The Sugarland Express (1974, Steven Spielberg)

After setting up Goldie Hawn and William Atherton as the protagonists, Sugarland Express takes about an hour to get back to them. Hawn and Atherton have an amazing setup–he’s about to get out of prison and has been transferred to pre-release. Hawn comes to visiting day but to break him out. She’s just gotten out of jail and the state took away their son. So she wants Atherton to come with her to get him.

They make it out all right only to end up kidnapping a state trooper (Michael Sacks) within the first twenty or so minutes. There’s a big car chase sequence–pretty much the only one of the movie, which eventually has about 80 cars in a shot–where Hawn and Atherton get the upperhand. Well, they bumble into it. But then Sacks isn’t really particularly with it either. Once the cops figure out what’s happened, they call in the boss, Ben Johnson.

So until Johnson gets into the movie, it seems like Sacks is going to take over as protagonist. But then he doesn’t. Because Johnson dominates the film. Intentionally. Director Spielberg, screenwriters Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, they pull back from Hawn and Atherton’s story and fill it out with the ginormous police response. It’s the kidnappers followed down the highway by a line of a dozen cop cars. It’s quirky. Johnson takes an immediate liking to Hawn after she grins at him through the back window. Because Johnson doesn’t want to be a hard ass, he wants to help these crazy kids (they’re supposed to be twenty-five but he’s a softey), and he’s never killed a man in ninteen years on the Texas highway patrol.

The movie is based on events from 1969. Texas in 1969. So that character motivation raises all sorts of possibilites for further discussion of portrayal of law enforcement in popular culture. But for the purposes of Sugarland, Johnson’s an old softey and he wants to help all these kids–including Sacks–get out of the situation okay.

Eventually they have to bed down for the night–cops and kidnappers–and that break from the Express is when the film catches back up with Hawn and Atherton. There hasn’t been time for them to get a moment. And it’s kind of when it becomes clear how far Spielberg and the writers want to keep the viewers from Hawn and Atherton. They don’t want to dig too deep. Just like they don’t want to dig too deep on Sacks, who Stockholms way too fast to be an effective state trooper unless they’re really all supposed to be sensitive doofuses (no other cop in the movie is sensitive–just Sacks and Johnson–the rest are gun-happy). And they don’t want to dig too deep on Johnson, because, well, he’s in his late fifties and it’s a still Goldie Hawn movie, after all.

So there’s not going to be character exploration. There’s also not going to be much more comedy; Atherton is realizing the gravity of the situation. The adrenaline has worn off and he sees his death. Meanwhile Hawn’s convinced because they’re famous–oh, yeah, they’re folk heroes–they’re going to get their baby back. Only they can’t really talk about it because, well, they aren’t bright. The moments when you do actually find something out about Atherton and Hawn–about their backgrounds or situation–it’s a sympathy moment. Not just for the audience, but for Johnson and Sacks too. Because even though Sacks is a doofus, he’s not a dope like Atherton or Hawn.

Then there’s the next morning there’s the next big action sequence–involving the kidnappers, there’s a big car crash without them that Spielberg plays without absurdity but still want some humor in the danger–and it’s a doozy. Texas gun nut vigilantes go out after the kidnappers. They shoot up a used car lot, with Hawn trapped in a camper while Atherton goes after an escaping Sacks through the lot. It’s intense. And sets the direction of the rest of the film. The energy of it too. The first half has a lot of great editing from Edward M. Abroms and Verna Fields and it’s fast but it’s not hurried. In the second half, with Atherton deciding to officially offer to trade Sacks for the baby, the Express–save narrative-driven slowdowns–is accelerating all the way to the finish. Spielberg and the screenwriters are intentional with how they use their time.

The script from Barwood and Robbins is precise. Spielberg’s direction is always in rhythm with it, even when he’s slowing down or speeding up. He gets flashy at times, but always to further the story–or affect its pacing. And there’s this patient, lush Vilmos Zsigmond photography so it’s never too flashy. Then there’s that great editing. And the effective (and simple) John Williams score, which enthusiastically promises hope then takes it away. It’s a technical feat.

Of the performances, Atherton and Johnson stand out. Sacks and Hawn have a lot less to do. Well, Hawn has more to do occasionally but it’s really just more screentime. The first half of the film is Atherton in a panic, the second half is Hawn in a different one. Again, Spielberg and the screenwriters stay back from the characters. They’re caricatures the actors have to fill out, because if you fill them out too much in the script, then Sugarland can’t be Sugarland. Part of the film’s charm is Spielberg and the screenwriters ostensibly keeping things light. Because it’s a Goldie Hawn movie and she’s so cute and bubbly. Only there’s a sadness around the cute and bubbly. Because it’s a tragedy, not a comedy. It’s a tragedy with some funny parts and some exciting parts. But it’s such a tragedy instead of trying to cover all the factors, the filmmakers just implied them and the actors informed them through their passive performances. Because it’s a lot of Hawn, Atherton, Sacks, and Johnson in close-up. There’s a lot of time with these characters together. And they have to develop together. And they do. The filmmakers are able to bake in all the sadness without doing any excess exposition dumps.

Sugarland’s great. It all works out.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Spielberg; screenplay by Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, based on a story by Spielberg, Barwood, and Robbins; director of photography, Vilmos Zsigmond; edited by Edward M. Abroms and Verna Fields; music by John Williams; produced by David Brown and Richard D. Zanuck; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Goldie Hawn (Lou Jean), William Atherton (Clovis), Michael Sacks (Slide), Ben Johnson (Captain Tanner), Gregory Walcott (Mashburn), Louise Latham (Mrs. Looby), Jessie Lee Fulton (Mrs. Nocker), Gordon Hurst (Hubie Nocker), and A.L. Camp (Mr. Alvin T. Nocker).


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The Buccaneer (1938, Cecil B. DeMille)

Even if you give The Buccaneer a lot of its historical absurdities and classic Hollywood whitewashing, even if you give it a motley crew of murdering (but not raping, good family men) pirates getting giddy and doing a singalong while they row themselves through the bayou to fight for Andrew Jackson against the British, even if you give the film lead Fredric March’s accent, it’s got a lot of problems. Without even mentioning how director DeMille gives everyone a slave, American, British, Pirate. Like, he likes it. It’s creepy.

Especially at the opening when you want to be enjoying Spring Byington doing a brief cameo as a capable (and rather sexy, like what is up what that dress) first lady Dolly Madison who was to suffer men trying to rescue her when she’s doing it herself.

The big problem is The Buccaneer himself. Not March, who’s rather likable even with that accent and able to whether the silliest of DeMille’s jingoism. But the character. So he’s a pirate who doesn’t rob American vessels and doesn’t kill passengers, unless they’re asking for it (everyone gets a chance to disembarck). He’s in love with New Orleans society girl Margot Grahame, who grossly comes on to Andrew Jackson (Hugh Sothern) at one point. Not because it’s in character, but because no one–not the four-ish screenwriters, not director DeMille, not Grahame herself–knows what to do with the character. She’s there to give March a reason to fight to be an American. For the pretty, well-spoken girl who gets shown up in every one of her scenes with guardian aunt Beulah Bondi. Just because Grahame’s got nothing else to do. She’s in love with a pirate, if only he’d go legit for her. She’s just not the female lead, so she’s got squat.

The female lead–and kind of protagonist, certainly more than March–is Franciska Gaal. She’s playing an adorable–literally squeaking–Dutch girl who ends up with March and his band. March becomes her protector and, accordinly, Gaal falls in love with him even though she’s seen his men kill an entire ship of innocent people and even try to kill her. She only escapes because pirate Fred Kohler, who met her in the film’s first scene, has been trying to rape her since that first scene.

The film does this whole “she’s not in any great danger with these pirates, oh, wait, no, it’d be better if the nicer one just killed her instead” thing for the first act and beginning of second, so you’d think you’re supposed to take it serious. But then you aren’t whenever Gaal’s supposed to be foolish instead of brave. Like, the movie craps on Gaal’s performance and all the potential for the character. After the setting up the movie to focus on those things.

Because, as Gaal later whines to March when her character does nothing but lather him with unrequited verbal admiration, all the men are acting like little boys and fighting. Once the movie starts moving toward the opening text exposition on Lafitte’s place in history, once all the fighting starts, Gaal gets dropped like a rock. Worse, there’s more with Grahame. No fault to her, but she and March have even less chemistry than March and Gaal. At least March is protective of Gaal. With Grahame, it’s bewildering. She’s supposed to be his obsession and they’re flat together.

Maybe the accent got in the way. But more likely Grahame’s character being really thin. And, really, March’s isn’t much better. He’s supposed to be this great pirate captain yet the only times things go right it’s because of Gaal or Akim Tamiroff as his main sidekick. Anthony Quinn’s all right as the second sidekick. Tamiroff’s in love with Gaal. He makes it cute. He’s the best performance in the film, with Walter Brennan a somewhat close second as Andrew Jackson’s dotting frontiersman sidekick. Gaal’s a far third.

Because there aren’t any standout supporting performances. Douglass Dumbrille’s okay as the governor who’s out to get March. Ian Keith’s bad as the bent politician, working for the British. Hugh Sothern’s hilariously bad as Andrew Jackson. Though at least he doesn’t play Jackson horny old man when Grahame offers.

Beulah Bondi is fine as the aunt. Some of the third tier supporting performances are solid. It’s a big movie. There are a lot of people around. They’re mostly all right. Even Kohler. He’s not good but he’s not bad.

Technically, the film’s competent. I mean, DeMille has annoying two shots because–apparently–of height disparities and Anne Bauchens never cuts to them well. Based on DeMille’s composition, it’s probably because he didn’t get the right shots, which is weird since it’s clearly big budget and so on. He saves his energy for the battle scenes, which really aren’t effective because March doesn’t do much. He tells the other guys what to do mostly.

He does have a sword fight, but it’s got a bad finish and leads into his second asinine patriotic speech (after the Americans have massacred a bunch of his men) and the movie doesn’t even try. DeMille doesn’t try with anything in Buccaneer. It gets annoying. The massacre of the pirates at their base is probably the best action sequence. But it’s in the middle of the rather long two hour and five minute film. And it’s a dramatic fail of a plot beat.

The Buccaneer clearly was a big production and DeMille and company do make an epic. It’s just not a successful one. The script’s alterately lazy, cheap, and dull. The third act only “saves” the film because it stops getting worse. It plateaus. And Gaal’s charming and March’s likable and you just want it to end so why fight it. It’s not a success, it’s a surrender.

1/4

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille; screenplay by Edwin Justus Mayer, Harold Lamb, and C. Gardner Sullivan, adaptation by Jeanie Macpherson, based on a novel by Lyle Saxon; director of photography, Victor Milner; edited by Anne Bauchens; music by George Antheil; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Fredric March (Jean Lafitte), Franciska Gaal (Gretchen), Akim Tamiroff (Dominique You), Margot Grahame (Annette de Remy), Anthony Quinn (Beluche), Ian Keith (Senator Crawford), Douglass Dumbrille (Governor William C.C. Claiborne), Fred Kohler (Gramby), Hugh Sothern (General Andrew Jackson), Walter Brennan (Ezra Peavey), Beulah Bondi (Aunt Charlotte), and Spring Byington (Dolly Madison).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE MADE IN 1938 BLOGATHON HOSTED BY ROBIN OF POP CULTURE REVERIE AND CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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Unbreakable (2000, M. Night Shyamalan)

If Unbreakable wasn’t a one hour and forty-six minute self-aggrandizement from wannabe mainstream-auteur (notice, not mainstream auteur) Shyamalan, it’d somehow be even worse. Because at least if Shyamalan is intentionally doing all these things, making all these choices, it’s a cohesive flop. If he’s not, if the mishmash elements are actually mishmash (like, you know, third-billed Robin Wright’s existence), if he really doesn’t think the sixth grade meets screenwriting manuals script is amazing, if there’s not a point to all those crane shots–usually shattering ceilings–then Unbreakable is even worse. And you don’t want it to be even worse because you gave it those 106 minutes, when you should’ve stopped at the opening text giving statistics on the comic book hobby and industry in the year 2000.

Or at least when the next scene of the movie is about a baby being born in a department store in 1961. The newborn has broken arms and legs. There’s almost the plot possibility the all-white store staff did something to the black mom (Charlayne Woodard) and baby. Attending physician Eamonn Walker certainly thinks something happened.

But then the action jumps ahead to the present, with Bruce Willis sitting on a train. He’s a quiet enough guy–totally bald–wearing a suit, but he does then proceed to take-off his wedding ring to flirt with the hottie who sits down next to him. Charmlessly flirt. In an exaggerated sad, creepy way so you know he’s harmless. And it’s not like he leaves the ring off after she bails.

Oh, before I forget. The greatest tragedy of the film is that time jump, because it’s the last time Walker’s in the movie and he gives the only decent performance. Wright’s performance isn’t her fault, but it’s still not good.

But instead you sat through the failed train pickup. Then things start getting exciting when Willis realizes the train’s going really, really fast. Then they stop getting exciting. And so ends the last building of dramatic tension in the film. And Shyamalan is going to make you suffer for sticking with it. No more rising tension. Ever. Not even when Shyamalan moves the camera around really fast to show you you’re supposed to be feeling the rising tension.

Instead it’s about one hour and forty minutes of humorless, joyless moping from everyone involved. I was going to say there’s nothing technically accomplished about the film–while Shyamalan’s hilariously pedestrian Panavision composition isn’t cinematographer Eduardo Serra’s fault, Serra had a duty to the human optical nerve not to do some of these things; similarly, editor Dylan Tichenor didn’t come up with the tone but he executed it. But production designer Larry Fulton does do a fine job creating, at least, Willis and Wright’s house, which is a miserable place you can’t imagine anyone ever said a kind word to one another much less had a holiday meal or birthday party. Wright doesn’t even get to exist in the house without Willis inviting her into the story.

Oh, right. Wright and Willis are breaking up because he’s too distant from her and son Spencer Treat Clark (who really ought to be the worst performance in the film but isn’t because Samuel L. Jackson; but in any fair universe, Clark would be the worst). Only we don’t find out why they’re breaking up for like an hour, until they’re getting back together.

Sorry, I’m forgetting. Willis’s train crashes and everyone dies except him and comic book art gallery dealer Samuel L. Jackson mysteriously contacts him with an unsigned note on his car. Has Willis ever been sick. He hasn’t ever been sick, something Willis finds really weird when he thinks about it so he goes to see Jackson. Jackson thinks Willis is a superhero. Only they never say superhero, they just say hero because Shyamalan is a serious important filmmaker and somehow saying superhero would make the whole thing silly.

Jackson is the baby from the first scene grown up. He has osteogenesis imperfecta; his bones are fragile. The kids who regularly assaulted him growing up called him “Mr. Glass.” He owns an art gallery with terrible drawings of superheroes. Not terrible like they’re fighting gross monsters, terrible like no one on the film had access to actual… drawings. Superhero or otherwise. It’s funny?

Anyway, Jackson tells Willis he’s a superhero because comic books are at least based somewhat in fact when describing superheroes. Jackson’s got this obnoxious history of comics monologue starting in Ancient Egypt, which is really, really, really dumb. Like silly dumb and inaccurate would make more sense if Shuster and Siegel created Superman after seeing a meteor fall. But there’s no Shuster or Siegel or the actual history of superhero comics because, well, Shyamlan’s script is really bad, but also because DC Comics had zero participation in the film. Despite Jackson’s favorite comics looking like DC Comics–what kid wouldn’t run to the corner in 1968 to get the latest Active Comics starring Slayer–in the logo designs, the comics themselves are exceptionally inept. Later on, in comic shops, Marvel Comics appear, which is funny since the final line in the movie is a freaking Superman reference.

Anyway.

Willis thinks Jackson is crazy but then Jackson stalks him at work and soon Willis is thinking maybe he is a superhero. He and estranged son Clark bond over his possible superpowers. It’s a little less affecting after Willis reveals he (Willis, the dad) blames his son for the estrangement, which isn’t really an estrangement so much as Willis is unhappy because he’s not out there being a superhero. Man needs his purpose.

Woman needs her purpose too and Wright’s purpose is to fall back in love with Willis. She fell out because… it’s never clear. The scenes would make more sense if Wright and Willis barely knew one another, not raised a tween together. Wright also has zero relationship with Clark, which is weird because Willis is supposed to be such a bad dad, but when Clark and Wright are in a scene together it’s like they haven’t even been introduced.

Shyamalan’s directorial badness isn’t just in the composition or pacing, whatever he told those actors to do during filming, they should have refused. Because it’s terrible.

No one’s worse than Jackson. Well, Clark, but on a technicality of sorts. Jackson’s got no character whatsoever. He exists for Willis. He’s intentionally unlikable (unless Shyamalan thinks the scene where Jackson hates kids makes him likable), every delivery is flat because he’s so serious, but then he occasionally makes good jokes. Charmlessly. Because no one’s allowed to have any charm in Unbreakable, which is fair. It’s a charm vacuum.

Willis’s performance is bad too. Though less funny because he has less to do than Jackson in a lot of ways, even though he’s the lead and finds out he might be Superman. Well, not Superman. He might be unbreakable and have some psychic powers. Or he just has impressions, which play out as flashback or flash forward scenes with crane shots, which aren’t impressions, but Shyamalan never gets into it too much because it’d be nerdy to define Willis’s power set. Unbreakable is serious stuff, after all.

And, hey, Willis does eventually get to do a hero arc. After ignoring a racist physical assault on a black woman and a white woman getting raped, he finds someone he does want to save. A white guy. Will Super Willis be able to take on the villain, who is stronger than Willis so hopefully Willis doesn’t have super strength, but whatever.

Lousy, lousy, lousy–and entirely inappropriate–epic-sized music from James Newton Howard.

Unbreakable is a dismal experience. But, hey, it’s not like there weren’t signs right away. And it just gets worse. And worse. And worse. And then it’s five minutes in and there are 101 more to go.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan; director of photography, Eduardo Serra; edited by Dylan Tichenor; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Larry Fulton; produced by Barry Mendel, Sam Mercer, and Shyamalan; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Bruce Willis (David Dunn), Samuel L. Jackson (Elijah Price), Spencer Treat Clark (Joseph Dunn), Robin Wright (Audrey Dunn), and Charlayne Woodard (Elijah’s Mother).


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The Window (2000, Jono Oliver)

The Window opens with a crowd on the street, looking up. There’s a title card, so it’s a good bet they’re all looking at a window. Pretty soon the cops show up–it’s set in Flatbush, Brooklyn–and ask what’s going on. Some people see Jesus up in the window, some people don’t. But it’s a big crowd; the people who see it are inspired (like senior Sarallen), other people are just hanging out. Responding cops Rosalyn Coleman and Marcuis Harris are divided too. Coleman doesn’t see anything, Harris kind of sees it. But they decide they need to do something, so they head up to the apartment (meeting Sarallen’s grandson, Chad Christopher Tucker, on the way–he doesn’t see it).

In the apartment there’s a similar divide. Husband Eric R. Moreland is just trying to enjoy his weekend, eat some lunch, watch a game. Wife Cheryl Monroe got home as the crowd was starting to gather and saw the Jesus too. So she’s calling up people from the church to come over–pastor Craig T. Williams is hilarious–while Moreland suffers losing his day.

Eventually Coleman decides the window’s coming out. Harris isn’t in complete agreement, but he’s fine with it. Meanwhile, a news crew has shown up and the window is on TV. And there are more cops, including Romi Dias who wants Coleman to hold off on taking out the window until her grandmother comes down to see it.

Writer and director Oliver keeps a relatively light tone and nimbly moves through the discussions of faith and, well, grime. Whenever the action isn’t on the street, where the film listens in on the crowd’s reactions (or just shows them), usually with a humorous bent (though everyone knows how much it means to Sarallen), Coleman’s the lead. And she’s a great lead. For most of The Window she operates with a quiet exasperation as she’s not only got to keep the variety of regular people in check, she’s also got partner Harris mildly aggravating the situation, not to mention Dias loudly aggravating it.

Besides Coleman, also exasperated husband Moreland gets the most to do. The film often plays Coleman and Moreland off one another, something the actors and Oliver handle beautifully. Oliver has this single shot in the bathroom–Jesus is in the bathroom window–with the camera pointing away from the window and it’s full of people. Seven at one point. And the emphasis has to bounce all around.

Outside Coleman and Harris’s initial discussion, Oliver’s script doesn’t spend any time on the questions the window (and what people see in it) raise. It’s present throughout, but the action is too busy with the practicality. The cops want to break up the crowd, Coleman’s going the fastest route.

Everything’s good throughout–Michael Pearlman’s photography is phenomenal, great music from David Abir (who eventually takes the whole thing on his shoulders)–but it gets even better once Coleman (and Oliver) really start dealing with things. Without any exposition, just reaction. It’s all about Coleman’s performance. And Oliver’s direction.

The Window’s kind of gently spectacular. Or more, first it’s gentle and good, then it’s quietly spectacular.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Written, produced, and directed by Jono Oliver; director of photography, Michael Pearlman; edited by Daniel Carey; music by David Abir; production designer, Eric Oliver.

Starring Rosalyn Coleman (Officer Briggs), Marcuis Harris (Officer Turner), Eric R. Moreland (Lester), Cheryl Monroe (Lucy), Craig T. Williams (Brother Herbert), Virginia McKinzie (Sister Mary), Chad Christopher Tucker (Terrence), Robert Hatcher (Reverend Sinclair), Romi Dias (Officer Newman), Brian Cahill (Officer Doyle), and Sarallen (Mrs. Davis).


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