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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Jeff, Who Lives at Home


Jeff, Who Lives at Home

Jason Segel believes he's being stalked by Muppets.

(2012) Comedy (Paramount Vantage) Jason Segel, Ed Helms, Susan Sarandon, Judy Greer, Evan Ross, Rae Dawn Chong, Steve Zissis, Benjamin Brant Bickham, Lee Nguyen, Tim J. Smith, Ernest James, Katie Aselton, Joe Chrest, Lance E. Nichols, Carol Sutton. Directed by Jay and Mark Duplass

 

Families are complicated things that we rarely can make heads or tails of, even of our own. We mostly see the people in our families as filling certain roles and rarely can adjust our thinking beyond those definitions we ourselves set. A lot of times those definitions are there from years of observation and experience but every so often those in our family can surprise us.

Jeff (Segel) is a 30-year-old unemployed man who lives in his mom’s basement and apparently has little ambition beyond getting stoned every day. His mom (Sarandon) is exasperated beyond words; she longs for him to find some sort of path that he can follow through life but he doesn’t seemed interested in finding one.

The truth is that Jeff really wants to find that path but isn’t quite sure how. He has determined that life is a series of signs and portents that one must be open to receiving and able to interpret once received. Jeff thinks he is able to do this but thus far hasn’t found the right way yet. So when he gets an angry phone call from a man demanding to speak to Kevin (there is no Kevin in the household) that starts the ball rolling.

It’s also his mom’s birthday and she wants just one thing from him; to go down to the local Home Depot (a bus ride is required) and pick up some wood glue to fix a slat on the shutter doors of the kitchen pantry. While on the bus, he sees someone with the name Kevin on a basketball jersey and follows him, leading him off the path of the wood glue and onto the path of something else.

Pat (Helms) is the married, responsible one. Or at least he is on the surface. In reality his marriage to Linda (Greer) is falling apart at the seams; there is little if any communication going on between them. Judy wants them to save their money to buy a house so that they can raise a family; Pat wants to buy a Porsche so that they can…own a Porsche. Pat impulsively buys one, prompting Judy to dump her breakfast over the car.

The paths of Pat and Jeff cross, leading the Porsche to take a path into a nearby tree. Their paths then intersect with Linda, who apparently is meeting another man in a fancy Bistro that Pat has refused to take her to. Linda’s path then takes her to a hotel room with that man while Pat and Jeff take separate paths, all leading to the same place.

Jeff’s mom, Sharon, is also on a path, looking for the kind of fulfillment and appreciation that comes from a close relationship but she’s been unable to form one since her husband had passed away. She confides in Carol (Chong), a friend from work that she’s been receiving some secret admirer messages from someone at work, but doesn’t know who it is. She is troubled by the attention but also intrigued by it.

Where will this all end up? I can tell you a few things for certain without giving too much away – one, all of the main characters will end up in wet clothes. Two, all paths lead towards New Orleans over the Pontchartrain Bridge. Third, some things take more than wood glue to fix.

The Duplass brothers, who directed this, have a fair amount of indie cred with such films as Baghead and The Puffy Chair to their credit. Their movies tend to be low-key and charming with a certain amount of complexity under the surface that make them ideal for discussion for days after you’ve seen them. They also know how to coax subtle, nuanced performances from the actors in their films and they do the same here.

Segel is rapidly becoming one of the most likable performers in Hollywood. He is big and lovable to the point where his brother calls him a sasquatch, but also has plenty of goofy stoner in him. There are those who compare Segel (somewhat unfairly) to Seth Rogen who is a different kind of performer. Not that Rogen isn’t a nice guy, Segel just seems nicer (see The Muppets). Here he is just kind of treading water through life, allowing the current to take him wherever it will. That can be kind of irritating to those who prefer to swim their own course as most of us do but Jeff is anything but a control freak – he prefers to see what is going to happen rather than making things happen.

Helms is rapidly becoming a go-to guy in the comedy landscape with roles in “The Office” as well as The Hangover series, as well as Cedar Rapids. This is a bit of a departure for him – he is not the lovable nerd here but he is more of a hustler sort, the kind of role more familiar to guys like Vince Vaughn. If this were a different sort of movie, I might have even preferred Vaughn in the part but to be honest, as much of a con-man as Pat is the movie wouldn’t be able to accept someone as over-the-top as Vaughn. Helms gives it just the right amount of undertones.

Judy Greer has graduated from mainly playing the best friend of the rom-com lead to playing terrific wives criminally ignored by their husbands (as she does in The Descendants). She is one of those actresses who doesn’t get a lot of kudos but quietly performs strongly in every role she takes on. This is the kind of part that can be easily overlooked by a performer of her caliber makes that impossible to happen.

Because Jeff is so innately a good guy, the movie has a quiet sweetness to it that never gets too sentimental or too saccharine. However, the Duplass brothers seem bound and determined to brand this as an indie feature; they have a tendency to zoom the camera in nearly every scene as kind of a Duplass trademark. It gets irritating after awhile and seems to be a minor case of “Look, Ma, I’m Directing” syndrome.

This isn’t a movie that is going to overwhelm you or offer some life-shattering insight, although you may come to one eventually on our own. It isn’t going to be the kind of movie you leave with your sides aching with laughter, although you will at least chuckle at some of the situations. This is a movie about life and about the resilience of family to overcome even the greatest of gulfs. I like this movie and even if it doesn’t shout its name from the rooftops, well, a quality movie doesn’t have to.

REASONS TO GO: Sweet to its core but not so sweet your blood sugar spikes. Nice performances from the leads.

REASONS TO STAY: Camera moves draw attention to themselves. Occasionally suffers from over-quirkiness.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of bad language including some with sexual connotations, and some depictions of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nearly all of the movie was shot in New Orleans suburb Metairie, doubling for Baton Rouge.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/27/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100. The reviews are good though not great.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cyrus

STREET BALL LOVERS: Early on, Jeff participates in a pretty convincing game of street basketball, although Segel appears more adept at hoops than you think he might be.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Love Ranch