Category Archives: 1974

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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It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown! (1974, Phil Roman)

Easter Beagle has a really strong script from Charles M. Schulz. Everything is balanced just right. It’s not balanced equally. The proportions are just right. Besides the lovely musical sequences–where Beagle goes for being lovely and graceful (lots of dancing Snoopy, set Vince Guaraldi, some Bach, and some Beethoven)–most of the special is spent with Peppermint Patty (Linda Ercoli) and Marcie (Jimmy Ahrens). Patty is trying to teach Marcie how to make Easter eggs. Things go wrong in very amusing ways as Marcie apparently has no understanding of how eggs work.

That subplot keeps up the whole special–but is actually completely independent of the “twist”–and just gets funnier. By the final few screw-ups, Peppermint Patty’s frustrations are possibly less than the viewer’s. It’s perfectly plotted by Schulz and director Roman. Really funny, really good plotting.

Other subplots include Sally (Lynn Mortensen) needing new shoes, Linus (Stephen Shea) trying to convince Sally and the other kids the Easter Beagle will give them all Easter eggs so why make them, and Woodstock needing a new bird house. Charlie Brown (Todd Barbee) and Lucy (Melanie Kohn) are around, but mostly just to be exasperated by their younger siblings.

There’s a great department store sequence–where everything is all Christmas (Easter Beagle has a couple moments of big commercialism commentary from Schulz; the department store works a lot better than the stuff in dialogue)–and only Snoopy is able to find the Easter section, on his way to picking out a bird house for Woodstock. Because even though Snoopy is a bit of a jerk to Woodstock–there’s a lot of almost mean slapstick violence–he does want to get him a new bird house.

Great music, some fantastic sequences (like, lots of them–Easter Beagle is mostly fantastic sequences), and strong performances from the cast. Kohn is maybe the weakest, but she comes around–though Barbee does have the worst part in the special–and Ercoli and Ahrens do some great work. Oh, and Mortensen and Shea. The Easter Beagle stuff is excellent.

And it’s got a great finish.

It’s the Easter Beagle, which has almost zilch to do with Easter, is a constant, consistent success.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Phil Roman; written by Charles M. Schulz; edited by Chuck McCann and Roger Donley; music by Vince Guaraldi; produced by Bill Melendez; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Starring Linda Ercoli (Peppermint Patty), Jimmy Ahrens (Marcie), Lynn Mortensen (Sally), Melanie Kohn (Lucy), and Todd Barbee (Charlie Brown).


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It’s a Mystery, Charlie Brown (1974, Phil Roman)

It’s a Mystery, Charlie Brown opens with this adorable five minute Woodstock sequence. He builds a new nest, then goes and takes a swim in a bird bath. A storm comes in–whatever its faults, Mystery does have some rather ambitious animation for a “Charlie Brown” special–the tranquil clouds changing into storm clouds looks awesome. Woodstock then has to survive on the water until Snoopy can save him. Once Snoopy comes in, things start to get less adorable. Mystery starts going for gags, because whenever Snoopy tries to help Woodstock, something goes wrong because of Snoopy’s callousness. For a while it seems like a subplot is going to be Woodstock snapping.

But it’s not. Because Mystery doesn’t have any subplots.

Once the storm is over and Woodstock is dry, Snoopy walks him home. Only the new nest is gone, so Snoopy dons a Sherlock Holmes outfit and they get investigating.

Wait, did I forget to mention Sally (Lynn Mortensen) has a science project due and the subject is nature. She needs something from nature.

Hint, hint.

So Snoopy and Woodstock investigate the Peanuts kids, starting with Charlie Brown (Todd Barbee) under a hot lamp. Then Lucy and Linus, then Marcie, then Pigpen, then Peppermint Patty. None of the scenes stand out except the Peppermint Patty one, where Patty decides Snoopy is playing cops and robbers and plays as the robber and attacks him. It might be a good scene if Donna Le Tourneau’s voice work on Patty were better. There’s got to be something special in the voice of a character who thinks a bipedal dog in a costume is a funny-looking kid and Le Tourneau doesn’t have it here.

After all the investigating, they go to the school and find the bird nest. Even though they’re just following the footprints from the tree, which Mystery previously implied led to Charlie Brown’s house and maybe the plot would move along a little faster. The trip to the other kids’ houses is narratively pointless. Other than to keep doing this sight gag where Snoopy’s bubble pipe makes a big bubble. The big bubble always pops on Woodstock, soaking him once again. Given Woodstock almost drown to death in the opening scene, it’s a little mean. Mystery is a little mean to Woodstock, who’s basically the only not annoying character in it.

Because Sally gets really, really, really annoying. Mortensen plays her a little sociopathic, which is funny, but she’s fighting with Woodstock, who’s sympathetic.

The last third is a series of unfunny jokes. Mystery goes out on a particularly bad one.

It took six guys to come up with the story for Mystery–Charles M. Schulz isn’t credited with them, though he wrote the teleplay. They didn’t come up with much. For a while it seemed like it’d be focused more on Snoopy and Woodstock, so dialogue-free comedy. But no.

It’s not terrible, it’s just not successful. It doesn’t really try to succeed either. It’s also not assured enough to be rote.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Phil Roman; teleplay by Charles M. Schulz, based on a story by Joseph A. Bailey, Jerry Juhl, Jeff Moss, Norman Stiles, Jon Stone, and Ray Sipherd and characters created by Schulz; edited by Chuck McCann; music by Vince Guaraldi; produced by Bill Melendez; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Starring Todd Barbee (Charlie Brown), Lynn Mortensen (Sally), Melanie Kohn (Lucy), Stephen Shea (Linus), Donna Le Tourneau (Peppermint Patty), Jimmy Ahrens (Marcie), and Tom Muller (Pig Pen).


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Sister Street Fighter (1974, Yamaguchi Kazuhiko)

Sister Street Fighter should be campy. With the constant horns in Kikuchi Shunsuke’s score, lead Shiomi Etsuko’s colorful outfit, villain Amatsu Bin doing an Elvis impersonation, the countless and intentionally weird martial arts villains… it ought to be campy. But it’s not, because somehow Sister Street Fighter manages to keep its melodrama sincere.

Lead Shiomi is a Hong Kong martial arts champion who goes to Japan to search for her missing brother. He too is a martial arts champion, but like many good martial arts champions, he’s also a secret drug agent. Shiomi isn’t just a concerned sister or martial arts champion, she’s got the assignment of finding him. It’s unclear if she regularly works as a secret agent or just this one time.

Shiomi’s a likable lead. Sister Street Fighter never goes out of its way to require anything like acting from its cast; likable’s about as high as you can get. Especially since Shiomi gets the more tedious half of the movie. The other half is all of Amatsu’s villainy, which gets pretty awful, or something with his goons. Even though the goons are sort of played for laughs and aren’t especially good at being eccentric martial arts villains, the film always takes them seriously. Somehow staying straightfaced through the absurdities does more for pacing than Shiomi’s dramatically inert search for her brother.

In Japan, Shiomi gets herself a bunch of friends and allies, including Sonny Chiba in an extended cameo. Chiba himself had a Street Fighter franchise, but playing a different character (with Shiomi appearing in the final entry, not as the same character as here). There’s no baton-passing to Shiomi, just the relatively effective too slight mentorship. Chiba’s a karate man, Shiomi’s a karate woman, they believe in the good karate schools. They’re pals and they’ve got the most star power in the picture.

Sadly, they barely get any time together.

Amatsu’s an okay villain. He’s an evil jackass, walking around with his sunglasses on all the time and his Elvis capes. Ishibashi Masashi is Amatsu’s overconfident henchman who can’t deal with Shiomi beating him up. Ishibashi’s all right too.

As for the eccentric villains, none of them stand out good or bad. Director Yamaguchi shoots all the fight scenes in long shot with very few cuts. It’s about seeing the fight progress. The fight choreography isn’t great, but what it does well, Yamaguchi knows how to showcase.

He also knows how to do the ultraviolence quite well. Sister Street Fighter is often bloodless, but only because they’re saving all the gore for the finale. It should’ve been peppered throughout, especially given Shiomi’s plot is so bland and it could use all the help.

Most of the film involves Shiomi at Amatsu’s estate, which is a mix of Bond villain, bikini bimbos, and dungeons. Lots and lots of dungeons, but with tech. Shiomi has to break in after the second or third time everyone thinks she’s dead. Sister Street Fighter is short but repetitive. Unfortunately it’s not to reinforce information gathering, but because the writers don’t have any other ideas. So why not just do this one thing again. And then again.

But the scenes with Shiomi on the estate take up a lot of runtime. It’s got a great pace. It doesn’t have the best direction in the film, but it definitely moves the best.

In the end, Sister Street Fighter doesn’t succeed, it just doesn’t fail. It’s like it isn’t even ambitious enough to fail.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Yamaguchi Kazuhiko; written by Kakefuda Masahiro and Suzuki Noribumi; director of photography, Nakajima Yoshio; edited by Tanaka Osamu; music by Kikuchi Shunsuke; production designer, Nakamura Shuichiro; produced by Takamura Kenji and Yoshimine Kineo; released by Toei Company.

Starring Etsuko Shiomi (Li Koryu), Emi Hayakawa (Emi), Sanae Ôhori (Shinobu Kojo), Xiu-Rong Xie (Fanshin), Hiroshi Kondô (Li Gyokudo), Tatsuya Nanjô (Jiro), Nami Tachibana (Reiko), Hiroshi Miyauchi (Li Mansei), Bin Amatsu (Shigetomi Kakuzaki), Masashi Ishibashi (Kazunao Inubashiri), and Sonny Chiba (Hibiki).


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