Uncle Bardie’s Spotlight Movie: White Hats and Black Hats

Once a week on Friday, Uncle Bardie celebrates the creativity in others by shining a Spotlight on a movie, a song or a creator. This week’s Spotlight movie is “Tombstone” (1993)

When I was a kid, it was the dream of every American boy to be either Mickey Mantle or The Ringo Kid. This was in the days before we discovered girls. Once we discovered girls, we wanted to be James Dean or Elvis. Elvis was preferred but we would settle for James Dean. Both made the girls swoon and there was nothing we would rather have than a girl swooning over us.

In our pre-girl days, our Saturday mornings were spent baseballing and our Saturday afternoons at the matinee watching the latest horse opera. Since I discovered early on I was no darn good at throwing or catching a baseball, I chose The Ringo Kid.

Ringo was the guy in the white hat. It might be John Wayne or Randolph Scott or Alan Ladd, Gene Autry or Roy Rogers. It didn’t matter whether they were playing Wild Bill Hickok or Wyatt Earp or Shane, they were always The Ringo Kid to me. So when I played my share of white hat and black hat, I was Ringo, the baddest good guy in the west.

And I always had Black Bart for a nemesis. While The Kid wore a smile, and said Yes ma’am and No ma’am, Black Bart wore a sneer and pushed around widows and orphans. He was mean. Real mean. Little did I realize he would grow up and become Jason or Freddy Kruger, the stuff of nightmares.

For some reason, Hollywood in the sixties forgot how to make the westerns I loved. John Wayne quit being quite the John Wayne he had been. Oh, sure there was “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”. Instead westerns went Italian and the cowboys now ate spaghetti. Either that or the good guys didn’t want to be good guys any longer. Instead they wanted to ride with Bonnie and Clyde or the Wild Bunch and create mayhem and chaos.

In the seventies we got a new kind of western. It was “Star Wars”. Luke Skywalker wore the white hat and Darth Vader wore the black one. It, and others like it, were space operas. But they didn’t take the place of the westerns I loved as a kid when my hero was Ringo. He knew right from wrong and believed in justice and defending the weak and the helpless.

Now I am not saying that all the westerns treated non-whites fairly. Often, too often, the Indians were the Black Barts. But every so often a movie like “Broken Arrow” or “Cheyenne Autumn” came along and gave a looksee at a different side of things. And there were no African Americans in those movies. Sadly so because African Americans made a contribution to the taming of the west just like a lot of other folks.

As I have grown older, I have come to appreciate some of the subtler exploration of the American West mythology. Films like “The Searchers” showed the ugly side of things and that was not always easy to handle. Mexicans gave their lives for freedom at the Alamo alongside Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and Col. Travis as shown in John Wayne’s “The Alamo” and a more recent version.

Movies like “Dancing With Wolves” and books like “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” revealed the great injustices the white man did to the indigenous peoples. And African Americans began to take their rightful place in such films as “Posse”, “Buffalo Soldiers”, “Silverado” and “Hateful Eight” which have attempted to rectify that injustice. And my hero, The Ringo Kid, I discovered, was a lot more complex than I thought. Often his hat was gray and sometimes just as black as Black Bart’s. Sometimes he could even be Black Bart.

Two movies and a television series come to mind when I think about the recent exploration of the American West Mythology. The television series is “Lonesome Dove”. “Silverado” is one of the two films and it is a lot of darn fun to watch. Not great but fun to watch.

The second movie is “Tombstone”. Kurt Russell does the best Wyatt Earp ever and Val Kilmer makes a great Doc Holliday. The cast is filled out with wonderful performances by Sam Elliott as Virgil Earp, Bill Paxton as Morgan Earp and Dana Delany as Josephine Marcus. Powers Boothe as Curly Bill Brocius makes Black Bart look like a tenderfoot. Michael Biehn is Johnny Ringo and he never wore a white hat. Thomas Haden Church has his Billy Clanton down.

But it is Kurt Russell who gives us the great film that “Tombstone” is. His Wyatt Earp is as complex and conflicted as a Wyatt Earp can be. His is a Wyatt Earp with a different colored hat.

 

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Uncle Bardie’s Spotlight Movie: Wit

Once a week on Friday, Uncle Bardie celebrates the creativity in others by shining a Spotlight on a movie, a song or a creator. This week’s Spotlight Movie is the film adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize winning play, “Wit” (2001):

Written by American playwright Margaret Edson, “Wit” is about facing death. Cruel, cruel death at his worst. An ovarian cancer kind of death. Facing it alone as we all must do. And facing it with humor, intellect and courage. If you think this is a morbid film, think again.

Vivian Bearing, Ph.D. (Emma Thompson) has sealed herself away from life by hiding in that ivory tower called academia. She is a John Donne scholar which means she knows John Donne forwards, backwards and sideways. She finds out she has cancer. Instead of feeling sorry for herself, she faces her adversary with the kind of courage I doubt I would have.

There are so few performances we see on the screen that rise to greatness. Emma Thompson gives us one of those. Directed by the late Mike Nichols, Emma Thompson gives a tour de force performance.

I have to credit my friend, Kelly Fagan, for discovering this film. She played Vivian Bearing in a local production of the play. Unfortunately I missed her performance and I am sorry I did. Thank you, Kelly.

 

“Dunkirk” is no “Saving Private Ryan”

This is just one reviewer’s point of view. I don’t usually post a negative film review here on “Uncle Bardie’s Stories & Such”. And I don’t usually go out to the movie theater these days. But I thought that “Dunkirk” (2017) would be something to see on a big theater screen instead of a big tv screen. Boy, was I wrong.

For all the use of the big motion picture toys directors have to work with, it looks like Christopher Nolan failed at giving the audience what mattered most. He had a great story but he didn’t know how to tell it well. And it’s a darn shame too. Because what the British people did to rescue 400,000 of their soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940 was one of the great acts of the twentieth century.

Nolan has chosen not to give the viewer one character to care about. Instead we get three separate points of view: The Mole, The Sea and The Air and a time constraint. (My first question was what the heck is the time about. The soldiers on that beach have got to get the heck out of Dodge and in two seconds flat.) And these viewpoints are not always specific to a character. The first point of view is the soldiers on Dunkirk Beach. During these beach scenes, there are times it is hard to figure out who’s who.

The second point of view are the pilots in their Spitfires taking on the German Luftwaffe. There are times it is hard to know which pilot is which, who the German planes are and who the British are. The third of these viewpoints is the most individualistic of the three. It is Mr. Dawson taking his boat over from England to rescue the soldiers on Dunkirk. When his scene came up, I thought, “Now we’re getting somewhere.” But no. Just as I am beginning to figure out one viewpoint, Nolan gets cutesy and switches to another.

The first lesson in Storytelling 101 is give the viewer/reader a character to follow into the story. Especially a character we will want to follow. Nolan missed that lesson I guess.

In the “Harry Potters”, we are given Harry to follow. In “Lord of the Rings”, we meet Frodo. In “The Wizard of Oz”, we follow Dorothy. In “Gone With the Wind”, there’s Scarlett O’Hara. In “Saving Private Ryan”, we get Captain Miller, to care about. Spielberg throws me into the devastation of battle in a realistic way and I never doubt the danger.

There seems to have cropped up this tendency lately in filmmaking to make us play who the heck is this character and what’s she doing in this movie? It was a problem with “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”. It took fifteen minutes to figure out who the protagonist was and why I should care.

A second problem with “Dunkirk” was a lack of the sense of the danger the soldiers faced on that beach. The enemy remains anonymous. It would have increased the tension if I could have seen how close the Germans were. Even scenes of the Germans closing in. So much of the beach scenes have the British soldiers just standing around. Yes, there are a few German planes bombing from the sky. But not many and where are the German troops? Where is the German artillery? In “Dunkirk”, all I get is the muddle. Not once did I enough feel the threat.

Another issue is the lack of context. If Nolan had added an opening scene with the disaster that was about to happen, it would have helped. And the use of time to create suspense. “We have to get those boys off the beach or we’re goners. And we have to do it now.” Then use music and show us a clock ticking down to apocalypse.

Ultimately Nolan is providing the viewer an intellectual exercise instead of an emotional experience. In a day and an age when we have video games and movies like “John Wick” that are very realistic with the violence, why did Christopher Nolan think he had to save us from really caring about those guys on the beach?

“Dunkirk” isn’t a bad movie. It’s just not worth my getting out of the house and plopping down ten bucks at a movie theater. Next time, Mr. Nolan, I’ll wait for it to be on Netflix, then I’ll think about it.

Louis Jordan in “Gigi” said it better than I ever could:

 

Uncle Bardie’s Spotlight Movie: A great nature movie

Once a week on Friday, Uncle Bardie celebrates the creativity in others by shining a Spotlight on a movie, a song or a creator. This week’s Spotlight movie is Walt Disney’s “Bambi” (1942):

I am not one of those who go crazy over all things Disney. Usually come to a Disney movie–and this includes the animated features–with a bit of cynicism. But I got to tell you Bambi is one of those Disney movies I really like. And I like it a lot. The colors and the animation are awesome. And that is Awesome with a capital A. And it has such a great story.

Disney has just released the seventy-fifth anniversary version of Bambi on blu-ray. The colors are wonderful and the animation absolutely brilliant. This was Disney’s fifth animated feature. Snow WhitePinocchioFantasia, and Dumbo came before. And they wouldn’t get to the high-quality animation and story again until the fifties and Cinderella. The reason may be that Disney had not turned a profit on any of the five. Animated features were financially a risky business in the thirties and forties.

I have to say I never saw this one as a child. As an adult I saw it once and then forgot about it. But not now. This one is unforgettable.

We don’t think of Bambi as a nature film. I never have. But it may be the first full-length feature film that gave nature center stage. And the damage that man came bring to a natural environment.

Walt Disney went to all kinds of efforts to make sure the forest and the animals were portrayed correctly. He sent animators to New England to study the forests there. He held classes on animal anatomy. He even brought in deer to show how to correctly portray Bambi and his family.

Watching this film made me realize how much of nature and animals Disney put into his animated features. Early on, Disney often made animals the center of his animated features and several times they were the stars of the show. Beginning with everybody’s favorite mouse. Think of The Jungle Book and Dumbo. Think of the forest animals in Snow White and in Sleeping Beauty; Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio; the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland; Cinderella’s sidekicks, the two mice, Jaq and Gus. And what would a Disney animated film be without the animals. Often it’s the animals that steal the show. I think this is one of the reasons we love Disney’s animation.

So see the new release of Bambi. It’s worth a looksee. And yes, tears did form in my eyes with the death of Bambi’s mom.

 

Uncle Bardie’s Spotlight Movie: What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing In a War Zone Like This?

Once a week on Friday, Uncle Bardie celebrates the creativity in others by shining a Spotlight on a movie, a song or a creator. This week’s Spotlight Movie is “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” (2016):

When I saw the trailer of this movie, I go, “I’m not going to see that.” Then someone recommended it to me. And now I am glad I saw it. The film is based on the war correspondent Kim Barker’s memoir, “The Taliban Shuffle”. It covers the time she covered the war in Afghanistan.

Despite what it looks like, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is not a comedy. Even though it has Tina Fey. It starts off with a light hearted approach to what it’s like to be a journalist in a war zone. Kim just isn’t taking this war thing seriously. She’s having too much of a good time doing what dysfunctional journalists do in a completely dysfunctional place and time. In fact, she’s having the time of her life. Until she’s not.

Then everything changes. Kim, as well as the audience, gets a real taste at what it can cost to be a war correspondent. And it’s not pretty. It reminded me of all the journalists who have gone out of their way to bring a story that isn’t pretty, or easy, back to the American people. And the costs.

Journalists like Daniel Pearl who lost his life in Pakistan. Journalists like those who gone into harm’s way in Syria to tell the story of the atrocities being committed by the Assad government. Sometimes the stories are hard to get. It’s the true journalist who goes after them, not matter the cost. Thank God for those who do.