Sleepy Hollow

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

This is less the Washington Irving story than it is “Scream” set in post- revolutionary times. Its production design by Rick Heinrichs is ravishingly eerie, all gray skies, looming spires, gnarled branches, and rearing horses. The magnificent collection of character actors is almost another element of the production design, with faces right out of Holbein or Daumier. But the spurting blood, rolling heads, and postmodern sense of irony are jarring and uneven. (It’s set in 1799, the end of the century, get it?)

Johnny Depp plays the honorable but easily frightened Ichabod Crane, in this version not a schoolteacher but a sort of 18th century detective, committed to the use of science and logic. He is sent to Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of murders attributed to the Headless Horseman, the ghost of a bloodthirsty Hessian soldier, who steals the heads of his victims because his own was stolen from his grave.

Crane insists that the murderer cannot be supernatural, until he sees it himself. Still, he analyzes the evidence to find the secrets that link the victims together and the human force driving the Headless Horseman.

The themes of science vs. supernatural and appearance vs. reality appear throughout the movie, as Crane must understand his own past in order to see the truth. He describes himself as “imprisoned by a chain of reasoning.” He keeps coming back to a toy given to him by his mother, a spinning disk with a bird on one side and a cage on the other. As it spins, the bird appears to be inside the cage, an optical illusion, and, not by coincidence, the very illusion (persistence of vision) that makes us think that the people in the thousands of still pictures that make up a movie are really moving.

Depp plays Crane with the right haunted look and rigid posture. But the ludicrousness of some of the plot turns and the exaggerated fright reactions leave him with the most outrageous eye-rolling since Harvey Korman’s imitation of a silent film star. Indeed, the movie frequently brings to mind those sublime “Carol Burnett Show” movie parodies, especially when the villain ultimately finds time for a detailed confession as the planned final victim is waiting for the Headless Horseman to arrive. The wonderful Christina Ricci is wasted in an ingenue part.

Parents should know that this is a very, very gory movie, with many headless corpses, lots of spurting blood, heads being sliced off and bouncing to the ground, various other murders, a couple of “boo!”-type scares, and of course characters perpetually in peril. The heads all show up eventually, too. There is a brief but non-explicit scene of a couple having sex, several very gross moments, and a scene of torture in an Iron Maiden. This is only for teens who really enjoy slasher movies, and then if they can’t find a video of something better, like “Poltergeist” or director Tim Burton’s own “Nightmare Before Christmas” or “Edward Scissorhands.”

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Action/Adventure Based on a book Fantasy Horror

The Matrix

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

In “A Star is Born,” Kris Kristofferson sings a song that begins, “Are you a figment of my imagination or am I a figment of yours?” This is the theme of “Matrix,” heavy on special effects, striking visuals, and brooding paranoia, but light on plot, dialogue, character and even coherence. In other words, it is the ideal movie for the kind of teenager who wishes that video games could come to life.

Though rated R for violence (zillions of guns and explosions and some some pretty gross moments, including an icky bug that enters the hero’s body through his belly button) and language, most teens 14 and up who are begging to see it should be able to handle it without a problem.

Keanu Reeves plays a computer programmer with a sideline as a hacker who gets mysterious messages that lead him to Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), leader of a rag-tag group that lives aboard a rocket-style craft. It turns out that it is not 1999 but somewhere around a hundred years into the future. All of humanity has been turned into a source of energy to keep machines “alive” by what Morpheus describes as “a computer generated dream world built to keep us under control.” The Matrix is a massive computer program that has the humans believing that they are still living in a world that has been destroyed. Morpheus believes that Neo is “the one” who can retake the world for the humans. Special agents, led by Smith (Hugo Weaving) seek out Morpheus and his followers, to destroy them.

This movie became a pheneomenon and a cultural touchstone because of its then-revolutionary special effects, especially the “bullet time” effect that quickly became an icon and then a subject for parody (the best example is in “Shrek”). But just as important in the success of the movie is the way it addresses the nagging feeling everyone (but especially adolescents) have about whether we are truly aware of the “real” reality. It also addresses the question of destiny vs. choice. The visuals are stunning and the action sequences are electrifying, but for me the most intriguing and intelligent scene in the movie is Neo’s quiet conversation about fate with a woman who is taking some cookies out of the oven.

The movie can lead to some interesting discussions about the relationship between humans and machines, and why Smith says that the first Matrix program, creating the perception of a utopia-like society, was unacceptable to the humans. Their attempt to keep the humans compliant through happiness did not work, so they had to try again with the past “reality” of a stress-filled world. There are also issues of destiny versus free will and loyalty versus self-interest. What did Morpheus mean when he said, “Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony?” Is it possible that humans could create machines that would “decide” to take over? What do the names “Morpheus,” “Trinity,” and “Neo” signify? Most important, would you choose the red pill or the blue pill, and how do we make that choice in our “real” lives? Parents should think about raising the issue of violence in movies, and the impact it has on viewers, especially impressionable or disaffected ones, as well.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy both “Terminator” movies and “Blade Runner.”

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Action/Adventure Fantasy

The Thief and the Cobbler

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

This neglected but absolutely delightful animated musical (released in theaters as “Arabian Knight”) is a must for family viewing.

A shy cobbler and a plucky princess save ancient Baghdad in this fairy tale, put together by the Oscar-winning animator from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” It is one of the most visually inventive animated movies ever made, with dazzling optical illusions and shifts in perspective. Jennifer (Flashdance) Beals and Matthew (Ferris Bueller) Broderick provide the voices for the leads, with the late Vincent Price’s voice providing silky menace as the evil sorcerer. Jonathan Winters as the hilarious thief steals every scene he is in.

The musical numbers are pleasant, with one sensational show-stopper when the desert brigands explain that if you don’t go to school you’ll turn out like them. Unlike the recent Disney movies, this was not designed to sell merchandise, just to tell a story and entertain, which it does very, very well. It is suitable for everyone except maybe the smallest children, who might be frightened by the hulking bad guys.

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Action/Adventure Animation Fantasy For all ages For the Whole Family Musical

Bicentennial Man

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Think of it as Pinocchio played by C3PO from “Star Wars.” Robin Williams plays “Andrew Martin,” a robot who wants to be human, in this adaptation of a story and book by Isaac Asimov.

In “the not too distant future,” a robot is delivered to the magnificent home of the Martins. He steps out of the box and asks, “Are you one’s family?” When the little girl (Hallie Kate Eisenberg from the Pepsi commercials) mispronounces “android” as “Andrew,” that becomes his name. When the other daughter is cruel to Andrew, her father (Sam Neill) tells the family that “as a matter of principle, he will be treated as if he were a person.” Although the family elects not to activate the “personality chip,” they see that there is something special about Andrew’s wiring, a spark of consciousness, creativity, and yearning. Mr. Martin promises to help Andrew become all that he can.

This is fine when he is teaching Andrew about history, biology, and even humor, and when he wants to be adapted so that he can show more expression in his face, but less fine when Andrew wants freedom. And he is uncomfortable with his growing affection for Andrew: “You can’t invest your feelings in a machine.” Martin’s understanding daughter, “Little Miss,” (Embeth Davditz) does not hesitate to care deeply for Andrew, and remains close to him all her life.

As Andrew lives on past the lives of his original family, he stays close to their descendants, especially “Little Miss’s” look-alike granddaughter, Portia. He uses the latest technology to provide himself with skin, hair, a neural sytem, a digestive system, and finally, to become fully human, mortality. Just like Woody in “Toy Story 2,” Andrew has a choice between pristine immortality and a limited, uncertain, but deeply engaged existence.

This movie gives families a good opportunity to talk about what makes us human. Why did Andrew’s makers want to remove what made him special? Why did Andrew want to find others like himself? What do you think made him different? When do you think he became human? When he created something? When he wanted freedom? When he felt love? When he allowed himself to grow old and die? Why did he stop referring to himself as “one?”

Why didn’t some people in the family like Andrew? Why didn’t Andrew like Portia at first? Why did he want to be with her, when he didn’t like her? Do you think that’s what life will be like in the future? What would it be like to have a robot in our house?

Talk about the origins of the names “Portia” and “Galatea.” Portia was the heroine of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” who makes the famous plea about the quality of mercy to Shylock. Andrew’s plea to be declared a human, though, is more reminiscient of Shylock’s entreaty for equality: “Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die?” Galatea is the name of the mythical statue whose sculptor fell in love with her. A kind goddess granted her life, so that they could be together.

Parents should know that there is some mild profanity and sexual references that include a “facts of life” discussion, Andrew’s adaptation so that he can have sex (but not children), a post-sex conversation in bed, and one of the most romantic descriptions of the sex act ever written. There are also ill-behaved and surly children whose behavior is not curtailed by the family.

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Based on a book Family Issues Fantasy For the Whole Family Science-Fiction

The Muse

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

The latest film by writer/director/actor Albert Brooks has him portraying Steven Phillips, a Hollywood screenwriter who is let go by the studio when a young, arrogant executive tells him he has lost his “edge.” On the advice of a friend, he seeks inspiration from a muse (Sharon Stone), the daughter of Zeus, who now lives in Los Angeles under the name “Sarah.”

Sarah does indeed work miracles for Steven, inspiring him to write a successful script. But Sarah is demanding. She insists on lavish gifts and constant attention. And she is frustrating. Steven wants her full- time dedication, but she is busy inspiring his wife to start a cookie business and “Titanic” writer/director James Cameron to make something other than a sequel.

The satire and Hollywood in-jokes will have little appeal to kids, but Stone’s performance as the ravishing, maddening, and truly inspiring muse is wildly funny and can lead to family discussions about art and about relationships. Kids may also want to look up the mythological muses and talk about the costs and benefits of being inspired. Parents should note that there is some suggestion that Sarah is mentally ill, but this is intentionally left vague enough so that each viewer can decide if she really is a muse after all.

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