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Worth A Look: 20.51%
Average: 10.26%
Pretty Bad: 6.41%
Total Crap: 8.97%

2 reviews, 66 user ratings

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Dances With Wolves
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by brianorndorf

"Costner's Country"
5 stars

When I think of “Dances with Wolves,” my mind reels back to December of 1990, a time where I first encountered word of the picture’s release from a local pennysaver film critic (for you Minneapolis movie folk, the man was Barry ZeVan). Already entrenched in moviegoing habits, I was well aware of Kevin Costner and his upcoming western, hypnotized by the film’s unusual teaser marketing campaign. However, on this frigid weekend morning, sitting down at a local strip mall with a soda, I began to grasp the film in more than just simple movie attendance terms, reading about the picture’s awe-inspiring scope and thematic novelty. It’s a sweet memory of growing anticipation, especially for an underdog film nobody was expecting much from. It was perhaps the last time “Dances with Wolves” enjoyed the element of surprise.

Wounded on a Civil War battlefield, Lt. John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) watches as his own suicidal act results in unexpected heroism, leading to a promotion and a requested assignment on the Great Plains of America. Taking command of a dilapidated fort by himself, Dunbar rejuvenates his mind, taking to nature observation and journaling as a way of passing the time before reinforcements arrive. Visited by a tribe of Sioux Indians, led by Kicking Bird (Graham Greene), Dunbar is immediately drawn to this alien nation, intrigued by the peaceful curiosity exhibited by a people he’s been trained to call the enemy. Through various offerings of trust and prairie insight, Dunbar soon becomes part of the community, falling for their adoptive Caucasian daughter, Stands with a Fist (Mary McDonnell). Making a life with the Native Americans, Dunbar, now rechristened Dances with Wolves, finds his rightful home, but worries for the safety of the Sioux as military forces encroach on the land.

Collecting numerous honors, omnipresent publicity, and gargantuan box office during its theatrical run, it’s easy to forget the precarious position “Dances with Wolves” was in before its release in 1990. Here was a three-hour motion picture working a wheezing genre, with a major chunk of its running time devoted to subtitles for the Lakota Sioux language spoken in the film. It was a picture of respect and revisionism in a time when Westerns weren’t so culturally tolerant, driving into the great expanse of the West to explore the tentative bond between enemies. It was also a 17-million-dollar gamble for Costner, who pieced together the budget while developing a script written by dear friend Michael Blake (adapted from his own novel), while also assuming intensive performance duties. And to make the project even more unattractive to outsiders, Costner elected to direct, making his feature debut with this little oater that could.

And it did. Boy, did it ever. “Dances with Wolves” quickly ascended to cultural ubiquity, assuming sleeper command as audiences flocked to see a compassionate western starring a rare actor of affable all-American charisma. However, its raging success obscured a great deal of its artistry, with subsequent years turning the film into a punching bag for loutish Oscar pundits and the understandably disillusioned anti-Costner crowd. A burning resentment that’s unearned and unfair.

At the core of “Dances with Wolves” lies a story heavy with vulnerability, taking an uncommon route of contemplation in a genre that typically revels in war. Blake’s tale is one of spiritual breakthrough, as Dunbar grows to find himself in the middle of nowhere, compelled to follow his heart while his head rattles with duty and doubt. It’s a beautiful illustration of instinct as the lead character interacts and soon melds with the Sioux, finding a home with his adversary, only to discover there are little differences between the “white man” and the Native Americas. It’s a note of tolerance that would crumble in many other hands, played either too syrupy or too abruptly. Costner allows his film to soak in the juices of discovery, encouraging the viewer to be lulled in by the majesty of the locations and the integrity of personal expression -- a directorial blend of John Ford and David Lean, with a few Terrence Malick beats of naturalistic texture found along the way.

“Dances with Wolves” is never saccharine, never melodramatic; it’s paced to embrace character catharsis while the narrative moseys along, intensifying Dunbar’s odyssey. There’s no doubt the rebirth is nurtured by Dean Semler’s stunning prairie cinematography (it’s a film to live inside of, not just watch passively), which treats blue skies and rolling pastures as scripture, but the central emotional bloom of the film is carefully encouraged throughout, creating this tractor beam of drama as Dunbar is compelled to push his Sioux alliance further. The arc is hypnotic, not simply because of Costner’s deceptively straightforward “aw, shucks” performance, but in the deliberate pace of the story, which takes the time to appreciate the psychology shared between the diverse cultures, honoring stances of pride and threat (the Sioux are hardly pipe-sucking pacifists), breathing in the pure magnificence of the pause as this sweeping drama plays out.

It’s Costner’s steady hand that makes a miracle out of “Dances with Wolves.” It’s cinematic integrity with timing and composure that could only emerge from a young, hungry filmmaker surrounded by a pack of supportive friends, remarkable collaborators, and a splendid ensemble offered an exquisite amount of screen time to feel out the unsettled nature of their characters. Extra attention must be paid to McDonnell, who creates a feral, wounded creature out of Stands with a Fist, refusing to wilt in the presence of picture’s brightest star. The performance is a sustained surprise, taking intriguing linguistic turns while generating authentic heat with Costner and their extended dance of the pants. Greene also hits several grace notes as the conflicted tribal leader, a man willing to trust Dunbar, yet wise enough to understand the charge of settlers sure to follow him.

Of course, no discussion of “Dances with Wolves” would be complete without genuflecting in front of composer John Barry, who gifts the screen one of the great all-time film scores, soothingly enriching Dunbar’s journey with romantic and adventurous themes that curl up around the picture, evoking cross-country movement and longing with a symphonic sanctuary that’s emotionally crippling. It’s aural splendor from a longtime industry deity. Who better to score the heartbreak of America’s conquest than a Brit?

Time has softened the impact of “Dances with Wolves” and sugarcoated many of its grim realities (the film’s detractors tend to forget the picture’s eye-opening body count), yet the feature retains extraordinary intelligence and care, earnestly investigating the ties that bind and the prejudices that divide. It’s a tale of immense pastoral presence and intimacy, an irresistible serving of consciousness in the heartland. Costner might’ve lost his way during his career as his ego inflated and monetary concerns were raised (seizing mastery again with the hard edges of 2003’s “Open Range”), but “Dances with Wolves” is as genuine an artistic triumph as they come; a spellbinding American classic that tastes the tears of a country in the midst of all its incomparable beauty.

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originally posted: 04/15/11 01:09:51
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User Comments

9/14/17 morris campbell very good imho 4 stars
9/03/17 FireWithFire Read about THE REAL Sioux indians. Kevin Costner must apologize 1 stars
2/19/15 master yoda so damn long 1 stars
7/21/12 Sean Harrison Great movie, but watch it from the beginning 5 stars
1/23/12 action movie fan long tedious and boring soldier blue was far better 2 stars
7/07/11 millersxing Costner, the Kanye West of westerns, "we all self-conscious, I'm just the 1st to admit it" 5 stars
9/24/10 Dr.Lao Typical Costner ego trip (sorry Slyder, but this film is just plain pretentious crap) 2 stars
10/15/09 deserae richardson besides the souix, what other tribes are in this movie? 4 stars
8/16/09 Dr. Q For those with a good heart, and good sense, the best movie of all time. 5 stars
7/22/09 Abhishek Chakraborty's ok 3 stars
12/06/08 Michelle Great thanks for reminding people of our American Heritage 5 stars
8/28/08 Shaun Wallner This movie has some great scenes in it. 5 stars
3/07/08 ben dover amazing.a poor mans grizzly adams-what a cunt 5 stars
10/24/07 Ivana Mann Mary McDonnell is the funniest "Indian" since Mel Brooks in Blazing Saddles. 1 stars
6/26/07 mb Good story. One sided though. Almost all white men but one are evil. 4 stars
2/18/07 Sugarfoot A great movie sure, but over Goodfellas! 4 stars
12/07/06 bradley e lavallee(esquire) awsome,terriffic,awsome 5 stars
7/13/06 EZ All white people are savages, aren't they?? 3 stars
7/11/06 Gideon did dunbar take part in little big horn? 4 stars
12/23/05 cody a great movie with good acting and even great perf. by kevin costner, academy awards 7 5 stars
10/07/05 Klondo Better than the book. Haven't read the book. Won't. The sequel isn't very good. 5 stars
8/26/05 D Buckley Back when Costner had balls 5 stars
7/06/05 Pinkline Jones A poor man's Grizzly Adams 3 stars
11/08/04 tina johnson GREAT acculturation and assimilation of culture conversion or abandonment 4 stars
11/01/04 Charles S. Lewis tc don't have a clue what your talking about!! 5 stars
10/23/04 ODH Good storyline, a bit too long and does drag a bit 3 stars
10/15/04 Pete A little boring... 3 stars
8/17/04 Richard Eyles My favourite film of all time. 5 stars
8/03/04 valeria Beautiful 4 stars
5/02/04 martin Another example of Hollywood stereotyping and misrepresenting the Native American culture 1 stars
12/10/03 Desperado Anyone who has the audacity to rip this movie is a dipshit. One of the best of our time. 5 stars
11/29/03 john Costner finds love and respect for life on the plains - beautifully crafted film 4 stars
11/15/03 chris excellent movie 5 stars
10/06/03 DM Beautiful and well-acted, but boring at points 4 stars
9/29/03 Kyle Sorry everybody, but I think this movie sucked the bag. 1 stars
9/03/03 marion micheal morrison little sister, I was born game and I intend to go out that way. 3 stars
8/17/03 robbie keane shit 1 stars
3/14/03 Christy I think the film was an eye-opener that what the wt. men did to the indians was terrrible 5 stars
3/08/03 Jack Sommersby Pandering-down-to historical drama is nontheless entertaining. 3 stars
10/22/02 Charles Tatum Good, but a ripoff of "A Man Called Horse" 4 stars
10/04/02 Amber Great movie, good info! 5 stars
9/07/02 Ramblin Wreck Great movie........though I ususally dislike "Revisionist Westerns" 5 stars
7/12/02 KMG BEAUTIFUL. The first film I saw that respected Indians. 5 stars
4/28/02 Sam Almost makes me wish I were Sioux 5 stars
3/25/02 joe joe i liked it 4 stars
3/17/02 FlaFan Richly deserved all the Oscars it won 5 stars
1/07/02 Andrew Carden Really Good Movie, It'd Be Awesome If It Was Cut Down 30 Minutes. 4 stars
12/04/01 Shams Huque Beautiful film. 5 stars
10/31/01 Sumixam Superb! Very entertaining. 5 stars
8/31/01 spaceworm What? No "sucks all ass" on this meadow muffin? Allow me... 1 stars
7/28/01 Henry Ginsberg great plot 5 stars
6/21/01 Dave another movie that will go down as an all time classic 5 stars
6/05/01 Just like a Wop . . . Revisionist how? There weren't Indians in the American West? 5 stars
5/20/01 R.W. Welch Revisionist western, rambles on a bit but has some interesting insights. 4 stars
2/16/01 James Excellent and actually very well balanced drama. A must see 5 stars
1/14/01 Avenger Girl This movie is a waste of film and effort, long and boring to no aim whatso ever. 2 stars
11/13/00 The EVIL Penguin too long and very slow 2 stars
11/03/00 Cristopher Revilla One of 1991's best films, and possibly Kevin Costner's finest moment 5 stars
4/04/00 yankee great movie. The end is vague but the buffalo hunts are wonderful 5 stars
3/25/00 Richard Wright Maybe this film is another of Costner's wet dreams,but drama and action-wise it's sound. 4 stars
1/24/00 Gustaf The best movie ever made. 5 stars
1/10/00 John Markham Costner is a complete void on screen, very long and very dull. 2 stars
7/07/99 Ben Leostein Rating: **** (out of ****) Category: "Excellent" 5 stars
6/14/99 Dylan A bit corny but a decent enough flick. 3 stars
6/09/99 lucas jackson I thought this movie was good compared to most of Kevin costners shiity films 4 stars
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  09-Nov-1990 (PG-13)
  DVD: 25-May-2004

  02-Feb-1991 (15)

  14-Feb-1991 (M)

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