Sleepy Hollow


Christopher Walken really needs a new dental plan.

Christopher Walken really needs a new dental plan.

(1999) Supernatural Horror (Paramount) Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Casper Van Dien, Jeffrey Jones, Richard Griffiths, Ian McDiarmid, Michael Gough, Christopher Walken, Marc Pickering, Lisa Marie, Steven Waddington, Claire Skinner, Christopher Lee, Alun Armstrong, Mark Spalding, Jessica Oyelowo. Directed by Tim Burton

Whenever Tim Burton concocts a new movie, critics everywhere go into a lather coming up with new hosannas in praise of his stuff. Generally, they’re right. By the time his interpretation of the Washington Irving classic came out the paroxysms of praise had become almost scary in their effusiveness. Which was – and is – fine by me.

Sleepy Hollow, after all, is supposed to be scary. However, those bookish moviegoers who have actually read the Washington Irving story and still remember it may find the liberties taken here with the source material a bit off-putting.

Ichabod Crane (Crane) is a foppish New York City constable who has been a bit of a gadfly in the NYPD of 1799. While the judges of the period are content with brute force and intimidation to solve their crimes, Crane is all for using scientific method and deductive reasoning to come to the truth. For his troubles, he is exiled to a small Dutch community in the Hudson Valley called Sleepy Hollow to solve a trio of ghoulish murders.

It seems that several prominent citizens of the Hollow have lost their heads. The trouble is their quite dead torsos are rather upsetting to those townspeople who stumble upon them. When Crane arrives, he encounters the plucky young daughter (Ricci) of a local farmer (Gambon), who imparts the story of the Headless Horseman: A somewhat rabid, bloodthirsty Hessian mercenary (Walken in essentially a cameo but still perfectly cast role) meets a bitter end in the woods near Sleepy Hollow, betrayed by a pair of wood-gathering little girls. The townspeople, who include a self-righteous priest (Jones), a timid notary (Gough), a lusty doctor (McDiarmid), a brave and burly farmer (Van Dien) and a corpulent burgomaster (Griffith) are all of the belief that the Horseman is responsible for the unspeakable crimes. Crane, of course, believes that the murderer is flesh and blood.

The game changes when Crane personally witnesses a murder, sending his faith in science and reason spinning into doubt. Unfortunately for the movie, he resolves this rather quickly; I thought it would have made for an interesting subplot to see Crane struggling between the evidence of his senses and his own rationality. Instead,  Crane and the plucky young farmer’s daughter go on a ghoul hunt, with all the violence, gore and spookiness that goes with it.

There are a lot of fairly impressive names behind the camera including Francis Ford Coppola, Larry Franco, Scott Rudin and Kevin Yagher, with Danny Elfman producing a suitably spooky score. While many of Burton’s key personnel are also in place, this seems less of a typical Tim Burton movie and more of a mainstream action/horror flick. There are a lot of missed opportunities here to bring some credible subplots into play that wouldn’t burden the plot as much as the ones that writers Kevin Yagher and Andrew Kevin Walker decided to leave in.

Burton is wise enough to leave enough atmosphere in to make for some genuinely creepy moments, but his leitmotif of announcing the Horseman’s presence with lightning and thunder effects is a bit over-the-top. Depp makes an interesting Crane, retaining much of the bumbling fright of Irving’s Crane while giving him a heroic bent for the modern moviegoing audience to identify with. Ricci is lustrous in her ingénue role.

There’s some great work in Sleepy Hollow, enough that you’ll be talking about it well after the final credits have concluded. However, with a bit more of Burton and a bit less of Hollywood, this would have been a much more hellacious ride.

WHY RENT THIS: Tim Burton loveliness. Deep and Ricci make a fine couple. Genuinely spooky.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit more mainstream than we’re used to with Burton. Over-the-top in places.

FAMILY MATTERS: The horror, gore and violence is fairly graphic. There’s some sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was one of the last two films released on Laser Disc (the other was Bringing Out the Dead).

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $206.1M on a $100M production budget; the movie broke even during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beetlejuice

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: World War Z

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Eragon


Eragon

Eragon asks Sephira for a light which proves to be a mistake.

(2006) Fantasy (20th Century Fox) Ed Speleers, Jeremy Irons, Robert Carlyle, John Malkovich, Rachel Weisz (voice), Sienna Guillory, Garret Hedlund, Alun Armstrong, Djimon Honsou, Chris Egan, Gary Lewis, Richard Rifkin, Stephen Speirs, Joss Stone.  Directed by Stefen Fangmeier

Since the advent of Harry Potter and the onscreen Lord of the Rings trilogy Hollywood has been scrambling to cash in on the fantasy bandwagon. Whereas young adult fantasy fiction has all but dominated bestseller charts, other than J.K. Rowling’s juggernaut that hasn’t translated to box office gold as of yet.

This challenger for the title starts in the magical land of Alagaesia, although the inhabitants thereof would find little magic in their lot. Once a prosperous, kindly land, it has sunk into darkness and despair. Where once wise and just Dragon Riders maintained peace and justice, a despotic King rules with an iron fist. The most terrible thing is that Galbatorix (Malkovich) was once a Dragon Rider himself, but he betrayed and slew all the dragons save one egg, which his sorcerer Durza (Carlyle) is unable to destroy. The egg waits patiently for a Rider to bond with it before it will hatch.

In a feat of daring, Princess Arya (Guillory) steals the egg. With the King’s guards and his pet sorcerer hot on her trail, she finally runs out of time. Summoning the last of her strength, she uses a magic spell to transport the egg out of danger. The spell leaves her exhausted and she is captured by Durza.

Eragon (Speleers), a young farm boy, is out hunting when a bright light attracts his attention. He finds a bright blue stone, the like of which he’s never seen before. When he touches it, it burns him in a strange, reptilian pattern on his palm. He decides not to tell his Uncle Garrow (Armstrong) about what he has found, but rather goes into town to try to sell the item. When the shopkeeper finds out that Eragon picked it up in the King’s Preserve, he turns pale and tells him to get it out of the village at once lest it bring ruin on them all.

Disappointed, Eragon is sitting in the local tavern when he overhears Brom (Irons), the village whacko, talk about the near mythical Dragon Riders. This is broken up by King’s Guards, who don’t like the mention of the Riders. Eragon goes home to discover that what he thought was a stone was in fact an egg and it has hatched – a dragon. The dragon grows remarkably quickly into adulthood, and to Eragon’s astonishment, he discovers he can hear the dragon’s thoughts. She tells him her name is Sephira (Weisz) and that he is her rider.

Confused, Eragon seeks out the only man who seems to know anything about dragons – Brom. When Brom finally is convinced that Eragon is not lying, he warns him that his life is in danger – the King will want him and his dragon slain. Eragon realizes that his Uncle Garrow is in mortal danger and races back for the farm, but is too late. Garrow has been murdered. The two must flee, and Brom is dead set on taking Eragon to the Varden, rebels against the King who live in inaccessible mountains. Durza, however, is hot on their trail and his spies are everywhere. Eragon is hot-headed and impulsive, and clashes with Brom at nearly every turn. Add to that visions of Arya that move Eragon to seek her out with some urgency and it looks like his destiny to reclaim justice and peace for Alagaesia may end before it begins.

The big knock on this movie has been that it borrows quite heavily from both The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars mythologies. Quite frankly, the story of Eragon seems to have been lifted from the original Star Wars virtually intact. That’s not a sin in and of itself; both of those stories were plundered from mythologies even more ancient than their own. Still, Eragon doesn’t seem to have any sort of fresh perspective to the tale; instead, this seems to be a re-telling more than anything. One has to keep in mind that original author Christopher Paolini was a teenager at the time; for his age he’s a terrific writer but let’s face it – he’s got a long way to go to be up there with Tolkein, Brooks and Jordan. Still, you have to give the kid some slack.

To the good, it has some nice performances from Irons, Carlyle and Malkovich. Speleers doesn’t do spectacularly well, but he at least fares better than the wholly wooden performance of Hayden Christensen in the second Star Wars trilogy. The CG dragon Sephira is also magnificent; she looks like a cross between a bird and a dinosaur, and comes off as a magnificent creature with an underlying personality. She’s half the reason to see the movie.

As fantasy movies go, this one doesn’t fare too badly thanks largely to some of the veteran actors in it who at least give it the old college try, even if the material is somewhat cliche and unremarkable. However, if you’re looking for another Lord of the Rings or even another Harry Potter, look elsewhere. Fox hedged their bets by only committing to filming the first book. I didn’t see a particular reason to continue with the second, and unless the box office picks up and I would imagine the accountants at Fox won’t either.

WHY RENT THIS: Spectacular CGI dragon and sterling performances from Irons, Malkovich and Carlyle.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Uninspired, derivative storyline lifting unashamedly from Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. Speleers doesn’t make a particularly charismatic leading man.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are some semi-graphic battle sequences, a few images that aren’t for the squeamish and some fantasy violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Alex Pettyfer was offered the role but turned it down because the movie was filming in Budapest and he was afraid of flying, a fear he has since gotten over.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There’s an interview with Paolini on the trilogy of books he has written (for which Eragon is the first) as well as a look at the second book in the triology (which would never be filmed and doesn’t look like it will be anytime soon).  This is available only on the two-disc DVD and Blu-Ray editions.

FINAL BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $249.5M on a $100M production budget; the movie was only slightly profitable.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Insidious