Star Wars: The Last Jedi

In my piece on John Williams’ score for The Last Jedi, I noted that the new Star Wars films do not extend from the six George Lucas films that precede them as much as they offer responses to them. In this new phase, Star Wars series has been consumed by solipsism. Star Wars is now first and foremost about itself, deviating from established patterns only to reinforce them in the end. Nowhere is that clearer than in the final image of Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, an affirmation of Star Wars‘ position as a fixture of childhood inspiration.

This new trilogy explicitly presents itself as a bridge between Lucas’ films and a new, Lucas-less Star Wars, resolving the narratives of Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, and Han Solo while simultaneously establishing a new set of heroes. The tug-of-war between these competing responsibilities results in structural oddities and dramatic compromises in both of 2015’s The Force Awakens and now The Last Jedi.

In presenting the old heroes as damaged by familial and political cataclysm, this new Star Wars trilogy adopts something of an Old Testament approach to mythic narrative, in which history unfolds as a complex cycle of collapse and renewal. This conceit, while fundamentally sound, has largely been used to reinstate the narrative patterns and dynamics of the original Star Wars trilogy. So, unfortunately, we once again are presented with the Galactic Empire, now reborn as the First Order, facing off against a new Rebellion, here called the Resistance.

If the broad strokes of this new Star Wars universe remain woefully unimaginative, at least these films offer glimmers of the grand melodrama that made the original films a phenomenon. Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher, all returning to their iconic roles, bestow on these films a level of weight they do not otherwise earn: they carry the weight of years in their faces, in their voices, in their gestures.

Hamill’s Luke dominates The Last Jedi to the point of nearly overshadowing everything else in the film (Luke’s sibling, Leia, has plenty of screentime but is somewhat less central to its narrative; Fisher’s Leia was to be the focal point of 2019’s Episode IX, but Fisher’s untimely passing makes this her last film appearance). When Luke first appears here, he’s haggard, weary, and bitter. He has isolated himself in a hidden corner of the galaxy, waiting for death. Skywalker maps his personal failures onto the entire Jedi religion, having come to the conclusion that the universe might be better off without the meddling of Jedi. This arc sets the stage for this trilogy’s boldest, but underdeveloped, suggestion: the notion that the Jedi order needs to emerge in a new form in order to survive. Alas, The Last Jedi concludes with the suggestion that that new form will closely resemble the old form (though we will have to wait for 2019’s Episode IX to find out for sure).

Thankfully, there is a pleasing level of invention present in The Last Jedi‘s variation on familiar Star Wars themes. This overstuffed, untidy epic has been born from filmmaker Rian Johnson’s passion for cinema. Johnson extends the film genre collage that Lucas built into the Star Wars universe, which has always mingled sword-and-sorcery tales with war pictures, samurai movies, and Westerns. The dynamic opening segues from Spaceballs-style comedy antics to a tense space battle that mingles futuristic tech with the aesthetics and function of vintage aircraft. An excursion to a casino planet allows Johnson to inject a dose of 1930s/1940s Hollywood glamor into the Star Wars universe. The film’s climactic confrontation is staged as a sword battle between samurai warriors, unfolding on a vast plain where every footstep exposes the blood-red soil beneath snow-white salt.

With the characters of Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren and Daisey Ridley’s Rey, our icons of good and evil, Johnson adds new textures to Star Wars drama. Tied together by the fabric of the Force itself, they learn that they are different halves of a cosmic equation, both attracted to and repelled by the other. Their individual isolation from the world around them coupled with the intimate psychic connection that they share awakens youthful desire, complicating their shared trajectory.

Their relationship paves an intriguing path for the future, but their arc here also oddly climaxes in the film’s midsection, at which point their relationship takes the back seat as other members of the ensemble rise to prominence. This speaks to the broader shapelessness of the picture: there are so many characters and so much narrative incident that rarely combine in productive ways. To be fair to Johnson, The Force Awakens never truly established its new characters as a group with a clear dynamic and a shared destiny. Many of the new characters were merely sketches that Johnson needed to define while constructing a narrative trajectory. Aside from the material given to Rey and Ren, much of that work feels schematic. Johnson attempts to unite the film’s disparate stories through theme, but they never become united in dramatic momentum. John Boyega’s Finn, Oscar Isaac’s Poe, and Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose may be appealing presences, but their arcs lurch awkwardly from plot point to plot point. 

Ultimately, The Last Jedi serves better as a goodbye to beloved old characters than as a stepping stone to new adventures. Its most moving moment allows Hamill and Fisher an on-screen reunion that is also a farewell. Such magic cannot be manufactured, it can only be channeled. The magic lies in these icons themselves, in the eyes of two people who are more than people. They are vessels of cultural memory.

The Music of Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I am not particularly invested in the future of Disney’s Star Wars franchise beyond witnessing John Williams complete his work on this new trilogy. For me, Star Wars will always remain George Lucas’ mad vision, a collection of impulses that were, for both better and worse, unique and personal. These new Star Wars films are less extensions of that same vision than they are responses to it, and, as such, they have different footing.

The clearest throughline for Star Wars in all of its phases is the work of the venerable John Williams, whose contributions to the aesthetic landscape of the series remain so significant that he can justifiably be recognized as a kind of co-creator with Lucas. Williams’ work on the series may be his magnum opus; certainly, his work on Star Wars–three separate trilogies that span the length of Williams’ extensive career, each distinct in character, but nevertheless tied together through thematic overlap–has no real equivalent in the world of film music. Few ongoing series have developed such longstanding relationships with composers, and even fewer have had such clear structures in which composers are free to develop their work. It would be so disheartening for this impressive project to be completed by a Williams imitator, rather than the great artist himself.

Williams’ musical landscapes for these trilogies mirror each trilogy’s emotional and aesthetic shifts. The original trilogy was a swashbuckling fairy tale loaded with rollicking adventure that occasionally gestured toward myth and magic. Williams took up the legacy of Korngold (the series’ most significant musical touchstone, and a reference point for Lucas when discussing the outline of the score with Williams) and wove three films of robust, romantic themes and bold marches. Williams, and the films themselves, never went full-on mythic until the conclusion of Revenge of the Jedi, as a chorus of male vocals backs the battle between father and son. In this moment, we see glimmers of the musical vocabulary that Williams would pursue in the prequel trilogy.

The prequel trilogy was a chronicle of a civilization’s political and religious fall, which Williams infused with all of the musical grandeur befitting an epic. The themes tend to be more stately than that of the original trilogy, even as they share essential DNA. Compare the prequel trilogy’s love theme, “Across the Stars,” which paints doomed romance with a courtly air, to the original  trilogy’s sweeping love theme, “Han and the Princess,” which, in its full statement, fully gives itself over to breathless passion. Williams’ themes for the major duels of the prequel films, “Duel of the Fates” and “Battle of the Heroes,” take the operatic essence of Return of the Jedi‘s climactic battle to new heights, weaving that impulse into the prequels’ musical statements of lament (“Qui-Gon’s Funeral” and “The Immolation Scene”).

Disney’s new trilogy has framed itself explicitly as a saga of transition, in which new, inexperienced characters tentatively navigating the complicated legacies of battle-scarred heroes. Williams plays into the mixture of youthful innocence and mature grief. The mythic impulse appears in flickers, not full statements: amidst a more amorphous present, we are given glimpses of the heroic past and gestures toward a hopeful future.

Williams’ score for The Force Awakens belonged first and foremost to the character of Rey. Her theme became the score’s backbone, recurring throughout the score in different statements until the grand musical climax of the “Jedi Steps” and its segue into a full, declarative presentation during the end credits suite. “Rey’s Theme” intermingles with the “Force Theme,” which, given its strong identification with Luke Skywalker, signals their intertwined destinies. In the final minute of his score, Williams signaled what the film itself so often strained to gesture toward: the new possibilities that can be found in the synthesis between past and future.

The other themes established in The Force Awakens were more hesitant and muted, reflecting fledgling characters and movements that had not yet come into their own. The most intriguing of those supporting themes belongs to Kylo Ren, who is, in some ways, this trilogy’s secondary protagonist. Ren’s theme is not really a proper theme at all, but collection of distinct motifs that signal his inner emotional turmoil and shifting sense of identity.

The Last Jedi seamlessly continues the journey of Awakens‘ score, this time more directly highlighting the collision between Star Wars generations. Indeed, there are so many distinct themes at play in The Last Jedi score that it borders on becoming overcrowded, but Williams maintains clarity throughout. The end credits suite for The Last Jedi follows a new template for the series, eschewing Williams’ typical tendency to present “concert suite” arrangements of the film’s themes for an intricate and dense collage of fragmented motifs. Themes emerge, disappear, and then re-emerge.

One brief restatement registers with more clarity than the others. In a loving tribute to the late Carrie Fisher, Williams presents “Leia’s Theme” with new orchestrations. The familiar notes ring out in a sublimely tender piano arrangement, lightly backed by strings. A flute joins the piano, and then the theme fades away, gone too soon.

“Rey’s Theme” once again serves as the throughline, bringing the suite to a close in a way that recalls the tender resolution of the score for The Force Awakens. Here, the final phrases are tentative, presented not as conclusion, but as a pause before the final act.

Mr. Arkadin

A reimagining of Citizen Kane by way of Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios, Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin remains one of his most pleasurable films. In Kane, Welles constructed a grand myth of the failure of American ego and wealth. Arkadin follows Kane‘s essential structure and theme, albeit now transported to a European milieu. But in Mr. Arkadin, Welles does not construct a myth, but dramatizes its implosion in a surreal, comic nightmare of corruption.

Mr. Arkadin emerged from story fragments found from Orson Welles’ radio series, The Lives of Harry Lime (a prequel to The Third Man), which were woven together with inspiration taken from the real-life dealings of arms dealer Basil Zaharoff. The story, which involves a cheap thug named Guy Van Stratten (Robert Arden) investigating the details of Gregory Arkadin’s life at Arkadin’s request (Arkadin claims to have lost his memory and wishes to discover his true origins), takes the structure of interviews with various personages from Arkadin’s past. These vivid episodes build on one another to create a vision of a world shaped by corrupt opportunists. In Mr. Arkadin, the currency of the postwar economy is crime.

As with The Lady from Shanghai, Welles finds stylistic liberation in the textures of pulp, though in Mr. Arkadin, his noir stylizations reach a frenzied surrealism that prefigures the grotesque charades of The TrialArkadin feels as though it was birthed entirely from Welles’ uninhibited whimsy, an animated parade of exaggerated characters and the distinct worlds they inhabit. Welles, as always, stages scenes such that the surroundings inform his images as much as the characters themselves; his cinema is very much a cinema of spaces, contextualizing people with architecture.

In the absurd makeup Welles creates for Arkadin, he stresses the sheer artifice of the character. Arkadin, with his Zeus-like beard, becomes a parody of a European despot. It’s a face Arkadin has fashioned for himself:

“Why’d you grow that awful beard?”

“To scare people with.”

To add to the fiction, Arkadin lives in an ornate castle (echoes of Kane’s Xanadu), protective of his daughter, Raina (Paola Mori, Welles’ third wife), and thrives on displays of his own power. At his decadent Christmas party, crowded with manic sycophants, Arkadin masks himself as Santa Claus (he subsequently gives protagonist Guy Van Stratten the gift of intimidation).

This theatricality stems from Arkadin’s desperation prove his own magnificence to himself. But unlike Kane, we get no direct glimpse of the man who was. We only hear the verbal accounts of people who claim to have known him in the past. Their recollections of his life of criminality are generally tawdry and underwhelming, secrets that were never worth unearthing.

Arkadin’s climactic defeat comes at Christmas, when, in a fit of desperation, he tries to use his ill-gotten wealth and manufactured reputation to gain a seat on a plane. Receiving no response to his extraordinary offer to pay any sum, he bellows: “My name is Gregory Arkadin!” Inspiring the crowd to burst into laughter, Guy Van Stratten shouts back: “Yeah, and I’m Santa Claus!” Arkadin has fashioned himself into a fiction too extreme to be believed.

In his final moments, Gregory Arkadin disappears off-screen, a ghost evaporating into the celluloid ether.

 

(Note: Mr. Arkadin exists in many different versions, all built from the same essential footage. I am partial to the “comprehensive” cut assembled for Arkadin‘s Criterion release for the way it restores the narrative’s proper continuity, and for the existential weight of its abstract opening and closing images.)

 

The Fall of the Roman Empire

There’s something unnerving about watching Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) as 2017 draws to a close. Its apocalyptic vision of corruption, cruelty, and decadence eroding political institutions until the greatest political office in the land is merely a prize to be auctioned off to the highest bidder feels frighteningly contemporary.

The Fall of the Roman Empire marked a different kind of apocalypse in 1964, when it served as the harbinger of the end of the classic Hollywood epic. This expensive folly effectively ended the career of producer Samuel Bronston (who produced King of Kings, El Cid, and 55 Days to Peking), and like Joseph Mankiewicz’s troubled Cleopatra (which was released only a year earlier), Fall offers stunning example of excess as spectacle.

Mann, working in collaboration with cinematographer Robert Krasker and production designers John Moore and Vemiero Colasanti, crafts a film that is simply too huge to be believed (it holds the record for the largest film set ever created: a sprawling replica of the Roman Forum). But Fall‘s images are more than expensive. Mann stages the film as a series of dynamic and expressive tableaus. He transforms a bedroom conversation between the ailing Marcus Aurelius (invested with considerable gravitas by the great Alec Guinness) and his daughter Lucilla (Sophia Loren, as radiant as ever, if somewhat hamstrung by the script) into a beautifully expressive sequence of poses that articulate the complexity of their relationship and its power imbalances.

Fall is not always so artful. Mann’s careful direction cannot entirely overcome an undernourished, albeit well-structured, melodrama with a wooden heroic lead. Stephen Boyd, as the blonde Livius, fails to elevate the stock material, and as such the film tends to stall in its second half, when he becomes a major driving force for the narrative (otherwise, the film feels more like an ensemble piece, with James Mason and Christopher Plummer delivering particularly fine performances). Some flourishes, such as two separate attempts to give characters internal monologues via voiceover, feel strained and silly. Other sequences feel like gratuitous plays to audience expectation, such as a gratuitous chariot race lifted from Ben Hur (admittedly, it boasts some great stuntwork). Still, the film’s thematic trajectory and and its consistently vibrant images make it altogether much more compelling than its more simple-minded remake, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, which borrows many of Fall‘s narrative beats but none of its conviction. 

The Fall of the Roman Empire is, like many of the classic Hollywood epics, a close cousin to opera, both in structural design and in its emphasis on music. The first thing to make an impression in The Fall of the Roman Empire is the overture for Dimitri Tiomkin’s maximalist score, a work of accomplished bombast that mingles orchestra and harpsichord and pipe organ and choir. I have long suspected that a viewer’s emotional admiration of the classic Hollywood epics will correlate closely to their attentiveness and receptiveness to the films’ musical scores, which, in the classic Hollywood epics, do not function as mere window dressing, but as a pillar on which the film rests. In these stately films, the (often stilted) quasi-Shakespearean dialogue functions like a spoken libretto to the more passionate, vital underscore. If Tiomkin’s score is not as complex as some of its peers (like Alex North’s rich, precise work on Spartacus and Cleopatra), it nevertheless provides the clearest articulation of the film’s dramatic impulses.

The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part XI

The Craig era’s extraordinary ambivalence about the James Bond character manifests itself in the way it routinely denies Bond the clear victories that his predecessors often enjoyed. The Craig era predominantly offers narratives of loss and failure. Consider how Craig’s Bond does not earn the traditional “Bond and a girl” finale until he quits the secret service at the end of Spectre. His only true victory can be escaping himself.

In this section of Casino Royale, Bond meets with his first unqualified failure and responds with suicidal petulance. Bond’s underlying pathology is such that failure is unbearable to him; it shatters his constructed self and forces him to confront the void within. We’ll see similar kinds of death-wish responses in Quantum of Solace, wherein Bond’s loss of Vesper sends Bond careering out of control, as well as in Skyfall, where a failed mission sends Bond on a bad bender.

Bond masks his profound psychological instability with calm reserve and impeccable attire, and the morning after his fight with Obanno, Bond seems to be his typically collected self as he and Mathis converse on the hotel balcony. Mathis impishly prods Bond about Vesper. Bond gives no quarter.

Giancarlo Giannini again proves that he’s one of the film’s most welcome presences. Here, Giannini’s Mathis once again proves to be a keen improviser. He’s used the bodies Bond hid in the stairwell to strip away some of Le Chiffre’s resources by framing one of Le Chiffre’s henchmen.

It’s a shame that this essential intelligence is nowhere in evidence when Mathis is reduced to a spectator during the card game, dumbly narrating the beats of the game for the audience. Bond’s loss at Le Chiffre’s hands would be so much better if it wasn’t accompanied by heavy signposting about Le Chiffre’s “tell.”

First time viewers don’t know this yet, but it’s clear by the end that Vesper sets Bond up for failure, enabling Le Chiffre to provoke Bond into an overconfident maneuver that strips him of all of his assets. This lends her confrontation with Bond some complexity, and it’s a strong scene for Green. It’s a weaker scene for Craig. The “bloody idiot” line feels much too scripted for its own good and Craig is forced to stumble over it.

He’s much better in the moment that follows, where Bond snaps “Do I look like I give a damn?” to a bartender who asks him whether he wants his martini shaken or stirred. It’s a gag about Bond history, but also a significant character statement. Previous Bonds were defined by their unwavering sense of taste, but Craig’s Bond wears all the accoutrements of luxury as an adopted persona that he quickly discards when caught in the grip of an identity crisis (see also his extended bender at the beginning of Skyfall). When this Bond is humiliated and confused, he just wants to get trashed.

Blinded by rage, Bond grabs a steak knife off of a table and rushes to kill Le Chiffre. If he can’t win the poker game, he’ll assuage his ego by defeating Le Chiffre with brute force, even if it costs him his life.

Irresistibly cool CIA agent Felix Leiter stops Bond and offers him a less dangerous road to victory. Jeffrey Wright’s Leiter gets such a promising introduction in Casino Royale, an ally whose cooler head balances out Bond’s hotter temperament. Alas, that potential is never quite fulfilled in these movies, but Wright still makes the most of his material.

Bond returns to the game with renewed confidence, much to Vesper’s surprise and Le Chiffre’s dismay. In a last-ditch move to dispatch Bond, Valenka poisons Bond’s martini, forcing Bond to stumble out of the game.

The poisoning serves as a loose analogue to a suspenseful section of Fleming’s novel involving a gun disguised as a cane. Even if some of the sequence’s grace notes (like Bond inducing vomiting by swallowing a lot of salt) are clever, it’s all a bit ridiculous.

Bond has a convenient medical pack in his car, including a self-defibrillator, and establishes a link to MI6’s medical team. M and the MI6 crew watch on via computer monitors as Bond hovers near death, issuing instructions to Bond about how to prevent death. Bond is ultimately saved via Vesper-ex-machina; he falls unconscious before he can activate the defibrillator, only for Vesper to stumble upon him. She (improbably) knows exactly what to do to save his life.

It’s clearly meant to balance the Bond/Vesper relationship, but as a result of the sequence’s awkwardness, it doesn’t connect on a dramatic level. Bond’s unflabbable resolve to return for the game is good for a chuckle, though, as is Vesper’s flabbergasted response.

Bond’s return to the game gives us a classic Bond one-liner (“That last hand nearly killed me”), a Connery-style line that Craig delivers with Dalton-style intensity. Craig’s Bond so often feels distinct from the previous Bonds, but in this moment he does seems to exist on a continuum with his predecessors.

As soon as the line has been delivered, Bond’s victory in the card game is assured. For anyone who knows poker, the final hand seems absurdly overdramatized. That said, the climactic poker hand allegedly replicates an actual poker hand that occurred while the film’s creative team was playing poker to learn the rules, so perhaps my complaint is baseless.

Having won the day, Bond’s first thought is of a celebratory dinner. “You were almost dead an hour ago,” Vesper reminds him. Bond doesn’t acknowledge her remark. Bond’s enduring appeal as a fantasy figure lies in his flippant attitude toward death. Even here, where Bond’s bravado is so directly rooted in a kind of madness, it’s impossible to deny its allure.

The Exorcist III: Legion

The most successful of The Exorcist‘s sequels, 1990’s The Exorcist III: Legion, belongs largely to author and screenwriter William Peter Blatty. Blatty had adapted his own novel into a screenplay for 1973’s The Exorcist and, in 1983, he wrote his own literary follow-up to The Exorcist, a novel titled Legion. Blatty intended for Friedkin to direct its film adaptation, but Friedkin and Blatty disagreed regarding the vision for the film. Following Friedkin’s departure, Blatty convinced the studio to let him direct. The ensuing production was fraught with difficulty due to studio concerns that Blatty’s original cut of the film was too disconnected from the original film (an approximation of Blatty’s original cut, cobbled from low-quality sources, is now available as a special feature on Legion‘s recent Blu-ray release). Regardless of some of the structural oddities imposed by the film’s reshoots, Legion still feels like a complete expression of a personal vision, a vision that takes a distinctly different vantage point from that of the original Exorcist.

William Friedkin’s original film was the work of an outsider looking in. It regards the dogmas and accessories of Catholicism with fascination, but with cool distance. Faith and evil remain abstract forces, tangible but alien. Blatty, a devout Catholic, gives us an insider’s vision, treating the dogmas and iconography of Catholicism with intimacy and conviction. From the beginning of Legion, in which an evil force comes into contact with a crucifix and awakens it (the eyes of the Christ sculpture snap open in response to the intrusion), Legion treats the accoutrements of Catholic faith as portals to the spiritual world. This impulse peaks during the film’s climactic exorcism, in which the spiritual world and the real world collide in an effects-driven explosion of religious imagery. Accordingly, the desecration of these objects in Legion feels all the more potent; it’s not just the violation of inert symbols, but vital, sacred vessels. In this respect, Legion exists on a kind of trajectory with the horror films of Terence Fisher, which similarly regarded the Christian cross as an embodiment of supernatural good in the war with darkness.

Not that Legion has much stylistic kinship with Fisher’s Hammer horror films, which were marked by restrained, deliberate elegance. Legion‘s adventurous tonal dynamism has little precedent in the mannered Hammer films of the 60s and 70s, nor does it feel connected to the detached, chilly Friedkin original. Legion wildly, but keenly, leaps between comedy and grand, Gothic horror, sometimes blending them both, as it does during a nightmare sequence that serves as both an occasion to delight in absurdity and to underline the story’s existential anxieties. Blatty stubbornly refuses to allow horror to overwhelm the emotional complexity of life. Legion depicts its human relationships with warmth and humor, and the divide between good and evil becomes sharper as a result.

Legion‘s narrative pivots around Lieutenant William Kinderman (George C. Scott), a close friend of the original film’s Damien Karras, who investigates a series of dramatic murders that involve sacrilegious imagery. These murders share the modus operandi the Gemini Killer, who was executed many years prior to these new killings. This investigation leads Kinderman back to the events of the original Exorcist and the dark forces Karras confronted there. The serial killer plot, and a narrative structure relying on lengthy conversations with a menacing foe in an asylum, make Legion a kind of predecessor to 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs, with Legion‘s Gemini Killer (played with manic menace by Brad Dourif) functioning as a supernaturally empowered Hannibal Lecter.

Scott’s Kinderman, however, is no Clarice Starling. He’s a veteran, weary of his position as a soldier on the front lines against corruption. What confronts and startles Kinderman isn’t the reality of evil–Kinderman bellows at darkness with defiance and rage–but eternity. In his final actions, Kinderman acknowledges what his close friend, Father Dyer (Ed Flanders) tells him: “We’re going to live forever, Bill. We’re spirits.” It’s a proposition that Legion shades with both hope and anxiety. The end of time may yet bring an end to the humanity’s nightmares, but the end of time is a long way off.

Sleepy Hollow

1999’s Sleepy Hollow marked the beginning of the end for director Tim Burton. While its successor, Burton’s ill-fated Planet of the Apes remake, demonstrated that, without a doubt, a once-promising cinematic voice had been devoured by the Hollywood machine, Sleepy Hollow marked the moment when Burton’s style began to shift from vision to mere lacquer.

To be fair, it is, at least in the case of Sleepy Hollow, sumptuously beautiful lacquer, thanks in no small part to the tremendous contributions of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and production designer Rick Heinrichs. Burton gives them plenty to work with as he gleefully takes advantage of the narrative’s opportunities for visual conceits, following after the legacy of Hammer and AIP pictures (with explicit nods in the direction of Brides of Dracula and Pit and the Pendulum). But if Sleepy Hollow is a visual feast, its visual antics feel curiously disconnected from the psychology and emotion of the piece.

Andrew Kevin Walker’s densely plotted screenplay leaves little room for the type of free-wheeling characterization that suits Burton best. Burton’s best films locate witty and brash ways to depict fractured psyches and identity conflicts in visual terms, pursuing emotional throughlines rather than narrative logic. The closest Sleepy Hollow comes to offering a traditional “Burton character” is twitchy, nervous Ichabod Crane (played by Johnny Depp), who has the air of the typical “Burton outsider,” but is little more than a thin assembly of pale face-paint, messy hair, and some odd quirks. The character’s tragic backstory remains awkwardly detached from the rest of the film, as though it was a story change that was imposed on an already-complete narrative. It does little to inform the character or the film itself.

Burton’s impish humor delivers some light laughs, and, even if they’re underused, the cast is crowded with remarkable talents (Martin Landau, Michael Gambon, Ian McDiarmid, Michael Gough, Christopher Lee, and Miranda Richardson among them), but they are insufficient to compensate for a film that has no true center. As such, Sleepy Hollow is far less compelling and memorable than the genre classics to which it pays tribute, films that explored their macabre stylizations with conviction and purpose.