Star Wars

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm Retrospective

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So there’s a new Batman film on the horizon, if you haven’t heard. It’s the new Zack Snyder flick that follows up his mediocre Superman reboot, and pits two acclaimed heroes against each other. On the heels of the previous trilogy of Batman films by Christopher Nolan, this seems gimmicky and crude. In Nolan’s films we got to see Bruce Wayne explore what it takes to become Batman. This delving into pathos was more than we had seen compared to the films that had come before, such as the mid-nineties tripe of Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. Even Tim Burton’s films gave cursory attention to Batman’s past, though the Gothic nature of those films made them timeless in their own rights. But what of that *other* Batman feature film? The one that bombed at the box office, but still garners acclaim to this very day?

Released in 1993, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was supposed to be the vehicle that brought the well-regarded kids TV show wider notice. At only 76 minutes, it barely qualified as a feature film. It’s animation was spruced up a bit for the theaters, and it got to show a little bit of blood here and there. The question, however, is: is this enough to warrant giving Batman: Mask of the Phantasm such glowing acclaim?
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The short answer is a resounding YES.

Now for the long answer.

The film is based on the wildly successful Batman: The Animated Series, which has since been renamed more times than I can count. At the time, the show was riding on the coattails of Burton’s films, but it’s safe to say that the series reinvented itself apart from those films admirably. While taking certain cues from them here and there, such as the darker tone and a disfigured looking Penguin, the series displayed a Gotham City we haven’t seen since, an Art Deco playground for good and evil. Even thought the series launched in 1992, a film was arranged originally for direct-to-video, but was then pushed into theaters where it didn’t fare all that well.

Still it was a critical darling, and ironically it rivals even Christopher Nolan’s films in depth and complexity despite only taking up a fraction of the screen time.

Plot 

Plot is important to a film. Unlike television which can take seasons and years to tell a story, you only have minutes to do so in film before people lose interest. Surprisingly, even though the film lasts barely over an hour, it fluidly manages flashbacks and different plots without seeming rushed or incoherent. The bulk of the film is a classic murder mystery, which echoes the film noir influences the series adopted so adeptly.

Batman is framed for murder while a mysterious new vigilante in on the loose. Though this figure is also targeting known criminals, Batman must navigate law enforcement who assumes he is the culprit, the criminals themselves, the mysterious new figure, and finally and old adversary.  While all this is going on Bruce Wayne is reminded of his past when an old flame comes to town. Andrea Beaumont is the woman you’ve never ever heard of before who single-handedly nearly aborted the Batman before he ever donned the mask. Sharing similar tragic pasts, they bonded and even mended each other with a romance that started to change Bruce’s pessimistic views into more rosy-tinted ones.
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Then there are the criminals themselves, who have their ties to a certain district attorney, one who has eyes for Andrea and the end of Batman. Eventually, his roots are traced to the Joker himself, probably Batman’s greatest foe, other than the memories of romance that appear in this film.

Tying all of this together, we find that Andrea is the Phantasm, that she has been seeking revenge with plans to face off against the Joker herself. As it turns out, she and Bruce have much more in common than they realize, donning masks to fight crime, but Andrea has unfortunately become a twisted reflection of Batman, seeking petty revenge whereas Batman seeks to exercise justice.
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Other films have crumbled under much less, but Mask of the Phantasm bears it all easily. The themes of romance, morality, and even nostalgia thread the stories together. At some point in the film, almost every character laments his current state, pining for something more, and looking to the past for comfort. As he should, Batman is the paragon in these matters, but the cost is heavy, as it is poignantly displayed between Alfred and Bruce in the end.

Casting

The cast is the other half of what sells an animated feature. If the voice acting is sub par, no amount of animated wizardry  can make up the deficit. Voice Director Andrea Romano struck gold with his cast. Kevin Conroy is the voice of Batman like no screen actor could ever be. Unlike Christian Bale’s raspy drivel, Conroy can serve pleasantness with Bruce Wayne, and immediately dish out ferocious intensity as Batman. Future Desperate Housewife Dana Delaney also shines in her role as Bruce’s former lover. Then, of course, there is Mark Hamill as the Joker. I spent years of my childhood watching Star Wars and Batman, never once thinking that pious Luke Skywalker and devious Joker were characters from the same actor.
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These actors among the rest sell the film better than A-listers like Val Kilmer, George Clooney, and others who floundered in showing even less depth as real people than the two-dimensional did figures in this film.

The strength of this film is that, despite its intentions for a young audience, it never sacrifices its integrity to appeal to children. Just like the cartoon series, Mask of the Phantasm relies on storytelling, quality voice acting, and consistent art direction to provide an experience that draws you in. While most adults, understandably, associate animation like cartoons and comics with children, Mask of the Phantasm is like a graphic novel in motion.

Even the soundtrack, by the late Shirley Walker, stands toe to toe with Danny Elfman’s work. It’s a soundtrack that rivals all the films, and is superior to most, even the newest. You also get a sweet little R&B ditty by Tia Carrere during the end credits that was common in the 90’s, and it actually is a better song that what most Pop Princesses are putting out nowadays.

While I did watch other shows of the time like Tiny Toons and The Animaniacs, the Batman series was a breath of mature air that truly stimulated my mind as well as my eyes. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm took that all one step further and provided a cinematic experience that is nearly incomparable with the rest of the Batman franchise. Even as a child I felt sadness at the forlorn Andrea as she stared into the sea alone. I felt relief that Batman did the right thing without succumbing to the darkness he fought almost nightly. I felt disgusted with the corruption among so many in Gotham that made the city so dangerous. And ultimately, I understood the tragedy which prevented both Bruce and Andrea from following their young hearts.
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If a film can instill such complex emotions in a child who knows not even to search for these things, then what excuses do the other films have for providing less? Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is truly one of the best Batman films, and it doesn’t even need to rest on other installments in a trilogy to justify its existence.

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Guardians of the Galaxy: A Stellar Review

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Released in 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy is the new kid on Marvel’s block of comic book adaptations. Featuring a band of less than savory characters who become unlikely heroes, the film also is an unlikely success that managed to sidestep many pitfalls common to comic book films with slick presentation and cleverness.

First off, the cast is quite good. Going into this film, I was not one who was necessarily a fan of any of the actors, per se. It was more ambivalence than anything else, but I was surprised at how the actors won me over with their solid portrayals. Chris Pratt makes a dashing and charismatic leading man (and his famous transition from comedic fatty to svelte fox didn’t hurt). Zoe Saldana entertained me more in this film than any other role of hers, even more than as Uhura in Star Trek. Bradley Cooper stole the show as mutant raccoon Rocket, and he didn’t even have to rely on his good looks, which is a testament to his skills. Even Vin Diesel, with his minimal lines as Groot, brought to life a CGI character who added so much life and, dare I say, cuteness to the party.

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Lee Pace also gave a great performance as the film’s villain, even if you didn’t recognize him under that makeup, which is just another addition to the many roles this underrated actor has played. Even Karen Gillan, of Doctor Who fame, was fun to watch, even if I missed her Scottish accent.

I’m glad that the characters were so engaging, because the plot of the film was probably the weakest point. It wasn’t bad, but it was pretty straight forward and I got the sense that there was an implied wink and nod that suggested, “just stick with it, we’ve got big plans for this stuff”. Of course, the plot was serviceable in that it provided the means for all the characters to act and interact, but I had figured out all the twists and revelations in the first half hour.

I suppose that I could chalk up my lack of surprise to the mythic nature that comic books and their stories tends to follow, and in that sense the film did very well. In fact, I even found myself wondering if this film was the next big Star Wars type thing, but we have yet to tell on that.

Further, the wink and nod tended to address the fact that much of the plot has that been there done that feel. In particular, one fight scene was humorously abbreviated by a character’s use of a secret weapon that has been hinted at all through the movie. It still conveyed his danger, but it didn’t burden us with too much unnecessary action. In general, the film didn’t *try* to take itself to seriously, which allowed it to deliver fun times and gorgeous special effects without leaving the audience to worry about the film meeting drastic expectations.

Marvel was also a little too obvious with its attempts to plug this movie into its current franchises. While assembling The Avengers together film by film has so far been a successful undertaking, I get the feeling they are going to do more later, and hopefully they don’t tarnish what Guardians of the Galaxy seems to be doing well all by itself so far.

The biggest risk, I think, with this film was tying pop culture into a science fiction story. Film history is replete with attempts to do this that come off as tacky and exploitative, but this movie nails it. Not only is the soundtrack fun and classy, it is also part of the back story. The risks this film took on all paid off because all of the elements synergized wonderfully.

While Guardians of the Galaxy was not series I was previously familiar with, I am now eager to see what else is coming when they return.

Star Wars: TIE Fighter is on GOG.com

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Released by Lucas Arts and Totally Games in 1994, Star Wars: TIE Fighter is the excellent sequel to Star Wars: X-Wing, and one of the best games ever released in the entire Star Wars franchise. It’s combination of story, gameplay, and production values make it a winner to this day, and you can get it now on GOG.com.

I remember playing X-Wing and it was a dream come true. Long had I desired the chance to experience what it would be like in the cockpit of a starfighter, and that game have me that chance to carrry out daring raids and rescue missions to my heart’s content. Then came along TIE Fighter, and I wasn’t too keen on it. It was about the bad guys…  

I was such a good kid.

Once I delved into TIE Fighter, I was entranced. There was more of everything. More variety in the missions and spacecraft, advanced weapons, tractor beams, better graphics, brand new starfighters to test, there was always something new to experience. And my qualms about flying for the enemy quickly dissolved since I got to fight lawless pirates and Imperial traitors just as often as I got to fly against that Rebel scum.
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Superficially, TIE Fighter is a space combat flight simulator. You spend most of the game in a cockpit tweaking your joystick, shield and weapon settings, and blessing target after target out of the stars. However, there is so much more going on than this. While you may spend time flying around outer space shooting things, there is also a larger story going on around you, and you always seem to be in the epicenter.

The story of TIE Fighter is what really makes it shine, and it’s one of the first Star Wars games to draw extensively to the Expanded Universe while also contributing significantly itself. Grand Admiral Thrawn, Lord Vader, and even the Emperor himself have designs and plans that involve you. By the end of the game, not only are you a hot shot pilot to rival the Skywalker clan, but about half of the Empire owes you a favor due to your fancy flying. Whether you are uncovering conspiracies or protecting the Emperor himself, you’re always uncovering more and more story.
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Missions are presented to you in the form of objectives, and most of the primary objectives you face are relatively straightforward and sometimes challenging. It’s the secondary goals, or even the elusive bonus goals that will keep you on the edge of your seat in order to defy the odds to inspect that one container before it gets torpedoed, or trying to keep your craft together through wave after wave fierce opposition so you can identify that mysterious shuttle at the mission’s end.

These things aren’t necessary, but they add a great value to the gameplay, and since most missions rarely replay exactly the same way, you’re bound to get some replay value. Furthermore, there are always tidbits of story presented to you between missions, or even in f un little FMVs that show informing cutscenes. Their quality is rather dubious nowadays, but they’re still well made and worth a view if you want to keep up with the Byzantine inner workings of Imperial intrigue.
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I have one quibble with the version of the game I got from GOG.com.  First, I must say I’ve been a fan of that site for years and they work diligently to bring us updated versions of classic games that run on our modern rigs, and my complaint in no way regards the folks there.

For the price of one, you get two versions, the original 1994, and an updated 1998 release that features updated textures and orchestral music by John Williams as featured in the next installment in the series, X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter. At first, these sound like a bonus, and in a way they are.

However, the 1996 CD ROM version of TIE Fighter is the one I grew up with. Though its Gouraud Shading isn’t as accurate as the newer textures when compared to the films, its metallic-ish sheen was sleeker, and in my opinion aged a bit better. Also, the original soundtrack was outstanding as well, and it reacted to events in the game to alter the musical mood accordingly. It’s a shame that the effort invested into those amazing features is overridden by the version we have now, but maybe the Good Old Games team will get that for us sometime down the road.

Overall, it’s been great to revisit one of the best games of my childhood, one of the best games ever. It’s synthesis of features gives one of the most engrossing, satisfying experiences a PC gamer could ever ask to have.  So get out there and clear the galaxy of those filthy pirates, insidious traitors, and that ever irritating Rebel scum.

Re-watch Reviews- Star Trek: The Motion Picture

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This film is one of the most maligned in the Star Trek franchise. Released in 1979, Star Trek: TMP was an attempt to revive the classic TV series that had gained a massive following through syndication since its cancellation in the 60’s. Through a turbulent development, it premiered as a bloated mess that fans had no choice but to try to love, and with the release of subsequent films has become a black sheep.

Gene Roddenberry had tried throughout the 70s to get his baby back on its feet. A stint as an animated series ensured that memory of the show didn’t wither away completely, and Star Trek was thus juggled between producers who wanted to make a movie or a new series.

1977’s Star Wars proved that sci fi films could make money, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind confirmed that sci fi could be something other than Star Wars and still succeed. So all plans made for a new series, Star Trek: Phase II, were scrapped and rolled into the new film, and some of those scraps eventually took root in Star Trek: The Next Generation (which at this point wasn’t even a preconceived notion yet).

Star Trek: TMP got a huge budget, and everything got a lush treatment, but unfortunately having so many egotistical cooks in the kitchen, as it were, led to so many paralyzing creative differences that the film’s focus was hamstrung and the result was an over-indulgent mess.

You can’t blame them, to an extent. At this point, Star Trek was dead, and having a chance to resurrect it was a rare gift. Why not go all out?

On a positive note, the film has some gorgeous special effects. The soundtrack is also sweeping in an old fashioned way (the opening fanfare was later used as Star Trek: TNG’s opening). The problem is that so much time is spent showcasing these assets that it becomes obvious that the plot is thin. Who wants to sit through an overture without even any credits to read, and those minutes and minutes of flybys of the Enterprise’s exterior?

Speaking of the plot, it’s not terrible. A strange cosmic invader that threatens Earth may seem cliche, but seeing the Enterprise crew using their wits to explore this thing and find a way to save humanity is essentially Star Trek. The main problem with the plot is its presentation. The story is convoluted and fragmented, and extended scenes of space travel and ironically boring “ooh ah” moments spoil the fun.

But there is some fun, occasionally. At the film’s start, we see a brand new iteration of Klingons, the ones we know to this day. Unfortunately, the concept was still coming together and these Klingons seemed excessively stupid, and the make up still needed work. You get the impression that these Klingons are inbred and suffer from congenital mental handicaps.

Another fun scene is when the bridge is invaded by a probe in the form of plasma. It meanders around while the petrified crew helplessly watches, except for Spock. He attempts to prevent the probe from gathering data, and even tries to save the bald Deltan beauty Illia from “assimilation”.

A failed transporter beam frighteningly shows that not all deaths in space are pretty.  This is a surprisingly dark scene in an otherwise celebratory film. This scene stuck with me throughout my childhood.

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Unfortunately, several other plot threads just fray the film’s focus. Kirk’s unfamiliarity with new technology, Riker-esque Commander Decker’s unrequited love for Illia, and McCoy’s distrust of Spock’s hyper-logical motives exhaustingly cannibalize screen time so that when the actually interesting twist that the invader is an Earth probe returning home is revealed, you just wish it was all over, already.

It must also be mentioned that the uniforms in the film are horribly awful. Whoever decided that no one should wear undies underneath their pajama-like uniforms certainly had issues. There’s more peen in this film than in a sci fi themed porn flick, and some of the characters look exceptionally sweaty in their scenes.

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There is nothing sleek or space worthy about this film. It is opulent, and crowded with “all the things” that people had been working on since the original series ended. It’s a shame that it was so poorly executed, because this movie does have some interesting elements.

Commonly this film is compared to Star Trek V, another miserable Star Trek film. The debate rages on as to which one is worse, but it’s safe to say that if you’re wanting a taste of Star Trek movie goodness, then skip this one and start with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

It’s interesting that the start of Star Trek’s film franchise echoes the beginning of the original series. Both had an initial installment, or pilot, that just didn’t please, but the second installment became a success. Perhaps something as grand as Star Trek needs a couple of tries to get things right.

Advice for Star Wars VII and Beyond…

I’m not a filmmaker, a director, a producer, or a screen writer, but I have enjoyed my fair share of Star Wars. I grew up with it. I adored it. I had the toys and the video games. I shed tears at the travesty of the prequel films (actually I didn’t cry, though tears are justified in any case).

Despite this, I have maintained restraint regarding the upcoming films, because my experience has shown me that it is better to be surprised that a film is actually good, than to be let down because it didn’t meet my expectations (ahem… J.J. Abrams’ previous films and shows…)

I am however quite interested in how they will turn out. Like many, I am just itching to learn what the films will be about, and the length at which J.J. Abrams keeps such information makes the itching that much worse. Unlike others, I will refrain from speculating what the plot will be, because at this point, there is no sense in trying as my guesses are as good as anyone else’s. What I will do is provide some brief points that would behoove the new films to heed, in my own limited opinion.
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  • Star Wars IV: A New Hope

The start of it all. It was a great introduction to everything we needed to know. The good guys, the bad guys, and the extent to which either was willing to go to satisfy their goals. We met our heroes, and basically fell in love. The one problem I have with A New Hope is that (especially compared to its sequel) it’s too bright of a film. Don’t get me wrong, I greatly adore the optimistic heroism, the mythic tone, the call to adventure, all that jazz. It’s just that it’s a bit too squeaky clean in some of its presentation, at least by comparison to the next one…

  • Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back

Widely regarded as the best sequel ever, it’s also the best film so far in the entire franchise. Take everything about the first one, dig deeper, get darker, up the ante, and you have everything that is good about The Empire Strikes Back. While nothing seems as intimidating as flying towards a giant Death Star, watching the inexorable march of AT-ATs through the snows of Hoth strikes a dread all its own. If there were a weak point in this movie, it would have to be… … … Hold on… … … Yeah, I’m really trying… … … Okay, so there isn’t much wrong with it. Maybe the incestuous kiss. Or how Yoda talks, but that’s just characterization. So yeah… a great film, with a great twist. Just make another one of these, J.J.

 

  • Star Wars VI: The Return of the Jedi

A satisfying conclusion to the saga. Our heroes confront their gravest odds yet, and we see this whole thing finally comes to a close. Luke confronts the home of his past while saving Han from Jabba (who had been hounding him since the first film), before heading off to face his uncertain future. The weakest point in this film is, arguably, the Ewoks. I think George Lucas got a bit carried away with this one. They are just so darned cute, but it does provide a stark juxtaposition against the galaxy-spanning Empire, who is defeated by a meager force rebels and their teddy bear allies. At the end of the day, everything resolves in a way that promises things will be better for our heroes, even if they enlisted the help of stuffed animals.
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  • I-III: All of the prequel films

I can’t deny that they exist, just as I can’t deny to myself that I exist. As necessary as my conception and birth are to my present state of living, I’m glad I didn’t experience my parents’ copulation or the likely nasty and painful affair that was my birth from the womb. I cannot say the same for the prequel films, which I did experience to my great disappointment. Like any trauma that affects us, I have decided it best to look forward not back, and accept the prequels as a dark, yet necessary chapter.
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So what now? Well first of all, don’t make films that you’ll need to remake again two decades later by adding unnecessary new scenes and special effects. Don’t mar your work this way, and you should be golden. Seriously, though, the new songs and and Hayden Christensen’s sudden appearance in the newest revisions of Return of the Jedi are just horrid, even if the songs replaced were campy and 80s. Campy and 90s is infinitely worse.
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Don’t dumb it down for us. Lot’s of us older and aging fans don’t need to see a juvenalized retreatment of our beloved universe, nor do we want anymore teddy bear aliens, or Jar-Jar fucking Binks. Please pardon the expletive. Give us the appropriately shady, mature, yet still fun and adventurous setting that has enough mystery and enchantment that causes even the more jaded of us melt in our seats at the theater.

Keep it classy, Abrams. No contemporary humor. No commentaries on modern society that won’t make any sense in 2050. In fact, no commentaries whatsoever. Just give us Star Wars. Keep it about that, and we’ll be happy. Don’t try to make a film that leverages you into U.S. Presidency, just stick to what you know, and hopefully that will be enough. And learn more if you don’t know a lot. Please. No shame in admitting that.

Think about a classy film like “Lawrence of Arabia”. How many special-editioned, enhanced, revised, re-edited, re-visioned, versions of this film have you seen? None? Exactly!

Make a film that will stand the test of time. That’s all I ask.

If you have any thoughts, criticisms, or feelings you’d like to express on this matter, feel free to share them.