Category Archives: ★★★★

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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Raging Bull (1980, Martin Scorsese)

Most of Raging Bull is about boxer Jake La Motta’s quest for the middleweight championship belt and takes place in the forties. The film opens with La Motta (Robert De Niro) in the sixties–out-of-shape, nose disfigured from the boxing; it’s a brief introduction then a fast cut to De Niro in shape and boxing in the early forties. The opening titles establish the film’s black and white photography, but those titles are over an ethereal shot of De Niro in the ring. That shot doesn’t hint at the vibrant contrast director Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Chapman use in the regular action. The image is sharp, the blood and sweat glistening on the fighters, who box in the ring surrounded by darkness. Nothing is important–visually-except the fight. Thelma Schoonmaker’s glorious editing gets its start with that transition from the sixties to the forties, then there’s the fight itself. There’s the fight editing style, then there’s going to be the dramatic style. The latter is far more measured. There are still precise and sharp cuts, but the drama is more about listening. The fights are about doing. Or about what’s happening, because even though De Niro’s in almost every scene of the movie, it’s not until the third act the audience gets any insight into what he’s doing.

Because for most of the film there’s Joe Pesci, as De Niro’s younger brother and manager. Pesci hangs out with connected guy but not full mobster Frank Vincent, who wants De Niro to box for the mob. De Niro doesn’t want to box for the mob, so he’s having trouble getting his shot. Even though he wins his fights, even though he can take an infinite level of beating–his style is letting the other guy expend all his energy (usually through a good pummelling on De Niro’s face) then getting in a bunch of points and maybe a knockdown at the very end–De Niro’s not getting title shots, which ostensibly pisses him off.

He takes out that anger on wife Lori Anne Flax, who waits on him hand and foot, which he repays by bringing neighborhood teenage beauty Cathy Moriarty home for a roll in the hay while Flax is out shopping. Moriarty’s fifteen and has Pesci and Vincent and a bunch of other guys after her. But she goes for De Niro. Presumably they wait until she’s eighteen to get married (though who knows because New York state still lets fourteen year-olds get married with approval). The breakup from Flax is offscreen and only implied–there’s a montage sequence of most of the forties, De Niro winning fight after fight, home movie footage (in color) of his domestic bliss with Moriarty and Pesci, then with Theresa Saldana coming in as Pesci’s wife. By the time the action slows down again, both couples have kids and have moved into the ’burbs. Or at least into houses.

It’s been six years of trying to get a shot at the title and De Niro finally agrees to let mobster Nicholas Colasanto’s help him. At the same time, he’s become convinced Moriarty is cheating on him, possibly with Vincent (who De Niro’s always despised because he’s a tool).

Scorsese and screenwriters Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin present the situations and characters (slash people–there’s one moment when the actual La Motta’s pictures get used in the film, which ought to draw undue attention to the film being a dramatization but instead just makes it work even better) objectively, but they leave out a lot. De Niro’s frustrated with first wife Flax at the beginning because–as he complains to Pesci–he can’t beat her any more than he already does and she still doesn’t treat him as he wants. Same goes for Moriarty; there’s implied physical abuse (it’s an open secret) but Bull is holding off on showing it. Moriarty’s not likable, but she’s sympathetic. She’s been socialized into a terrible situation, she’s been psychologically abused, then physically. Then again, the film doesn’t give her enough to do away from De Niro to even be reduced to a victim role. Raging Bull is full of objects for De Niro to break (or try to break).

It’s also not like Pesci is sympathetic or likable. The film goes out of its way to characterize almost everyone–except De Niro–as racist. Everyone, including De Niro, is violently homophobic. The younger men–not Colasanto or Mario Gallo (as one of De Niro’s ring men)–are all strutting to prove something and covering for their various deficiencies. Something De Niro sees and resents them for.

When he finally does get the championship, instead of fulfilling a dream, it just gives De Niro more time to be abusive and jealous. Bull isn’t interested in the boxing. It’s interested in the fights for their visual and symbolic possibilities, but there aren’t any training montages. It’s guaranteed De Niro’s not going down. He can’t. Even after he’s beaten into hamburger, he can’t go down. It’s a mix of stubbornness, stupidity, and cruelty. A lot of the film–as far as the boxing goes–is about his rivalry with Sugar Ray Robinson (Johnny Barnes). They keep having matches. Barnes doesn’t even get a line. He’s great, because he gets to watch and see De Niro, and the audience gets to see his reaction, but Bull’s not about the boxing.

Even though the boxing sequences are brilliantly executed.

Phenomenal acting from the three leads. When De Niro finally does drive everyone away–for their own safety, basically–and breaks down, he does so alone and in old age makeup (though La Motta would’ve barely been forty) and with a bunch of extra weight on. He doesn’t make the loathsome sympathetic–Bull isn’t a redemption story at all–but he does humanize it, which is probably worse.

Pesci’s great. He’s got these listening scenes, where he’s waiting to react to De Niro and it’s all about the thoughts going through his head. That patient dramatic editing from Schoonmaker makes it happen. Moriarty’s great. After they’re married with children, Bull becomes a hostage situation. De Niro is constantly threatening Moriarty, Pesci, and the audience with unknowable violence. Because even if he doesn’t see the potential, everyone else does. It’s captivating and horrifying.

Especially since Scorsese doesn’t do anything to emphasize it. He maintains that same objective narrative distance. It’s just the reality of the situation. His direction is spectacular, loud but quiet–there’s lots of symbolism but it never breaks the film’s reality (helps they’re Catholics for the imagery, for example)–and so deliberate, so patient.

Bull’s astoundingly great.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Martin Scorsese; screenplay by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin, based on the book by Jake LaMotta, Joseph Carter, and Peter Savage; director of photography, Michael Chapman; edited by Thelma Schoonmaker; produced by Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Robert De Niro (Jake La Motta), Cathy Moriarty (Vickie La Motta), Joe Pesci (Joey), Frank Vincent (Salvy), Theresa Saldana (Lenore), Mario Gallo (Mario), Lori Anne Flax (Irma), and Nicholas Colasanto (Tommy Como).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE YEAR AFTER YEAR BLOGATHON HOSTED BY STEVE OF MOVIE MOVIE BLOG BLOG.


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The Buddy Holly Story (1978, Steve Rash)

There are three different things going on throughout The Buddy Holly Story. Well, more than three but there are the three big different things. There’s Robert Gittler’s screenplay, which has one narrative gesture for most of the film. There’s Gary Busey’s lead performance, which is resolute in both its sincerity and its anti-inscrutability. And there’s Rash’s direction, which enables both the script and the performance, but also leverages them to manage the scale.

Rash has a very determined narrative distance with The Buddy Holly Story. It’s Buddy Holly’s story. It’s Busey’s story. If he’s not in a scene, he’s about to be. Even when it’s not his scene, it ends up being his scene, because it’s all about him. Well, his performance. But Busey doesn’t do exposition. The performance doesn’t suggest a propensity for it, the script doesn’t pursue it. The other members in the band are there for exposition. Lovable standing bassist Charles Martin Smith and big but not dumb drummer Don Stroud. Even Amy Johnston, as Busey’s hometown girlfriend, expounds so Busey doesn’t. So the script’s got its own distance to its protagonist.

Because what the film becomes–and stays for quite a while–is these three guys journey into and through stardom. But not the pluses of stardom and not even the minuses (they’re implied and off-screen). They’re moving through the practicalities of it all. They’re at an information disadvantage, going from Lubbock to New York City by way of Nashville. Their actions can influence the trajectory but those actions tend to be reactions. Bluntly, the film positions the band as underdogs, even though they’re objectively not.

American music in the fifties had an enumeration of creatively significant artists working independently, simultaneously, and in both active and passive conjunction. Lots of big things happened in music, including Buddy Holly and some of the other musical acts portrayed in the film. Rash and Gittler consciously keep the characters’ anticipation and trepidation separate from the audience’s. The film is very sad. But it’s not sentimental. It’s sad. It’s guardedly, but enthusiastically nostalgic.

But it’s also very softly lighted–by Stevan Larner–on these often empty sets. Joel Schiller’s production design is great but outside musical set pieces, a lot of the film is just the three guys in sparse interiors. Usually without natural light sources. If there were fluorescent lights all over the place in the fifties, The Buddy Holly Story would be mostly in fluorescent lighted rooms with Busey discovering how far his creative ambitions can go and how to get them there and Stroud and Smith trying to keep up.

There are also bigger scenes, but they’re near vignettes. Like when Busey and the boys go play the Apollo and the white manager (Dick O’Neill) is terrified of putting up the three white boys from Texas for his black customers. The micro-subplot where Busey and the boys tour with Sam Cooke (Paul Mooney). They’re these clumps of larger scale scenes with the band scenes–which do eventually involve other supporting cast members, but as background–handling the narrative progress.

Then in the mid-to-late second act the film spotlights Busey as he branches off from the musical journey plot line to romance Maria Richwine. And the spotlight stays on Busey even away from those scenes. The film doesn’t really change its narrative distance, just its focus… by fading out around Busey. But never isolating him.

It’s a neat trick. Rash and Gittler do a lot with a lot. They’re even able to get away with the obviously historical location footage from establishing shots later on. It’s almost a gradual trust issue. The film doesn’t exactly lull its audience, but it invites a comfortable relationship.

Because the film is a true story and it’s a tragedy and even if you’re going into it completely unaware as a viewer, the filmmakers are aware and they take on certain responsibilities. And everyone making Buddy Holly Story–Rash, Gittler, Busey, Stroud, Smith, and whoever else–are embracing those responsibilities. The film’s astoundingly self-confident from the first scene. It’s never showy but it never meanders either. It doesn’t wander. Rash is guiding that flow, with a variety of styles, and each one has to hit just the right tone.

Not always easy when there are budgetary restrictions. Some of those interiors are sparser than they ought to be.

When the Story gets to the end, the film does just the right thing. It’s not an entirely unexpected thing, it’s not a surprise, but it’s neither the most or least obvious. But then Rash and Gittler haven’t been worried about the audience’s expectations, they’ve been tracking Busey’s. So it’s sort of the inevitable right thing. And you want it to go on forever.

The acting’s all good or better. Busey’s phenomenal. Then there’s the lip-synching. There isn’t any. So that enthusiastic nostalgia without any betraying of the verisimilitude and whatnot. Because Rash and Gittler are taking it seriously.

So it’s like it should be a surprise The Buddy Holly Story is such a success, but it also couldn’t be anything but.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Steve Rash; screenplay by Robert Gittler, based on a story by Alan Swyer and a book by John Goldrosen; director of photography, Stevan Larner; edited by David E. Blewitt; music by Joe Renzetti; production designer, Joel Schiller; produced by Fred Bauer; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Gary Busey (Buddy), Maria Richwine (Maria), Charles Martin Smith (Ray Bob), Don Stroud (Jesse), Conrad Janis (Ross Turner), William Jordan (Riley), Amy Johnston (Cindy Lou), Dick O’Neill (Sol Gittler), Neva Patterson (Mrs. Ella Holly), Arch Johnson (Mr. Lawrence Holly), Gloria Irizarry (Mrs. Santiago), and Paul Mooney (Sam Cooke).


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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966, Mike Nichols)

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opens with this gentle, lovely music from Alex North. It’s night, it’s a university campus, a couple is walking silently as the credits roll; the music’s beautiful. Then the couple–Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton–get home. And pretty soon they start yelling at each other. And they don’t stop until the end of the movie, some two hours away–unless they aren’t in a scene together.

Burton is a history professor and Taylor’s suffering husband. Taylor is the university president’s daughter and Burton’s suffering wife. The film starts with them getting home from a faculty party at two in the morning. They’re both drunk and so they start drinking some more. But Taylor has invited over a new professor and his wife so they’re going to have a middle-of-the-night party, much to Burton’s chagrin.

The guests are George Segal and Sandy Dennis. Dennis is a little tipsy when they arrive, but Segal’s basically sober. Burton–correctly–guesses Taylor agreed to host the welcoming party (at her never seen father’s request) because Segal is something of a young blond stud and up-and-comer, not a middle-aged fuddy-duddy career burnout like Burton.

As the film progresses, the group–there are only the four characters in the film (with two uncredited actors at a roadside bar later on)–breaks up and reforms. Taylor gives Dennis a tour of the house, offscreen, while Segal and Burton bond. More Segal realizes his hosts are majorly dysfunctional and wants to get out of there, but ends up sticking around, getting drunker, with Taylor getting bolder and bolder about hitting on him. Dennis is oblivious, Burton is quietly raging.

Eventually–once they’re drunker–Segal and Burton have another bonding moment, while–again–Dennis and Taylor are offscreen. Segal and Taylor get scenes together, Dennis and Burton get scenes together. And little by little, it becomes clear there’s a lot more going on than Taylor’s a drunk unfaithful wife to Burton’s sad sack, drunken academic failure.

Woolf is exceptional on every level. The way Nichols directs the actors. Ernest Lehman’s script–adapting Edward Albee’s play. The performances. That Alex North music. The Haskell Wexler black and white photography, which gives the viewer insight into these uncomfortable moments–like when Taylor starts flirting with Segal and Dennis is in the background and the scene’s not about Taylor’s flirtatious rambling but whether or not Dennis is catching up with what’s going on. And then what her awareness or lack thereof means given Burton’s in the room too.

Dennis has a bunch of surprises in store, narratively and performance-wise, for later in the film. Virginia Woolf gets disquieting before Segal and Dennis even show up at the house, because Taylor’s obviously unstable. Possibly dangerously unstable. The film’s revelations about Taylor and Burton to their guests (and the viewer) drives their character development. This revelation or that revelation calls back to a previous one and where there’s an–intentional or drunken–disconnect fuels the development. Dennis and Segal are different. There’s definitely some development through revelation, but they’re not the film’s subjects. They’re both messed up a little with secrets of their own, but it’s nothing compared to Taylor and Burton.

Taylor gets top-billing and the best monologue. Burton’s second-billed but the protagonist. His monologues are different. He’s not self-reflective drunk or sober. Taylor’s self-reflective sober. Well, sober for her. Burton’s always trying to stay one step ahead of Taylor while she’s just naturally devious and manipulative. They’re both exhausted–the story itself is a marathon, with the two couples getting drunker and drunker as the night goes on. Movie starts at two in the morning, ends four or so hours later. So not real-time, but fairly continuous action. All of the characters (and actors) exhibit the exhaustion in different ways. While Dennis and Segal are the guests and their exhaustion is tied to them being in someone else’s home, Taylor and Burton are sort of in their normal. Their terrifying normal. Exhaustion included.

The script has the dialogue level, with Burton trying to torment his guests with wordplay and maybe embarrass Taylor a little with it, and then the narrative. This development, that revelation, all perfectly plotted out. Nichols hits every one just right. He gets the intensity of the scenes, the dialogue, the performances, all beautifully shot by Wexler, then Sam O’Steen’s editing packages them all together into these astounding, draining scenes. There’s a lot of dread in Virginia Woolf, even if you don’t know what you’re supposed to be dreading. From the first moment after the peaceful opening titles, the film’s primed for an explosion.

Singular acting. Segal’s the least great and he’s still great. Taylor and Burton kind of duke it out for best performance. They’re very different parts with very different requirements. It’s incredible how well Nichols directs the film, given his two leads are operating at different speeds and different narrative distances. And then you throw in Segal and, especially, Dennis. She’s phenomenal in the film’s toughest part. Because she’s got to be quiet. Burton, Taylor, and even Segal all get to be loud but Dennis does this startling, quiet performance.

And even when it seems like you finally get Virginia Woolf as the film goes into the third act, it turns out there are still some big twists. The film’s biggest twist isn’t even its loudest. And the loudest one is head-blowing big.

Richard Sylbert’s production design–the house and its yard where the action mostly takes place (though the roadside bar is also great)–is stellar.

As I said before, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is exceptional. On every level. It’s “run out of positive adjectives” exceptional.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Mike Nichols; screenplay by Ernest Lehman, based on the play by Edward Albee; director of photography, Haskell Wexler; edited by Sam O’Steen; production designer, Richard Sylbert; music by Alex North; produced by Lehman; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Elizabeth Taylor (Martha), Richard Burton (George), George Segal (Nick), and Sandy Dennis (Honey).



THIS POST IS PART OF THE REGALING ABOUT RICHARD BURTON BLOGATHON HOSTED BY GILL OF REALWEEGIEMIDGET REVIEWS.


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