Sleepy Hollow (1999)
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.
Star Wars: Episode III-Revenge of the Sith (2005)
by Steve Habrat
After the numbing Attack of the Clones, it was anyone’s guess where the Star Wars saga would go next. Would Lucas improve it and finally catch the rollicking spirit that made the original three films great or would he continue to bog every frame and actor down with relentless CGI garbage? The answer is that he would do both with Star Wars: Episode III-Revenge of the Sith. The third entry in Lucas’s modern trilogy would be the closest to the original films, both visually and spiritually, but the film would also suffer from his refusal to ease up on the CGI that practically splits every frame of this overly busy and rocky final installment. In the time between The Phantom Menace and Revenge of the Sith, one would think that Lucas would try to improve his communication with his actors, fine tuning how to instruct them to be somewhat believable, especially with the misguided Hayden Christensen, who acts more like a rebellious teenager rather than troubled man consumed by demons, both internally and externally. Instead, Lucas seemed to be more interested in making Darth Vader unintentionally funny and dreaming up CGI aliens.
Revenge of the Sith opens with the Republic and the Separatists still waging the Clone War. Obi-Wan Kenobi (Played by Ewan McGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Played by Hayden Christensen) have been sent to rescue the kidnapped Chancellor Palpatine (Played by Ian McDiarmid) from the clutches of the dreaded half alien and half robot General Grievous. After a narrow escape, Anakin returns to his wife Padmé (Played by Natalie Portman), who reveals to him that she is pregnant. Anakin has recently found himself suffering from visions of Padmé dying during childbirth. Soon, Chancellor Palpatine reveals to Anakin that he is the Sith Lord Darth Sidious, the man controlling the conflict between the Republic and the Separatists. Darth Sidious begins convincing Anakin to become his Sith apprentice in the absence of Obi-Wan, who has gone after General Grievous. As Anakin slowly falls under the spell of the wicked Darth Sidious, Obi-Wan returns to try to save Anakin before he is consumed by the dark side of the force. Anakin, however, believes that Darth Sidious is the only one who can save Padmé’s life.
Lucas includes a few more of the original characters in Revenge of the Sith. We get a brief cameo by the Wookies and a quick glimpse of Chewbacca, one of the greatest characters from the original trilogy. Yoda begins to seem weaker and appear much more feeble than in the previous two installments. R2D2 and C-3P0 have heavier roles here and seem more at home in Revenge of the Sith over The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. Even Emperor Palpatine pulling the dark hood over his head will send an electric jolt of excitement through you. It also doesn’t hurt to finally have Anakin in the iconic costume of Darth Vader by the finale. Yet Lucas poorly paces much of the action in Revenge of the Sith, making it incredibly difficult to get excited about the events setting the stage for the classic trilogy. A battle between General Grievous and Obi-Wan is way too short and unsatisfying. A brief showdown between Anakin Skywalker and Count Dooku (Played by Christopher Lee) seems thrown in just to let us know that Dooku is still in the picture. Even the climatic showdown between Anakin and Obi-Wan is lumpy and inconsistent, a bit too cartoonish and by the end is just the two men glaring at each other as computerized lava splashes around them.
The bane of the first half of the Star Wars saga has been the acting, an issue that I still can’t believe that Lucas overlooked. It’s been about the visual effects with Episodes I-III and sadly, the same problem plagues Revenge of the Sith. Here we have epic shots of planets that largely failed to capture our imaginations that feature characters we are only slightly acquainted with getting killed. Lucas is convinced that if the score mourns for these characters, so will we. He gives us several shots of the Jedi being wiped out, Jedi that we only see from time to time, but not ones we know. He fairs better with the departure of Yoda and the death of Mace Windu (Played by Samuel L. Jackson). Christensen fairs no better in Revenge of the Sith, his acting actually being worse here than in Attack of the Clones. Here Lucas slaps some red contacts in Christensen’s eyes (Actually, he probably just digitally made his eyes red. Lucas wouldn’t dare do anything authentic. Who am I kidding!?) and expects us to quiver in our seats. He didn’t frighten me in the least, but when the Vader suit emerges, you will quiver. That quiver will quickly fade into laughter when he delivers the worst line of dialogue ever written (“NOOOOOOOO!”). It’s the furthest thing from a Vader response and ruins a tense emotional moment. Way to go, Lucas!
Portman and McGregor are the true veterans who deserve a round of applause. They do a fine job with the hodgepodge that Lucas hands them. By the end of this film, I had grown to care about Kenobi. McGregor injected a soul into his character and made him more than just a sloppy outline. Portman isn’t the strong female force this time around, which was slightly depressing, but understandable due to her character’s pregnancy. Lucas did not execute the shift from strong to heartbroken gracefully but Portman handles it like a professional. You catch brief glimpses of regret for putting her heart on the line and devastation that the man she loves is filled with brimming such cruelty. Jackson’s composed and astute Mace Windu is also a standout here, another character that worms his way into your heart. It was truly difficult to watch his final moments unfold on screen. This credit should go to Jackson, though, because I’m sure Lucas was more concerned with how many spaceships he could think up and cram into the background.
Another problem that has plagued Episodes I-III is the fact that Lucas hasn’t truly given us multifaceted villains to fear. They have become iconic strictly in physical appearance. Personality wise, they have been stiffs who are only present to cackle menacingly and serve as the other end in a lightsaber battle. Revenge of the Sith shakes this curse in the final moments when Vader stands next to Emperor Palpatine as they watch the construction of the dreaded Death Star. Familiarity was key for Revenge of the Sith, which is what ultimately allowed the film to be slightly better than Attack of the Clones. It still lacked a truly adventurous side–the one that I believe saved The Phantom Menace from truly sucking. Yet in a strange way, familiarity is what also gave The Phantom Menace another leg to stand on. I felt like I was watching a Star Wars film the first time I saw it and I still do when I see The Phantom Menace, a plus that allows me to overlook Jar Jar Binks. I can’t say the same for Attack of the Clones, a film that felt like a knock off of Star Wars film rather than actually seeming like one of the installments in the series. In Revenge of the Sith, I sometimes felt like I was watching one, and half is better than none, in my opinion. Revenge of the Sith is painfully middling, but it is worth sitting through the monotonous to get to that familiar and proficiently composed fifteen-minute finale.
Star Wars: Episode III-Revenge of the Sith is now available on Blu-ray.
Star Wars: Episode II-Attack of the Clones (2002)
by Steve Habrat
If Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace troubled fans about the intentions of George Lucas, then Episode II-Attack of the Clones, boasting a B-movie title that seems like a forgotten Cold War science fiction film from the 50’s, solidified concerns. In the wake of the backlash against the fourth Batman film, Batman & Robin, Chris O’Donnell famously said, “I felt like I was making a kid’s toy commercial.” I wonder what everyone thought on the set of Attack of the Clones, a soulless action film that seems like a cross between a video game demo and a toy plug, all while Lucas laughs in the faces of his loyal fans. Everything in Attack of the Clones is a mess, from the script, to the muddled plot, to its creepy romance that sparks between Anakin Skywalker and Padmé, the intentions of Lucas are simple—make more money! Even the spirit of adventure, was still alive and well in The Phantom Menace was removed and instead, the film resorts to auto pilot and disjointed segments of action that seem like they were designed for video games rather than a feature film. Going back and revisiting the film in Blu-ray, I couldn’t help but think of O’Donnell’s famous recollection of his experience on Batman & Robin. Instead, I didn’t feel like I was making a toy commercial but I felt like I was watching the most expensive one in the history of commercials.
Attack of the Clones picks up several years after the events of The Phantom Menace, with Anakin Skywalker (Played by Hayden Christensen) now barely an adult, undergoing Jedi Knight training from Obi-Wan Kenobi (Played by Ewan McGregor). The opening reveals that the Galactic Republic is in crisis and is now facing a separatist movement lead by the evil Count Dooku (Played by Christopher Lee). Padmé Amidala (Played by Natalie Portman), now a senator, makes an appearance at the Galactic Senate to cast a vote against the creation of an Army of the Republic, which sparks several assassination attempts aimed at Padmé. Chancellor Palpatine (Played by Ian McDiarmid) demands that she be placed under the protection of Obi-Wan and Anakin. Soon, Anakin and Padmé find a forbidden romance blossoming between them and Obi-Wan sets off to investigate and track a mysterious and lethal bounty hunter called Jango Fett (Played by Temuera Morrison). His investigations of the assassination attempts lead him to the planet of Kamino, where he discovers the creation of a clone army. He also learns that Count Dooku and Trade Federation Vicory Nute Gunray are redeveloping their dreaded droid army and are dead set on killing Padmé.
Attack of the Clones is more of a project that gives fans a look at early designs of the storm troopers and the early days of the popular bounty hunter Boba Fett. It all amounts to a bunch of relentless CGI battles, hammy acting, and unexciting explorations of insipid planets. It features perhaps some of the worst acting in the saga, mostly stemming from Christensen’s Anakin, who whines all of his dialogue and sounds like a teenager who hasn’t hit puberty trying to deepen his voice to sound intimidating. I absolutely detested his character and the half-assed attempts by Lucas to show fleeting signs of the darkness in him. It never put fear in my heart and Attack of the Clones fails to make us truly like him. That was the point, after all, that when his inevitable fall comes in Episode III, it would overwhelm us with grief for his character.
There is much more profession in the work from Lee’s Count Dooku as well as returning cast members Samuel L. Jackson as Mace Windu, McGregor’s Obi-Wan, and Portman’s Padmé. They all seem to understand that Lucas has little to no interest in them and their performances carrying any emotional weight so they put in their own individual effort. The main problem with Dooku is he isn’t really explained and is instead just the accepted bad guy. Matching Christensen in the unconvincing acting department is Temuera Morrison as Jango Fett, who is like an exaggeration of a villain. He tries so hard to be bad and suspicious that it comes off as a joke. He gives mock “muhaha’s” along with his son Boba (Played by Daniel Logan) as they relentlessly try to kill Obi-Wan in air chases and lightsaber versus laser pistol battles.
Lucas tweaks the story to make it a bit more accessible to casual viewers, even more so than The Phantom Menace, which is perplexing due to the darker tone of Attack of the Clones. He pours more attention into his CGI critters that scamper and fly around, none that are remotely impressive or noteworthy. Yoda ends up being his greatest success but I still wish he had used a puppet in the spirit of The Empire Strikes Back. Here Yoda finally throws down and fights, a scene that drove the diehard fans wild when I saw it opening day all those years ago. Every other alien, vehicle, or battle sequence exists simply to end up being an action figure or instruct children on how to play with the toys that will be made in the wake of the film’s release. Nothing seems to be there to aid in telling a worthy story. It doesn’t help that he poorly edits his battle scenes, making them too short, anti-climatic, or just plain monotonous. The final clone battle resembles cut scenes from a video game. I kept waiting for Lucas to come barging through my front door and toss me a video game controller.
In the end, Attack of the Clones is a victim it’s own excesses. Every shot echoes with the cries of Lucas demanding more! It never filled me with childlike awe, got my adrenaline pumping, or whisked me away on the wings of adventure. In fact, I find myself largely blocking the film out, straining to remember certain aspects of it. The film droned on and on but never said much. It is a bloated project that ambles towards the finish line and coughs up an awkward attempt at romance that I never bought into for a second. Furthermore, Lucas doesn’t even come close to matching the climatic lightsaber battle in The Phantom Menace. In my opinion, I found Attack of the Clones to be the lowest point of the Star Wars saga, a film that should not have began with the famous introduction, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” but rather “Right now, on a video game console just in the other room…”
Star Wars: Episode II-Attack of the Clones is available on DVD and Blu-ray in the Star Wars Saga boxed set.
Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace (1999)
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.