Reviews

'Dances with Wolves: 20th Anniversary Edition': Thrilling, Dramatic, Sweeping

Dances with Wolves isn’t an epic as much as it’s an intimate study of humanity, or a carefully hung portrait of friendship, love and acceptance.


Dance with Wolves

Director: Kevin Costner
Cast: Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene
Distributor: Fox
Studio: Orion Pictures Corporation
Release Date: 2011-01-11

Dances with Wolves is an extraordinary masterpiece. Thrilling, dramatic, sweeping in scope, Kevin Costner’s first (and best) bid behind the camera is well deserving of its Oscar and critical achievements – despite rumblings to the contrary from Scorsese’s camp – and mainstream success. Here is a heartfelt, honest look at a bygone culture – an ode to the western frontier, if you will.

Political motivations aside, what stands out most in Costner’s epic is the delicate treatment of the American Indians, that oft-ridiculed society that once dominated the nation entire, undone by the western expansion of the white man. Long portrayed as savages, or clueless barbarians, the Indians in Dances with Wolves, more specifically the Sioux tribe, are, more often than not, seen performing the rudimentary duties of everyday life. They tell jokes, hold sly conversations; laugh, play. At one point Kicking Bird (Graham Greene), a quiet, ponderous medicine man, slides into the sack with his wife, pauses, reaches into his blankets, and yanks out one of his children’s dolls. Costner’s intent is to demonstrate the similarities between two cultures, and then ask why one deserved less than the other.

Such details tend to get lost amidst a film’s epic scope, but under the delicate hands of Costner and screenwriter Michael Blake, serve as a means of telling a story. That’s because, despite an abundance of awesome set pieces (the buffalo hunt standing as the best), Dances with Wolves isn’t an epic as much as it’s an intimate study of humanity, or a carefully hung portrait of friendship, love and acceptance.

Disillusioned Civil War lieutenant John Dunbar (Costner) inexplicably branded a hero after a failed suicide attempt wins him a battle, gets his choice of military posts. He chooses the frontier, something he wishes to see before it vanishes completely. Dunbar makes the long trek out west only to find an abandoned fort littered with the bones of previous dwellers. Isolated at his new home, Dunbar soon makes contact with the local Sioux tribe, and quickly establishes good relations. By happenstance the tribe carries with them a white woman called Stands with a Fist (Mary McDonnell) who has lived with the Sioux for most of her life. Stands with a Fist ultimately bridges the gap between Dunbar and his new contacts, the results of which open the lieutenant’s eyes, forcing him to forever rid himself of everything he thought he knew about America and its original inhabitants.

Dances with Wolvescan be summed up as a passion project. Director and star Kevin Costner carries the film on his creative shoulders. At the time he was a young actor, full of piss and vinegar. His ego, while certainly visible (check out those larger-than-life opening titles), gave way to a humbling directing experience, one many thought would be his undoing. That drive to prove all other’s wrong gives Dances with Wolves its heart wrenching soul, something a more established filmmaker may have missed altogether. Costner’s passion visibly shows in the way he meticulously lights and crafts each shot; the way he carefully unfolds his story, peeling away the layers to reveal the truth of the matter. The director makes bold statements, but does so without a hammer.

The plot surges forward at all times with confidence. Costner knew he had a winner on his hands, and the director films each sequence as though keenly aware of audience expectations.

Even so, at times that sure footedness gives way to Hollywood convention. The love story, while touching, feels slightly contrived. The film more or less stops dead in its tracks so that Costner can clash tongues with the sultry McDonnell. The white villains in the final reel likewise feel artificial. For a film deconstructing stereotypes in such a manner, I was surprised at the painstaking lengths Dances with Wolves willingly traveled to portray settlers as one-note cartoon characters. Instead of delving into the complexities revolving around Dunbar being forced to choose between sides, Dances with Wolves gives him only one viable option. (Kinda like James Cameron's Avater ...)

Yet, if Costner the director sporadically loses his grip, Costner the actor never misses a beat. His performance here is second to none – quiet, methodical; more encompassed by silent observations than robust heroic actions. You understand Dunbar’s loneliness, and his eventual transformation; his curiosity, and then love for a peoples he otherwise hadn’t given a second thought. Not that Dunbar is a terribly difficult character to play, but the role doesn’t call for showboating. Dunbar is not a leader; nor is he a hero. He’s simply a man trying to understand the world, and Costner, as he did in Field of Dreams, pulls off the role with aplomb.

Of course it helps to have a splendid supporting cast, namely Oscar-nominees Graham Greene and Mary McDonnell. Greene’s performance, in particular, as the equally quiet, ponderous Kicking Bird, radiates intelligence and patience. A moment early in the film when Dunbar tries to mimic a buffalo works as more than a joke if only because Greene refuses to play it as such. He sits, unmoving, trying to understand what Dunbar is saying. For him, Dunbar represents the key to survival, or understanding another civilization. I liked that he grew frustrated at times and even became emotional – even the wisest of us succumb to human tendencies.

I also liked Rodney A. Grant’s portrayal of Wind in His Hair, arguably the most crucial character in the film. The character at first denies Dunbar, but then ultimately comes to respect him. From a visual standpoint he is raw, unhinged physical power – the iconic image of the American Indian. Inside he’s a complex individual full of pride, and fear for his people. If we could only see, then we might understand. Such seems to be the slogan for the film entire.

Dances with Wolvesrepresents a milestone in Hollywood cinema. As a film it’s a wonderful achievement, full of scope, simplicity and subtle humor. Many actors become directors (Mel Gibson, Clint Eastwood, Ron Howard), but few have the cajones to pull off as big a stunt as Costner – especially on their first stint. A film like Dances with Wolves is no easy undertaking; it requires dedication, humility and a certain amount of insanity to pull off. Good thing Costner was up to the task.

For this review I watched the 20th Anniversary Blu-ray edition and had my first viewing of the much touted “Extended Cut” which adds some 50+ minutes to the finished film. Costner has stated that he had nothing to do with this version of the film, and that his cut is the one seen in theaters. In point of fact, the “Extended Cut” doesn’t add or take away from the film. Actually, the film moves along at a nice pace either way, which surprised me since the “Extended Cut” lasts a little over four hours in length. I watched it in two hour segments, but only because I had other things to do. Otherwise I could’ve finished it off in one sitting and not missed a beat. I will say that some of the scenes, such as Stands with a Fist’s introduction, feel unnecessary. Likewise Kicking Bird’s character is given a brief sequence in which he has a simple conversation with the chief that I felt was included too early. Part of the film’s appeal is its slow unveiling of this new world; by diving head first into the Sioux camp, the veil of mystery unfolds all too quickly.

In truth, I can’t really remember the original cut perfectly, but I didn’t feel like the added 50-minutes hampered the film. The journey is still the same; it just takes a little longer to get to the finish.

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8

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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