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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Hugo


Hugo

Time flies when you're making a Scorsese film.

(2011) Family (Paramount) Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Emily Mortimer, Jude Law, Ray Winstone, Christopher Lee, Helen McCrory, Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour, Michael Stuhlbarg, Emil Lager. Directed by Martin Scorsese

 

Our dreams guide us, sometimes into odd territories. We can be spirited away to fantastic landscapes or sent hurtling back into our own memories, into our own past. Dreams are the lenses through which we view reality.

Hugo Cabret (Butterfield) lives in the cavernous Montparnasse train station through a set of tragic circumstances. He fixes the clocks and makes sure that they are running on time – important work for a train station, particularly in Paris in the early 1930s.

He didn’t always live this way. He once lived with his father, a clockmaker, who had discovered an automaton (a kind of early robot) while doing some work in a museum. His father had attempted to fix the machine but now it was up to Hugo to get the thing to work. He is convinced that the automaton carries some sort of message from his father and in order to fix it, pilfers parts from a grumpy toymaker named Georges (Kingsley).

Hugo is also trying to stay one step ahead of the station inspector, one Inspector Gustav (Cohen). Gustav, who has an eye on pretty flower girl Lisette (Mortimer), was injured in the War and wears a mechanical leg brace to allow him to walk in a kind of shuffling gait. It freezes up from time to time and Gustav must move it manually, causing him a great deal of humiliation. Gustav relies on a Doberman to help him patrol the station where he regularly catches orphans like Hugo to send them to the orphanage. Hugo knows if Gustav catches him, the automaton will be taken away and he’ll never find out what his father was trying to tell him.

Aiding Hugo in his quest is Isabelle (Moretz), the goddaughter of the toymaker who is being raised by Papa Georges and his wife Jeanne (McCrory). Isabelle is a plucky sort who can relate to the intense and somewhat shell-shocked Hugo. She loves a good mystery and yearns for a good adventure of her own. She spends most of her time reading books lent to her by the kindly bookseller Labisse (Lee).

The automaton has all the parts it needs but lacks a heart-shaped key to fit a heart-shaped lock that will wind up the mechanism and get it working. Hugo must find that key and in the discovery of it will find out that the magic of movies, which he attended with his father, was far more ephemeral than he thought and that fame is even more fleeting than that. He will also discover a key to Papa Georges’ past and a path to his own future.

The movie is based on an illustrated novel by Brian Selznick called The Invention of Hugo Cabret and marks Scorsese’s first foray into family films as well as his first 3D movie. Once again the great director has hit a home run.

The setting is amazing. Much of Hugo’s world revolves around the inner workings of the clocks of the station, so there are gears and cogs aplenty. The train station itself recalls the romance of train travel of the era much as Murder on the Orient Express did. Labisse’s bookshop is a magical repository of imagination and knowledge, much larger than you’d expect to find at a train station.

Much of the movie rests on thin shoulders of Butterfield and Moretz. Moretz is one of the better actresses of her generation, with films like Kick-Ass and (500) Days of Summer to her credit. She has a role that requires her to be the kind of English plucky heroine that have overpopulated film and literary franchises like The Chronicles of Narnia‘s Susan Pevensey and Harry Potter’s Hermione Granger. Moretz gives the role a little bit more soul and humanity than you might expect.

Butterfield has amazing blue eyes and has received some criticism for his role for not expressing a lot of emotion. Personally, I think that was the perfect way to play the part. With all the things Hugo has gone through to this point, I think it would be natural for him to be a bit shell-shocked and plenty wary about expressing his emotions as he’s had so much taken away from him and so many people leave him. In the film’s final scenes he seems to finally be showing some joy and love and for my money it’s a terrific performance. Phooey on the critics who say different.

Ben Kingsley is, well, Ben Kingsley. We all know he is one of the great actors of the past 20 years, going back to his scintillating performance as Gandhi. He inhabits the role of Georges with dignity and a hidden reservoir of pain. I think it’s one of his best performances ever, one that should merit some awards consideration although thus far it hasn’t.

A word about the 3D. Generally I’m not one to recommend 3D to anyone – it rarely enhances the movie and more often than not, detracts from it, forcing viewers to look at a cinema screen through polarized sunglasses which does nothing for the brightness and the color of the film. However, here the movie actually benefits from the 3D which opens up Hugo’s world and makes it more lifelike and real. This is one of those rare times when I’d urge those of you going to see the movie to see it in 3D if you can. It’s well worth the upcharge for once.

The movie obviously has a direct connection to a soft spot in Scorsese’s heart. His passion for the preservation of old films is well-known and you can almost feel the pain in the great filmmaker’s soul when he talks about how the celluloid from old silent film were melted down to make the heels in ladies boots. Through Hugo we get to experience a time when movies were new and nobody quite knew what to do with them. While I won’t reveal the plot point that takes Hugo Cabret from automatons to motion pictures, I will say that film buffs and history buffs will be pleasantly surprised by the turn the movie makes. Be wary though – other reviews tell you precisely what that turn is and since I hadn’t read any before seeing the movie, I found the turn to be more effective.

All in all, this is a delightful motion picture, one full of fantasy and clearly a labor of love. Even the villains of the piece aren’t all bad – they have just had some hard times. It’s a bit on the long side – if your children are fidgety you might want to take that into account – however this is a terrific family movie that the kids may actually enjoy less than their parents; but the kids should like it a lot.

REASONS TO GO: Generally raises an air of wonder and magic. Terrific performances all around. Fantastic sets realistically depict Paris of the early 30s but also lend an air of fantasy.

REASONS TO STAY: Might be a little too long for fidgety sorts.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild violence, children put in peril and of course, smoking. Fiendish!

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The automaton is based on actual machines that draw similarly complex drawings, complete with head movements and eyes following their own drawing except the real ones were built in the 18th century – they can be seen at the Musee D’Art et d’Histoire of Neuchatel in Switzerland.

HOME OR THEATER: I never thought I’d say this but not only do I recommend seeing this in a theater, but it should also be seen in 3D.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Agora

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides


Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Queen Anne's Revenge is apparently moths in the sails.

(2011) Adventure (Disney) Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Ian McShane, Geoffrey Rush, Kevin R. McNally, Sam Claflin, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Stephen Graham, Keith Richards, Richard Griffiths, Greg Ellis, Damian O’Hare, Oscar Jaenada, Roger Allam, Judi Dench. Directed by Rob Marshall

The trouble with living is that we all have to die. Sooner or later, we have to give up our space on planet Earth. However, legend has it that there is a place that we can get at least a temporary extension.

 Joshamee Gibbs (McNally) has been mistaken for infamous pirate Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp) and has been taken to London for trial and eventual hanging as a pirate. However, Jack has a daring plan to rescue his shipmate. Unfortunately, like most of Jack’s daring plans, it ends in disaster with a bunch of guns being pointed in his general direction.

Jack is hauled in front of the corpulent King George III (Griffiths) and his obsequious prime minister (Allam) to be offered a proposition. Jack reputedly knows the location of the Fountain of Youth. It turns out that the Spanish have discovered the location and have sent a humorless grandee (Jaenada) to go there. Rumor has it that Jack is putting together a crew for such a venture but this is the first the good Captain has heard of it. However, the crown has a ship and a captain and if Jack joins them, they might have a chance at catching up to the Spanish expedition. When Jack discovers that the captain of the British expedition is none other than his former first mate and nemesis, a dandified Barbarosa (Rush) – who has not only lost a leg but also Jack’s beloved Black Pearl, Jack says no thanks and makes good his escape.

While fleeing the redcoats he is aided by his father (Richards) who warns him against making the trip to the Fountain of Youth. Jack seems more interested in finding out who is impersonating him – which turns out to be Angelica (Cruz), a former lover of his. To make matters even more complicated, she turns out to be the daughter of Blackbeard (McShane), the pirate whom all other pirates fear. One of her crew knocks out Jack with a blow dart and he wakes up on the Queen Anne’s Revenge, Blackbeard’s notorious ship which has a bunch of zombies for officers (zombies are much more pliable, according to Angelica).

Blackbeard has very particular motives for reaching the Fountain – it is prophesized that he will be killed by a one-legged man within a fortnight. He wants the waters of the Fountain as an insurance policy.

Blackbeard and Jack know that two additional items are needed for the waters to work – the chalices of Ponce de Leon, which they need to get, and the tears of a mermaid, which they also need to get. As it turns out, mermaids are extremely capricious creatures who can be as deadly as any monster. They are able, however, with the aid of a noble missionary named Phillip (Claflin) they manage to snare a beautiful mermaid named Syrena (Berges-Frisbey).

So it’s a race to the fountain with three interested parties converging on the Fountain and the wreck of de Leon’s ship; which one will be granted eternal life? And will they have chosen…wisely?

After the last Pirates movie, there had been some talk that the franchise was finished despite the massive box office numbers it had done. The director of the first three films, Gore Verbinski was involved with this new film initially but eventually chose to bow out, allowing Marshall in. Marshall, who has among other films the Oscar-winning Chicago to his credit, was an intriguing choice to direct as he had never attempted a summer blockbuster before, being better known for Broadway musical adaptations. He stages some pretty nice sequences here, action-wise – none as silly as the water wheel sequence from the second film – particularly an early swordfight between Jack and Angelica, as well as the mutiny sequence. Some of the sequences fall flat however, including the climactic battle.

Depp has made this role his own which is good and bad, mostly bad. Despite the presence of a bit of backstory, he adds nothing new to the role. I wouldn’t say that the performance is phoned in because he certainly puts enough effort into it, but there is nothing in it that really calls for me to recommend you see it nor make me super enthusiastic for the next film in the series, for which this is said to be the first in a proposed new trilogy.

Cruz makes a nice foil for Depp. Fiery and temperamental but with a good heart buried under her bravado, she is much more of a presence than Keira Knightley was in the first three films. An Easter egg scene following the credits sets up the next film and implies that Cruz will be a major component in it. That wouldn’t be a bad thing in my opinion.

With Orlando Bloom also absent, more is given for the always-reliable McNally to do. He does well with the expanded role although again he does pretty well with the material and screen time he is given. Graham also adds a bit of luster as comic relief.

McShane has developed into an actor who always delivers an excellent performance regardless of the quality of the material. He makes a perfectly vile pirate who is willing to sacrifice anything and anyone for his own purposes. Of all the pirates we’ve seen in the series thus far, he is by far the nastiest, worse than Davy Jones himself. He also lends a bit of gravitas.

I will admit that this is better than the last two movies in the series. It’s nowhere near as good as the first. It’s decent summer entertainment but just decent; you’ll watch it once, forget it quickly and move on. That’s not much of a recommendation but that’s all I’ve got; McShane is worth seeing anyway.

REASONS TO GO: Some really nifty action sequences and a nice ambience.  McShane makes a worthy Blackbeard. 

REASONS TO STAY: It’s possible Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow has worn out his welcome.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, a bit of fantasy violence and a little bit of innuendo.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Penelope Cruz was pregnant throughout the shoot and it was only in several sequences at the end of filming where her sister was used as a body double in order to hide her pregnancy.

HOME OR THEATER: Big action sequences, big fantasy, big performances – big screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Kings of the Evening

New Releases for the Week of May 20, 2011


May 20, 2011

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES

(Disney) Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Ian McShane, Kevin R. McNally, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Geoffrey Rush, Sam Claflin, Stephen Graham, Keith Richards, Richard Griffiths, Roger Allam, Judi Dench. Directed by Rob Marshall

Cap’n Jack Sparrow returns after a five year absence and this time he’s going for the biggest prize of them all – the fabled Fountain of Youth. Many have sought this elusive goal but none have ever succeeded; then again, none of them are Captain Jack Sparrow! He’ll have to traverse treacherous waters to find his treasure this time – waters filled with mermaids, monsters, the British navy and the deadliest pirate of them all – Blackbeard!

See the trailer, clips, interviews and promos here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard. 3D, IMAX 3D

Genre: Adventure

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of action/adventure violence, some frightening images, sensuality and innuendo)

The Beaver

(Summit) Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence. A family man spirals into a deep depression, forcing his wife to kick him out. Despondent, alone, his life seemingly at rock bottom, he finds a hand puppet in a dumpster – a beaver. Somehow, this puppet allows him to begin to communicate and soon, allows him to become functional again. However as he comes back to life, the question becomes how much the man controls the puppet – or the puppet controls the man.

See the trailer, clips and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material, some disturbing content, sexuality and language including a drug reference)

Incendies

(Sony Classics) Lubna Azabal, Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette, Remy Girard. When their mother dies, the contents of her will send a pair of twins on a journey into the past of the woman they thought they knew. Each step of the way changes their perception of her – and of their own place in the world. This French-Canadian co-production was an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for some strong violence and language)

Bedtime Stories


Bedtime Stories

A rose by any other name doth smelleth.

(2008) Fantasy (Disney) Adam Sandler, Guy Pearce, Keri Russell, Richard Griffiths, Courtney Cox, Lucy Lawless, Teresa Palmer, Russell Brand, Aisha Tyler, Jonathan Pryce, Jonathan Morgan Heit, Laura Ann Kesling, Carmen Electra, Paul Dooley, Rob Schneider. Directed by Adam Shankman

There is something comforting about a good old fashioned bedtime story. They transport us to faraway places and show us fantastic sights with strange and magical beings. This is part of the comforts of our childhood, as well as the joys of our parenthood.

Skeeter (Sandler) had a vivid imagination and loved to tell stories almost as much as he loved his dad’s (Pryce) hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Times were hard and his dad wound up having to sell the hotel to Barry Nottingham (Griffiths), owner of a chain of hotels – the understanding being that Skeeter would one day run the hotel.

Years later, Skeeter was still working at the hotel as a handyman but the days of the hotel were numbered; Nottingham had plans to build a new hotel, the flagship of his chain. Unctuous manager Kendall (Pearce) has the inside track for the position, as well as for Violet (Palmer), the tabloid bad girl who seems to always have a cloud of paparazzi following her.

Skeeter’s sister Wendy (Cox), the principal of an eco-friendly school, is having to look for new work in Phoenix when her school is abruptly closed, the land sold to a hotel magnate (you can guess who that is). She needs someone to watch her kids, daughter Bobbi (Kesling) and son Patrick (Heit) and Skeeter is essentially her only resort since her best friend Jill (Russell) must work. She doesn’t trust Skeeter – in fact, she hasn’t spoken to him in four years and he can barely remember the names of her children. Family is family though, so he does the best he can.

Turns out they can’t fall asleep without a bedtime story. He has them suggest one to him and he tells it to them, incorporating elements of his own life into the story. When the kids change the ending to include a rainstorm of gumballs, he doesn’t think much of it…until the sky opens up the next day and gumballs rain down.

Skeeter realizes that the kids have the ability to make their bedtime stories come true and he tries to manipulate their stories so that he gets what he wants in life. However, try controlling a couple of kids with vivid imaginations and as this is a Disney movie, you can bet that things are gonna get complicated.

Sandler can be an engaging and charming guy and there’s no doubt that he can appeal to the younger set, but this is actually his first family movie and in a lot of ways it feels kind of vanilla – more so than a family film would demand ordinarily. Not that Sandler has to be blue to be successful, but he feels very toned down, scaled back and watered down. I get the feeling that was more the doing of studio execs at the Mouse House more than anything but still the effect is the same.

There are several story segments, ranging from Ancient Rome to the Old West to Outer Space and beyond. Some of them are imaginative, others less so but they mostly hold your attention at least. So too (but for all the wrong reasons) does the guinea pig with saucer-like eyes that is used as a running joke in the movie. It’s CGI and not particularly good CGI; it’s a tiresome one-joke bit that is used way too often.

The cast is pretty impressive and for the most part, the acting is solid enough but again, nothing really stands up and makes you take notice. Russell is one of my favorite actresses and she lights up the screen when she’s on, but never really generates much chemistry with Sandler. Pearce, in a moustache-twirling villain role, seems a bit out of his element.

 There really doesn’t seem to be much of a message here, which would be refreshing if there was something else concrete to take its place, like sly wit or humor. I felt rather indifferent after seeing this and that’s not where you want your movie to be. I would have liked there to be more edge here, but unfortunately it can be filed away with Tooth Fairy, The Pacifier and other family films of that ilk that have a bit of magic to them, but only a bit.

WHY RENT THIS: Some of the story segments are cute and imaginative. Sandler is likable in a kind of oafish way.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sandler goes family-friendly but it comes off a bit bland.

FAMILY VALUES: Disney knows family friendly and this is it. A few bad words and some poo-poo jokes but otherwise easily family-friendly.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: On the driving range, one of the golf balls that goes whizzing by bears the Happy Madison logo, a reference to the production company logo.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $212.9M on an $80M production budget; the movie made money.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: The Art of the Steal