Tag Archives: Steven Spielberg

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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Super 8 (2011, J.J. Abrams)

Sometimes special effects are just a little too much, especially with CGI composites letting director Abrams set so much of Super 8 in gigantic action sequences. The film’s about a bunch of tweens in 1979 Ohio making a Super 8 zombie movie when they witness a train crash. The train crash, with train cars flying through the air and the kids running through showering debris, is the first time it seems like Abrams might have a little too much confidence in CGI composites. Especially when cinematographer Larry Fong can’t match the kids in the foreground. Actually, other way around, the CGI compositers can’t match Fong’s lighting of the kids pre-composite.

Then Abrams takes a little break from it and concentrates on the story. He’s already got most of the ground situation done. Abrams’s script is real good at brevity when it needs to be (which makes all of Noah Emmerich’s evil Air Force colonel a little much). By the train crash sequence, Abrams has established lead Joel Courtney (his mom has just died), his sidekick Riley Griffiths, the girl they both think is cute (Elle Fanning), and their second tier pals (Ryan Lee is the pyromaniac in training, Gabriel Basso is the scared one, Zach Mills is the one you forget is in the movie). Kyle Chandler plays Courtney’s dad; he’s a sheriff’s deputy who eventually has to take charge in a crisis situation. Abrams spends some time establishing the strain between Chandler and Courtney because the mom died. It’s effective stuff without ever being particularly… good. Both Chandler and Courtney give good man tears.

Fanning’s dad is town drunk Ron Eldard, who Chandler hates. Eldard doesn’t want Courtney around his daughter. Fanning’s outstanding and Courtney’s likable, so their gentle tween friendship stuff is nice. It’s not so deep it should take over the plot, which Abrams lets it for a while, but it’s nice. Abrams and Fong know how to go for emotional gut shots and they deliver, lens flares and all. And the emotional gut shot music from Michael Giacchino is a lot better than his eventual action and thriller music. Giacchino’s score by the third act is like a TV movie version of John Williams. Oh, right–Steven Spielberg is one of Super 8’s producers. The movie plays like an homage to some of his seventies and eighties films, most often Close Encounters.

The homage, while unnecessary, is kind of cute.

Turns out the Air Force is shipping something top secret and monstrous on the train and they come to town trying to reclaim it. Enter evil colonel Emmerich. None of the Air Force guys are good, however. They’re variations of evil.

For a while, the movie’s about Griffiths trying to integrate the train crash into his Super 8 project while Chandler deals with Emmerich. Then dogs start running away and people’s electronics are getting stolen. Then there’s a quarantine–sorry, not a quarantine, an evacuation. Abrams checks way too many homage boxes on his list, letting Super 8 get away from its stronger elements.

The kid stuff is good. Besides Fanning, not of the performances are great–Courtney’s good, but he’s got fairly predicable narrative tropes to work through–and Abrams’s banter material is what makes Griffiths and Lee’s performances.

Chandler’s investigation stuff is okay, not great, but it mostly runs concurrent to the better kid stuff. Their Super 8 movie, which runs over the end credits, is awesome.

When the evacuation hits, however, is when Super 8 slips. Abrams’s direction is all right just never quite good enough to get the action stuff done. Especially not with all the composited action nonsense going on around the kids. Everyone has a somewhat chill reaction to misfiring tanks, broken legs, and giant monsters, kids, adults, and soldiers alike. There’s this tedious crashed bus sequence at the beginning of the third act; it ought to be excellent, instead it’s artless. There’s no choreography to the frantic action, just CG tying everything together.

Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey’s editing, seemingly to keep things as PG–13 as possible, doesn’t help in that one bus sequence. They’re choppy instead of frantic. Otherwise the editing is undistinguished, sort of like Fong’s photography, or–at its best–Giacchino’s score. The film’s technically competent without ever excelling at anything. Abrams doesn’t need anyone to excel to get Super 8 done.

The finale is a little long, with Abrams going from set piece to set piece to set piece–not forgetting to tug at the heartstrings when he can. The heartstring tugging is the most effective–next to the humor–because the cast is so strong. Super 8’s biggest problem is Abrams not being able to balance between the characters and the plot. It’s too bad.

But Super 8’s still pretty good. It’s just nothing special… which Abrams seems to understand. His enthusiasm, for something he’s writing, directing, and co-producing, is a tad too muted.

Artificial lens flares aren’t enough.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by J.J. Abrams; director of photography, Larry Fong; edited by Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey; music by Michael Giacchino; production designer, Martin Whist; produced by Abrams, Bryan Burk, and Steven Spielberg; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Joel Courtney (Joe Lamb), Kyle Chandler (Deputy Jackson Lamb), Elle Fanning (Alice Dainard), Noah Emmerich (Colonel Nelec), Ron Eldard (Louis Dainard), Riley Griffiths (Charles Kaznyk), Ryan Lee (Cary), Gabriel Basso (Martin), Zach Mills (Preston), David Gallagher (Donny), and Glynn Turman (Dr. Woodward).


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Poltergeist (2015, Gil Kenan)

It’s hard to imagine Poltergeist being any better. Even if director Kenan was any good, there’d still be David Lindsay-Abaire’s atrocious screenplay, and even if both those elements were any good, there’d still be the acting. And even if the acting was better–and a better script would probably help on that front–there’d just the photography and editing and music.

Poltergeist is so broken, there’s just no point in fixing it.

There’s no point in talking about Kenan at length. He’s bad with actors, he can’t make scary scenes, he can’t compose a shot. Without a major gimmick, there’s no point for a Poltergeist remake and Kenan’s got nothing. Unless the producers thought the problem with the original was it was too good so they figured out a way to make it bad (Lindsay-Abaire’s script plays like a truncated version of the original).

Are any of the actors good? No. Jane Adams is odd comic relief; in some ways, Jared Harris is the best as the celebrity ghost hunter just because he’s not so obviously phoning it in. Though it’s possible the reason Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt’s performances are so mediocre is because they could never figure out what Kenan was doing with the camera.

The film makes Rockwell and DeWitt’s son, Kyle Catlett, the ostensible protagonist. Except the film doesn’t seem to understand how protagonists work. Because it’s so inept.

Poltergeist is too incompetent a film to be a cynical remake. It’s actually rather pitiable.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Gil Kenan; screenplay by David Lindsay-Abaire, based on a story by Steven Spielberg; director of photography, Javier Aguirresarobe; edited by Bob Murawski and Jeff Betancourt; music by Marc Streitenfeld; production designer, Kalina Ivanov; produced by Sam Raimi, Robert G. Tapert, Nathan Kahane and Roy Lee; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Sam Rockwell (Eric Bowen), Rosemarie DeWitt (Amy Bowen), Jared Harris (Carrigan Burke), Jane Adams (Dr. Powell), Saxon Sharbino (Kendra), Kyle Catlett (Griffin), Nicholas Braun (Boyd), Susan Heyward (Sophie) and Kennedi Clements (Madison).


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The Goonies (1985, Richard Donner)

There’s a lack of consistent mood to The Goonies. The film has its phases and the mood and tone change from phase to phase, but Chris Columbus’s script changes characterizations between these phases as well, which is rather disconcerting. For example, while the film introduces the villains–Anne Ramsey as the mother, Robert Davi and Joe Pantoliano as her sons–with some humor, but by the end they’re entirely slapstick.

And Donner can’t really direct the slapstick. There’s a noticeable lag, which editor Michael Kahn (who otherwise does a phenomenal job) can’t do anything with. But Donner does well with the actors. Even the weak performances, like Jeff Cohen (whose annoying overweight kid isn’t just annoying, he’s also the butt of all the script’s jokes), are generally all right thanks to Donner’s direction.

There are some stronger performances–Martha Plimpton and Corey Feldman are both good. Josh Brolin and Kerri Green have their moments too. Jonathan Ke Quan simultaneously has a lot to do, physically, but not much to do acting-wise, which is good… he doesn’t do well in his big scene. As the de facto lead, Sean Astin is more appealing than good, but he does have some fine moments.

Excellent music from Dave Grusin and photography from Nick McLean help through the rougher spots–like the entire third act. Oddly, J. Michael Riva’s great production design shines brightest during that third act.

It’s saccharine and superficial, but Donner’s direction is quite good. It’s a passable kiddie adventure.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Donner; screenplay by Chris Columbus, based on a story by Steven Spielberg; director of photography, Nick McLean; edited by Michael Kahn; music by Dave Grusin; production designer, J. Michael Riva; produced by Donner and Harvey Bernhard; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Sean Astin (Mikey), Josh Brolin (Brand), Jeff Cohen (Chunk), Corey Feldman (Mouth), Kerri Green (Andy), Martha Plimpton (Stef), Jonathan Ke Quan (Data), John Matuszak (Sloth), Robert Davi (Jake), Joe Pantoliano (Francis), Anne Ramsey (Mama Fratelli), Lupe Ontiveros (Rosalita) and Mary Ellen Trainor (Mrs. Walsh).


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