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The Sugarland Express

tn_sugarlandspielbergTHE SUGARLAND EXPRESS is the feature debut of young TV director Steve Spielberg. It’s hard to think of it as his first real movie when DUEL was so damn good, but officially it’s the first one he made for theatrical release. Things have really changed, haven’t they? You don’t get hungry young up-and-comers starting out in TV and then making a splash in movies. There’s great TV now but it’s not a place for visionary directors.

To commemorate the 2 (two) new Spielberg movies that came out recently I decided to finally get aorund to watching all the Spielberg movies I’ve never actually seen. This is gonna include a couple that you guys will be surprised by because everybody else in the world saw them a long time ago. But mostly it will be the “lesser” Spielbergs. Not JAWS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS or E.T.

mp_sugarlandI enjoyed finally seeing Spielberg’s sort-of-debut, as disappointing as it was that it turns out it’s not about a magical train that goes to a mythical world of candy. It’s a loosely-inspired-by-a-true-story kidnapping/road picture. Young Goldie Hawn, looking exactly like young Kate Hudson, comes to a pre-release facility to visit her husband Clovis (William Atherton, aka Dick Thornburg from DIE HARD 1-2) four months before he’s set to get out. He’s thrilled to see her but she’s frantic and crazy ’cause she just lost custody of their baby Langston. Using two classic crazy bitch techniques – the mock break-up and the sudden-passionate-public-sex-interrupted-by-threats – she eggs Clovis into sneaking out with her to go to Sugarland and try to get the baby from the foster parents.

Let me tell you, I’m pretty sure they didn’t name the baby after Langston Hughes. They’re not real smart, is what I’m getting at. Not only do they fuck themselves over by escaping so close to the end of his bid, they also misinterpret a traffic stop and needlessly take a police officer hostage, turning it into a huge deal. And then they still think the law might give them custody of their kid back, so they keep driving. The Captain in charge is wise and patient and wants to avoid bloodshed, so it turns into a long caravan of police cars and a few media vans.

Come to think of it, some cop made a decision like that to slowly follow O.J. Simpson in that white Bronco when he was threatening to kill himself. That guy never gets credit for that part of it turning out okay. And remember how some people decided O.J. was a hero for some reason and waited along the side of the road to cheer him on? Same thing here. As their story becomes known, people begin to line up along the streets to wave or hold up signs. In one town their car is crowded like returning heroes in a parade, people reach into the car giving them gifts, blessings, even kisses. Some sympathize with her as a mother, others are fans of their hostage, who seems to enjoy the support as much as they do.

mp_sugarland2The officer starts to develop some weird sort of friendship with them. Of course you could call it Stockholm Syndrome (or Helsinki Syndrome as it’s known in the land of Diehardia), but I don’t know. It seems to me like he genuinely feels sorry for her when he hears her dad over the radio calling her trash. Maybe he realizes that the problems in her life must stem at least a little bit from having an asshole dad that makes her feel worthless. Or maybe he just thinks geez, that’s harsh. Anyway he saves her from hearing it.

The captain is kind of the same way, but from a distance. When he sees her at the gas station pulling reams of gold stamps into the car he seems almost charmed by her goofiness. He realizes these are not evil people, they’re just young idiots. So he does his damndest to make this a funny story he can tell later instead of a horrible tragedy he’s gonna be haunted by forever.

There are some jokey moments here and there that seem just a millimeter or two over the line into Burt Reynolds movie territory, but for most of the running time I think this gets the tone just right. It’s a light-hearted surface with an underlying menace. They’re too stupid to see the brick wall they’re headed toward, and the movie reflects their point of view. It acts like hey, yeah, maybe they’ll get their kid back! They’re nice people, right? This oughta work out!

At first it seems kinda different from other Spielberg, he doesn’t usually do movies about lower class people. But as things escalate it looks more and more like his style: great, swooping camera moves, well put together action sequences, stunning magic hour lighting, authentic Texan supporting players. The towns they pass through feel as populated and layered as the one in JAWS (his next movie). There are some amazingly beautiful shots, like the one at the very end with actors in silhouette and sunlight shimmering on the water. Cinematographist Vilmos Zsigmond had already done MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER and shit, so this wasn’t exactly his big break. But he went on to do CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, THE DEER HUNTER, and, uh, SLIVER.

I gotta be honest, Goldie Hawn usually annoys the shit out of me. I couldn’t tell you why, it’s just one of those things. I’m sure I probly misjudge her – after all, she’s got the Kurt Russell seal of approval. But my point is that I think she’s really good in this particular one. It’s a complex character. She’s horrible but sympathetic. I kind of hate her and kind of feel sorry for her and kind of like her. So if you’ve got the same Goldie-aversion don’t let her scare you off of this one.


This entry was posted on Wednesday, January 4th, 2012 at 12:44 am and is filed under Crime, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

39 Responses to “The Sugarland Express”

  1. And so it begins…

    I remember when both THE CHASE and SPEED came out, months or weeks before the O.J. chase respectively, Siskel and Ebert criticized THE CHASE as a knockoff of SUGARLAND EXPRESS. To be fair, I think 20 years warrants a new car chase media spoof movie. (re: the Happy 2012 thread, THE CHASE was my favorite movie in 1994. Saw it a few years ago and HATED it. Does not work at all, but it was everything my 16-year-old self needed at the time.)

    SPEED didn’t really deal with the media aspect of it, but the point is I remember this coming up and I never saw it until it got a proper DVD. It’s a good movie too. Funny thing though is that DUEL is way more memorable. Been a while since I’ve seen that too. Can’t say for sure it’s better made, but it seems like it would be better.

  2. “I enjoyed finally seeing Spielberg’s sort-of-debut, as disappointing as it was that it turns out it’s not about a magical train that goes to a mythical world of candy.”


    Glad you liked it Vern. This was a very solid movie, Spielberg making his own ACE IN THE HOLE sorta picture. Lesser Spielberg I suppose in retrospect, but only because of the canon which surrounds. SUGARLAND knows how HELP! feels being in the Beatles discography along with the usual-suspects-for-greatest-album-evah. You can’t win, nor you ever will.

    What I remember most was Atherton surprising me. Of course I simply knew him as the prick from two of the best 1980s movies, but he gives a very good performance. Come to think of it, wasn’t SUGARLAND a Goldie Hawn production that she basically is the reason why Spielberg was hired? I think Spielberg said that was the deal on SPIELBERG ON SPIELBERG.

    My point is, Atherton has the more thespian meaty part of the couple and Hawn the star doesn’t really hog him out of that. So that’s cool.

    (Vern reviewing 1941? *rubs hands in glee*)

  3. yup, this is one of the Spielberg movies I’ve never seen

    I’m really hoping it wont be too long till the lesser known Spielberg movies hit blu ray, you guys know JAWS was announced recently for blu ray?

  4. and man, this is going to be a GREAT marathon?

    also Vern, how about you give me a little hint on how you watch dvds these days? I remembering saying that you got an HDTV not too long ago, don’t dvds usually look like crap on HDs? (or at least in my experience they do)

  5. Great review of a wonderful, underrated movie. The baby crying and the lost teddy bear at the end are as powerful and heartbreaking as anything in Spielberg’s career. John William’s score for harmonica and orchestra is great too, and also strangely forgotten. Glad you liked it.

  6. I never got around to seeing this one. Sometimes it’s strange to see a director who has such authorial presence in his films do work for hire. Good to hear that some of his Spielbergisms shine through early on. I wonder why more directors don’t make the leap from television to film, especially now that television is now competing with film artistically. Hell, the Wire is shot better than most films I’ve seen.

  7. Well, there is the case of J.J. Abrams, the visionary imitator of the visionary director Steven Spielberg, and of course Joss Whedon has been tapped for AVENGERS. But usually it goes the opposite direction these days. A lot of TV is directed by former young hotshots who’re sick of shopping projects around and just want a paycheck. You’ll be watching HOUSE or whatever and you’re like, “Didn’t that guy direct TERMINAL VELOCITY?” (Please bear in mind that I’ve only seen one episode of HOUSE and it was directed by the guy who did TERMINAL VELOCITY.) Or I’m noticing more often that shows will bring in a current young hotshot to shoot their pilot and set the visual style for the show. Shit, Justin Lin even did the first paintball episode of COMMUNITY, which is probably why it’s got better action than most theatrical releases.

  8. Also a guy from GAME OF THRONES is now making THOR 2.

  9. Also, I have not seen SUGARLAND EXPRESS. I should correct that. Unlike Vern, I find classic Goldie absolutely adorable. FOUL PLAY? Forget about it. She’s like sunshine with a great ass.

  10. Saw War Horse last night and I can honestly say that it was the cheesiest, worst acted, more heavy handed sappy piece of film making I have ever had the displeasure of sitting through. I knew about 20 minutes in when there was an action beat involving the daring question of whether or not this horse would be able to plow his way past a relatively large rock(the hair on my neck has never stood higher) that I had made a very big mistake in choosing it over Dragon Tattoo. When a POV shot from a plow going towards a small rock is played up for dramatic tension you can count me the fuck out. There are some competent shows of trench warfare and shit later on the film but it always comes back to these crazy unbelievable relationships around this seemingly magical horse.

    I actually ended up being the asshole in the theater who laughs at the most inappropriate times. The movie just reminded me of that Tropical Thunder Simple Jack movie in too many ways for me to ever become invested. It seemed like a fake joke movie like when the whole town comes out to watch a field get plowed, or the main character sees his seemingly retarded best friend get engulfed in poisonous gas in slow-mo as he yells out his name, or perhaps the most groan enducing moment of all when the army people are about to put Joey down but(and even though he’s blinded at this point) from hundreds of yards away he stops the proceedings by whistling.

    Fuck this movie, it was insulting.

  11. You can blame the play for all of that, dieselboy, but at least that had puppets to lend the proceedings an air of abstraction, making the cliches a bit easier to swallow. Just picturing the whistling scene playing out with a real horse makes me want to retch a little.

  12. Vern proves again to be simpatico with my personal quirks, as I also inexplicably dislike Goldie Hawn. Young Private Benjamin annoys me in virtually all her roles, don’t know why. OVERBOARD was damn funny when I was a youngun, though. Goldie, Jr. hasn’t yet done anything of that caliber in my opinion, fuck ALMOST FAMOUS.

    Roger that, dieselboy. I was so insulted that I almost broke my cinema vow of silence throughout WAR HORSE, and then I almost had to walk out, with like 2 minutes left in the run time, when the field doctor stops operations for several minutes and uses his cloth to wipe mud off a horse while there are dozens of wounded men a few feet behind him.

  13. GrimGrinningChris

    January 4th, 2012 at 9:30 am

    Atherton as sort of anti-hero. I know I have seen this movie as I recall some of the specific points Vern describes, but I cannot recall when.
    Is this the only major movie where Atherton DIDN’T play an insufferable asshole?

    I know I was involved in one somewhere but can’t remember if it was this sight, or AICN or some other place as to who the reigning asshole of 80s movies was… William Atherton, Paul Gleason or Billy Zabka. Funny too that by all counts I’ve ever read, all three are (or in the case of Gleason, were… RIP) just lovely lovely people.

  14. GrimGrinningChris

    January 4th, 2012 at 9:35 am

    And I actually really like 60s, 70s and 80s Goldie Hawn…
    From Laugh In to Butterflies Are Free to Private Benjamin to Overboard.

  15. It’s been a while since I saw Sugarland Express, but in the late 70’s and early 80’s it was on TV a lot. I’ve always been a big fan of Goldie (Dollars must be one of the coolest “unknown” thrillers from the early 70’s) and Atherton. Both are equally good at being funny and serious. As for seal of approval, for me it’s the other way around; if Goldie could live with Kurt for all those years he must have some sides to him that doesn’t come out in interviews. I remember when I saw this for the first time, way too young I guess, it really made an impression on me when the snipers in the movie used bullets as ear plugs. For all I know real snipers do that all the time, but I hadn’t seen it done before – or later.

  16. I can’t watch Sugarland Express without thinking of BADLANDS.

    And then I usually just eject the disc and watch Badlands instead (same thing happens when I watch I Heart Huckabees and end up thinking “Why am I not watching a Charlie Kaufman movie?”). Nothing against Sugarland, I like it, but Badlands is just phenomenal.

    I remember hearing a story about both films were called “the best directorial debut since Citizen Kane” at the time of their release. Whoever said that definitely had an eye for talent.

  17. Yep, dieselboy, that is some prime asshole audience behavior. And nobody yelled at you to shut the fuck up? Hmmmm, we must have caught different shows….

    In truth, I haven’t seen War Horse yet–it may be down there with The Color Purple and Always as a heavy-handed Spielberg misfire–and dieselboy is likely a perfectly nice guy. I have to admit, though, very few things piss me off as much in a movie theater as the guy who keeps bellowing laughter at every sincere / unironic / old-fashioned moment. I actually once gave somebody ten dollars to leave a screening of The Grapes Of Wrath because, as I explained to him in detail and at high volume, “This is is not a comedy, you moron!” He took the money and left.

    I’m not alone in this either. When I saw Return Of The King some dude kept laughing at everything all through the first half-hour and very nearly got beat up. I’m not kidding–there must have been ten very angry people who finally got up, went over to his seat, and all told him to either shut up or leave.

    (And I will admit to occasionally being guilty of this myself. I found the climax of a certain action movie so absurd that I burst out laughing and angered the people in front of me…)

    It’s like Tarantino always tells people at the QT Fest: The cinema is his church, and you don’t have to like the movie, but you have to at least be respectful. If you can’t be respectful, then go and see something else.

  18. Also: If I remember correctly, Sugarland Express wasn’t a for-hire job. I think Spielberg found a magazine article about something that really happened in Texas in 1969, brought it too Hal Barwood and Mathew Robbins, developed the script with them and then shopped it around to studios. It was one of his personal passion projects like Close Encounters, ET, Empire Of The Sun and Munich. Now Jaws, Raiders Of The Lost Ark–it’s odd to remember that those were the films where he was basically a director for hire.

  19. Rehydrated Dehydrated Pirate Paul

    January 4th, 2012 at 11:46 am

    RRA – it’s funny you brought up “Help” because in GCSE music class (the qualifications British kids used to get at ages 14-15) we had to “do” the Beatles. And the album of choice was “Help”. With the exception of “Hard Day’s Night”, which is admittedly awesome, this is probably the least favorite of all the Beatles’ albums I’ve seen. It’s worse than “Magical Mystery Tour” and not a patch on “Sgt Pepper” or “White Album”. Almost put me off the Beatles for life.

    Thank heck I had a room-mate in college who was a fan of “A Day in the Life”.

    Anyway, Sugarland express… saw it YEARS ago, can’t claim to be able to remember a damn thing about it. I might check it out on the strength of this review though.

    Vern, I’m curious: is this sudden desire to review Spielberg’s little-known work because of some of the criticisms he’s been getting on this forum lately? Or is it more something you’ve had in mind for a while?

  20. Every single person who ever went to college either had a roommate who was a fan of “A Day in the Life” or was a roommate who was a fan of “A Day in the Life.” It is about as ubiquitous a college experience as watching a white guy try to sing “Redemption Song”.

  21. JD I wish someone would have given me ten dollars to leave that movie. As it was I had already paid for a babysitter and wanted to see if it managed to get any better with one of the different characters that end up taking care of Joey. It never did unfortunately.

    I also was not even close to the only one who was laughing at the ridiculous dialogue that was coming off the screen. Out of the six or seven couples/groups who saw it with me I’d say at least half of them found the shit as amusingly retched as I did. And I never bellowed, more of a bemused snickering and only when I literally couldn’t keep it in, I wouldn’t force laughter for the sake of being annoying.

  22. Rehydrated Dehydrated Pirate Paul

    January 4th, 2012 at 12:58 pm

    Majestyk – but do they all get drunk and start playing John Lennon’s “Imagine” on the stereo at full volume at 3:30AM in the morning?

  23. Let’s hope not. There’s little more obnoxious than a pampered millionaire singing about communism.

  24. Paul – I’d been planning it for a while just because of the TINTIN/WAR HORSE double-whammy. But some of the other discussions around here have convinced me of another one I gotta do soon.

  25. RE: Mr. Majestyk –

    “Well, there is the case of J.J. Abrams, the visionary imitator of the visionary director Steven Spielberg.”

    Bravo. I’m forwarding that to AsimovLives.

    “Every single person who ever went to college either had a roommate who was a fan of “A Day in the Life” or was a roommate who was a fan of “A Day in the Life.””

    In my case, its true. (The latter. My roommate was a racist, pseudo-skinhead who actually lost his woman to a bisexual Romeo. So of course it was Obama’s fault.)

    “There’s little more obnoxious than a pampered millionaire singing about communism.”

    My problem with that track is two-fold: (1) Incredibly overplayed to oblivion, to the point that I could live comfortably for the rest of my days without hearing it again. (2) every asshole music superstar has to solemnly cover that since its become a sacred secular hymn. And just as boring as most hymn are.

    Likewise if you change a few words or/and try to shake shit up as covers can try to be, like Cee Lo Green did recently, you get roasted as if you raped Jesus or something. (Lady GaGa got some short-lived heat last year for turning it into a gay rights anthem.) Which is hilarious because Neil Young didn’t heat when he covered it, when he changed that one lyric of “I wonder if you can” to “I wonder if I can.”

    That one lyrical rewrite not only changed the perspective of that song, Young actually improved it. (If at the least, by adding something that song desperately always needed: humility.)

    “It is about as ubiquitous a college experience as watching a white guy try to sing “Redemption Song”.”

    You must admit though, Joe Strummer’s cover version kicked ass.

  26. I’m both surprised and not surprised War Horse is getting so much hate

    I mean what can I say? it’s cynical times we live in…

  27. I’d like to hear your take on Schindler’s List, Vern, since I consider Schindler to be one of the great screen heroes (and I hear he did a pretty good job in real life too).

    Can’t imagine that you haven’t seen it yet, though. That’s kinda like not having seen Titanic or Lawrence of Arabia. Then again, I still haven’t seen Smokey and the Bandit 2, so I should just shut the fuck up.

  28. Paul -I’ll defend HELP! as a bridge between their biggest boy band in history stage and their celebrated studio era, when they were starting to strive for art within their pop music fast food.

    The title track is still exhilarating, “Ticket to Ride” is still pretty catchy, I adore the country fried twangyness in both “I’ve Just Seen A Face” and the cover of “Act Naturally.” “I Need You” and “The Night Before” and “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” and “You’re Gonna Lose that Girl” and “Another Girl” are all very solid 60s pop. The rest are inoffensive filler.

    Oh and yeah that other song which I won’t mention because it’s pretty overplayed/overcovered like “Imagine” (but which I still don’t mind if only because it’s not treated as the Bible.)

  29. Here’s another unexpected “Imagine” cover.

    Also, wait…Goldie Hawn was on the Sugarland Express, Kurt Russell was on the Pork Chop Express…is this connected at all to how the two got together?

  30. Knox Harrington – I liked the movie. I just hate it when somehow if you do criticize it, you’re mocking the Holocaust. I’m reminded of that SEINFELD episode made fun of that.

    Also one thing about LIST, whenever if the Vernation does review it, that has always bugged I’ll bring it up when its time.

  31. Stu – I don’t know how, since both were terrible at their “Express” motor vehicular missions.

    (Truck drivers never abandon their rigs, not even to ninja weather elements and dead Chinese sorcery avatars. NO EXCEPTION!)

  32. I never had any roommates who watched “A Day in the Life,” but “Soul Man” was on Comedy Central a lot at the time. Does that count?

    I know I’ve seen “Sugarland Express” before with my mom when I was younger. She always liked those on-the-run-with-a-kid movies. (Anyone here ever see “Savannah Smiles” before? Total schlock.) I can’t say I remember the movie one bit, but it sounds like I’d enjoy it. It would be interesting to see really-early Spielberg, too.

    I’m so excited for another cool Vern series, although I thought at first that the graphic said Spielbergo, as in Senor Spielbergo.

    And I loved “Overboard” as a kid and still love it to this day. I also like Hawn movies like “Seems Like Old Times” and “Protocol,” so sue me.

  33. Mr. Majestyk, that would be Deren Sarafian. I also see John Dahl’s name a lot, often on DEXTER.

    GrimgrinningChris, in my Hollywood experience I find that most guys who play creeps and A-holes are really nice guys. Danny Trejo is the nicest guy you’ll ever meet. It’s the America’s Sweethearts you have to watch out for.

  34. This is a great project for the verniverse.
    I haven’t seen this flick, but now I want to since it kind of sounds like Spielberg’s BADLANDS, as Knox also pointed out.
    I also had a roommate who loved A Day in the Life. But I like Help a lot more. The monster hooks and jangly presence it has are just way more fun for me to listen to.

  35. Don’t miss Spielberg’s first directing gig, a segment from the pilot TV movie for Rod Serling’s NIGHT GALLERY. I believe it’s called “Eyes”. Joan Crawford is an evil nasty old billionaire who is blind and pays off sad sack Tom Bosley to do a transplant operation with his eyes.

  36. I saw that NIGHT GALLERY tv movie as a kid, scared the SHIT out of me

  37. Hey MOUTH,

    Goldie Shawn wasn’t in Almost Famous – her daughter was!

  38. Mike: Mouth is off-grid these days and unlikely to reply, so I’ll step in a point out that he said Goldie JR. (a.k.a. Kate Hudson) was in ALMOST FAMOUS, not Goldie herself.

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