Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Burton Binge: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)

"Wasn't that just magnificent? I was worried it was getting a little dodgy in the middle part, but then that! 

- Willy Wonka in Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)

Since it was published in America in 1964, Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) has become a classic of children's literature.  The book is still assigned reading in many middle school and high school curricula and has spawned two film adaptations, 1971's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Tim Burton's 2005 fantasy, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  

Although Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory has become a generational touchstone for kids raised in the 1970s (myself included), the recent Tim Burton adaptation is, surprisingly, far more faithful to the Roald Dahl novel in terms of mood, manner, and visualization.  As is the case in the Dahl book, the 2005 film deftly critiques both capitalist society -- which creates a vast gulf between the economic well-being of Willy Wonka and Charlie Bucket -- and the mores of contemporary child-rearing.  

On the second conceptual front, the Tim Burton movie has updated many of Dahl's satirical flourishes for 21st century consumption, turning Mike Teavee into a video game-a-holic and Violet Beauregard into a pre-adolescent over-achiever.  But despite such minor updates, the intent of both works remains to hold up a mirror to society at large and address something seemingly flawed in the prevailing social structure.  Naturally, both book and movie accomplish this task in entertaining fashion, as a seemingly "harmless" fairy tale meant for kids. 

Like Dahl, Burton is an expert in the creation of fantastic and grotesque worlds, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory provides him ample opportunity to showcase his stellar, off-beat imagination.  Dahl's slapstick humor, and exaggerated settings -- namely an impossibly bizarre factory interior -- thus find new life in Burton's audacious visualizations, which critic Peter Bradshaw accurately described as conveying  "a retro Day-Glo 1960s" vibe.

Furthermore, Burton's fascinating addition of a Willy Wonka back-story represents the director's stylistic personalization or interpretation of the source material, and functions in some sense, even, as an improvement over the novel's story.  In particular,  Burton gives Willy "father" issues, and this aspect of the movie plays perfectly into the social criticism of modern-day parenting underlining the entire affair.

It's easy to gaze at Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and see only a colorful kiddie flick, a silly, inconsequential fantasy, but in this entertaining film, Burton has retained so much of what made Dahl's work unique, and, in fact, added something to the experience.  He's done so by co-opting the literary imagery of Charles Dickens (1812-1870) and even the choreographic style of Busby Berkeley (1895-1976).   In toto, the film is another remarkable triumph for the director, and I must admit, I wasn't expecting the film to be so damned good.

As critic Stephanie Zacharek wrote in Salon: "“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” couldn’t have emerged from anywhere but the dark, chambered nautilus of Burton’s imagination — in its best sections, it’s magically deranged in a way no other filmmaker could even come close to pulling off."  

Magically deranged.  That about says it all.

"You can't run a chocolate factory with a family hanging over you like an old, dead goose."

In Charlie The Chocolate Factory, eccentric candy-maker Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp) has distributed five golden tickets to visit his factory in the unusual and delicious Wonka candy bars.   This act sets off a world-wide search for the five elusive tickets.

The first ticket is found by an obese glutton, Augustus Gloop (Philip Weigratz).  The second is "procured" by a millionaire-industrialist for his indulged daughter, Veruca Salt (Julia Winter).  The third ticket is found by a gum-chewing over-achiever, Violet Beauregard (Annasophia Robb) and the fourth by a smart-aleck video-game aficionado, Mike Teavee (Adam Godley).

Rather unexpectedly, the final ticket falls into the hands of the modest and kind Charlie Bucket (Freddy Highmore), a boy who lives in poverty in a ramshackle house on the outskirts of town with his parents and grandparents.  At first, Charlie decides to sell the ticket to pay for food because his father has recently lost his job, but Charlie's grandpa, Joe (David Kelly) convinces him he should keep it.

Together, Grandpa Joe and Charlie meet Willy Wonka at the factory, and tour the various rooms of his amazing candy factory.  These include The Chocolate Room, the Inventing Room, the Nut Room, and the TV Room.  

In each room, one of the young visitors falls prey to a strange industrial accident. Augustus Gloop is sucked up into a giant chocolate pipe (or straw?).  Violet is turned into a giant blueberry after sampling Wonka's experimental three-course-meal-chewing gum, Veruca is tossed down a garbage chute in the Nut Room, and Mike Teavee is sucked into a television...then shrunken down to size by the experience.  In all instances, Wonka's bizarre workers, the Oompa-Loompas (Deep Roy) sing songs about the fallen children.

In the end, Charlie is the only child to remain standing on the entire tour, and Wonka reveals he would like him to be his heir.  The only catch: Charlie must do it alone; without the family who helped get him here...

"Candy doesn't have to have a point. That's why it's candy."

Candy doesn't need to have a point, but Charlie and the Chocolate Factory certainly makes a few.

In his artistic selections, Burton enhances the novel's social critique of runaway, out-of-control capitalism.  

In particular, Burton opens the film with a truly Dickension flourish by showcasing a wintry, industrial city where a vast gulf exists between the wealthy and the poor.  Charlie lives in little more than a hovel, and watches as his father loses his job in the local toothpaste factory.  The Wonka factory dominates the landscape, both a foreboding and mysterious place.

A proponent of social reform himself, Charles Dickens' satires often showcased the hardships of the working class in London, and pointed out the anti-human and inhumane nature of big industry during his time.  Like Dahl, Dickens is well-known for his black humor and colorfully-named characters, as well. What Burton achieves here so brilliantly is the fanciful merging of the two artists.  He enhances Dahl's words with imagery of poverty, industry and inequality right out of Oliver Twist.  Of course, there's also a modern spin on the idea of runaway industry since automation at the factory is the thing that puts both Mr. Bucket and Grandpa Joe out of work.  This aspect of the film certainly speaks to our national context today, in the era of the one percenters and the 99ers.

Meanwhile, Willy Wonka leads the indulged life of, well, Michael Jackson in Neverland.  The idea that both the late King of Pop and Wonka seem to share in common is that neither one was afforded a happy childhood.  But in adulthood, they possess the will and the wealth to rectify that mistake; to recreate the childhood they wished they had. To indulge themselves, in other words.  Such wealth puts Wonka in a different social class from Charlie, who has no time to focus on his childhood, only the vicissitudes of day-to-day survival: a hole in the roof, and cabbage soup again for dinner.  Wonka is a lonely figure -- a Burton outsider and misfit -- but he is rich enough to build a world around him; one that answers only to his demands and desires.  Charlie can't do that.  

Additionally, Wonka has surrounded himself with the Oompa Loompas, small "men" who all look identical to one another, and toil for cocoa beans, rather than for a living wage.  Wonka brought them back from the "wild," and this facet of the story is certainly an allegory for the First World's colonial exploitation of the Third.  It's also notable that the Oompa Loompas all "look alike" and aren't exactly treated as individual people.  

Significantly, they dance in the geometric, kaleidoscopic, uniform fashion favored by Busby Berkeley in his Depression-Era films, and that's important too.  The Oompa Loompas act (and dance) as "one" and don't concern themselves with personal wealth: they are a collective.  

Again, it's important to recall that Berkeley made his splash in Depression Age films such as 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, and that his choreography was said to eschew failed American "individualism" (capitalism?) in favor of the concerns of "the collective."  In other words, the Chorus Girls dancing in a Berkeley musical number were all part of a larger pattern or ideal, unimportant alone but powerful as a network or "whole."  The Oompa Loompas are presented in that very fashion here, and hence as an antidote or remedy to the overt, out-of-control capitalism we see described in the film, embodied by acts of corporate espionage and sabotage.  

If you couple the Dickensian landscapes (incessant snowfall, extreme poverty, smoke-spewing factories) with the Busby Berkeley musical flouishes (championing the collective nature of collaboration in Wonka's factory), with Dahl's tale of a "good" boy who inherits the Factory -- the means of production -- what you start to see emerge on-screen is a tale depicting the failure of capitalism and the importance of "community."  For what does Charlie, in the end bring to Willy Wonka -- the iconoclastic loner -- but an acceptance and understanding of family; the root "community" of human society and civilization?

Even the film's narration describes Charlie in terms which  heighten the social critique against out-of-control capitalism.  The narrator suggests:

"This is a story of an ordinary little boy named Charlie Bucket. He was not faster, or stronger, or more clever than other children. His family was not rich or powerful or well-connected; in fact, they barely had enough to eat."  

What are Charlie's prized characteristics?  Well, he's loyal to his family, he shares with them his resources (his candy bar and his love...), and he believes that when he succeeds, they all succeed.  Given this description, in conjunction with the trenchant visuals, it's not a stretch to view the film as a rebuke of western culture's long-standing ideals and myths surrounding rugged individualism and boot-strap-ism (or "entrepreneurship.")   

Indeed, this boy succeeds not by being the smartest, fastest or strongest, or by being the son of a rich man, but by simply being decent and responsible to those around him; by having a sense of himself in relation to others.  

Powerfully, Burton's film also notes the extreme unfairness of  out-of-control capitalism, namey that it does not reward those who do good, but rather those who already possess resources.  "The kids who are going to find the golden tickets are the ones who can afford to buy candy bars every day," says Grandpa Joe. "Our Charlie gets only one a year. He doesn't have a chance."   That's the problem: the deck is stacked against those without by power by those who already possess it.

Outside the withering critique of capitalism, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a cautionary tale for parents.  Augustus Gloop, Veruca Salt, Violet Beauregarde and Mike Teavee are negative examples to learn from.  They reveal to audiences what happens when parents fail in their sacred duty to raise decent human beings.  Gloop is a glutton, Salt an indulged brat, Violet an empty-headed "winner" who has to be the best at everything she does, and Teavee an emotionally disconnected know-it-all.   And although the film punishes the children for their offenses, it does not view them as the real bad guys, as the Oompa Loompa song for Veruca clearly points out:

"Who went and spoiled her / Who indeed? Who pandered to her every need? / Who turned her into such a brat? / Who are the culprits, who did that? / The guilty ones - now this is sad / Are dear old mum and loving dad."

What we see here is a kind of "sins of the father" dynamic.  The parents are the ones at fault for raising monsters, and yet it is the children who ultimately suffer for actually being monsters.  This is a dynamic that, as the father of an only child, I grapple with just about every day.  How much indulgence is too much indulgence, in terms of child rearing?  Where's the line between a happy child and a spoiled one?  Cross that line, and the child...and the world suffer.  

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory -- both the source novel and the film -- deal with the very real idea that parents can all too easily transform their children into brats.  They can do it by obsessing on winning (a variation of competing, which goes back to the capitalism angle); by turning them over to the tender lessons of commercial television, or by indulging their every appetite, no holds barred.   I confess, this is the very reason why the Dahl book has always appealed to me on such a gut level: the idea that kids, if we aren't careful, are little Frankenstein Monsters that we make and then set loose into the world.

The film adaptation by Burton goes the extra and perhaps even genius step, of suggesting that Willy Wonka is one of these Frankenstein Monsters all gorwn up.  His father, a cruel dentist played by Christopher Lee, turned him into what he is: a snide, family-hating Michael Jackson/Howard Hughes-like recluse; someone who can't meaningfully connect to other human beings.  Optimistically, the film's conclusion suggests that Wonka will be "adopted" by (and thus re-parented) by Charlie's humble and nurturing family, and that this particular monster can be un-made.

Some critics have suggested there's something a bit sadistic about both the book and the film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  I don't disagree, but sometimes a little so-called "sadism" is good for the soul.  It's good to know that the wicked and the corrupt and the gluttonous and the entitled eventually get punished for their misdeeds, and that occasionally -- just occasionally -- someone of stout heart and gentle tendencies can win out over the wealthy, the connected, the loud, and the powerful.

As I wrote above, Burton's 2005 film -- filling in the gap in Wonka's backstory -- actually improves the nature of Dahl's story.  It reveals to us that Wonka is human and flawed, and even a bit monstrous too.  He's not a perfect creature standing in judgment of "bad" children here, but rather an imperfect, flawed being himself.  I like that interpretation, because it suggests that a child wounded will, as an adult, wound others.  And it also suggests that it's never too late to care about someone, and help them be better.     

Wonka doesn't get away with being a monster in this version of the classic Dahl tale, and I like that. It defuses the "sadistic" label the book has acquired over the years.

People who live in glass elevators, after all, shouldn't throw stones...

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Burton Binge: Big Fish (2003)

"A man tells his stories so many times that he becomes the stories. They live on after him, and in that way he becomes immortal."
Big Fish (2003)

Tell me, which alternative  fosters a better understanding of your life experience: the bare bones truth, or an embellished, "flavored" version of the truth that contextualizes you life as a great story, one with heroes and villains, winners and losers, and a beginning...and inevitable end?  

Tim Burton's 2003 fantasy masterpiece, Big Fish beautifully and emotionally makes the case for the latter option.  

In real life, we're each of us but a little fish (only 1 out of 7 billion...) swimming about in a global sea.

But in our imaginations -- and in our private family circles -- we're all big fish: colorful personalities who loom large in the stories of our sons and daughters, and our Moms and Dads. In our private worlds, we're important, nay the most important figures.

The first shots and compositions of Big Fish take the viewer down into the sun-drenched water of a fresh-water river as a big fish swims alone there, and this inaugural visual perfectly captures the movie's most important conceit: the idea that we all make ourselves and our lives out to be "big." 

Sometimes we even do so at the expense of those we love, who risk becoming mere "context" in another person's epic poem.  

The big fish swims alone, after all...

Of all Tim Burton's films, I readily confess that I find Big Fish the most emotional.  Maybe because it's a story of fathers and sons learning to understand one another.Perhaps because it concerns the inevitability of death, and the passing of the generations (as well as the storyteller torch).  

Regardless, I do know that this film hits me on a very personal, very intimate  level every time I see it.  I had an important person in my life until about a year ago (2010) who was, like the movie's Ed Bloom, a masterful and ridiculous storyteller. 

He was a man who had (so he claimed...) met and conversed with Colin Powell and Albert Einstein, and who was biologically related both to General Robert E. Lee and Katie Couric.  He absolutely never met a fish story he didn't like. The man could put you on with the straightest of straight faces, and in some moments, could even devise for you what your life story should be.

This larger-than-life figure spoke in the most idiosyncratic and singular manner I've ever known,  replete with lots of extremely colorful metaphors, and he passed away following the sudden onset of a terminal illness. 

And yet -- in large part because of his incomparable manner of expressing himself and telling his stories -- he remains an everyday voice in my head. Today, he's an indelible fixture there, and sometimes, almost against my will, I still hear his unique voice, and his flamboyant way of communicating.  His vocabulary alone -- his bizarre lexicon -- seems often to be on the tip of my tongue. 

I don't always know why.

Now, I don't want to romanticize this man and turn him into a saint, because that description does no one any good.   e're all but human beings, with flaws and foibles. But there was an element in this man -- as there is in Big Fish's Ed Bloom -- that raises questions; that fascinates.  He turned his stories into great adventures, all while leaving the real man, the truth itself, opaque. His crazy stories and jokes cloaked...what precisely?  

So, in one sense, I knew this man and his unique mode of expression deeply for over twenty years, and yet in another very basic sense, I didn't know the real man at all.  

At least not until I understood the seemingly impossible: that the stories, jokes, and tall tales were the real man.  They were part and parcel of his individual and mental gestalt, and you couldn't separate him from those tall tales.

I don't usually write here about how films affect me personally.  I generally don't like that approach in film criticism, preferring to rely instead on examinations of compositions and leitmotifs, and so on. 

And yet I can't honestly deny that Big Fish hits me in a close place.  It seems so true to my own personal experience that I suppose I have a hard time separating Will Bloom's story from my own experience.  What I can declare with conviction is that Big Fish is the most heartfelt and touching of Burton's works.  erhaps not the best (a title I reserve for Ed Wood or perhaps Edward Scissorhands), but certainly the most emotional.

As Clint Morris wrote of the film in Film Threat: "It takes those oddities and twists that many don’t usually go for if they’re not a big fan of the director and interweaves them into a tale that’s so enriching, so heartwarming, so funny, so touching and so breathtaking, you’ll wonder why the king of wackiness didn’t branch out sooner." 

And Peter Travers, writing for Rolling Stone, insightfully noted that Burton had finally hooked the one that got away, in the process deepening his "visionary talent."  

I agree with both those conclusions.  If I had to select one Tim Burton film for people who generally don't like Tim Burton films, it would be Big Fish.

"It doesn't always make sense and most it never happened..."

Big Fish is the story of Ed and Will Bloom, estranged father and son.  Ever since he was a little boy, Will has heard his father tell crazy stories about witches, giants, werewolves, Siamese twins, and mysterious ghost towns.  

At first, Will believed the stories were wondrous and magical, but over the years he began to wish that his father would drop the fairy tales and just start relating to him as a real person.

Now, as an adult, Will learns that his father is on his death bed.  He asks his father to tell him one true thing before he dies, but his father insists that his stories are the "truth" about his life.  "I've been nothin' but myself since the day I was born, and if you can't see that it's your failin', not mine," he tells his son.   Will finds this hard to accept, especially as he prepares to become a father himself for the first time.  

After Ed relates his life story to Will's wife, his health declines further.  On the verge of dying, Ed asks Will --- his only son - to tell him how his story ends.  Will complies, and in doing so, gains a new insight into the man who raised him, as well as the importance of storytelling in all our lives.

"Dying is the worst thing that's ever happened to me."

In some senses, Big Fish is very much about a blowhard, as Roger Ebert suggested in his review of the film.  It's uncharitable, but true. Ed may have led a big life, but he also has a big mouth.

In fact, Ed Bloom (Ewan McGregor/Albert Finney) has so transformed his life into a series of weird and wonderful stories that his grown son, Will (Billy Crudup) isn't sure he even knows his father.  That's a terrible thing.

And yet the movie ultimately sides with old Ed.  He isn't viewed with harshness by Burton.  Instead -- in the passing of the generations -- the movie reminds us that each storyteller will have his day. 

Ed has had his day, and now Will's day looms.  At the movie's end, it is Will who tells the "end" of Ed's story, and who recounts for his son a lifetime of adventures. It's important too, that Ed is never portrayed as a liar. Instead, as his funeral reveals, he is just a serial exaggerator: one with a foot in fact, and another in colorful fiction.  By Ed's reckoning, Will tells stories with "all the facts, none of the flavor," and that's just not his way.

Some reviewers have been hard on Big Fish, noting that it never really considers the son's point of view or feelings. 

There may be some truth to this perspective, but in the final analysis, Big Fish does right by both characters.

We follow Ed from birth to childhood illness, from his first love to, ultimately, his death. In Ed's life story, we readily detect his spring and summer (his youth), and even his autumn and winter (his old age and demise).  

Notably, Burton makes certain that the natural landscape echoes each one of these spans. As a young man, for instance, Ed sees Spectre as a beautiful, idyllic town, well-painted and carpeted in lush green grass. As a middle-aged man, however, Ed returns to the town and finds it paved over, browning, and in a state of decay.  You can't go home again.

Similarly, when Ed courts the love of his life, their romantic love is expressed in the vibrant yellow of endless daffodils. As death approaches, such blooming (and remember his name is Ed Bloom...) has ended, and all the trees are stark and naked, bereft of leaves.  Winter has come for Ed at last.

Will certainly represents an important chapter in Ed's life, but in a sense, his "part" of the story only really becomes important in the closing chapters.  Ed can't write his final sentences himself.  That's why he needs his boy. Ironically, it is to contextualize his life, not vice-versa as Will initially feared. 

And really, that's always the job of those left to carry on after losing a parent: to put the actions and span of the dead into some kind of meaningful order.

As it turns out, Ed's strange stories become important to Will. They represent the old man's legacy and gift, a colorful way of looking at the world and remembering Dad.  Ed wanted Will to listen to his stories for a reason, and not merely to entertain him. Someday, the boy would need to know the details so he could take ownership of Ed's story and continue it for the next generation.  Again, this is as much about Will as it is about Ed.

In life, we are all part of this cycle.  We all heirs to a story, caretakers of that story, and then givers of the story -- after we've had it and protected it for a lifetime. Big Fish gets at this idea in a more beautiful and imaginative fashion than just about any movie I've seen.  The imagery is enormously affecting, particularly as the strong, healthy Will picks up his infirm, dying father and lifts him into the air -- as if carrying him like a baby -- for one last adventure, one final tall tale.

There's something so innocent and beautiful about this image.  The boy who was once held by his father's strong arms now lifts up his sick dad -- negating the realities of gravity -- and cares for him as he was once cared for.  This image gets me every time: the son becomes the father; the father the son.  The roles reverse, and time marches on.

Big Fish offers other narrative and visual glories as well.  I love the use to which director Burton puts Helena Bonham Carter here, essentially making her every "other" woman figure in Bloom's life.  She is both a terrifying (if friendly...) witch and a young, innocent girl, all grown up.  

And I also appreciate another powerful image: one of a fork in the road that seems to literalize the Robert Frost poem about the road taken and the road not taken. Again, this fits in well with the story's meditation on the seasons of life, and the choices we make. Our destiny is sometimes as simple as deciding which path to follow.

Big Fish is filled with incredibly whimsy and magic, and yet, at the same time, the film seems to truly capture something essential about our mortality, and the mortality of those we love.  We can view tall tales as merely "amusing lies" from someone we love, or as the seeds of immortality itself, a renewable source of energy that we can share with our children and our grandchildren.  

I wrote above about the man in my life who was a lot like Ed Bloom, right down to his southern heritage  He saw Big Fish back in 2004 and loved it.  He especially loved that Bloom's stories were ultimately validated...that there was a degree of truth in his musings about giants and witches and werewolves, and so on.  I get that now.  In understanding our own lives, the stories we tell do become true to us, at least after a fashion.

It may be "impossible to separate fact from fiction, the man from the myth," but when you meet a storyteller of such caliber, you never forget his words...or his life.  It doesn't always make sense and "most of it never happened... but that's what kind of story this is."  

I'm glad that Burton decided to tell it. But makes me weep. It makes me want to hold my son.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Burton Binge: Planet of the Apes (2001)

If you frequent my blog with any regularity, I hope you know I'd much rather praise a movie than damn it. Frankly, it's a matter of my own continued mental health: I don't relish devoting my time or energy to movies or TV programs I don't enjoy. Not when there is so much out there that I do very much enjoy.

In some cases, obviously, it's just not possible to avoid a negative review. Tim Burton's re-imagination of Planet of the Apes is surely one of  'em.  I first saw the film in theaters in the summer of 2001 and disliked it immensely. Then, in preparation for this review, I watched it again for the first time in a decade, hoping that it had aged in some fashion that would make the film seem more interesting or at least palatable.  

Sadly, that isn't the case, either.

Before I delve into the specifics of the  re-imagination, I'd also like to establish for the record that I'm a big Tim Burton fan, and that I admire many of his films, but especially Edward Scissorhands (1990),  Ed Wood (1994), Sleepy Hollow (1999) and Big Fish (2003).  

The following review isn't about any dislike for the artist or his oeuvre, only my dislike for this particular 2001 film. But his version of Planet of the Apes? It's a missed opportunity on a colossal scale, and -- for long stretches -- a surprisingly dull and joyless film.  Many of the movie's egregious flaws can be traced back to the script, which focuses on off-the-shelf, uninteresting characters who prove almost impossible to care about.  Additionally, Mark Wahlberg is badly miscast in the lead role, and can hardly feign interest in even the best aspects of the material. 

Worse than those problems, this re-imagination of Planet of the Apes feels largely studio-bound and claustrophobic rather than epic, and the film offers only very little in terms of the franchise's trademark social commentary.  In fact, a central moment late in the film actually undercuts the original franchise's strong anti-war message.

In short, Planet of the Apes -- the re-imagination -- is an empty, mechanical exercise in blockbuster movie making, and one without a beating heart to call its own.  

Extremism in defense of apes is no vice

In 2026, the USAF Space Research Station Oberon encounters a strange electromagnetic storm nearby in space.  A test-pilot -- a chimp named Pericles -- launches a pod to investigate, but becomes lost in the space vortex.

Pericles' human trainer, astronaut Leo Davidson (Wahlberg) attempts to rescue Pericles, but is drawn into the phenomenon himself.   His tiny ship crash lands on a nearby planet in the year 5021 AD, and Leo finds himself on a world in which intelligent apes rule, and humans are slaves and second class citizens.

After his capture by the simian slave trader Limbo (Paul Giamatti), Leo finds himself a servant in the home of Senator Sandar (David Warner) and his "human rights faction" daughter, Ari (Helena Bonham Carter).  With  a group of slaves in tow, including the beautiful Daena (Estella Warren), Leo attempts to escape the city.

While Leo, Ari, Deana and others make for "the Forbidden Area" called Calima where ancient ruins from ape pre-history are located, the human-hating General Thade (Tim Roth) and General Attar (Michael Clarke Duncan) attempt to hunt down the fugitives.  Thade's dying father also warns the General that humans once possessed fearsome technology.

In the Forbidden Area, Leo discovers the ruins of his home base, the Oberon, and learns that the station crashed on the planet thousands of years earlier, while attempting to rescue him from the temporal vortex.  The test pilot apes aboard the station then rebelled against their human masters, and a new order -- a planet of the apes -- was born.

Now, Leo must rescue the human descendants of the Oberon crew, who have gathered at the Forbidden Area's ruins in search of a leader, and defeat the forces of Thade.  Helping Leo in this cause, the great ape God, Semos (really Pericles...) puts in a surprise appearance during the final battle...

Can't we all just get along?  

There are many Planet of the Apes fans, I realize who disliked this re-imagination almost a priori because it totally discarded the familiar franchise mythology and went in a totally new direction.

I actually don't hate the film on that basis. The screenwriters, Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal, and William Broyles Jr.  clearly studied the existing franchise and decided to go in a new direction that would -- despite the fresh take -- re-shuffle the  familiar ingredients already popular in the five-strong saga, 1968 - 1973.  

To wit, this re-imagination involves time travel, a human-friendly chimpanzee female, a spaceship crash in a lake, a hunt of humans by apes, desert scarecrows (!), an artifact from an earlier, technological era (a gun here, instead of the original's baby doll), and the secret of ape history...buried in the Forbidden Zone/Area.  The new film also boasts a surprise ending in the spirit and mode of the Statue of Liberty climax, and re-purposes much of the original film's most memorable dialogue, including "Damn them all to Hell" and "take your stinking paws off me..."

By purposefully re-using all of these familiar ingredients (down to a cameo by original star Charlton Heston), this 2001 version of the Planet of the Apes attempts to re-capture the vibe and aura of the original franchise, if not the narrative details. It's not a terrible gambit as far as "re-imaginations" go. 

After all, would we want to see a shot-for-shot remake, or the same exact tale depicted again?  Either of those options would have invited only invidious comparisons to the 1968 film.  Part of the game in remakes is finding a fresh angle, and altering some of the narrative details so as to keep knowledgeable audiences off-base.   So I give the film it's premise, and it's invention of a new planet of the apes.  I would have preferred a straight-up sequel to the original franchise, or even a faithful adaptation of the Pierre Boulle novel, but okay.

And yet the re-imagination fails so dramatically because the people and apes who populate this new story are not interesting, unique, or well-written....even in the slightest degree.  In fact, everyone is a two-dimensional cartoon character, and that fact severely limits the narrative's capability to surprise, amuse or otherwise involve the audience.  If you don't care about the people involved in an adventure, the clever details of the adventure are almost unimportant.

The biggest problem is Leo Davidson. He's a test pilot who flies into a time vortex in pursuit of a rogue chimp and crashes on the planet of the apes.  He then spends the entire movie trying to get back home.  Because Leo's only purpose is escape and a return to space, he never truly engages or confronts the ape culture, at least not in the thorough, dramatic fashion that Taylor had to countenance it.  

In the original film, there was no escape for Taylor...and he knew it.  His ship was destroyed and he was 2,000 years beyond his own time period.  Where was he going to run?  Taylor had to stand trial before the apes and battle wits with the cunning Dr. Zaius.  The planet of the apes was his (very big) problem, and there was no avoiding it.  He had to be emotionally and personally involved in what happened to Zira, Cornelius and Nova because he was going to spend the rest of his life on this planet.

In the new Planet of the Apes, Leo breaks out of Ape City and just runs and runs until he can run no further.  He hardly countenances the apes at all.  They're just a temporary and bizarre inconvenience until he can track down a ship using his homing beacon.  His involvement with the politics and problems of the apes then, is nil.  And since he doesn't seem to care about the apes or the humans of this world, the audience doesn't care either.

Worse, Leo doesn't seem to have much happening in terms of his personality. As was immediately clear from the original Planet of the Apes, Taylor was a cynic, a misanthrope, and an acid wit.   He had a perspective on life that was evident in every action he took.  Leo is essentially a run-of-the-mill jock, a pilot who has haphazardly wandered into the planet of the apes and wants to get off, to quote The Simpsons.  There's absolutely nothing else to him.  What's his philosophy about mankind?  About space travel?  Why is he in the space service in the first place?  Any touch of color or differentiation would have appreciated.

Early on, there's the tiniest bit of attention given to the fact that apes get to fly spaceships instead of humans, and that this strategy irks Leo.  He wants to be an explorer and a leader of men, we intuit, and yet when he is thrust into this active role of leadership on the planet of the apes, he completely rjects it.  He denies and shirks his duty until the very last minute.  There's simply nothing unusual, interesting or noteworthy about this character, and since Leo is our surrogate in the picture, almost every aspect of the movie falls flat.  

At one point in the film, Ari notes that Leo is different from the other humans she has met; that he is unusual.  How so?  He hasn't spoken to her with greater sensitivity, revealed to her particularly much by way of superior intelligence, or even demonstrated remarkable physical agility. We're just informed that he's special, and yet it just doesn't ring true with what the audience sees.  Why is he special or unusual?  The movie can't be bothered to show the audience.  We just have to accept that he is unusual because Ari says that he is, and because he's obviously the movie's "hero."  It's lazy.

I like Mark Wahlberg. But he's out of his depth, or comfort zone, or something, in Planet of the Apes, and just doesn't carry the film in the way that he should.  And he doesn't get any help from the flat writing, either.  Wahlberg's "inspirational" speech to the humans before battle in the Forbidden Area is a career low-point for the performer.  It's  half-heartedly delivered...on top of being poorly written. 

Unfortunately, the other characters in Burton's Planet of the Apes are no better drawn than Leo. The villain of the piece, General Thade (Tim Roth) is another  two-dimensional cartoon character, an ape who just really, really, really hates humans.  There is no motivation for his overwhelming, epic hatred for humans voiced in the film (except the flimsiest of excuses about them infesting the provinces outside the city...), so he's just a cog in the screenplay's wheel.  The film needs a human-hating bad guy, and Thade provides that.  But no more.  Roth is another great actor ill-served by the script.  Thade sneers and hisses and jumps and growls, but doesn't register beyond those over-the-top histrionics.

Ari is likely as bad, in the other direction. She is the "liberal" daughter of an ape senator and part of the "human rights faction" but we never know or understand what drives her activism.  As much as Thade is bad because the movie requires a villain, Ari is "good" because the movie requires a friend to help Leo.  In the original film, of course, Zira got to know Taylor and came to understand and like him.  At first she was fascinated and a little afraid of him.  By the end of the film, they were friends.  Ari is automatically on Leo's side from her first meeting with him, and risks everything in her life to help him escape.  Again, it doesn't quite ring true.  How did the indulged, affluent daughter of a politician come to be such a fearless human rights advocate?  The movie owes the audience some kind of explanation.

Then there's Warren's Daena, a very, very pale echo of the Nova character in the original.  Only here, Daena clearly wears glossy lipstick in all her close-ups (where'd she get it?) and is good for nothing plotwise except casting jealous looks at Ari and Leo as they grow closer.  Daena inspires none of the action in the film, and isn't even a romantic interest in the narrowest definition of that word.  She's just eye candy.  And at the end of the film, Leo leave the planet without hardly a glance back in her direction.  She is probably the most useless and ill-used character in the film, and that's saying something.

Even ostensibly weakest of the original Planet of the Apes films, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, thought to add layers of individuality to the film's characters.  Caesar was gripped in an existentialist crisis about his decisions, and how to bring about the future he desires.  Mandemus was the custodian of Caesar's conscience, but one who was tired of being locked in the armory and yearned to be free of the grave responsibility.  Aldo and Kolp -- the film's villains -- were depicted in either recognizable human terms, or at least quirky ones.  They had some semblance of personality or distinction.  The characters in the new Planet of the Apes are all drones who plug story holes, but aren't recognizable as individual personalities. We've got a hero, a villain, a love interest and the by-the-numbers comic-relief, Limbo.

Another big disappointment with the film is the betrayal of the Planet of the Apes' franchise's anti-war (and especially anti-nuclear war) legacy.  Late in the film, Leo discovers that the Oberon's nuclear fuel is still operational and conveniently powering the ruined ship.  He rigs it to deliver a death blow to the advancing ape army.  Where the other ape films expressed anxiety about the use of nuclear weaponry, here a weapon of mass destruction is merely a convenient tool to even the odds in combat.  We are encouraged to cheer when Leo pulps the attacking apes by the hundreds, and again, this simply isn't true to franchise history. This ape story is thus merely an adventure about a freak twist of time, and not a comment on man's self-destructive nature.  It's okay for Leo to kill the apes; there's no commentary or rejection of his actions.  Again, he's the "good guy" a priori, right?

In terms of social commentary, there's not much significant here at all.  One character, Limbo, gets to give voice to Rodney King's plea for civility, "can't we all get along?"  There's also a line about  a "human welfare state," but these are the limits of the film's social conscience. This dearth of commentary or subtext is a double disappointment, because Tim Burton's films often feature commentary on what it means to feel disenfranchised; to be an outsider to the establishment.  Planet of the Apes could have been re-formed and re-purposed to adhere to this career-long obsession with a better, more knowing script.  Instead, Burton's familiar theme is just barely touched upon in Ari's predicament, since she's accepted by neither apes nor humans.

The re-imagination of Planet of the Apes also suffers from its look. Matte paintings have replaced the life-size structures of the original Ape City, and studio locations have largely replaced exteriors.  Alas, these are two of the enduring delights of the original Planet of the Apes.  There, you had the sense of a full-blown world, from the arid Forbidden Zone to the green belt surrounding the city, to the simian metropolis itself.  It was a fully-realized world and not a closed-off movie world in so many ways.  This re-imagination forsakes those strengths.  It also forsakes any attempt at suspense or build-up of anticipation regarding the appearance of the apes themselves.  Where the original film took forty minutes to get Taylor captured and to Ape City, Burton's Planet of the Apes gets Leo and the apes together within just fifteen.  It feels rushed.  

The make-up work of Rick Baker is impressive, to be certain, but after a week of watching ape films, it doesn't seem to me that the work here is a quantum leap ahead of the sixties film.  Especially when the make-up is essentially the only truly interesting element of the film.  The new concept of the apes -- which puts them on all fours when they run, and allows them to jump and swing from trees -- is certainly a new wrinkle, but somehow it registers as being less civilized, which runs counter to the point of the whole enterprise.  I also must confess, I missed the idea of an ape social hierarchy or caste system here.  There's almost no thought given to the details of the ape culture in this film.

Planet of the Apes' surprise ending has been the source of much debate over the years.  In the climax, as you will recall, Leo returns to Earth and discovers that General Thade has been there and managed a coup.  Earth too, has become a planet of the apes, as the Lincoln -- now Thade -- Monument memorably attests.   

Since the movie concerns a time paradox in space, I don't find it impossible that Thade could have somehow, in some reality, accomplished this revolution on Earth.  Instead, what bothers me concerning the finale is that the ending carries almost no emotional weight. It feels like a trick or gimmick, not an outgrowth of the film's story.  Like so much of the film, there's just no emotional connection to it.  What does Leo learn about himself, human nature, or life in terms of this ending?  Nothing, really.  Unlike the joyless, interminable battle in the desert, at least the ending of the film in Washington D.C. boasts the distinction of being beautifully shot.  It just comes out of left field.

The 2001 re-imagination of Planet of the Apes lacks subtext, characters to care about, a connection to the franchise's past, and a driving narrative beat.  It almost seems to curl up and die on the screen while you're watching it, a veritable cinematic disaster. 

When General Thade grabs Leo Davidson and looks down inside his throat, asking "is there a soul in there?" audiences may want to direct the very same interrogative to this flat, lifeless "brand name" movie itself.

Is there a soul in there?  Anywhere?

Sunday, September 27, 2020

The House Between: "populated" (Season 2 / Episode 6)


Saturday, September 26, 2020

Saturday Morning Flashback: Challenge of the Super Friends: "Wanted: The Super Friends" (1978)

Lex Luthor and the Legion of Doom use a “dream machine” to control the will and actions of the Super Friends. 

Under the influence of the dream machine, Superman steals the gold from Fort Knox. Meanwhile, Batman and Robin commit a “strange crime" (!) at the U.S. Mint.  Also, Flash steals the Crown Jewels of the U.K, while Black Vulcan raids King Tut’s tomb, and Wonder Woman steals fine art from the Louvre.

Once the Super Friends realize what they’ve done, they turn themselves over to the authorities, but that action, too, is part of Luthor’s strategy to conquer the world.  Once they are in jail, their cell is launched on a collision course with the Sun.  Then, Lex uses a "mutation ray" to turn the world's human population into doppelgangers of Bizarro and Cheetah.

“Wanted: The Super Friends” is the first episode of Challenge of the Super Friends (1978), the Super Friends variant that is my favorite for one reason: The Legion of Doom.

The other variants of the series feature didactic life-lessons, magic tricks, safety instructions, and morality tales for children, but -- dispensing with all that -- Challenge of the Super Friends pits the DC Justice League against a diabolical mirror image in the Legion of Doom.

Besides, the Legion acts from of the most awesome villainous headquarters ever: a giant, rocket-powered Darth Vader head. 

When I first saw that HQ, at eight years old, I knew I was hooked on this superhero series. I would have done anything, at that age, to have a play-set of the Legion of Doom base.

In broad strokes, Challenge of the Super Friends features the “thirteen of the most sinister villains of all time” battling against the Justice League, which, as in previous Super Friends series, operates out of the famous “Hall of Justice,” responding to “Trouble-alerts" from across the globe.

The thirteen bad guys, introduced in this episode are: Lex Luthor, Captain Cold, Sinestro, Bizarro, Solomon Grundy, Cheetah, Brainiac, Grod, Black Manta, the Riddler, Toy Man, Giganta, and Scarecrow.  It’s a great and colorful rogue’s gallery, and one that represents variety of villains from DC's Valhalla. The rights could not be acquired for Joker, or the Penguin, but strangely, that's okay. It's nice to see Scarecrow and The Riddler, get a little more action than usual.  My favorite villain, at least in terms of appearance: Black Manta.

In terms of the heroes, the series features Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman and Robin, The Flash, Green Lantern, Apache Chief, Aqua Man, Hawkman, and Samurai. Neither Wendy and Marvin, nor the Wonder Twins, are featured. And that may be another reason why I prefer this series to the other Super Friends iterations. It’s straight up superhero action, and down to business, without the goofy comic relief.

Of course, the central problem with the series is that if you are a fan of the “modern” or contemporary Justice League of America, you will find the DC superheroes here quite toothless and generic. Batman isn’t the Dark Knight in this iteration, and Aqua Man is not the long-haired, hook-handed, angry character of the modern age, either.  

All the heroes, in terms of character, are largely interchangeable. They are distinguished only by their specific powers, not by any personality differences. They all love justice, and they are all "good."  That's about as deep as the characterization gets.

The stories are also largely free of any attempt at scientific accuracy, and stick rigorously to a predictable formula. In every episode, the Legion of Doom comes up with some new device to threaten the world, and plans to use it. 

The villainous strategy succeeds, and the Super Friends are defeated. 

However, the Super Friends manage to turn the defeat into a victory, and capture the Legion of Doom. But before the story ends, Lex Luthor uses some trick to free himself and his comrades from custody, while the Super Friends note, almost dogmatically, that justice will always carry the day.

Virtually no episode varies from this rigorous structure. “Wanted: The Super Friends” is no exception, although it does feature a novel early section which spends a lot of time introducing the Legion’s individual members.

In terms of scientific flaws, this episode sees the Super Friends launched into space in a jail cell…toward the Sun. 

Can Batman and Robin breathe in space, and survive without pressure suits? Here, they clearly do. This is one of the aspects of the series that drives me crazy. The characters will sometimes name-check physical qualities like "gravity" or the need to breathe air, but then are depicted traveling in space in just their uniforms, and sometimes at warp speed equivalents.  I accept this with Superman or Green Lantern, or on an understanding day, perhaps even Wonder Woman. But Batman and Robin?

Also, bizarrely, in this episode a 1970’s satellite is equipped with “mutation rays” that transform everyone on Earth into duplicates of Bizarro and Cheetah.  It is just completely nonsensical and anti-science.

Also, the Super Friends are depicted as being so advanced here that it would seem impossible to beat them. At one point in this story, Batman tells Alfred to bring him “another nuclear power pack.”

How many does he have? And if he's such a powerful and good superhero, why isn't he tending to the energy needs of the globe?

Finally, this episode features a line that, with no exaggeration, recurs in every episode of Challenge of the Super Friends: “That’s what you think!” 

Indeed, there are two lines to expect in each episode of Challenge of the Super Friends.  First is “That’s what you think!” And secondly is Robin’s exclamation of “Holy…something.”  Here, he says, “Holy coincidences, Batman!”

One element of the episode that I enjoy, by contrast, is the moment in which the individual characters are seen in their individual environs: Superman at the Daily Planet (as Clark Kent), and Batman and Robin in the Batcave.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Burton Binge: Sleepy Hollow (1999)

After the box office disappointment and mixed critical notices of Mars Attacks! (1996), director Tim Burton returned to theaters in 1999 with the triumphant Sleepy Hollow, a dark fairy tale powered by the pervasive millennial angst of the era.  

Although the picture is set in the year 1799 rather than two centuries later, Sleepy Hollow nonetheless obsesses on roiling concerns regarding the future.  Would it belong to science or to superstition, knowledge or mysticism?  Would the future bring only a new dark age (Y2K) or the beginnings of paradise on Earth?

Widely recognized as an example of "gorgeous filmmaking," (Rolling Stone), Sleepy Hollow was lauded upon release for its lush production values and colorful, autumnal imagery.  Stephanie Zacharek at Salon, for instance, aptly termed the film a "visual seduction." 

That's an excellent description, and a fine way of getting a good handle on the film's persuasive charm, for Sleepy Hollow is both egregiously violent (heads DO roll) and a throwback to a less graphic era in horror history.  It is dynamic and colorful in presentation and yet also strangely wistful, innocent and elegaic about the world it creates: the last spell  perhaps, before science truly erases magic from existence

As I wrote in Horror Films of the 1990s, Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow opens with a droll visual joke that, in some fashion, very ably exemplifies the film's nature.  Perhaps this joke is one that only the longtime horror movie enthusiast will fully understand.   As the film commences, what appears to be very fake-looking red blood drips down upon a parchment. This fluid is soon revealed instead to be hot wax, used merely to seal an important letter. Yet for a fleeting -- and wonderful -- moment, the horror audience may believe it has actually returned to the wonderful and bygone world of Hammer Studios since the hot wax resembles that trademark Hammer-styled “fake” blood. 

The joke is not only an example of inside baseball, so-to-speak, but an indicator that Burton has fashioned his entire 1999 film as an homage to the output of Hammer. As Michael Atkinson and Laurel Shifrin write in Flickipedia, the director “continues his unique, idiosyncratic, and very personal career project: to re-experience and revivify the toy chest of pop-culture effluvia that sustained him – and many of us – through our ‘Nam era childhoods.” (Chicago Review Press, 2007, page 21.)  

Or, as Wesley Morris wrote in The San Francisco Examiner: "what Burton does perhaps better than even Steven Spielberg: transport you to a nook in your childhood, be it around a summer campfire or smack in front of a TV set on a Saturday afternoon."

In the visual language of a Hammer Studios film then, the impressive Sleepy Hollow asks its audience to contemplate the nature of life on Heaven and Earth.  Is science the key to understanding it?  Or is there room, yet, for magic in this world?  In scenes both lyrical and poetic (particularly those involving Lisa Marie as Ichabod's mother), Burton's Sleepy Hollow seeks the answer.

Less deliberately oddball than some of Burton's earlier works but nonetheless highly-stylized from a visual standpoint, Sleepy Hollow thus emerges as one of the top "tier" films in the director's canon; a bedtime story that maintains, even today, the kind of timeless, classic qualities of the best ghost stories.

"It is truth, but truth is not always appearance."

The rational, scientific constable Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is sent by his superior (Christopher Lee) to the Dutch farming community of Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of grisly murders allegedly caused by a spectral avenger called the Headless Horseman (Christopher Walken).  

When he arrives, Crane begins to uncover evidence of witchcraft in the Van Tassel family, even as he grows close to Baltus Van Tassel’s (Michael Gambon) daughter, Katrina (Christina Ricci).  The specter of witchcraft strikes a chord with the cowardly Ichabod, however, as Crane's mother (Marie) was also witch.

As the mystery of Sleepy Hollow deepens, Crane wonders if someone is summoning a dark, malevolent spirit for monetary gain, and if so, who it could be.  He realizes that to learn that answer, Crane must not depend on science alone, but open himself to the possibilities suggested by his mother; the possibilities of magic.

"The millennium is almost upon us..."

Although based very loosely on the 1820 short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving (1783-1859), Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow serves instead as a dedicated tribute to the output of Hammer Studios, England’s pre-eminent exporter of horror during the late 1950s and 1960s. 

Not only does this film feature familiar horror actors from the Hammer stable, including Christopher Lee and Michael Gough, it is also, like the works of that studio, largely set-bound, and it embodies a similar, heavy sense of Gothic romanticism. 

In other words, Sleepy Hollow drips with atmosphere, depicts strange supernatural rituals, and generates extreme emotions in its dramatis personae and audience, namely terror. Writing in Entertainment Design, production designer John Calhoun reported that, from the outset of production on Sleepy Hollow, director Burton reported how he desired to “evoke the Hammer Film style,” one that was notably “artifice-heavy.” ("Headless in Sleepy Hollow," November 1999, page 38.)

Accordingly, the autumnal woods surrounding the town of Sleepy Hollow evoke Hammer’s visual tradition, dominated by fog, mist and craggy, ancient-seeming trees that could come to life at any moment.  Janet Maslin in The New York Times wrote persuasively of the film's canvas: "Using a color palette more often associated with stories of the gulag, "Sleepy Hollow" creates a landscape so daunting that even a large tree bleeds."   Indeed, the artificial forest seems to reflect the very spirit of the film, of a world brought to life by the competing forces of science (the artifice of the production design) and magic (the special effects visualizations of the Hessian.)

Crane has put his faith in technology and reason, and believes that “to detect the guilty” science is the best tool.   He disdains the fact that he seems to be the only one "who can see that to solve crimes, we must use our brains, assisted by reason, using up-to-date scientific techniques."

That battle between the two ways (rational science and irrational mysicism) is the real thematic terrain of the film. 

Almost immediately, Crane’s strategy is tested, and he encounters a world of very real superstition and witchcraft. Crane rejects these principles at first, in part because his Mother was a witch (a good witch…) and he lost her in a painful, violent manner to a society which condemns such practitioners. Looking at Crane’s dream sequences involving his mother, they pointedly contrast with the soot-and-industrial look of New York featured in the beginning of the film. The “cherry-blossom-filled reveries” (Interiors: "Here's Your Head, What's Your Hurry?" December 1999, page 62) suggest a world beyond reason and natural sciences; one more fully alive than what is depicted in the bleeding forest around the town.   The forest there appears so autumnal and brown, I would submit, because magic and witchraft are disappearing from the world: it is their final autumn before Ichabod's way will dominate the human race.  Even the (ostensibly happy) end of the film reinforces this idea, with the arrival of Katrina and Ichabod in "modern" New York...a realm of science.

Interestingly, Sleepy Hollow does-- at least partially --  seem to view the loss of magic and the victory of science as a loss for mankind.

Though whip smart, knowledgeable and clever, Ichabod suppresses his own “natural gift,” the one handed down to him by his mother: his capacity for belief in something greater than the resources and wonders of man’s mind. In this sense, one might gaze at Sleepy Hollow as a tale of one man’s spiritual, even religious, awakening. Crane comes to see that he can't depend on science alone, but also must understand the rules of magic; on his instinctive sense of wonder. 

And like many a Tim Burton hero, The Headless Horseman in Sleepy Hollow is another outcast, but in this case, one who fits explicitly into the movie's dialogue about nature vs. supernature.  The  Hessian is doomed to walk the Earth at the behest of an evil mistress, and Sleepy Hollow involves the freeing of this spirit and outcast.  Thus the Hessian serves as almost a mirror for Crane.  The Headless Horseman is a man who exists in a purely supernatural (rather than scientific) state and must be put to rest; to the clinical, empirical state of death, upon which his release hinges.  His release rests in science, or release from the supernatural, in other words  Together, Crane and the Hessian make an interesting duo.  Two sides of the same coin, perhaps.

Uniquely, Ichabod's journey may also be a reflection of how cinema (particular the horror cinema) had grown cold and clinical in the 1990s.  This was the era of 1,001 police procedural horrors, roughly (The Silence of the Lambs, Jennifer 8, Se7en, Kiss the Girls, Resurrection, Copycat, The Bone Collector, etc.) and such films reduced the great act of "monster"-hunting to a science, a forensic science.  

Ichabod is clearly in the mold of such CSI-styled investigators (nay a progenitor of their mold...) and yet in the end it is not forensics that saves the day in Sleepy is the investigator's natural gift, his ability to countenance magic.  One might easily see this conceit as Burton's embedded critique of the increasingly stale take on horror at the turn of the millennium.  With its beautiful fairy tale forests and deliberate Hammer Studio artifice, Sleepy Hollow seems a deliberate and almost elegeic throwback to an era of imagination and theatricality instead of gritty psychological realism.

At one point in the film, it is noted that Crane is actually "bewitched by reason," and that comment perfectly captures the film's questioning spirit, the idea that science and belief must walk hand-in-hand in the human equation.  And so even though Katrina fears that Crane possesses no heart (only a mind), the same cannot be said for this lush, gorgeous, Tim Burton film...undeniably one of his finest.

National Twilight Zone Day: "Come Wander with Me"

There are, perhaps, several episodes of Rod Serling's classic   The Twilight Zone  (1959-1964) more sharply-written, more morally-valuab...