Tag Archives: David Brown

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 Saint (1997, Phillip Noyce)

The Saint is a delightful mess of a film. Director Noyce toggles between doing a Bond knock-off while a romantic adventure picture. Val Kilmer’s international, high-tech cat burglar falls for one of his marks, Elisabeth Shue’s genius scientist. Jonathan Hensleigh and Wesley Strick’s script, even when it puts Shue in distress, never actually treats her like a damsel. She’s in her own movie, one where she’s this genius scientist and she falls for the international, high-tech cat burglar who rips off her science thing.

It’s not just any science thing, The Saint is from the late nineties, so it’s cold fusion. So Shue gets to play this oddball scientist, full of eccentric behavior, only somewhat contained. Shue’s so excited by her adventure in the film–she’s so full of energy during the extended chase sequence in the second act, it’s almost like Kilmer has to hold her back. He gets to do makeup and voices, but he doesn’t have the thrill for it. She does. He’s got the thrill for her. It’s just lovely. I mean, it’s the thing Noyce never lets get screwed up–the romance. And the comedy, though the comedy is an afterthought for too much of the film. It probably would’ve been better to embrace it a lot earlier but there’s all the Bond knocking off to do.

And it’s fine international chase and action intrigue. It’s a fine Bond knock-off. Terry Rawlings’s editing could be better, but Phil Meheux’s photography is always solid, sometimes something more. The film’s enamored with Shue. Kilmer can easily handle this international thief thing. It’s not a tough part. The tough stuff is the accents and stage makeup and he excels at it. But the weight of the film’s conceit falls on Shue. She has to be a genius, she has to be a practical slapstick romantic interest, she has to be the damsel in distress. And her performance embraces the first two and rejects the third. Noyce and Kilmer just have to catch up with her. It’s gleeful.

Graeme Revell’s music is sometimes really good, sometimes really not. Again, he never screws it up for the romance.

Awesome supporting turns from villains Rade Serbedzija and Valeriy Nikolaev. Serbedzija and Kilmer only get a couple scenes together but they’re fantastic ones. They both want to chew on the scenery but they’re not willing to step on the other’s toes. And Nikolaev, as Serbedzija’s son and chief thug, doesn’t get many lines, he just gets to be mean. He’s excellent at it.

I’ve been putting off watching The Saint again for at least a decade. I can’t get that time loving it back. It’s a really special film. It’s not a success because it’s way too confused as a production, but Noyce sees what Shue and Kilmer are doing and he throws in with them, concept be damned.

The Saint’s lovely. And Shue is amazing. Kilmer’s got some really outstanding moments and he’s real strong doing this intentionally ill-defined lead, but Shue is better. It’s a truly singular performance.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Phillip Noyce; screenplay by Jonathan Hensleigh and Wesley Strick, based on a story by Hensleigh and a character created by Leslie Charteris; director of photography, Phil Meheux; edited by Terry Rawlings; music by Graeme Revell; production designer, Joseph C. Nemec III; produced by David Brown, Robert Evans, William J. MacDonald and Mace Neufeld; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Val Kilmer (Simon Templar), Elisabeth Shue (Dr. Emma Russell), Rade Serbedzija (Ivan Tretiak), Valeriy Nikolaev (Ilya Tretiak), Michael Byrne (Vereshagi), Henry Goodman (Dr. Lev Botvin), Evgeniy Lazarev (President Karpov), Alun Armstrong (Inspector Teal), Charlotte Cornwell (Inspector Rabineau), Lev Prygunov (General Sklarov) and Irina Apeksimova (Frankie).


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Jaws 2 (1978, Jeannot Szwarc)

There's definitely a good movie somewhere in Jaws 2; maybe just one without so much shark. Sadly, most of its narrative problems seem obvious to fix. For example, if the shark isn't confirmed and Roy Scheider might just be suffering post-traumatic stress… maybe they didn't want to go dark.

Instead, the filmmakers go bright, shiny and stupid. Director Szwarc doesn't do particularly well with his actors–for some reason Scheider is frequently staring into the camera and past whoever he's sharing the scene with–but most of his composition is fantastic. And Michael C. Butler's photography is gorgeous. Jaws 2 definitely looks good. It sounds good too–John Williams's score is great, the sound design on the film is great.

It's just really dumb.

The film slaps Scheider's story of bickering with town officials in front of this “teens in danger” movie. The stuff with the teens doesn't get enough time once they're in actual danger (and too much time before that part of the film), but there are some sublime moments.

No one in the film is particularly bad, except Donna Wilkes, and there are some acting stand-outs. David Elliot, Keith Gordon, Ann Dusenberry, Mark Gruner–all good performances. Lorraine Gary gets a few good moments as Scheider's wife, though not enough. There's a strange subtext about her having a career being a big problem–she's even wearing pants right before Scheider gets in trouble at work.

It's long, it's bad, it's pretty. The technical pluses oddly outweigh all the other minuses. Kind of.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Jeannot Szwarc; screenplay by Carl Gottlieb and Howard Sackler, based on characters created by Peter Benchley; director of photography, Michael C. Butler; edited by Steve Potter, Arthur Schmidt and Neil Travis; music by John Williams; production designer, Joe Alves; produced by Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Roy Scheider (Police Chief Martin Brody), Lorraine Gary (Ellen Brody), Murray Hamilton (Mayor Larry Vaughn), Joseph Mascolo (Len Peterson), Jeffrey Kramer (Deputy Jeff Hendricks), Collin Wilcox Paxton (Dr. Lureen Elkins), Ann Dusenberry (Tina Wilcox), Mark Gruner (Mike Brody), Barry Coe (Tom Andrews), Susan French (Grace Witherspoon), Gary Springer (Andy Nicholas), Donna Wilkes (Jackie Peters), Gary Dubin (Eddie Marchand), John Dukakis (Paul ‘Polo’ Loman), G. Thomas Dunlop (Timmy Weldon), David Elliott (Larry Vaughn Jr.), Marc Gilpin (Sean Brody), Keith Gordon (Doug Fetterman), Cindy Grover (Lucy), Ben Marley (Patrick), Martha Swatek (Marge), Billy Van Zandt (Bob) and Gigi Vorgan (Brooke Peters).


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Jaws (1975, Steven Spielberg)

The first half of Jaws–before the boat, when it becomes a different film–might be the most perfectly made film ever. The second half isn’t less perfectly made, but it’s its own thing, not easily comparable to any other film; that first half deals in traditional filmic standards and does so with singular success. Verna Fields’s editing, Bill Butler’s photography, Joe Alves’s production design… it’s utterly perfect. Spielberg’s use of frame depth, so startling wonderful (and now long gone). From the first moment after the credits, with Fields’s cuts during the beach party, it’s stunning. Too often the main emphasis, when discussing Jaws‘s writing, is on the Indianapolis monologue, but really, throughout, it’s great. The family scenes, the ones between Roy Scheider and Lorraine Gary, carry the first half of the film. Richard Dreyfuss’s appearance gives Scheider a friend, but it doesn’t really affect the situation very much. The whole first half of the movie builds towards Murray Hamilton (who’s so good) and his breakdown at the hospital, the one Scheider’s too busy to notice.

Then Jaws resets. Even though Robert Shaw had his moment twenty minutes in (I never look at the clock when watching Jaws, it’s an absurd idea), he’s somewhat foreign as the second half starts out. Then Dreyfuss becomes really foreign and the characters reveal themselves differently under pressure. The moments when Dreyfuss and Shaw start liking each other are great and some of my favorites, but this time I really noticed the scene after Shaw starts losing it and then he has to ask Dreyfuss for help. Scheider finds himself abandoned on the boat in stretches, since he doesn’t know what do–Scheider’s disappointment in Dreyfuss mirrors the viewer’s. It’s a constantly shifting environment, but one totally dependent on the looming disaster. The discreet moves Jaws makes, positioning its characters and their reaction to fear, is something wonderful. So wonderful, I never realized until this time watching it, both Shaw and Dreyfuss revisit their first experiences with sharks.

While this post reminds me of why I don’t like writing about great films I’ve seen before, Jaws is something even more than the usual. I could sit and talk about Jaws, listing all of the great things it does, for three times through. It’s a constantly rewarding experience.

Maybe a last little something about John Williams’s music. Even though Jaws has its famous theme, the score isn’t one concerned so much with it. Williams’s sensitivity to the changes during scenes, even to the cuts, is noteworthy. Jaws is the ideal example of something being the sum of its parts and his contribution is magnificent.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Spielberg; screenplay by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, from the novel by Benchley; director of photography, Bill Butler; edited by Verna Fields; music by John Williams; production designer, Joe Alves; produced by Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Roy Scheider (Martin Brody), Robert Shaw (Quint), Richard Dreyfuss (Matt Hooper), Lorraine Gary (Ellen Brody), Murray Hamilton (Larry Vaughn), Carl Gottlieb (Meadows), Jeffrey Kramer (Hendricks) and Susan Backlinie (Chrissie Watkins).


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