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Sensational Sleepy Hollow

And a Bond Movie That's Not Enough

An Aisle Seat Thanksgiving Special

By Andy Dursin

Now that Thanksgiving has arrived, the quantity (if not quality) of the season's movies will be escalating from week to week, particularly now that the new Bond and SLEEPY HOLLOW have hit theaters across the nation. This Wednesday we're treated to TOY STORY 2, which has been receiving rave reviews from many critics, and END OF DAYS, a Schwarzenegger scarefest that's received decidedly mixed reaction and will have a tough time topping Tim Burton's latest for me, anyway.

As usual, some DVD reviews follow this week's new theatrical releases, and like always you are invited to contribute your two cents to The Aisle Seat by writing me at dursina@att.net (please note if you DON'T want your emails published online!).

For all those in the U.S., have a great Thanksgiving and we'll see you next week!


In Theaters

SLEEPY HOLLOW (***1/2): The true definition of a romantic horror film, Tim Burton's latest dark masterpiece gallops along without missing a beat, a lyrical storybook come to life courtesy of a tremendous production team and a talented cast.

Altering the story, though not so much the tone, of Washington Irving's novel, this piece of Colonial America is a dazzling visual treat, and gets much of its punch from Johnny Depp's dead-on, sensational performance as Ichabod Crane. He may be a forensic detective instead of a schoolteacher, but Depp captures the courageous though at-times too human characteristics of the character in a wonderful performance that ranks with the year's best.

Called in to investigate a series of beheadings in the Dutch community of Sleepy Hollow, Crane soon learns the legend that schoolchildren everywhere have known about in this country for generations: that in the dark of night, shrouded in the mist of the forests and overcast skies, a Headless Horseman comes riding to avenge the wrongs of his savage death. This time, however, there's a motive behind the Horseman's appearance that sets in motion a mystery that's unraveled by Crane while the body counts mount and blood flies freely, just as it would in any good Hammer movie (albeit with much better pacing).

Having created EDWARD SCISSORHANDS and THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, Burton unsurprisingly has a fondness for this material, and every frame of SLEEPY HOLLOW is lovingly shot with an attention to detail that is both surreal and evocative of the best American supernatural folklore. It is also a movie that is cheerful and great fun, with brief doses of blood that are neither excessive nor mean- spirited; unlike so many modern horror films, this is a dreamy kind of nightmare, the sort that startles but enthralls and gets most of its scares out of sheer atmosphere, not gross-out gore.

Depp is wonderful and so is Christina Ricci as Katrina Von Tassle, the daughter of the town's wealthiest citizen (Michael Gambon), who -- along with town elders Richard Griffiths, Jeffrey Jones, and Ian McDiarmid -- comprise a collection of men who may just have something to do with the Horseman's appearance. Or perhaps it's Ricci's beau, the thick-headed Brom (Casper Van Dien, who got axed in the editing room), or wicked stepmother Miranda Richardson?

The cast, which also includes appearances by many Burton vets, works splendidly together and Andrew Kevin Walker's script includes enough humor to lighten the heady (no pun intended) preceding. On the technical end of the production, SLEEPY HOLLOW is nothing short of spellbinding: the production design by Rick Heinrichs, cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, and score by Danny Elfman (one of his best) all combine to create a memorable entertainment whose distinctive look and feel will be bringing viewers back for more, even perhaps as a perennial Halloween favorite for years to come.

The picture isn't quite perfect, of course, with a few continuity errors taking center-stage at various points. The set piece involving the town's lookout tower victim, for example, seems to have been cut down from a far longer sequence, since it makes no sense; he ought to be warning the townspeople of the Horseman, not running back into the woods! (And isn't the tower itself burned to the ground in the next, "morning after" scene? There's something else that we didn't get to see). Van Dien reportedly gave an underwhelming performance and wasn't as prepared as the rest of the cast for Burton's fastidious shoot, and subsequently found his character edited almost completely out of the film. One can only assume that many scenes involving the town elders, such as Jeffrey Jones and Ian McDiarmid, also were trimmed, though likely due to pacing issues in that instance.

Still, whenever a movie leaves you wanting more and still manages to satisfy on so many levels, it's certainly a good sign. SLEEPY HOLLOW is one of Tim Burton's finest achievements, and in many ways it may be his best film. The sly humor, artistic set design and atmosphere make this a belated Halloween treat that should appeal to cinephiles everywhere this holiday season. (105 mins., R, ***1/2 dynamite score by Elfman on a 69-minute Hollywood album, obviously highly recommended)


THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH (**) : ...and neither is the movie.

Bond 19 turns out to be a step backward for 007 in the Pierce Brosnan era, a long, tedious assault on the senses that fumbles virtually every opportunity it has to distinguish itself in the long-running series. Someone must have thought that more explosions and chases than usual would up this picture's box-office ante, but all it did was drive a few spectators out of the showing I attended (that, plus the Dolby Digital sound was cranked up several notches too high. Trust me, this ISN'T a movie where you want that to happen!).

Up against a terrorist (Robert Caryle, effective but under-utilized) who may or may not be targeting the daughter (the sexy Sophie Marceau) of a wealthy industrialist, Bond is soon off and running around the globe, but the movie only takes off in a ridiculously over-the-top boat chase (and you thought MOONRAKER was stupid?) that does, admittedly, comprise one of the series' most effective recent teasers.

However, as soon as the front credits conclude (to the strains of Garbage's bland theme song), THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH sags like a deflated tire. The script by Neil Purvis, Robert Wade, and recent Bond scribe Bruce Fierstein sets up an intriguing plot scenario between Marceau and Brosnan, but it's been a while since I've seen a film so plot-heavy and languid -- even by Bond standards -- that fails to give its protagonist anything to do on the dramatic end (other than run, shoot, and look like a secondary character from a Joel Silver movie).

Poor Pierce at least had a few fun throwaway asides in TOMORROW NEVER DIES (which, in comparison with this picture, looks like a classic), but here he really is reduced to running between action set pieces, the majority of which are claustrophobically staged by director Michael Apted and become highly repetitive. Marceau is elegant and certainly easy on the eyes, though she doesn't ignite much fire with o'l Pierce, who has been striking out in the chemistry department with his more recent leading ladies (the last few Bond heroines plus Rene Russo in last summer's deadly dull THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR).

That, of course, brings us to Denise Richards, who comes across as one of the most thankless heroines in a long line of thankless Bond heroines. Someone in the editing room must have removed all of Denise's scenes that didn't directly relate to the plot, since she meets Bond, follows him around, and of course, falls in love with him -- though when and where this happened, I haven't a clue. Richards is cute and fetching in her little tank-top, and I'm not complaining that she plays a nuclear scientist here (after all, it's a Bond movie, so you have to suspend your disbelief a little), but even in 007's world there has to be a minimum of character development and exposition in order for a romantic relationship to work.

A ski chase scene is badly executed, as is a potentially involving subplot where M gets kidnapped and double-crossed by someone she trusts. The filmmakers drop the ball so badly here that they reduce this highly charged emotional situation to Judi Dench sitting in a cell watching a clock for the better part of 90 minutes, and Bond freeing her by stepping in the door and shooting the lock -- and that's it!

Throw in yet another finale set on a submarine and you may feel compelled to duck out of this mission before the end credits roll, just as a couple in front of me did last Friday night. For those who were left, the last sequence between Richards and Brosnan caused more collective audience groans than the trailer for SUPERNOVA which preceded the film.

Technically, the movie looks OK, and David Arnold's score has its effective moments (though once again the soundtrack album leaves off some of the best orchestral passages in favor of techno-flavored material), though it suffers from a "bigger, better, louder" approach that wears you out -- just like the movie does. (PG-13, 125 mins, **1/2 score on Retroactive/MCA Records).


DVD Corner: A Longer MOHICANS and New Artisan Releases

No sooner did I mention that THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (**** movie, *** presentation, $34.98) was due out last week than I realized Fox's "Expanded Director's Cut" is actually due out this Tuesday. Oh well, it's good to see that the delays from the o'l laserdisc industry haven't been completely wiped out by the coming of DVD.

Anyway, Fox's DVD is a gem, with a THX-certified transfer and Dolby Digital soundtrack doing, as you might expect, full justice to Michael Mann's dynamic 1992 adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper's classic book. Daniel Day-Lewis gives one of his best performances in this colonial adventure epic, marked by evocative cinematography (by Dante Spinotti) and production design (by Wolf Kroeger), and an highly effective use of Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman's respective scores.

The DVD, as we discussed, is a "Director's Cut," though the changes are essentially brief ones that likely bothered Mann more than the film: four minutes of added dialogue are restored to some fifteen different places in the film, with one notable musical alteration coming from the deletion of Cannad's anachronistic rock song (a droning score cue has been used in its place). There's some additional dialogue about the various Indian cultures seen in the film, but more or less there's nothing substantial to note in the new material, and in fact the ending scene now has some extraneous dialogue that the picture was better off without. Apparently, an entire subplot involving Jodhi May's character existed in Mann and Christopher Crowe's script (and was likely filmed), but the director has not elected to make major narrative changes to his film. Of course, it's not as if the movie ever necessitated those alterations in the first place: it's pretty damn terrific.

The other issue with the DVD is that it does not contain any other special features: not a running commentary or additional deleted scenes (as an early announcement indicated it would), nor the movie's terrific theatrical trailer. These have been left off at Mann's request, apparently, meaning that the $34.95 price tag isn't quite justified by the Special Features department. (You do get a French langauge track, however, which cuts out and is replaced by subtitles whenever there's extra footage; sort of an intriguing way to notice the new material).

Still, if there's a movie that cries out for the superior video of DVD, this is it, and if you don't see it letterboxed, you're missing half the picture. On the audio end, the sound won an Oscar, and if you have the chance to catch the picture in Dolby Digital, by all means don't miss it. (There's also a basic Dolby Surround mix for Pro Logic owners; as usual, it pales in comparison to the older LD audio and the DVD's Dolby Digital track). For fans of the movie, then, this is the best MOHICANS has looked or sounded on video to date, and a must-purchase despite the high price tag.

Artisan has unleashed a trio of flicks on DVD, those being the first Emmerich-Devlin production to grab big-time box-office (we'll forget "Moon 44" just as surely as they did), STARGATE (**1/2 movie, *** presentation, $29.98), plus the entire Stephen King mini-series of THE STAND (***1/2 movie, **1/2 presentation, $39.98) and a Special Edition of Gus Van Sant's DRUGSTORE COWBOY (**12 movie, *** presentation, $29.98).

All three DVDs come with Special Features, including new audio commentaries and other assorted supplements.

STARGATE made $75 million domestically and became one of 1994's biggest surprise hits, even though its script and weak characterizations (why turn Kurt Russell into a man brooding over the loss of his son?) fail to match the visceral pleasures of a bona-fide, modern day epic adventure. David Arnold's score was another big surprise at the time, and that -- along with the production design and sheer scope of the film -- remain the movie's most impressive assets.

Naturally, this element of the film thankfully holds up on DVD, where letterboxing and Dolby Digital sound go a long way to duplicating the theatrical experience. Artisan has included both the theatrical cut and the "Special Edition" version, which includes 9 additional minutes of previously deleted scenes (which don't exactly alter the meaning of the film nor add much subtext). A theatrical trailer, teaser, and Devlin- Emmerich commentary are included, making this the most comprehensive release of the movie on video to date.

THE STAND, meanwhile, has been receiving a lot of attention as it is the first DVD released in the "DVD- 18" format, which essentially is a Dual-Layer DVD on BOTH sides of a single DVD. This way, you can get the entire, 6-hour Stephen King mini-series on one DVD, only having to switch it over inbetween the second and third parts (each segment runs 90 minutes or so).

This 1994 mini-series adaptation of King's mammoth novel remains a significant achievement, with a great cast (including Gary Sinise and Molly Ringwald in the leads, matched by Jamey Sheridan and Laura San Giacomo as their antagonists), solid dialogue, and good direction from Mick Garris making for a lengthy but satisfying journey, scripted by King himself for the small screen. The "less is more" approach frequently makes this drama an intimate, character-driven one (as King intended), complimented by a fine, atypical (for this kind of subject matter) score by W.G. Snuffy Walden.

Now, even though Artisan has included a commentary track (featuring King, Garris, and several cast members), storyboards and a "Making Of" featurette, the trouble with this technologically-advanced DVD is that the transfer is definitely on the grainy side. Backgrounds tend to exhibit some compression artifacts, at least far more than Republic's 1995 laserdisc did, though in retrospect I'm not so sure this is a result of "DVD-18" as it is a TV film that was shot on videotape (perhaps even high-definition video?) displaying more flaws in its source materials due to the higher definition of DVD. It's not a big problem, but viewers sensitive to this kind of thing may find it intermittently bothersome (I'm also told that the disc has problems playing in certain PC DVD-ROM drives).

You won't find any compression problems on the release of Van Sant's downbeat DRUGSTORE COWBOY, a 1989 film with Matt Dillon, Kelly Lynch, Heather Graham and James Remar in a true story about a bunch of junkies trying to make it through in the world. Nicely textured but oppressive at times to watch, Van Sant receives a handful of strong performances and an atmospheric score from Elliot Goldenthal to complement his work. Artisan's DVD looks crisp and contains a commentary track with Van Sant, along with a theatrical trailer.

NEXT WEEK: Disney animation (finally!) comes to DVD. Have a happy T-Day and we'll see you back here in seven!


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