TV

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.

Rectify: A Ponderous and Luscious Season 1

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I do part time work in a watch store. Just the other day, I was helping a customer with replacing a battery for a watch he hadn’t worn in five years. While I did my work, he answered his phone while waiting at the counter. I don’t normally eavesdrop, but the content of his conversation struck me. After answering hello, he told the person on the other line that he had “got out on Sunday,” which was just two days prior.

By get out, he meant prison, where he had been for five years which is why his watch needed a new battery. While he continued talking I gleaned that he had spent his sentence in a few different locations. He also had no intention of going back again. Shockingly, just one week before his release, he witnessed a man get stabbed to death right in front of his cell.

He left the store with his shopping bags and still continued his phone call, but he accidentally left behind one item. No, not his watch. That would be ironic. Instead he left behind a custom made cookie with “I’m sorry” emblazoned upon it with bright frosting. Whether this gesture was meant for a victim or someone else who happened to suffer during his absence I didn’t know, but my heart nearly broke that the cookie wouldn’t be received. Thankfully, he returned and retrieved his cookie.

Naturally, the experience made me curious, but not about his crime. I was more curious about what happens when a man attempts to rejoin society after being in prison.

My curiosity led me to happen upon the TV series, “Rectify” while surfing Netflix, which depicts a man, Daniel Holden, returning home after being on death row for 19 years when new DNA evidence suggests he has been wrongly imprisoned.

First of all, this show is dense. That’s a good thing. The way the characters, themes, setting, and plot all weave together inextricably is engaging and satisfying. The setting, a small town in the heart of Georgia, is the perfect setting to explore themes of justice, morality, sex, and family. In fact, I felt like the Southern Gothic tone was straight out of a William Faulkner novel. The inherent prejudices that stem from conservatism and religion provide a perfect back drop to explore the struggles of a man who is at odds with a society that is bound by those things, and further tainted by back country corruption.

The cast and characters are absolutely amazing. The main character Daniel is portrayed as philosophical, intelligent, yet socially inept due to his imprisonment. He younger sister, his greatest champion, adores him and with her boyfriend-slash-lawyer has worked hard to secure his release. Daniel’s mother is strangely distant, perhaps a bit disoriented since she has moved on since the death of Daniel’s father. Daniel’s step father welcomes his wife’s son openly while his son from another marriage is equally resistant. Daniel takes a shine to his step brother’s wife, whose devotion to Southern Baptistry (or whatever it is called) offsets her husband’s cynicism.  And the there is Daniel’s teenage half brother who seems to adore him.

That may seem convoluted, but being from a strange southern family myself, this is quite the norm. Daniel’s character also functions as an audience surrogate, as his attempt to reacquaint himself with his home matches the audience’s attempt to get their bearings as well.

The themes are strongly portrayed in many of the characters, in which moral ambiguity keeps you on your toes as far as what to expect. There are no simple characters here, which isn’t to say that there are flawed heroes and sympathetic villains, which themselves are cliche.  What we have are characters who are divided by a lack of understanding of the prison life Daniel endured, and his lack of experience with anything else.  The society around him is composed of those who fear a monster walking freely in their midst, and those other outsiders and free thinkers who share in Daniel’s plight.

While the pace seems to meander a bit slowly, I personally don’t mind the more deliberate progress. The first season is only six episodes long, but they feel longer. I enjoyed being able to really absorb the interactions and almost surreal depictions. Helping with those depictions is the wonderful cinematography that seems to act like a narrator, giving us little cues between lines and scenes to remind us that there is more going on that each of the characters knows individually. Rarely does such a technical component of film jump out at me, but here its artfulness is impeccable.

The first season provided an exceptional television experience that is seldom matched, and I’m glad to know there is more in the next season and the upcoming third one beyond that. The tone of the series is on the darker side, with very little comedy or light heartedness that tends to get bundled in with other shows like Desperate Housewives, Twin Peaks, or even Orange is the New Black. This is actually a benefit, because what we get is a serious take on some serious subject matter that doesn’t rely on cheap tricks to fluff its content. It is a genuinely good drama with some of the highest quality writing I’ve seen in a long time.

The Mystery of the Winter Dragon

A Wheel of Time television pilot.

For real.

It aired in the early morning of 2/9/2015, in a cloud of mystery. I myself have not seen it, but the reactions according to Reddit have been a chorus of disbelief, confusion, surprise, and dashed hopes.

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According to those who have seen it, the production values are cheap, but many claim that it could be worse. Airing in a late night time slot, Winter Dragon depicts the prologue from Robert Jordan’s Eye of the World in which Lews (misspelled Lewis in some TV descriptions) Therin Telemon is confronted by his nemesis Ishamael, who is surprisingly played by Billy Zane.

Yes, Billy Zane.

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What is going on?

Further thickening the mystery is the tragic death of the director just days after an alleged whirlwind production of the pilot. This strange revelation of events has left the Wheel of Time fan community in a daze as we are left with pieces of a strange puzzle.

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There are suspicions that this pilot was  made in order for the production company, Red Eagle Entertainment, to stake it’s claim on the film rights which are allegedly about to expire. An actual production that airs on TV may air them to keep the rights longer, giving them time to develop this into something more. With the Game of Thrones series proving to be wildly popular, many fans hope for the same with WoT.

On the other hand, this pilot may just be a petty effort to retain the rights. The lack of press and publicity, and it’s obscure premier lend credence to this unfortunate idea, and we may in fact not see anything come from this like we would hope.

Surely The Wheel of Time deserves a less dubious introduction. As the mystery unfolds, we may learn more so as our real world time rolls on. Until then we are left with the saying common to the series, “The wheel weaves what the wheel wills.”