Tag Archives: Mary McDonnell

Dances with Wolves (1990, Kevin Costner)

From the start, director Costner embrues Dances with Wolves with melancholic tragedy. Even as Costner’s protagonist–a Union soldier reassigned to the frontier–travels west, seeing startling natural beauty, which Costner and cinematographer Dean Semler visualize carefully, enthusiastically, perfectly, there’s dread. Most of it comes from John Barry’s lush and haunting score, but Costner does make sure to juxtapose his character’s idyllic, solitary experience with the realities around him. The realities involve the residents of the frontier–the Native Americans–and the threat Costner represents.

Costner’s protagonist is one of the singular elements of Dances with Wolves. He’s a goof, but Costner–both as director and actor–never invites a laugh. He still gets them occasionally and paces to allow them, he just doesn’t invite them. The film runs three hours, with most of the first hour spent establishing Costner and the setting. The Sioux living nearby, who he eventually joins, are either figures on the horizon or unintelligible visitors. Of course, the Sioux–Graham Greene and Rodney A. Grant are the primary supporting cast–do have their own scenes, but they’re delayed. It isn’t until Costner, the actor, meets them in the film does Costner, the director, let Greene and Grant start to develop. Almost the entire first hour of Dances with Wolves is Costner delaying the inciting incident. There’s a lot of ground situation to establish and Costner takes his time.

The tone Costner sets in that first hour, alternating between graphic war violence and the tranquil, infinite prairie, doesn’t carry for the rest of the film. Dances with Wolves becomes a very mature romance once the Sioux befriend Costner and he meets Mary McDonnell’s “captive.” McDonnell’s got her own arc, which is awesome, with her relearning her English and romancing a fellow white person, but she’s never reconnecting with her “lost” identity. Costner and writer Thomas Blake (adapting his novel) are very deliberate in how they present not just the Sioux, but how they present Costner and McDonnell to the Sioux and vice versa. That introductory tone, occasionally violent but still tranquil, makes the eventual character relationships all the better. Costner can spend twenty minutes having Costner and Greene bond, Costner and McDonnell appreciate each other’s company–and Costner and Grant’s relationship is maybe the film’s most emotionally devastating–and then get into the bigger questions.

The weight of Wolves comes from these characters forced into these new, impossible situations with one another, but also the impending doom of settlement. Costner narrates the film–through an in-film journal device–and lays a lot of that groundwork. But the appreciation for the natural beauty also gets emphasized in that narration. The narration also directly affects how Costner’s character’s sweet goofiness comes across in scene. It’s a beautifully constructed narrative.

The film’s technically outstanding. Semler’s photography, presumably mostly in natural light, is amazing. The Barry score is awesome. Great editing from William Hoy, Chip Masamitsu, Steve Potter and Neil Travis.

Superb acting–Greene, McDonnell, Grant, Costner, Tantoo Cardinal. Very nice “cameos” from Robert Pastorelli, Charles Rocket, Maury Chaykin, Wes Studi. McDonnell’s performance could power its own film.

Dances with Wolves is emotionally draining enough Costner could probably get away with a cute moment in the third act just to give some relief. But there isn’t any relief; Wolves has to be honest. Technicolor skies, endless Panavision prairies, the thunder of a buffalo herd–all too cinematic, all too real. Blake’s script helps a lot with the detail, ditto Jeffrey Beecroft’s production design.

Dances with Wolves is a stunning achievement from Costner and his cast and his crew.



Directed by Kevin Costner; screenplay by Michael Blake, based upon his novel; director of photography, Dean Semler; edited by William Hoy, Chip Masamitsu, Steve Potter and Neil Travis; music by John Barry; production designer, Jeffrey Beecroft; produced by Costner and Jim Wilson; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring Kevin Costner (Lieutenant Dunbar), Mary McDonnell (Stands With A Fist), Graham Greene (Kicking Bird), Rodney A. Grant (Wind In His Hair), Floyd ‘Red Crow’ Westerman (Ten Bears), Tantoo Cardinal (Black Shawl), Robert Pastorelli (Timmons), Charles Rocket (Lieutenant Elgin), Maury Chaykin (Major Fambrough) and Wes Studi (Toughest Pawnee).



Donnie Darko (2001, Richard Kelly)

Donnie Darko has one of those discussion begging conclusions. So I’ll skip that aspect entirely and concentrate what director Kelly does so well. There’s a meticulous design to Darko but it’s mostly unimportant; once you get past the MacGuffin, it’s just this story about a teenage schizophrenic’s life coming apart.

Jake Gyllenhaal is outstanding in the lead. Kelly’s script will occasionally give him some really difficult moments, sometimes he succeeds, sometimes he doesn’t. One example is the therapy sessions–it’s unclear if Katharine Ross’s psychiatrist is supposed to be awful at her job–Gyllenhaal has some really rough dialogue at times.

Another odd spot is when Gyllenhaal is hanging out with sidekicks Stuart Stone and Gary Lundy. Kelly writes Gyllenhaal’s character as an unaware genius, so he’ll race past his friends in conversation–one of the beautiful things is how his girlfriend, played by Jena Malone, also isn’t as smart but somehow they pace each other.

But Kelly doesn’t just focus on Gyllenhaal. Mary McDonnell has a lot to do as his mother; she’s fantastic. Holmes Osborne is great as the dad too, but Kelly spreads his attention to odd characters. There’re Beth Grant’s nutty Christian lady (she’s appropriately terrifying) and Drew Barrymore’s driven English high school teacher. Barrymore’s awful. She put up some of the money for the movie, which explains her regrettable presence.

The soundtrack’s occasionally way too precious during montages, but Kelly keeps going until it works. He, Gyllenhaal, McDonnell and Malone make Darko a distinguished success.



Written and directed by Richard Kelly; director of photography, Steven Poster; edited by Sam Bauer and Eric Strand; music by Michael Andrews; production designer, Alec Hammond; produced by Adam Fields and Sean McKittrick; released by Newmarket Films.

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko), Jena Malone (Gretchen Ross), Mary McDonnell (Rose Darko), Holmes Osborne (Eddie Darko), Stuart Stone (Ronald Fisher), Gary Lundy (Sean Smith), Katharine Ross (Dr. Lilian Thurman), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Elizabeth Darko), Daveigh Chase (Sam Darko), Drew Barrymore (Karen Pomeroy), Noah Wyle (Dr. Kenneth Monnitoff), Beth Grant (Kitty Farmer), Alex Greenwald (Seth Devlin), Jolene Purdy (Cherita Chen) and Patrick Swayze (Jim Cunningham).

Matewan (1987, John Sayles)

What was that? Did anyone else see that? (Probably not, I’m watching the Canadian widescreen DVD).

Sayles actually ripped off the looking at the camera bit from The 400 Blows. He actually did it–while having the characters future self narrate the epilogue. I’ve been dreading watching Matewan for over a year, since April 2004 in fact. I thought the dread came from my having only seen Matewan in school, but I guess I was just being smart. Matewan is easily Sayles’ worst film. It’s also one of his only “bad” ones. Matewan isn’t that bad, of course (get to that in a second), it’s just propaganda. Sure, it’s historically accurate, but it’s also propaganda. Management abusing labor is a fact and it’s a crime and Matewan is accurate in its depiction of it. But. Sayles presents one agent of management as a human being. The rest are not. The rest are villains. So, if there’s a shoot out with the villains, it’s impossible to care about them, impossible to think their deaths are at all a tragedy. Their deaths are weightless. Even Lethal Weapon 2 made excuses about its level of violence. It’s a disappointment, but Matewan is also Sayles’ first “big” film and it obviously got away from him.

There are signs of the Sayles goodness, of course. There are lots of interesting characters, but he doesn’t know what to do with them. There’s still too much of a story, instead of all the little stories that usually propel his films. There’s the Sayles cast, Chris Cooper and David Straithairn and Mary McDonnell are all excellent, Cooper the most. It’s hard to believe he didn’t become a vanilla leading man after Matewan.

I’m incredibly upset about this film… I was off movies because Stripes was so shitty, because an Ivan Reitman/Bill Murray picture was so painfully mediocre (and unfunny). What is a bad John Sayles movie going to do to me?



Written and directed by John Sayles; director of photography, Haskell Wexler; edited by Sonya Polonsky; music by Mason Daring; production designer, Nora Chavooshian; produced by Maggie Renzi and Peggy Rajski; released by Cinecom Pictures.

Starring Chris Cooper (Joe Kenehan), James Earl Jones (‘Few Clothes’ Johnson), Mary McDonnell (Elma Radnor), Will Oldham (Danny Radnor), David Strathairn (Police Chief Sid Hatfield), Ken Jenkins (Sephus Purcell), Gordon Clapp (Griggs), Kevin Tighe (Hickey), John Sayles (Hardshell Preacher), Bob Gunton (C.E. Lively), Josh Mostel (Mayor Cabell Testerman), Nancy Mette (Bridey Mae), Jace Alexander (Hillard Elkins), Joe Grifasi (Fausto), Gary McCleery (Ludie), Jo Henderson (Mrs. Elkins), Maggie Renzi (Rosaria), Tom Wright (Tom), Michael B. Preston (Ellix), Tom Carlin (Turley) and Jenni Cline (Luann).