‘Liberty Heights,""Sleepy Hollow,’ and ‘The World Is Not Enough’

Barry Levinson’s Baltimore movies clearly mean more to him than most of his more frankly commercial jobs, and his fourth entry in the semi-autobiographical Baltimore series, Liberty Heights, set in 1954, has all the earnestness and manicured social consciousness of a personal project. I like it less than his previous outings in this terrain, Diner and Tin Men (the two best by far, I think) and the uneven Avalon. In its approach to the past, if not in its dialogue, the film is reminiscent of some of Neil Simon’s mood-memory plays, especially Brighton Beach Memoirs. It has the same sense of forced nostalgia and self-congratulation; Levinson takes great pride in bearing witness to the supposed naïveté of those coming-of-age years.

And yet there are lovely moments throughout: the warming, tentative relationship between Ben Kurtzman (Ben Foster) and the radiantly intense Sylvia (Rebekah Johnson),the first black student in his high school; a scene where they go to a James Brown concert and rave it up; the look of hangdog bliss on the face of Ben’s older brother, Van (Adrien Brody), when he first gazes upon a Gentile goddess (Carolyn Murphy) at a Wasp bash he and his friends have slipped into; the performance of Joe Mantegna as the boys’ burlesque-house-owner father, who ducks out of Rosh Hashanah services to check on the new Cadillacs in a local showroom. As a writer-director, Levinson has become a lot slicker since the rawness of his Diner days, but when he slows down and goes inside himself, as he does in snatches of Liberty Heights, he can still find ways to move us.

Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, starring Johnny Depp as a hyperrational, Sherlock Holmesian Ichabod Crane, is a lot closer to Gahan Wilson than to Washington Irving. Burton goes in for a heavy dose of the cold creeps; the film seems to have been made to show off as many close-ups of severed heads as possible. (The screenplay is by severed-head specialist Andrew Kevin Walker of Seven) The production design is a triumph of gnarled vistas and foggy woods and slime. The galloping eruptions of the headless horseman, played by Christopher Walken, are startlingly ghoulish, and the cast, which also includes Christina Ricci as a dour dumpling with eyes for Ichabod, is chosen with a horror maven’s eye for terror. It’s a peculiarly adolescent conception of terror, though: Burton, for all his skill, never ranges beyond the thrills of the obvious; he doesn’t enlarge the meaning of the horror he shows us, the way a Brian De Palma might. As a filmmaker, he’s in a perpetual state of Halloween: a sicko treat-or-treat specialist.

The World Is Not Enough, starring Pierce Brosnan, is the twentieth James Bond film in 37 years, and the formula has never been more formulaic. It doesn’t seem to matter who makes these movies anymore: The work of a journeyman director like John Glen (For Your Eyes Only through License to Kill) wasn’t much different from what the extravagantly gifted Roger Spottiswoode (Tomorrow Never Dies) and the current film’s capable Michael Apted have come up with. For all concerned, it’s become a job of work in which all the bases must be touched: the pre-credit smash-grab sequence (in this case a speedboat chase on the Thames); the requisite sinister villain (Robert Carlyle, playing a baddie with a bullet embedded in his brain); the shaken-not-stirred repartee; the glossy Bond babes (Sophie Marceau and Denise Richards, whose performance as a nuclear-weapons expert is a Golden Turkey shoo-in). It’s all so … so fetishistic. The only bright spot is John Cleese’s brief appearance as Q’s associate, R. Could we pretty please have Cleese play Bond in the next one? (The Spy Who Walked Funny? Fawltyfinger?)

‘Liberty Heights,""Sleepy Hollow,’ and ‘The World […]