is back on the Mexican beach. He again sees the tall man working on the boat. The man stops his work and smiles at him, then transforms into a small golden statue, as the sand turns into velvety red carpet. Freeman smiles a big, toothy grin. Suddenly, a strange man in shorts and sneakers, with long scraggly facial hair and a red baseball cap, comes jogging across the beach. He jogs past Freeman, stops, turns around, and says, “I’m pretty tired. I think I’ll go home now.” He grabs the golden statue and jogs back from whence he came. The smile disappears from Freeman’s face.

Slater has one eyebrow cocked, looking around at the other actors for validation. “Right?” he says. “Less confusing names?”

Reynolds snaps out of his hallucinatory state, takes a few seconds to remember why he is in a medieval forest, sees Costner is nowhere to be found, and is overcome with happiness. “Alright, let’s take five! We’ll get it when we come back.”

Morgan Freeman sighs. “I hope.”

James Cameron, Part II: A Critique of Avatar

By Nathanael Griffis

I sat down to watch Avatar on DVD with an attitude similar to the one I had opening night in the theater: I really wanted to like it. I wanted it to be the sprawling epic that forever changes the fantasy genre. I wanted to feel the way I felt watching The Lord of the Rings. After it ended, my reaction was similar to my reaction a year ago: I was surprised. The first time, I had been dazzled by the fully realized world but had felt the story fell flat. This time, I still think the visual effects are the best yet, but I also have to give the story more credit. This is a flawed movie, but not in the way it is frequently criticized.

Stephen Lang, going to get some Jujubes during a brief hiatus in shooting.

I have heard complaints about the performances and the lack of depth in the characters. My second viewing provided evidence to the contrary. The performances are staggering, especially Zoe Saldana and Stephen Lang. Everyone in the cast, with the exception of some nameless soldiers or minor Na’vi characters, is at the top of their game. Sam Worthington (as Jake Sully) proves he can hold a movie on his shoulders. The moments when he sits down for his video journal are some of my favorite scenes in the film, because they remind me of the dichotomy of his life. Stephen Lang (as Colonel Quaritch) adds depth to a character that probably does not deserve such consideration. He makes a one-dimensional jingoist into something more and delivers the best line in the movie: “They will eat your eyes for Jujubes.” He oozes determination and sick pleasure in accomplishment and violence. Zoe Saldana (as Naytiri) is reminiscent of Andy Serkis in The Lord of the Rings–not up to his level, but close. She gives that CGI character a physical emotive presence that makes you believe it’s not fantasy.

Admittedly, they should have brought arrow-proof helicopters.

I’ll cover the visual effects in Part III of this series, so I only want to say here that Avatar does hold up in the home theater. Avatar‘s largest flaw, or at least the most frequently referenced, is that it rips off a lot of other films. The story is derivative to some extent, but derivation of a story is not an issue. It is essential to the Joseph Campbell monomyth which Avatar follows almost to a T (although I will admit that allusions in names like “Pandora” and “banshee” gets distracting.) The issue with Avatar is that it doesn’t have enough substance to match its incredible style. What is particularly egregious about it is that the potential for thematic depth is there. If only Cameron had been more derivative of Dances with Wolves, he might have gleaned that the beauty of that film is in challenging viewers’ ideologies about cultural morality.

Cameron modeling the complex method-acting technique of sitting for Sam Worthington.

Much of Avatar‘s thematic heft rests on Jake’s dilemma in having to choose between the indutrual/capitalist human society and the natural/communal society of the Na’vi. On paper, a paraplegic soldier having to struggle with living a false life inside a virtual body and then slowly converting over to the virtual life as he loses his grip on reality is amazing, because we, as the audience, should struggle along with him. The first half of the film utilizes this struggle excellently. Jake gives schematics of the Na’vi home tree over to the army as he goes native. The scene where Colonel Quaritch rips the real Jake Sully out of his Avatar at the end is a welcome reminder of the struggle. The weakness with the story is that by the end the struggle is only a reminder. I wasn’t as engaged with Jake as I was when he first started exploring the world and the decisions he had to make. Cameron does not challenge us with Jake’s decision to reject humanity; he decides for us. At the end of the film there is no chance that Jake has chosen wrongly. I felt cheated, and perhaps this is why people harp on how derivative it is. Instead of inspiring original conflicts of thought within our own psyches, Jake’s climactic decision merely reminds us of issues we’ve seen raised in previous films. A climax can make or break a film. All the material surrounding Jake’s decision to “go native” is stirring, but his actual decision is made too flippantly, and so the climax is wasted.

On the whole, Avatar is wonderful and deserves a place in film history as a great fantasy film, but in Cameron’s canon it lies on the bottom alongside True Lies, or maybe right above it. The action is great, the acting is better than most think, and the special effects are a historical tentpole. The story does not deserve as much criticism as it receives, but the presentation of the story betrays a glaring lack of trust in the audience.

–Nathanael Griffis

Buried Cinema, Artifact #005: The Missing

By Nathanael Griffis

My goal for Buried Cinema is to dig up the unjustly forgotten and obscure, to unearth gems that have been buried under the sediment of cinematic history, to shed light upon the lesser-known, and to give the underrated their due respect. These are the treasures that deserve a wider audience. –Tom Kapr, Editor

(MINOR SPOILER ALERT)

What if I told you Ron Howard was making a movie. “Okay, sure, what kind of movie?” A Western. “Awesome. Who’s in it?” Only Cate Blanchett, Tommy Lee Jones, Evan Rachel Wood, Aaron Eckhart, and Val Kilmer. “What’s it about?” Jones and Blanchett chase down an Apache Brujo, who’s like a witch doctor on steroids, after he kidnaps Blanchett’s daughter. “Okay, that sounds pretty good. I’m in.”

Yeah, Tommy Lee Jones would kick my ass in a fight.

Apparently not. For some reason, no one saw this movie. The Missing came out in 2003, but if you ask around about it now, you’ll probably get a confused look and the question, “Ron Howard made a Western?” Yes he did, and it was quite good. Adapted from the novel The Last Ride by Thomas Eidson, The Missing was Howard’s first film after A Beautiful Mind, so it should have had the popularity of that movie going for it. Instead, it came and went.

The Missing handles spiritualism and supernatural elements better than any Western I’ve seen. Tommy Lee Jones plays Samuel Jones, who left his daughter Magdalena (Cate Blanchett) when she was a child to go native. The movie opens with Jones returning to a grown Magdalena, now a mother of two. When Magdalena’s oldest daughter Lilly (Evan Rachel Wood) is kidnapped by the Brujo (played with a balance of brooding and a frightening apathy for the horrific by Eric Schweig), Maggie has to turn to her father track down the Apache. What ensues is a disturbing look at racism, spiritualism, religion, family, and human trafficking in 19th-century New Mexico.

Do NOT take a bad picture of this man. Don't ask why. Just don't do it.

If Dances with Wolves had been a horror film, Costner might have made something akin to The Missing. It has some of the most horrific scenes I’ve seen in a Western. Let me put it to you this way: the description below the R-rating that says “violence” is a huge understatement. (On a side note, this makes me really excited for what Ron Howard will do with The Dark Tower.) I’m still not sure what happened to Aaron Eckhart’s character, but I am sure I don’t want to know. Howard perfectly mixes showing the gore and pulling the camera away, so that the violence has just the right effect. The combined effects of the Brujo’s unpredictable and creative penchant for violence is beyond terrifying (especially in a scene in which he melts a photographer’s eyes out), and the starkly shot remains of his victims will leave you squeamish after the film. Perhaps this is why people have a hard time swallowing the movie.

It’s worth watching though. I’ve seen a few films that try to mix Native American spiritualism with the classic Western and fail. (See Renegade starring Vincent Cassel–or don’t.) The Missing, though, manages to balance the supernatural elements with a startling grace and effectiveness. I give credit to the performances and to Ken Kaufman’s script in this case. Tommy Lee Jones gives Sam, an unlikeable father figure, a level of depth that has to be hinted at in the tone of his voice and in his physical presence, because the character is too prideful to allow the audience to see how deep his empathy runs. Likewise, Magdalena has her father’s stubbornness and never fully overcomes her racism against Indians, but Cate Blanchett’s performance is such an engaging blend of vulnerability and strength that we can sympathize. There is simply no choice: the viewer must watch as the two characters grow but never fully reunite.

If they'd bought a box of Thin Mints, none of this would have happened.

The Missing is almost a movie of redemption, and the fact that it never reaches that level is a great strength of the film. There are some things in life (like, as the movie points out, abandoning you child), that would take more than a weekend to fix and forgive. The film understands this, and Sam, even as he longs to be close to his daughter, does as well. There is beauty in his struggle with resigning himself to the inability to be redeemed or the slim chance he can make things right.

Every character in The Missing has depth, even in the minor roles. Val Kilmer and Aaron Eckhart provide strong support. The same is true of Evan Rachel Wood; and watch out for Jenna Boyd, who plays Maggie’s younger daughter, Dot– she should be old enough to start getting recognition, and she deserves it for this role.

The Missing is not your typical Western. The end is haunting and leaves you thinking. It’s hard to classify, and hard to watch at times, but if you love Westerns, this is a must-see that shouldn’t be forgotten.

(The Missing at the IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0338188)

–Nathanael Griffis