by Steve Habrat
After the magic that was captured in 1990’s Edward Scissorhands and 1994’s Ed Wood, the bar was set mighty high for the third collaboration between auteur Tim Burton and actor Johnny Depp. This third collaboration happened to be a big screen interpretation of Sleepy Hollow, a bulked up and bloodied version of Washington Irving’s short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow that was first published in 1820. Burton’s Sleepy Hollow is a foggy, gothic vision that has faint echoes of a classic Universal Studios monster movie and a squeamish version of Ichabod Crane slinking away from the dreaded Headless Horseman. Working with a screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker, Burton’s Sleepy Hollow becomes a slightly convoluted but beautifully photographed thriller that lacks any substantial freak-outs. Sleepy Hollow ends up being rescued by Depp’s portrayal of Ichabod Crane, who in Burton’s film is a nebbish but practical New York City police constable rather than a skittish and superstitious schoolmaster like he was in Irving’s story. Depp adds some real pizzazz to a film that is all visual panache and very little humanity.
Sleepy Hollow finds queasy New York City police constable Ichabod Crane (Played by Johnny Depp) sent by his superiors to investigate a handful of gruesome murders in the isolated and superstitious town of Sleepy Hollow. Upon his arrival, Crane meets with a slew of locals who are taken aback by his new and experimental techniques that he plans to apply to catching what he assumes is a flesh and blood murderer. The nervous townspeople whisper tales of a headless apparition rising from the grave and riding through the night to severe the heads of anyone who gets in his path. As the investigation continues, Crane begins to realize that maybe the ghost stories that are on everyone’s lips may not be just stories afterall. Crane teams up with a local orphan Young Masbath (Played by Marc Pickering) and the pretty Katrina Van Tassel (Played by Christina Ricci), daughter of wealthy local farmer and head of Sleepy Hollow Baltus Van Tassel (Played by Michael Gambon). The trio begins to suspect that maybe the murders that are taking place are not as random as they first appeared to be.
Sleepy Hollow is loaded with brittle and foggy detailed sets that seem like they would have been at home in the Universal Studios monster movies of years past. The film also has some pedantic costume design that really adds to the visual punch. The set and costume design are complimented by the moody chiaroscuro cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki, which at times borders on black and white, further fueling the classic horror movie feel of the film. Burton seamlessly edits sequences that had to have been shot on jaw-dropping sets with actual landscapes, creating a dead and gothic landscape, one of the most vivid of his entire career. This gorgeous detail is what allows Sleepy Hollow to keep its head above water rather than sinking due to the overly complicated storyline that Burton slowly and inconsistently reveals. Sleepy Hollow almost falls victim to style over substance but luckily Johnny Depp is willing to come to the rescue.
Depp single handedly gives Sleepy Hollow the soul that it so desperately needs. Depp’s Crane is a peculiar individual, the furthest thing from a manly man and one enamored with science. He cringes at the bloody crime scenes and gasps at the site of a spider but he enjoys slapping on a bizarre pair of goggles to play detective. Depp’s Crane can be viewed as an outsider throughout Sleepy Hollow, a man who wishes to make a change in police work but is consistently waved off by his superiors and finds the residents of Sleepy Hollow cocking their heads and squinting their faces when he goes off on a tirade. While Depp soars, many of the background players fall flat. His leading lady Christina Ricci isn’t given anything to do but gasp and faint every time she lays eyes on the Horseman. Miranda Richardson as Lady Van Tassel really gets to let loose at the end but some of the dialogue she is given is iffy. Christopher Walken as the Horseman is an inspired choice for the role but when we see his back-story and all he does is grunt, much of your excitement over his presence deflates. Supporting roles are filled by familiar Burton actors like Lisa Marie, Michael Gough, and Jeffrey Jones who are there simply because they know Burton and they probably owed him a favor. Ian McDiarmid and Christopher Lee also pop up in small roles but they are rarely seen and seem to be there simply to add more star power to the credits.
By the end of the film, Burton’s vision falls victim to a clunky script that ends in a rush of confusing explanations about what has been going on beneath all the supernatural carnage. Sleepy Hollow does however end with a very cool nod to James Whale’s Frankenstein despite the fact that it is as subtle as an exploding windmill. While there are some adjustments made to help the film expand into a feature length film, the storyline isn’t properly balanced out and it attempts to cram too much into the last fifteen minutes. Considering this is Sleepy Hollow and is a classic story around Halloween, the film could have benefitted from a few solid scares here and there. There are tense moments but there is nothing that will have you covering your eyes and sleeping with a nightlight on. This film does happen to be one of the bloodiest films that Burton has ever made, boasting some truly amazing gore effects that spew candle wax-like blood. Overall, Burton is the only director I can see tackling a project like Sleepy Hollow and he does do a damn fine job visually, offering up moments of staggering beauty. Depp is his usual top notch self but Burton ends up leaning on him to heavily to carry all the extra weight in the film. Despite its flaws, there is still a moderate amount of moody and atmospheric fun to be had in Sleepy Hollow, allowing it to be an above average film, but I wish this had been about a little more than just mood and atmospherics.
Sleepy Hollow is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
While American Pie is beginning to show its crow’s feet, 2001’s American Pie 2 hasn’t aged nearly as bad as the 1999 original. It may be blasphemous to say but I have always found American Pie 2 to be slightly better than the original film, both in story and laughs. Maybe it is the fact that the film is a nonstop party, a beer stained snapshot of these character’s glory days. In the end, I think I like American Pie 2 better because it shows us how these characters have evolved (or stayed the same) and it tackles how people change between high school and college. You are always eager to get back after your first year without parental supervision and trade war stories with your high school pals. Much like the original, the underlying content has found staying power, especially with a younger audience, but I too enjoy watching American Pie 2 and being reminded about the first summer back from pouring over books, cramming for exams, and constant parties. It made me reminisce about a time when I didn’t have a care in the world. American Pie 2 smartly bottles up that electric enthusiasm to see how those who were close to you have changed for the better or the worse.
American Pie 2 picks up with the old gang, showing us their last few days of their freshman year of college. The gang heads home to their hometown of East Great Falls, eager to start sharing their new experiences with one another, most of these experiences having to do with sex. Jim (Played by Jason Biggs), Oz (Played by Chris Klein), Kevin (Played by Thomas Ian Nicholas), and Finch (Played by Eddie Kaye Thomas) head to their old haunts and look forward to summer sipping beers at party guy Steve Stifler’s (Played by Seann William Scott) house. At Stifler’s party, they bump into their old female chums from their high school days, Vicky (Played by Tara Reid) and Jessica (Played by Natasha Lyonne). After a few embellished stories about college, the cops break up Stifler’s party, leaving the gang with no other place to get drunk over the summer. The gang soon finds themselves traveling to Grand Harbor, Michigan to shack up in a beach house for the summer. Jim also learns that foreign exchange student Nadia (Played by Shannon Elizabeth) will be returning home at the end of summer and she is very eager to spark up an old romance with him, leaving Jim turning to the only person he has ever been intimate with, band geek Michelle (Played by Alyson Hannigan), to help him tweak his sexual sills.
The major handicap of American Pie was the shaky acting from the young leads, mostly from the awful Chris Klein, who has slightly improved between the original and the sequel. Klein still lacks chemistry with his goody-goody girlfriend Heather (Played by Mena Suvari) and it really wounds the film. Suvari certainly tries to coax some out of him, but he is a lost cause. Seann William Scott’s Stifler gets a bit more room to shine in the second helping of Pie, checking in a more obnoxious performance than he did in the first time around. While he remained largely on the outside when the gang was simply trying to loose their virginity, he is part of their inner circle here and for those who hated him the first time, well, you’re going to loathe this beach house bonanza. Biggs gets even better, finding himself in more gauche situations than he did the first time around, even worse because he found out he was horrible at sex and now he has lost the little confidence he once possesed. His chemistry with Hannigan’s Michelle, which wasn’t fully developed the first time, is front and center here. They have some truly wonderful exchanges as she helps shape Jim into an irresistible stud for the gorgeous Nadia. Also a standout is the returning Eugene Levy as Jim’s unassuming father, who tries to give him words of wisdom every time he embarrasses himself.
American Pie 2 fairs better from improved direction and writing, which allows the cast to be a bit more believable. Screenwriter Adam Herz does up at the ante on the sex gags that are sprinkled throughout and he does cook up a few tasty sequences. One scene involving the boys and two girls they believe are lesbians is pretty sharp and full of surprises. It mirrors the Internet broadcast sequence in the original. Another scene involving Jim trying to watch porn and mistaking superglue for lubricant is another winner. Biggs helps the scene by wearing aghast facial expressions, especially when his situation goes from horrible to dire. It is also a bit obvious that American Pie 2 has a bit of a larger budget than the original film, having a much more polished look to it. It seems like the production company didn’t gamble much on the original film, especially since the original is riddled with so many mistakes (the tainted beer cup, the opening sequence that is supposedly taking place at night when we can clearly see sun shining through the windows).
American Pie 2 isn’t any deeper than the original, actually possessing less depth than the original did. The film is more concerned with extended party sequences, trying to squeeze in as much nudity as it possible can, and devising ways to put Shannon Elizabeth in a bikini. There aren’t even any missed opportunities for saying something profound. In a way, this may be why I like the film a bit more than the original. It doesn’t try to be anything else than a party movie that just wants to get laid. Sure it gets the feeling of meeting up with your old friends correct, an aspect that completely saves the film from being irrelevant and disposable. The real saving grace is that the actors are much more comfortable in their character’s skins, making them feel much more real than they did when they were just lowly high school students. It’s the same old debauchery, just a little bit wiser, more scantily clad girls, and with a higher alcohol tolerance.
American Pie 2 is now available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
It has been years since I have visited Jim, Stifler, Oz, Kevin, Finch, Nadia, Jessica, Heather, Vicky, Jim’s Dad, and the rest of the American Pie gang. After digging out my copy of the DVD and re-watching the film, the first thing that struck me about it was how poorly it has aged since its release. The film reeks of the late 90s, all plaid shirts, baggy jeans, and pop punk. Even the picture itself looks faded and crude by today’s standard but maybe I am getting used to watching crystal clear Blu-ray. What hasn’t aged, however, is the content of American Pie, which is all about getting laid and partying with your friends. American Pie packs a plot that will continue to resonate with high school and college kids for years to come, an aspect that solidifies its place on the list of comedy classsics. Better than a good majority of teen comedies that chug beer in the name of all that is crass, American Pie is still a heartwarming film about living it up with your friends and making memories that will last a lifetime.
The plot of American Pie is pretty simple. Four high school friends, Jim (Played by Jason Biggs), Oz (Played by Chris Klein), Kevin (Played by Thomas Ian Nicholas), and Finch (Played by Eddie Kaye Thomas) vow to all loose their virginity by prom night. They are struck with fear that they will all go off to college as virgins and they do everything in their power to make sure that won’t happen. The boys set their sights on a handful of girls including foreign exchange student Nadia (Played by Shannon Elizabeth), affectionate Vicky (Played by Tara Reid), cool girl Jessica (Played by Natasha Lyonne), choir chick Heather (Played by Mena Suvari), and band geek Michelle (Played by Alyson Hannigan). Naturally, the boys find themselves in all sorts of awkward situations, mostly Jim, who is always experimenting with different ways to pleasure himself, and every time getting caught by his parents or embarrassing himself in front of the entire school. They are also always hanging out with the vulgar Steve Stifler (Played by Seann William Scott) and finding themselves the butt of his obnoxious jokes.
It is strange to look back at American Pie, which packed a supposedly up-and-coming cast, some that never really broke out into any other roles. A good majority of the acting, mostly from Chris Klein, is downright cringe inducing now. It is no shocker that he never really became an A-list actor or a household name, as every line of dialogue he speaks is forced and embellished. The two who really do standout are Seann William Scott’s Stifler, who delivers a handful of funnies and the perfectly awkward Biggs as Jim. American Pie is carried on the shoulders of Jim’s Dad (Played by Eugene Levy) always catching him in some off-the-wall situation that is beyond embarrassing, scenes that will leave you gasping and your jaw slamming against the floor. You’ll never forget the sequence where Jim makes love to an apple pie in the film’s most iconic sequence. His father’s baffled reaction is simply, “We’ll just tell your mother that…we ate it all.” You’ll be in tears if you’ve never seen the scene.
It does still shock me how much American Pie has aged in thirteen years. Many of the skinny jean viewers of today may laugh at the film’s overall look and the corny pop punk soundtrack of yesterday. I can hear them squealing behind their smartphones, tweeting “wtf were they thinking in the 90s! GAG!” Sorry kids, there is no Justin Bieber and Wiz Khalifa anywhere in this film. Yet as I said, there is still quite a bit to relate to in this film and that is what extends its reach and ups the letter grade here. Believe me when I say that you’ll find yourself smiling over the camaraderie found in American Pie, both on the male and female side. The film’s raunchy humor can certainly match the naughty humor of today’s raunch romps, matching Judd Apatow’s cinematic offerings that are so popular. I’d also bet that the American Pie kids can party harder than the Wolf Pack from The Hangover. I dare any scene in The Hangover to go up against the opening sequence of American Pie where Jim watches porn when his mother bursts into the room. Looking back, it is easy to see that American Pie has often been imitated (Road Trip, Van Wilder, Tomcats, and any direct to video sequel) but could never truly be duplicated, this film featuring some truly inspired comedic situations.
American Pie gets far on its boys will be boys premise and the situations are mostly hysterically funny. The film literally embraces toilet humor in one scene involving a character’s crippling fear of taking a number two at school. American Pie ultimately has a touching interior that outshines a lot of the dated aspects of the film. It doesn’t shy away from the female perspective of sex, which is centered on true love and sensitivity in opposition to the boy’s hornball desperation. It is a shame there wasn’t more depth to American Pie outside of the idea of desperately trying to have one last hurrah with your high school chums. The film does have a few opportunities to explore high school cliques, but it goes no further than the band geeks having cool guy Stifler refuse them entry into a raging party, never really elaborating further. It also had a brief chance to tackle peer pressure but that too falls by the wayside. Oh well, at least everyone basically gets along in the world of American Pie and no one can argue with that in these cynical times. Even if some of the sequences have become creaky over the years, jokes have lost some of their zing, and some of the acting is unforgivably amateur, it was still nice to revisit the gang of American Pie and have a beer or three and maybe a few shots.
American Pie is now available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
If you are looking for a review of the 3D converted re-release of George Lucas’s Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace, you won’t find it here. I don’t feel the need to shell out thirteen dollars for a film that wasn’t filmed in 3D but rather converted to milk more money out of fans. The re-release and my recent purchase of the Blu-ray set has pushed me to revisit the saga in crystal clear HD and I must say, it does look remarkable, but a pretty picture does not make a great film, folks. Lucas, a master showman when it comes to special effects, lost the magic that his original three films had and instead, his new trilogy consisted of countless CGI backgrounds, aliens of all shapes, sizes, and colors, and relentless rubbery action scenes. What made the original three Star Wars films such a success was that they heavily relied on the tale that was told. The characters didn’t seem to have coached interaction, but rather sincere emotions. With The Phantom Menace, Lucas showed us that he had lost control and had instead focused more on creating and selling toys than creating and selling a timeless tale that would extend across generations. But, I will also admit that I found The Phantom Menace to actually be the best of the new Star Wars films. Believe it or not.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… The evil Trade Federation led by Nute Gunray has set their sights on the peaceful planet of Naboo, which they aim to invade. When two Jedi Knights, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Played by Ewan McGregor) and Qui-Gon Jin (Played by Liam Neeson) are sent to negotiate the blockade issued by the Trade Federation. Upon their arrival, the evil Darth Sidious (Played by Ian McDiarmid) orders that the droid army kill the Jedi. They nearly escape and find themselves on the planet of Naboo, where they befriend an irritating Gungan creature named Jar Jar Binks (Played by Ahmed Best). Jar Jar Binks takes them to the capital Theed, where they rescue Queen Amidala (Played by Natalie Portman) before the Federation can take her. They narrowly escape (again) and then find themselves on the planet Tatooine, where they befriend a salve boy known as Anakin Skywalker (Played by Jake Lloyd). As their friendship grows with Anakin, the Jedi begin to sense that the Force is strong with the boy and that he should be trained as a Jedi. Soon, they find themselves being tracked by a gruesome horned Sith known Darth Maul (Played by Ray Park), who aims to kill the Jedi. The Jedi must also convince the underwater Gungan city Otoh Gunga to help the people of Naboo and aid them in retaking their planet.
The Phantom Menace does achieve the task of opening a door to another galaxy, one that leaves us asking, ‘what will Lucas think of next?’ It really is incredible taking all the creativity in and waiting for little cameos from classic characters. Yoda shows up, R2D2 is in the mix, and, heck, so is Jabba the Hutt for a brief period. The new characters that are introduced are largely wooden in their performance, which is surprising due to the cast of players Lucas has at his disposal. Liam Neeson does the best job with the clunky script that Lucas provides. He is compassionate, kind, and when need be, totally kick-ass. He is a wise father figure for both Obi-Wan and the probing Anakin. McGregor also plays his character the best he can, resisting the constricting grip of Lucas every chance he gets. He’s the true gung-ho hero who is up for an adventure, which is, after all, why we are visiting this far away galaxy.
Natalie Portman also does a stand out job as Queen Amidala, the monotone and ornate ruler who surges with life once Lucas takes us to Tatoonie. Lucas had the good sense to not make her a complete damsel in distress. When she is handed a laser pistol, she fires back at the frail droid army who are persistent in their attacks. The true annoyance comes in the form of young Anakin. Lucas clearly had absolutely no idea how to make a connection with Lloyd and furthermore, how to guide him in a convincing performance. Every single line he utters seems like Lucas is telling it to him through a megaphone just off camera. The young Lloyd also suffers due to there being basically being nothing for him to actually interact with.
The true reason we watch a Star Wars film is to escape for two hours and loose ourselves in the inspired characters of his space opera. Lucas does provide some seriously cool creatures to bug out at. One of his neatest is Darth Maul, a relatively quiet Sith with black and red tattoos covering his face and a collection of horns atop his head. Lucas always has dreamed up interesting foes for our heroes to confront and Maul nears the top as one of the best. He is mysterious, acrobatic, and murmurs only a few lines of dialogue. I also took a liking to Darth Sidious, the throaty and flaccid evil emperor who would appear in flickering transmissions. But the show belongs to the one-man killing machine Maul, who faces off against Qui-Gon Gin and Obi Wan set to John Williams’ epic score. The battle between the two Jedi and the Sith is without question one of the best lightsaber battles the saga has.
The Phantom Menace does have its fair share of negatives. The film tries to appeal more to a younger audience rather than the diehard fans, which leads to Lucas adding heavy doses of comic relief and little in the way of true sinister moments. There is a scene where one character is cut in half but it is far from graphic. Lucas gives stale one-liners to Anakin, who has zero comedic timing. Once again, I honestly feel that this is a reflection of the dry personality of Lucas. The other dreadful addition is Jar Jar Binks, who is more infuriating than funny. His character relies on slapstick to cut the tension, but what Lucas forgot to add was the tension. His droid army is supposed to strike fear in our hearts but the Jedi cut through them like paper thrown at them by a baby. The droids almost come close to cute, something a villain should never be. You’ll also find yourself cringing at some of the most poorly written dialogue of all time.
The adventure spirit is alive and well in The Phantom Menace, which narrowly saves it from being downright appalling. For those who follow the saga closely, there will be much to complain about but Lucas will certainly do some right by you. That right comes in the form of classic characters, an expansion on the iconic John Williams score, and an incredibly awesome climatic lightsaber duel. But it is the countless fakery that ruined the new trilogy of Star Wars films. There was such a heavy focus on the merchandise that could be pushed onto kids that it becomes maddening. Many film professors, intellectuals, and brainwashed film students criticize Star Wars for lacking depth. We know what to expect when watching one of these films and that is creativity and thrills. I certainly don’t go in expecting to see a political satire. I go in for the eye candy and The Phantom Menace delivers on that. It just a shame Lucas went overboard with the sugary visuals. Overall, the Force was strong here but sadly, it wasn’t strong enough to make something great.
Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace is now available on Blu-ray and is currently playing at your local theater in 3D.
The Evil Dead (1981)
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
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