The Sugarland Express ( 1974 )
When his contract was up with Universal Television Spielberg was eager to move into feature films, and Universal was eager to keep their wunderkind director at their studio. So basically Spielberg could pitch almost any film he wanted and Universal would green light it. So what film did Spielberg want to make? Something with aliens? Something with a globe trotting adventurer searching for treasure? Maybe a hartwarming fantasy with ghosts? Well, none of the above. Spielberg's dream project was a crime drama featuring Goldie Hawn.
I am sure Spielberg proposed other films to Universal and had them shot down. What made Sugarland Express a desirable project was that it was based on a news event that briefly captivated the nation. On May 2, 1969, a young couple in Texas kidnapped a state trooper and took him on a long slow speed car chase, followed by at least 100 law enforcement vehicles. The incident quickly made the news, and by the end of the day the slow speed chase was being broadcast live on television. Bobby Dent had just been released from prison for vandalizing a vending machine, and while driving on a highway with his new wife Ila Fae, was signaled by a patrol car to pull over. The officer wanted to pull the Dent's over for a headlight violation, but Bobby assumed that he had done something that would violate his patrol and send him back to prison. So instead of pulling over, he sped off with the patrol car following in persuit. Soon after their car broke down, and Bobby and Ila Fae took off into a wooded area at the side of the road. Convinced they were now wanted fugitives, the Dent's came up with a plan to slip past any police dragnet. They went to a nearby farmhouse and claimed they had been beaten and robbed by hitchhikers who stole their vehicle, and asked the homeowner to call the police. When state trooper J Kenneth Crone showed up at the farmhouse, Bobby and Ila Fae got the drop on him, handcuffed him, and at gunpoint forced him to drive them away in his own patroll car. Their plan failed when the couple pointing guns at the trooper were immediately spotted by another patroll car, and soon the couple were being followed by other patroll cars. Warning the other cars to stay back or they would shoot their hostage, they drove around Texas for the rest of the day, even stopping for gas and food while the caravan of cop cars stayed back. Finally Bobby demanded that they be allowed to visit Ila Fae's children from a previous marriage who were then living at their grandparents home in Wheelock Texas. Not realizing that the police set up an ambush at the house, they arrived at the home to find the lights turned out. Crone dropped to the floor while officers hiding behind the furnature fired upon Bobby, killing him instantly. Ila Fae was arrested, but only ended up serving 5 months of a 5 year sentence.
Spielberg saved a bundle for Universal by changing the names of the characters and their destination to Sugarland, no longer needing the studio to pay anyone royalties for their life stories. In his movie Lou Jean Poplin ( Goldie Hawn ) breaks her husband Clovis ( William Atherton ) out of a minimum security prison so they can retrieve their infant son who was taken away from Lou Jean for being an unfit mother. Their son had been awarded to the foster parents who had been taking care of him while Lou Jean was serving her own prison sentence for shoplifting. Having successfully walked out of the prison without the guards noticing, they get a lift by on one of the other inmate's parents. But when the car is pulled over for a minor traffic violation, Clovis assumes the police are after him, and after the old couple get out of the car to talk to the officer, he gets behind the wheel and drives off. After a brief chase, they end up wrecking the car. Pretending to be injured, they are able to get the drop on the patrol man who had been chasing him, and after kidnapping him, force him to drive them to Sugarland where their son is now living. About the only thing the film keeps from the real incident is the eventual slow speed chase by hundreds of police cars. Unlike the real event, the kidnapped patrolman ( Michael Sacks ) eventually becomes their friend during the chase. While the real life chase was uneventful, Spielberg spiced things up by having the occasional rouge officer break ranks and attempt to chase and capture the couple, and one scene where a group of armed vigilantes fire upon them. Even the final fate of the couple was changed.
During the slow speed chase, Lou Jean and Clovis' story of how they are trying to retrieve their son makes the news, and soon they are being cheered on by crowds standing on the side of the road, even holding hastily written signs encouraging the young couple. The whole thing becomes reminiscent of the O.J. slow speed chase, unintentional as that event happened nearly three decades later. Perhaps also unintentional was how the Clovis' and their hostage become instant celebrites, something that would not become an issue until the 90s with the rise of the Hilton sisters and the beginning of the modern Internet. This all makes Sugarland Express seem more relevant today than it had been back in 1974. By that year the story of the chase was already forgotten, as evident by Spielberg's film doing poorly at the boxoffice. In fact, it was nearly a career ending film for Spielberg, proving those who thought he was no wunderkind right, and sending him back to a career of directing television shows. But as a stroke of luck, the movie's producers Richard D Zanuck and David Brown had become the producers of the film adaption of Peter Benchley's bestselling novel Jaws. Liking how Spielberg was directing Sugarland Express they decided to hire him as the director of Jaws. By the time Sugarland Express was bombing in theaters Spielberg was already directing his next film, and his next film would be the one that built his career.
Unlike Duel and his past television movies, Sugarland Express was the first movie to allow Spielberg to be Spielberg, even if it was Spielberg without fantasy. Everything else from the tone of the movie to the composition of the shots is unmistakeably early Spielberg. With exception to the low speed chase, there was nothing unique about Sugarland Express. The 70s was full of movies where police officers in the south and/or mid west persue outlaw heroes. The trend was even popular enough to be included in one of the James Bond movies, and eventually resulted in such television series as B.J. and the Bear and The Dukes of Hazzard. In fact the low speed chase angle gave Spielberg very little opportunity for any high speed chases, which is probably why it did so poorly. It is not a great Spielberg film, but it is warm and entertaining and sometimes funny and does not deserve it's reputation as the forgotten Spielberg film. ( If not for the success of his other films, Sugarland Express probably would have never made it to home video. But just barely. It is the only Spielberg movie on DVD/Blu-ray that comes without any extras other than the trailer. )
Flash Point ( 2007 )
This was originally intended to be a prequel to Kill Zone: SPL ( 2005 ) but ended up being developed as an original movie. Which makes little sense as Donnie Yen plays a similar character who is also a police detective. Hong Kong studios prefer releasing sequels so much that they have even labled unrelated films as sequels. Just the change of Donnie's characters name could have made this a prequel without needing to change anything else. Perhaps they decided Flash Point was not going to live up to the standard of SPL. And it doesn't, but does come close. Once again a story of undercover cops trying to bring down a crime gang, and eventually taking the law into their own hands against the gang, it should have been a prequel. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this movie was that Donnie Yen decide to use only MMA moves instead of regular martial arts to make the fight scenes more realistic. So fights have a lot of choke holds and other familiar MMA moves. It still works, but the most memorable moves are not MMA, as when Yen does a flying sidekick that shatters through an upturned table one of the bad guys is sheltering behind.
Ant Man ( 2015 )
Not so much the origin of Ant-Man, as we never see the origin of Ant-Man, but an explanation as to why original Ant-Man Hank Pym gave the Ant-Man costume to Scott Lang, and as to why Ant Man was not in the first two Avengers films. In comic book lore, Pym was the scientist who invented a serum that caused him to shrink to the size of an ant, and another that allowed him to return to normal size. Also gaining the power to controll ants, he soon became a superhero named Ant-Man. Marvel began publishing superhero comic books in response to the success of D.C.'s Justice League America, but with no line of superheroes of their own, Lee co-created an instant superhero team called The Fantastic Four who all got their abilities at the same time. Marvel gradually introduced new superheroes with a goal of eventually having them all in a version of the JLA, which eventually was The Avengers. However, by 1963 Lee had created superheroes that were not appropriate for a JLA style team. For example, their most popular superhero, Spider-man was too immature, and by the second issue had become an outlaw wanted by the police. What they did have was Thor, Iron-Man and The Hulk who joined by Ant-Man and his sidekick Wasp became the first Avengers lineup. The Incredible Hulk comic book had already been cancelled, a victim of Lee finding it impossible to balance writing the original Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde concept with The Hulk acting as a superhero while also keeping the book within the Comic Code Authority guidelines. Lee immediately realized that The Hulk was inappropriate for The Avengers, and immediately had him leave at the end of issue #2 while Ant Man used his serum to become Giant Man instead. Then realizing that they still had a roster of superheroes from the 1940s that Marvel had abandoned in the 50s, Lee decided to bring back Captain America ( who had spent the past two decades frozen alive in a block of ice ) and make him the fourth member and eventual leader of The Avengers. Pym continued as a team member, usually as a giant superhero rather than an ant sized superhero. Scott Lang was introduced in 1979 to become the new Ant-Man.
Ant Man should have been a member in the first Avengers film, but Marvel Studios did not have the confidence of having an ant sized superhero in their MCU yet. Eventually ( most likely due to complaints by Marvel purists ) Marvel Studios began developing an Ant Man movie, but was not made until after the second Avengers movie was released. Founding Avengers member Ant Man would not make his MCU debut as an Avenger ( as second Ant-Man Scott Lang ) until the third Captain America movie.
I think of Ant Man and The Incredible Hulk as the two MCU movies Marvel Studios did not really want to make, but had little choice since they needed both characters introduced rather than just showing up. ( although they did get away with that later with Spider-Man ). Thankfully there so far is no such thing as a bad MCU movie, and despite Ant-Man being a concept that never really took off in the original Marvel Comic Universe, is a solid well defined superhero in the Cinematic Universe. It is one of the better MCU films that spends most of the running time with an origin story, and entertaining from start to finish.
Frogs ( 1972 )
In the 70s Hollywood was sending a mixed message when it came to nature. On the one hand there were those happy G rated films like The Adventures of the Wilderness family ( 1975 ) and Challenge to Be Free ( 1975 ) where people decided to give up civilization and live in the woods with nature. And on the other hand were films like Day of the Animals ( 1977 ) where nature gets fed up with mankind and every animal on the planet decides to team up and wipe the human race out. Meanwhile sci-fi movies like Silent Running ( 1972 ) and Soylent Green warned of a near future where mankind has all but wiped nature out with pollution. And finally there was Jaws ( 1975 ) and all the ripoff films that followed where a single animal ( usually aquatic ) looked at humans as merely a snack. In an environmentally conscious America, Hollywood could not make up it's mind if humans were the enemy of nature, or nature the enemy of humans. And since violence sold more theater tickets, the majority of the films fell into the later. I suppose one can say that the nature turns on man films of the 70s owed a debt to Hitchcock's The Birds ( 1963 ) which set the formula in stone for the films that followed. So basically, Night of the Lepus ( 1972 ) was The Birds with rabbits, and Bug ( 1975 ) was The Birds with mutant exploding cockroaches. And by that logic, Frogs should be The Birds with frogs, right? Only one problem. Them frogs never get around to killing anyone.
The plot here is basically nature turning on man because of pollution, and has all sort of swamp critters killing off humans. And in this case, the closest thing you can get to humans in this movie is an ugly rich family gathered at the swamp island home of their patriarch ( Ray Milland ) to celebrate his July 4th birthday. ( a subtile anti-American mesage there? ). Joining them is Sam Elliot as a photographer for an environmental magazine who is photographing the pollution in the swamp, but ends up on the island after one of the ugly rich kids in a power boat swamps his canoe. Invited as a guest to the festivities as an apology, he ends up deducing ( with very little evidence ) that the animals are not only going to war against the inhabitants of the island, but most likely are doing the same across the planet ( even though the phone lines are not working and no one has any idea what is going on outside of the island. ) His deduction turns out to be true as one character after another is killed off, although in many cases their deaths are almost entirely self inflicted, and in other cases it is because they absentmindedly walked right into the danger. But no matter the danger, Milland stubbornly refuses to leave the island, and threatens to disinherit anyone who refuses to stay for his party ( which seems to consist of nothing more than sitting around listening to the same annoying record on an old 1920's phonograph machine ). Eventually Elliot and the last couple of surviving people ( Joan Van Ark and two newly orphaned children ) decide to get the hell off the island, leaving Milland behind.
But the movie here is called The Frogs and has a movie poster featuring what must be a giant frog with a human hand in it's mouth. API was going for something more down to Earth with thousands of normal sized frogs ( well, mostly toads ) attacking the humans. And I am guessing that at some point when they were already committed to the film, someone finally realized that frogs are incapable of killing anything larger than themselves, even if they were to attack en mass. They have no teeth, no claws, no horns or anything else that could harm any other animal. The best they could do is swallow something that is slightly smaller than they are, provided that something does not sting, chew or have any other natural defense. Even the poisonous frogs from South America are only a danger if their poison is ingested. So instead of having the frogs kill anyone, everything else does. The characters in this film are killed by snakes, alligators, lizards, spiders, birds, snapping turtles, perhaps crabs and leeches, and perhaps even the plants themselves ( as in one scene it is unclear if a victim is being attacked by vines or that the vines are suppose to be part of a spider web. ) But the frogs do no more than keep people awake at night. They do sort of attack the house, but do no more damage than jump on the food and the phonograph machine.
The film is unforgivably lethargic for the first half with characters you either don't care about or can't wait to see killed. Most of the deaths appear to be unavoidable. Such as one character seeing a cloud of poisonous gas and inexplicably walks towards it, crouches down to examine the broken poison bottle, and then chokes to death. Or in another case, a character avoiding a rattlesnake, but in a panic ending up running around in a complete circle, ending up back in the same exact spot as the rattlesnake and conveniently tripping and falling right next to it. The trailer for the film shows a completely different death for the same character, who ends up backing into quicksand and is sucked under. Why the director chose to shoot an entirely different death is anyones guess. But basically, almost all of the danger is unavoidable, and fatalities depend on the stupidity of the humans. So forget about this movie being anything close to scary. Aside from the dopiness of the plot and character motivations, there is nothing entertaining about this movie. Probably something worth riffing, but something undeserving of being a horror classic, or even a cult/horror classic.