The Sugarland Express (1974)

2015 #10
Steven Spielberg | 105 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG

The Sugarland ExpressSteven Spielberg’s second feature (or “first” if you’re American) is based, loosely, on a true story. The fictionalised version sees Lou Jean (Goldie Hawn) breaking her husband (William Atherton) out of prison so they can travel cross state to liberate their baby from foster care. Everything goes smoothly until they accidentally kidnap a police officer (Michael Sacks), hundreds of police cars begin to follow them, and a multi-day slow-paced chase ensues.

It’s probably not obvious from the whole prison break/kidnap/true story thing, but The Sugarland Express is more of a comedy than a thriller. The ludicrousness of the situation is ramped up, though Spielberg keeps it grounded enough that you can believe it was real, and with an undercurrent of potential violence from the police that suggests a tragic ending may be unavoidable. Credit also to the cast for maintaining this balance, in particular Hawn, for who this was a breakout role. She’s naïve and optimistic without being too annoying, her comedic airheadedness weighed against an earnest belief that she’s doing the right thing for her child and that it’s all going to work out in the end.

Spielberg makes full use of the 2.35:1 frame’s width, which means that, viewed on broadcast TV at 16:9, it’s often noticeably cropped (this having been made before the time Three's a crowdwhen filmmakers became contractually obliged to keep their compositions “TV safe”). The camerawork is frequently extraordinary, including at least one unbroken shot where the camera moves around inside and outside the car, like something out of Children of Men — only done for real in a moving vehicle, unlike Alfonso Cuarón’s soundstage-based hidden-cuts version.

Largely overlooked these days, I guess because it doesn’t obviously fit with Spielberg’s renowned sci-fi, adventure, and worthy-historical pictures, The Sugarland Express merits more attention. Tonally, and in terms of the level of directorial skill it exhibits, it fits right amongst the pack of his better-remembered works. Not his best picture, but able to stand confidently alongside his numerous very-good ones.

4 out of 5

The Sugarland Express is released on standalone Blu-ray (as are the three other films previously available exclusively in the Steven Spielberg Director’s Collection box set) next Monday, May 4th.

Pain & Gain (2013)

2015 #47
Michael Bay | 124 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Pain and GainFor his first non-sci-fi movie in a decade, divisive action director Michael Bay channels Tarantino (kinda) for this based-on-a-true-story crime comedy. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Mark “Marky Mark” Wahlberg and Anthony “The Falcon” Mackie star as a gang of dimwitted Florida bodybuilders who come up with a ‘foolproof’ plan to rob a rich gym client.

That comparison to Tarantino is lifted from Now TV’s description of the film, and I don’t quite agree with it. Pain & Gain is certainly a comedic crime movie, the kind of thing Tarantino was known for before he got diverted into genre B-movie homage/parodies, but it doesn’t feel like a Tarantino movie — which, considering the innumerable films that do rip-off his ’90s style (even today), is only a good thing. I wouldn’t say Bay’s movie feels wholly unique or original, but I don’t think it’s Tarantino he’s riffing off.

Nonetheless, the film’s best asset is its humour, much of it derived from dialogue. Proceedings take a little while to warm up, with some character backstory flashbacks that aren’t always necessary and seem to befuddle the narrative, but once it settles down into the crime spree, it’s consistently hilarious. Bay has pitched the tone exactly right, playing it straight but with an OTT edge that betrays awareness of the ludicrousness of it all. Towards the end, when events have reached a point of total ridiculousness, he throws up an onscreen caption to announce, “This is still a true story.” That’s witty. (Though, ironically, it appears during one of the few bits the filmmakers did actually make up!)

Adept at comedyBay is aided by leads who are surprisingly adept at comedy. Johnson is the best thing in it, consistently hilarious as his conscience battles former addictions and newfound religious convictions. I noted down some of his best lines to quote in the review, but they lose something without his delivery.

I suppose there is a question of whether this tone really is appropriate: as these are real-life events, should we be finding them so funny? It is kind of tasteless. I suppose you could parlay that into a discussion about the comedic crime sub-genre on the whole: is it okay to laugh at this kind of behaviour so long as it’s been dreamt up in the mind of some (wannabe-)auteur, but as soon as someone actually did it for real, a film of those events has crossed the line. Is that a sound argument? If you’re going to find a fictionalised account of the real-life version abhorrent, shouldn’t we similarly find the wholly-fictional version similarly poor? It’s a moral quandary I don’t really have an answer for because, when all is said and done, what the real guys did was horrendous, but the way they went about it was ludicrous and is almost unavoidably darkly funny in the re-telling. I certainly laughed.

Gaining painAfter he’s become so sidetracked making the awful Transformers movies, it’s easy to forget that Bay was once a quality action filmmaker. His works may not have class, but they had style and panache befitting the genre — The Rock, in particular, is a ’90s action classic. Pain & Gain isn’t exactly a return to form because it’s not the same kind of movie, but it is the first Bay movie for at least a decade that’s really worth your time.

4 out of 5

Bernie (2011)

2015 #53
Richard Linklater | 96 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

BernieI seem to vaguely remember dismissing Bernie as just ‘Another Jack Black Comedy’ back whenever it came out (in the UK, that wasn’t until April 2013), and essentially forgot about it until earlier this month when it came up on the A.V. Club’s 100 best films of the decade (so far), at #38, which made it sound a very worthwhile watch for multiple reasons. Having seen it, however, I don’t think I’d rank it as one of the (half-)decade’s best. That’s putting an unfair burden on it, though: it’s a movie I’m glad I’ve seen, and certainly one with a good many points in its favour.

Black plays the eponymous Bernie Tiede, a mortician in the small town of Carthage, Texas, whose dedication to his job and friendly disposition, both far above and beyond the call of duty, soon find him at the centre of the community and beloved by its people. When the town’s renowned miser dies, Bernie forms a bond with his even-miserlier bitch of a wife (Shirley MacLaine), becoming about the only person she gets on with. They go on expensive holidays, dine at fine restaurants, and soon Bernie is managing her affairs. But she becomes increasingly controlling, making demands on his time that he struggles to meet, and treating him as wickedly as she does everyone else. One day, Bernie shoots her dead. When his crime is discovered, the people of his small town initially refuse to believe he did it; when it’s proven he did, they clamour for him to be released anyway.

By-the-by, this is a completely true story.

Bernie brings gifts(If you’re observing similarities to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil there, you’re not the first: the magazine article that inspired Bernie, published around the same time as that book’s film adaptation, is called “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas”.)

Co-writer/director Richard Linklater — who, as we know, often likes to mix up real-life and fiction in the way he produces his movies (cf. Boyhood; the Before trilogy) — tells this story in a docu-drama style, mixing talking head interviews with dramatic recreations. Many (most) of the interviewees are real-life Carthage residents, presumably giving their real recollections and opinions. It fits this narrative to a T, lending veracity to the unbelievable-if-it-weren’t-true story. They’re also amusing — not in a “laugh at the small town folks” kinda way (though there’s an inherent element of that for us as outside observers, let’s be honest), but in an honest-to-goodness “this is what real life’s like” fashion. This irreverence is how many people really react to and discuss momentous events, and in this case that gels with the tone of what happened.

No doubt spurred on by the fact he’s portraying a real person, Black gives a strong performance. It’s a comedy one, undoubtedly, but far more restrained than he normally offers. It doesn’t suggest a Robin Williams-esque versatility — I don’t imagine Black’s suddenly going to be popping up in serious parts all the time — but it is worthy of note. MacLaine does a lot with a little, her character’s vicious nature conveyed at least as much through glances, sneers, and a particular way of chewing food as it is through words and actions.

McConaissanceThe local attorney seeking Bernie’s prosecution is played by man-of-the-moment Matthew McConaughey. I don’t know when we’re meant to deem the start of his “McConaissance”, but I’m not sure this really qualifies as part of it. Not that he’s bad, but it feels like the kind of played-straight comedy Southerner I’ve seen him do a few times now; indeed, it’s how he comes across in real life, from what I’ve seen. It fits the role like a glove, but doesn’t make for a remarkable performance.

Bernie is one of those stories that you’d never buy if it weren’t true, which makes it perfect fodder for the movies. Native Texan Linklater clearly understands the mindset of those involved and is the right kind of quirky-but-mainstream filmmaker to bring it to the screen. One might argue it doesn’t show suitable reverence to the fact a woman is dead, but the involvement of so many real townspeople suggests it’s got the level and tone bang on. It’s no true-crime mystery, nor the funniest comedy, but it is a tale so engrossingly bizarre that it begs to be heard in full. The real-life post-film ending — Bernie was released from prison last year on the condition he lives above Linklater’s garage — only adds to that fascination.

4 out of 5

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997)

2015 #33
Clint Eastwood | 146 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

Midnight in the Garden of Good and EvilSent to write “500 words on a Christmas party” in Savannah, Georgia, journalist John Kelso (John Cusack) instead finds himself covering a murder trial where he’s become friendly with the accused (Kevin Spacey).

Based on the bestselling book of a true story, Midnight in the Garden (as my TV’s EPG would have it) benefits from that reality to guide it through the quirky locals and unusual turns of its true-crime plot — there’s no doubt that Spacey killed the man, but the exact circumstances of the act are disputed. There’s been some movieisation in the telling of the events (the shooting happened in May; there were four trials, here condensed to one; a romantic subplot for Kelso is a (clichéd) addition), but the sense that enough of the truth remains keeps the film inherently captivating.

That’s handy for the film, which almost leans on the “it’s all true!” angle as a crutch to help the viewer through its own production. Eastwood’s direction might kindly be described as “workmanlike” — it’s strikingly unremarkable. Cusack is as blank as he ever seems to be (have I missed his Good Films that once marked him out? I say “once” because he’s only a leading man in shit no one notices these days). He’s fine, just borderline unnoticeable, which is why the romance subplot feels so misplaced — he’s an audience cipher to access this interesting location and set of events, not a character in his own right. Apparently Ed Norton turned down the role — now he might’ve brought some personality to it. Spacey is worth watching, at least.

What's in the jar? WHAT'S IN THE JAR?Like many an “adapted from a bestseller!” movies, I guess Midnight in the Garden was a big deal in its day that’s faded to semi-obscurity since (see: Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, increasingly The Da Vinci Code, and on and on). It’s no forgotten masterpiece, but has enough going for it to merit a rediscovery by the right people who’ll enjoy it. Like me. For that, much thanks to Mike at Films on the Box, whose insightful review I naturally recommend.

4 out of 5

Fargo (1996)

Fargo2007 #23
Joel Coen | 94 mins | DVD | 18 / R

Fargo is the latest film to have been inducted into the United States National Film Registry, donchaknow. It’s also 105th on the IMDb Top 250 [it’s now 153rd], and the 21st film from the 1990s. So it’s pretty much a modern classic then.

It is indeed very good; the only thing holding me off giving it 5 is a lack of that Something which leads me to rate so highly after one viewing. Maybe it will go up in time.

4 out of 5