True Romance (1993)

Alabama (Patricia Arquette) and Clarence (Christian Slater) enjoy the same movies — it must be love. “True Romance.”

Directed by Tony Scott. Written by Quentin Tarantino. Produced by Gary Barber, Samuel Hadida, Steve Perry, Bill Unger. Music by Hans Zimmer. Photographed by Jeffrey L. Kimball. Edited by Michael Tronick, Christian Wagner. Production designed by Benjamín Fernández. Starring Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Dennis Hopper, Val Kilmer, Gary Oldman, Brad Pitt, Christopher Walken, Bronson Pinchot, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Rapaport, Saul Rubinek, Conchata Ferrell, James Gandolfini, Anna Levine, Victor Argo, Paul Bates, Chris Penn, Tom Sizemore.

When you strip away its graphic violence, drug deals, prostitution, pimps, evil lowlifes and sleazy Hollywood executives, Tony Scott’s True Romance is a downright sweet movie. One could imagine a movie with this title and these elements, from director Tony Scott and writer Quentin Tarantino, to use its love story insincerely and with a wink. The very starkness of the title True Romance speaks to a presumably soon-to-be-revealed ironic distance. You would expect a stylistic exercise.

And yes, True Romance is a stylistic exercise. Yet it is also honest about its central characters, even within a hyper-realistic setting, and their love story is real, convincing, and charming. The two heroes, Clarence (Christian Slater) and Alabama (Patricia Arquette) are fugitives—but they’re running from the Mafia, not the cops, and when the cops do get involved later, it’s through a series of misunderstandings that would be at home in a screwball comedy. Clarence’s main goal, which is to sell a suitcase full of cocaine to a mid-level drug distributor (Saul Rubinek), is illegal, certainly, but we respect his honest attempt to exploit a morally neutral system that’s already in place, since he otherwise has no idea what to do with the drugs. And, as he points out, he prices them knowingly at a bargain to make things easier. Not that it does, but good for him.

Even the couple’s more unseemly crimes can be allowed. Both Alabama and Clarence are capable of killing, but I wouldn’t exactly call them murderers. Not only are there Sicilian mobsters pursuing them, but these guys are vicious and evil, as a hotel room confrontation with one tough guy proves. As for the man that Clarence killed and stole the drugs from, a repulsive pimp named Dexter Spivy (Gary Oldman), well…Clearence only went to him to stick up for Alabama, a former prostitute, and we soon learn that spending one minute with Dexter is reason enough to justify any homicide.

What I’m trying to say is that even though True Romance is about criminals, these people have a code and are considered about their crimes. They’re even nice about them, all things considered. This isn’t a cheap attempt at unwelcome irony, or a cynical stab at giving a lovers-on-the-lam adventure a different spin. It’s a methodical effort to make the point that all criminals have their reasons, and the movie invites us to judge the reasons, not the actions. When you do that, Clarence and Alabama come out looking pretty good.

I said before that this is a screenplay by Quentin Tarantino. Can’t you tell? Tarantino often gets labeled as an innovator of marrying crime fiction to pop culture—he writes stories about characters who watch, love and remember movies. We see that here, as we meet Clarence at a Detroit bar trying to invite a girl to a Sonny Chiba marathon. He doesn’t succeed, but he goes solo and meets Alabama, falling so hopelessly in love that he takes her first to his comic book shop and then to his bed, which in Quentin Tarantino-world sounds like the right order of priorities. When Clarence eventually meets Lee Donowitz (Saul Rubinek), a B-grade Hollywood producer and drug kingpin, the two men first bond enthusiastically about his movies. If Tarantino has a consistent theme that carries through all his work, it’s that movies are cultural currency; they create shared experiences that create reference points, conversations, and relationships.

But if Tarantino is a talented screenwriter (and he is), then he doesn’t get enough credit for his supreme talent: telling stories about morally questionable people that have as much heart and wit as a good drama, or even a romantic comedy. His characters are capable of gruesome actions, but they have feelings, passions and smarts. Tarantino helped pioneer that juxtaposition in Pulp Fiction (1994), a movie where each character, no matter how vicious, has vulnerabilities that define them past their capacity for murder. Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) and Pumpkin (Tim Roth) are stick-up artists whose love is so genuine they could be related to Clarence and Alabama. Vincent (John Travolta) takes out Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) and while he is scared about getting too close to his boss’ wife, his affection for her is real. Even Jules (Samuel L. Jackson), and his change of heart about his profession, is infused with thought and consideration. Tarantino’s lasting legacy, in Pulp Fiction and his later films, is that he invented characters who are criminals and make no apologies for that, but are also as clever, passionate and driven as any traditional hero.

True Romance, which was released the year before Pulp Fiction, contains many of these elements, and conforms to Tarantino’s predilection for predictable-seeming characters who end up surprising us…not for cheap laughs, but because I think this reflects Tarantino’s general worldview that people are surprising. There’s delight and invention humming through every scene, like in most of his work, and yet he keeps his eye on the ball and makes sure the love story is in the forefront. There’s lots of stylistic nonsense swirling throughout, but I think that’s calculated, as True Romance is a pop culture vision where the characters know they are in a movie, and why not? They love movies.

The success of the love story in True Romance is a testament to sharp writing and perfect casting. Christian Slater is a good-looking guy, sure, but he has a presence that, while we enjoy, we can certainly imagine getting on some people’s nerves. We understand why he might not have many friends, and that he’s unlucky with women. When Alabama comes to him, it’s like a gift from God that he’ll defend violently. Alabama, who starts a long tradition of Tarantino heroines who are abused but find strength, is wonderfully played by Arquette, who finds the character’s buoyancy, and makes everything else subservient to it. Not many actresses would be able to pull off her response to Clarence coming home and telling her he’s killed her pimp: “That is so romantic.” She does.

The strength of the two central performances is important, because True Romance is jam-packed with character actors who threaten to walk away with the picture. There’s Gary Oldman as the dreadlocked pimp Dexter, who has an intense scene with Clarence that escalates with precision that is pure Tarantino. Rubinek’s producer is foul-mouthed but hardly evil; it’s telling how even in the middle of a drug deal, he pauses to ask about a tangential character who wants to be an actor and asks “Is he any good?” And there’s Val Kilmer as Clarence’s “Mentor” inside his head, who is basically Elvis, and who really has to be heard to be belied. Just like in The Doors (1991), Kilmer shows exceptional skill at impersonating a famous rock star. Know you know the kind of movie this is when I tell you Elvis shows up for a few scenes as the main character’s conscience. But only a few scenes.

Look who else shows up. Brad Pitt plays the stoner roommate of Dick (Michael Rappaport), who helps the pair of lovers when they move to Los Angeles as a transition point to starting a new life. Samuel L. Jackson turns up for a scene as a drug dealer, as does Conchata Farrell as a casting agent. James Gandolfini has one scene as a tough guy who visits Alabama when she’s alone in their hotel room, and it’s a scene you won’t soon forget. Even sitcom star Bronson Pinchot appears as a nervous guy in Rubinek’s entourage who turns into an informant—if you ever want to see the guy who played Balki with a face full of cocaine, then here’s your chance. And the movie’s last third is almost completely dominated by Tom Sizemore, who plays a vice detective who’s as enthusiastic as a talk show host, while Chris Penn backs him up as Ed McMahon to his Carson.

The movie’s best scene comes at about the halfway point, as Vincenzo (Christopher Walken), the Sicilian mob boss, comes to visit Clifford (Dennis Hopper), Clarence’ father, who was the last person to see the boy. What follows is a tense exchange, wonderfully written by Tarantino, that combines humor with encroaching dread in just the right proportions. Both actors are exemplary, but I particularly like the little dying laugh that Walken gives himself towards the end, even when enraged by what he’s hearing. The speech, which speculates on Sicilian parentage, is chockablock with racist epithets, is not a racist scene, because it’s about the Hopper character manipulating a situation by using charged language. It’s risky and daring, and it gets away with it.

The film’s best quality is actually its worst quality: there’s an embarrassment of riches that screws with the movie’s momentum. Walken, as delightful as he is, only appears for a scene, which is odd since he should be a driving force of the conflict. For the rest of the movie, the Mafia angle is carried by smaller characters. Hopper only gets a couple of scenes. Rubinek is such a vivid character, but he’s only briefly sketched. I’m not criticizing Tarantino’s approach for making every character so colorful, but I do wish each character had more to do over the course of the film. And I do wish there was a more imaginative climax for all the remaining ones than a four-way Mexican standoff, which devolves into overblown chaos that is a little too reminiscent of the conclusion to Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992). The entire movie is pitched at the level of a fever dream, and at the end I think it gets a little too fevered.

Still, the movie works. It works because of its performances, its sense of humor, its well-calibrated moral compass, and because Tarantino’s script is ambitious in its juggling of elements, and constantly shocking and inventive. It it’s a worthy piece to the Tarantino script family, which extends not just to the films he directed but also his screenplays like Natural Born Killers (1994) and From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), with their deeply surprising script turns. And it extends even to movies he simply appears in, like Sleep With Me (1994), in which his character takes a moment to mark the homosexual subtext of Top Gun. No other writer/director is as ambitious and endearing at welding ludicrous flights of conversational fancy to subject matters (crime, romance, etc) that should be taken seriously. He makes it all work, because his characters, while often at odd angles to each other, are never at too far a remove from the material.

Like Top Gun, True Romance was directed by Tony Scott, a sterling technician and director of action pictures (Crimson Tide [1995], Enemy of the State [1998], Man on Fire [2004], Unstoppable [2010]). Scott’s trademarks were that of male-oriented action, and a stylized visual look that, as his career went on, only got more stylized (see the insane ramblings of Domino [2005]). Here he keeps himself mainly reserved, resorting sometimes to canted angles and locations thick with smoke, color and depth…much like his brother, Ridley.

Scott’s stylistic touches get in the way once or twice in True Romance, especially in an early scene where Clarence takes Alabama to the comic shop he works at; there’s so many shadows and depth that we feel disconnected to the material. But for the most part, Scott’s choices work, since Alabama and Clarence are not real people, they’re hyper-stylized people in a hyper-stylized world, and they’re love is so pure and true that together it’s like they’re starring in a movie that’s unspooling in their own heads…a lurid, hyperkinetic movie perhaps much like True Romance. And I really l like for how Scott shoots True Romance, aided by cinematographer Jeffrey L. Kimball, placing Detroit in steely cool blues, and then moving to Los Angeles for sun-dappled hazy browns that really make both cities look good.

Something Scott never got enough credit for was his attention to actors. Many of action filmmakers give little thought to their principals, but Scott clearly liked working with them, and wanted to make them look good. Even outside the examples in True Romance, let’s look at the roster of other talented performers he worked with: Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Denzel Washington, Robert de Niro, Brad Pitt, Robert Redford, Will Smith, Gene Hackman, Eddie Murphy, Nicole Kidman, Jon Voight…it goes on. Scott took great steps to be an actor’s filmmaker even within relatively shallow big-budget studio adventure films (with a few notable exceptions). Scott was also deeply progressive in the casting of his tentpole action pictures; it’s telling that an accomplished actor like Denzel Washington chose to work with him multiple times, and vice versa.

Scott’s favorite subject was the urban, rough-and-tumble male. He liked tough guys, and occasionally white-collar men (and some women) who transformed into men of action. He loved photographing technology and cityscapes, and had a keen eye for making real (not stagebound) environments look evocative, expressive, and controlled, scaling back just from the edge of stylistic excess. He also valued experimentation—pushing the limits of how a film can look, advancing technology to accommodate his visions, and even embracing weird little touches that helped make the traditional a little different. (In the Denzel Washington thriller Man on Fire, for example, note how sometimes he puts dialogue on screen in dynamic subtitles, to indicate a dramatic headspace.) Sometimes his editing was a oppressive, but no one could argue that he didn’t love to make movies, and any artist who wants to experiment with the form deserves respect.

Scott, who died last week from a suicide attempt, leaves behind a body of work that is one of the more influential in today’s Hollywood. His Top Gun (1986), for better or worse, pointed the way towards the era of high concept blockbuster packages. But creating a genre isn’t easy, because if it was then everyone would do it, and we can only appreciate that Scott did it very well. His best film is probably True Romance, because while it has tons of action, it’s got quirky characters and a propulsive energy that speaks to a perfect union between writing and directing. Scott in many ways resembles the two central characters in True Romance: while frowned on by some, he did what he loved, all the way to the end, how he wanted it, and didn’t care what people think. There’s a purity to that approach. As true as romance.

This review is humbly dedicated to the memory of Tony Scott (1944-2012).

GRADE: B+

Xanadu (1980)

Ghostbusters! I mean…Xanadu! Olivia Newton-John is attacked by a bad effect.

Directed by Robert Greenwald. Screenplay by Richard Christian Danus, Marc Reid Rubel. Produced by Lawrence Gordon. Music by Barry De Vorzon. Photographed by Victor J. Kemper. Edited by Dennis Virkler. Production designed by John W. Corso. Starring Olivia Newton-John, Gene Kelly, Michael Beck, James Sloyan, Dimitra Arliss, Katie Hanley, Fred McCarren, Renn Woods.

Xanadu is a big miscalculation of a movie musical, consisting of one part Olivia Newton-John, one part twisted-up Greek mythology and two parts forgettable songs, all wrapped up in one story that is seriously dumb. It’s the story of a struggling artist inspired by a living, breathing muse (yes, a muse) to transform a dilapidated warehouse into a nightclub and rollerskating rink named Xanadu, and if you can think of better things for a muse to invest her precious time in, then so can I. I could think of musicals more corny than this one, like Oklahoma!, although at least Oklahoma! has the excuse of being set in a place where they actually grow corn. Xanadu shares the name of the palatial estate that Charles Foster Kane shambles through in the closing scenes of Citizen Kane, but there’s very little that Xanadu has in common with Kane, except that in both movies, the establishments named Xanadu are large monuments to wretched excess.

Actually, both Xanadus are inspired by the poem Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which Xanadu the movie quotes several times, just to show you its own literacy. The poem, which refers to the summer palace of Chinese emperor Kublai Khan (not Kubla), doesn’t really seem to have much to say about why turning a building in a crummy Los Angeles neighborhood into a roller skate disco is a good idea, but Coleridge is deep, man, so I won’t argue. Definitely missing from the Coleridge poem are any descriptions of the Greek muses, who in this movie spring to life from a mural that has been helpfully painted on a wall nearby the apartment of tortured artist Sonny Malone (Michael Beck). All of the muses are very beautiful women, because that comes with the muse territory. One in particular, Terpsichore, a.k.a. Kira, a.k.a. Olivia Newton-John, falls in love with Sonny, and given the fact that she’s thousands of years old, this may make her cinema’s first cougar.

Kira, as I’ll refer to her for the rest of the review, is basically a Magic Pixie Dream Girl that is powered by actual magic. A Magic Pixie Dream Girl, we remember, is a love interest who only exists to be a supportive, epiphany-dispensing partner for a hero, bereft of any personality of her own. That’s Kira, who is the goddess of dance and chorus. The muses by definition take an obsessive interest in human behavior, so we can forgive Kira for her tunnel vision in the matter, even though you’d imagine the stack of cases on her desk must be sky-high after she spends weeks on this little roller rink trifle. But why the lack of curiosity in who she is and what she thinks? Because Xanadu is a wish-fulfillment fantasy where a male artist (essentially an avatar for the screenwriter and director) is told by a supreme being how awesome he is. Male artists love telling stories like this, and for some reason truly believe that we love hearing them.

Now about Olivia Newton-John. She’s not very good in Xanadu, in much the same way that in Grease (1978), she’s also not very good.  In Grease, she was Sandy, a goody two-shoes who realized that to get her man she had to become a leather-jacket wearing skank, and did so. In Xanadu, Newton-John again plays two roles: that of a Greek muse and that of a performer at the Xanadu nightclub in the grand finale. Yes, technically they are the same character, but that doesn’t explain why Newton-John is so much more relaxed and confident during that blow-out of a bad taste climax. Then you realize that while Newton-John doesn’t really seem to know how to play a muse, she definitely knows how to play Olivia Newton-John, and that’s basically all that the ending of Xanadu asks her to do. It’s like a concert video with a big, long, drab slab of a story leading up to it, a story that no one seems to truly believe in.

So let’s get back to Sonny, a half-assed Los Angeles bohemian who makes his living reproducing full-size album covers, which is a lame job, you know? One day he bumps into Kira at Palisades Park, and then when he arrives at work he’s amazed at the fact that a woman who looks just like Kira happens to be on the album cover he’s replicating. Maybe it’s an Olivia Newton-John album? Or maybe the guy who painted the mural did the artwork? By the way, has anyone noticed that there’s a mural in Santa Monica that has eight muses missing from it? Hello?

Right. Sorry. Sonny, appropriately enough in a movie about muses, has a Greek chorus in the other people who work in his tiny art studio, who all spend way too much time fretting about whether Sonny’s gonna get fired and what he’s doing with his life, and not enough time wondering the same about themselves. They’re all lorded over by the penny-pinching Mr. Simpson (James Sloyan), who butts heads with Sonny because the young man’s such an upstart arrogant artist, and he should really be in this profession for the money. He’s the man, you see. And Sonny is not the man. He’s so not the man that during one scene he chases Kira by asking to borrow a young lady’s motorbike, and she smiles and sexily tells him to bring it back in person. Aww. Everybody really does love Sonny, although if you asked the movie why that is, it would probably harrumph and shuffle its index cards nervously.

The movie’s attention to detail is not exactly impressive. Mr. Simpson, who is set up to be a low-key adversary (secondary only to the soon-to-appear Zeus), gnashes his teeth a lot and pushes Sonny around, but nothing much comes of it. This is the kind of movie where Simpson orders Sonny to come to his office in five minutes, and the movie shows us the intervening moments in real time. What happens to Simpson in the end? Nothing. Sonny quits and he’s forgotten. Because when you’re following your dreams, who cares about the man? Nor do we get much information on why Sonny believes raising Xanadu will be so successful. Just punch-drunk on muse-love, I guess.

Let’s explain why Gene Kelly is in the movie. Yes, Gene Kelly, who appeared in the single best movie musical of all time [Singin’ in the Rain, 1958), and now appears in one of the worst, in what I can only assume was a fit of desperation brought on by bills. He plays Danny McGuire, the same character name he had in Cover Girl (1944) opposite Rita Hayworth, because referencing a good movie inside your bad one is always a good idea. Danny, a former big-band leader who played with all the greats, finds a kindred spirit in Sonny. Sonny, as we said earlier, is perfect and everyone loves him, and he proves his perfection to Danny by bonding over Benny Goodman. See, this is how we know Sonny is an Old Soul, and why he would be the perfect person to bring a roller-rink that combines big band with rock and roll to Los Angeles. If you’re thinking this all sounds like some garish camp version of Field of Dreams, you’re still envisioning a movie that’s better than this is.

As I said, Kira falls in love with Sonny. And of course Sonny falls in love with Kira, because Newton-John was like the Taylor Swift of her day: no screen presence, no acting ability, but man, what a smile. Kira, who neglects to explain to Sonny that their love is ill-fated due to the ephemeral nature of muses, sure leads the poor guy on, but we discover she has a habit of that. Danny, in a dreamlike reverie, remembers his old big-band partner, and wouldn’t you know, it was Kira! That two-timing muse! How does Danny react when he learns that a former romance is actually an immortal being who is now trying to help build a nightclub roller rink? He’s not really allowed to have a reaction. So much for that.

The romance lacks all sense of passion. Kira is wishy-washy naif who seems to delight in tormenting the lovestruck Sonny, and the way Newton-John plays it, that’s not the hand of fate that’s being dealt, it’s Kira’s own vapidity. I’m not saying Olivia Newton-John is dumb at all; stars are rarely dumb, because it takes smarts to make a name for yourself. What I’m saying is that she’s not a seasoned enough actress to convince us the love story is real, or that Kira has any weight behind her claims of muse-ness, or that Kira is anything other than a fantasy woman wrapped up in flighty airheaded-ness. She plays it with such unrestrained innocence that when she’s with Sonny, she looks like she needs a chaperone, and when she shows up in roller skates, we wonder who tied them for her. And let’s not ignore poor Michael Beck as Sonny, who seems like a nice enough chap but has the presence of a linoleum post, but with less purpose.

Xanadu, as a narrative, has this peculiar habit of pausing for outrageous interludes that seem at right angles to everything else. There’s not just musical numbers; that’s expected. There’s also an animated sequence (by Don Bluth) that doesn’t seem to need to be animated, and there’s a trip to a digital Mt. Olympus that even on a bad-special-effects level doesn’t work (and all import is dashed when Kira greets her love with “Sonny! Howdja git heya?”). And once the nightclub is close to finished, Danny, Sonny and friends go for a night on the town and are able to conjure a whole clatch of sweaty, peculiar dancers who are up for all kinds of subpar Bob Fosse-esque adventures. Where did these people come from? Did they wander off the street, simply swayed by the music of the gods and the charms of Terpsichore? I guess. This scene happens in every musical, where a crowd becomes a single instrument in a humungous production number, but better musicals make us not question that, and almost every musical ever made is better than Xanadu.

The musical numbers are a hodgepodge of disco, rock, and pop, which feels like a cynical ploy to capture several audiences at once; remember this was made in 1980, when the era of disco was coming to a close, so no wonder they hedged their bets. Only one sequence in the entire movie works, and that’s the closing number, where dancers skate around in odd patterns and employ bizarre acrobatics all to title title tune, which, I admit, is pretty darn catchy. But even then, the songs are choreographed with little wit or style, presenting a flurry of activity and then processing it through camera angles that flatten and cheapen the entire look (which looks kinda cheap to begin with). The staging of this number, which is the best scene in the movie, is pedestrian and confusing, as if it was shot on a TV budget and schedule. Other moments, like Sonny’s courtship of Kira to “Magic” on a darkened soundstage, are just confusing, and are as romantic as a tax audit.

I think the fundamental problem of Xanadu is that there’s just no juice to anything. Certainly not the songs, but also not the love story, which is bathed in clichés and performed by actors so indifferent they can barely be bothered to make themselves look good, let alone their characters. Sonny and Kira have no chemistry, Sonny’s dreams are trite, and the whole enterprise feels resigned, as if the filmmakers knew they were making a roller-skating musical, weren’t happy about it, and couldn’t muster up even any phony enthusiasm. One moment is fun, and it’s where Kira takes an unusual route in persuading Sonny her story is legitimate by turning on the TV, where the actors in the movie being broadcast break character and start talking to Sonny. The film needed more flights of fancy like that.

Is there room for movie musicals like Xanadu, which pride themselves on camp and corn? I sure hope so. But there’s not much room for Xanadu itself, because it never finds a reason for being. I’m not jaded enough to think that Xanadu, in concept, could not work. All I do know is that as presented, it does not work. In 2007, a Broadway musical based on the movie opened, which is as improbable a thing as I could possibly imagine. But then, I’m not the guy who dreamed up Xanadu. Ah, the dreamers. Gods bless them.

GRADE: D

NOTE: This movie is still better than Rock of Ages.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

Phantasm’ll gore ya. “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.”

Directed by Eric Radomski, Bruce W. Timm; with additional sequences directed by Kevin Altieri, Boyd Kirkland, Frank Paur, Dan Riba. Screenplay by Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko, Michael Reaves; story by Alan Burnett; based upon characters created by Bob Kane and published by D.C. Comics. Produced by Benjamin Melniker. Music by Shirley Walker. Edited by Al Breitenbach. Starring the voices of Kevin Conroy, Dana Delany, Hart Bochner, Stacy Keach, Abe Vigoda, Dick Miller, John P. Ryan, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Bob Hastings, Robert Costanzo, Mark Hamill.

For many fans, the definitive filmed take on the Batman legend remains not Tim Burton’s gothic fantasy or Chris Nolan’s urban crime epic, but instead a little television show called Batman: The Animated Series, which aired on Fox (and later, The WB) from 1992-1995. The series, which drew heavily from the comics and were inspired (aesthetically) by the stunningly-animated Max Fleischer Superman cartoons of the 1940’s, were exceptional cartoons that transcended their afterschool kiddie-show positioning. They were smart, sophisticated, well-told stories about one of the most popular of comic book characters, delivered with care and affection by a talented team of artists that weren’t afraid to push the boundaries of television cartoons (in interviews, the creators now chuckle at stories of how, by animating their backgrounds on black paper, they approached the legal limit of visual darkness for television). And any Batman stories play with the trappings of film noir, but Phantasm just plain is one, and a good one.

Produced at the height of the animated series’ tenure, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm serves as a respectable filmic representative of the series as a whole, even though it was born out of compromise. Originally envisioned as a direct-to-video small-scale affair, Phantasm was subjected to a late-in-the-game reconsideration, quickly reformatted into a widescreen theatrical motion picture, the only non-live-action Batman movie project to date. Normally, a business decision like that would result in inferior product, but Phantasm is an exception: a well-crafted, exciting animated thriller that for many is just plain the definitive Batman film, even in the wake of the Nolan movies. I’m not sure I’m exactly in that camp, but I concede the case can be made.

Like many movies based on television shows, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is essentially a bigger-budget reworking of things that demonstrably paid off on TV. You have Batman, voiced by the invaluable Kevin Conroy, his design shucking the then-popular body armor of Burton’s vision in favor of gray tights and a cape that looks improbably cool. And Alfred (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr), who is the model of support for put-upon Bruce Wayne…not just physically, but emotionally and morally. And there’s a supreme test of Batman’s values. Here, a lookalike begins taking out mobsters, effectively framing Batman for murder, and making him the center of a police manhunt led by the slimy Arthur Reeves (Hart Bochner), much to the chagrin of Comissioner Gordon (Bob Hastings). All of these elements were poked at in the TV series, and here they are given a broad canvas to breathe and play. There’s a threat on another front, too, as Batman once again tangoes with The Joker (Mark Hamill), who was the breakout villain of the series, that status heavily indebted to Hamill’s hilariously chilling portrayal.

The film intercuts between Batman’s attempt to unmask Phantasm, the police’s attempts to ensnare the Bat, run-ins with The Joker and flashbacks that detail Batman’s early days as he targets thieves, refines the Batcave, and makes himself a costume that will strike fear into his enemies (many of these beats are reverently duplicated in Christopher Nolan’s origin film, Batman Begins). One would think such plot points would fall under the curse of “prequelitis,” which is a movie malady where scenes set in the past can do little of interest other than inform of us things we already know. But there is a method to Phantasm’s expansive scope: the proto-Batman sequences lend insight not just in one direction of the plot threads, but multiple.

I’ll be careful to preserve plot secrets. Astonishingly for a Batman cartoon movie, there are some. This is a tightly-plotted film (scripted by series veterans Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko and Michael Reaves) that doesn’t waste a breath, probably because it can’t afford to. Aanimation, after all, despite being ghettoized by some as a form of entertainment, is exhorbidantly expensive, so every second counts.  After seeing Nolan’s near-three hour epic finale The Dark Knight Rises (which I quite liked), the brevity on display–and the confidence therein–is a breath of fresh air.

Let’s step carefully through a major chunk of the story, which involves Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delaney), a woman who, within the flashbacks, gives Bruce hope before it is cruelly dashed for mysterious reasons. In the present, Andrea returns to Gotham City, and her connection to the person behind the Phantasm is suspicious. In print, the whole enterprise sounds like a trumped-up TV episode with a disposable love interest, but the screenplay is surprisingly considering, giving Andrea weight and presence in both her romance with Bruce and her criminal connections. This is helped especially by Delaney’s really quite good performance. She’s a character we end up caring about, and since the flashbacks reveal that she is the formative woman in the depths of the Batman mythos, I am pleased to report that she earns her place, and then some.

Mask of the Phantasm is of course a comic book film, but it’s also a surprisingly reverent entry within the canon of film noir. Of course Batman, with his gothic setting and neverending fight against evil, has his roots in noir, especially pulp magazine stories and the novels of W.R. Burnett, Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain. And the Gotham City of Mask of the Phantasm, with its exaggerated perspectives, long shadows and slanted angles, creates a steel wilderness inspired by German expressionism. The effect, which evokes a fractured psychology, is a constant, oppressive force that collectively creates pressure on our protagonist.

But there are more noir values here. Let’s look closely. Our hero is a loner with a dark past who has a fractured relationship with the police; despite being ostensibly on the side of the angels, he is very easily labeled a murder suspect thanks to Kafkaeske, paranoid logic. His foes are criminals who aren’t just evildoers, they represent the threat of good succumbing to their odious level. There is a central mystery, as Batman tries to discover who the Phantasm is (many noirs begin with mystery but end far from resolution). There are flashbacks buried in the narrative that supply tragic undertones, and an atmosphere of guilt, depression and shame (see Out of Past [1947]).

And like most great film noirs, there is a woman from the past, Andrea, who like her predecessors is a hard-edged femme fatale who has secrets, and is troubled. She’s warm enough to engender affection, and cold enough to spurn it. What she represents, and whether or not she can give true happiness is an open question, and like all noirs, Mask of the Phantasm has a relevatory third act that shouldn’t be spoiled, and maybe shouldn’t be nitpicked too closely, just experienced for its pure emotional wallop. If film noir can be seen as the stories of men who stand over a psychological abyss (and I think it can), then it is relevant that Phantasm with two characters standing at the edge of separate infinities. There’s also dialogue that underlines the moral ambiguities, which is essentially what film noir is all about. Phantasm, though ostensibly a children’s film, believes in its noir values, unlike Burton’s Batman films, which essentially used them as empty signifiers.

There’s a sensibility on display in Mask of the Phantasm that is refreshing for a movie like this: it treats kids’ entertainment seriously. The central conflict is between that of a vigilante who doesn’t commit murder vs. one who does, and the script explores that conflict with startling depth, not supplying easy answers while still preserving the heroism of Batman, in honest fashion. What results is a firm discussion of morality (again informed by noir dynamics). This is heady stuff for a kids movie, but it’s also nutritious content that operates on multiple levels. Plus, there’s some stuff snuck in there for the adults that aren’t just dumb jokes. Watch carefully to see how well a love scene can be suggested without being depicted.

The film earns every letter of its PG rating and steps no further, but it has a lot of fun dancing on the edge, in a manner that many toothless “family” films don’t enjoy. It isn’t afraid to be creepy, or weird, or dark. Consider the character of The Joker, who appears midway through and thoroughly takes control of the picture. He’s a cartoonish figure (there’s little of the sickness of the Heath Ledger portrayal here), but he also earns his stripes as a force of evil: his one solution to a mobster’s worries is as grotesque as it is economical. He’s a formidable villain, both physically and mentally for the Dark Knight (it’s neat that he figures out the whole mystery way before Batman does, if you go back over the narrative). And yet Batman is forced, organically, into a situation where he must protect The Joker, in an explosive finale that involves a boy, a girl, and a phantasm. Maybe more than that. Maybe less.

What I like most about Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is that it asks the fundamental questions that drive the Batman legend, and allows them full resonance. How odd for an animated movie to do more for character development and theme than several live action movies, but there it is. What’s best of all is that by the end of everything, Batman has been hurt and heartbroken, again and again, but he retains his code. The code is paramount. It’s everything. Or, as Sam Spade says in The Maltese Falcon: “When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it.” Indeed. At every point, a man–or a Batman–is supposed to do something. That’s noir in a nutshell. And it’s Mask of the Phantasm all over.

GRADE: A

Total Recall (2012)

Excuse me, Mr. Quaid (Colin Farrell). Have we met before? “Total Recall.”

Directed by Len Wiseman. Screenplay by Kurt Wimmer, Mark Bomback; based on a screen story by Ronald Shusett, Dan O’Bannon, Jon Povill, Kurt Wimmer; based upon the short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick. Produced by Toby Jaffe, Neal H. Moritz. Music by Harry Gregson-Williams. Photographed by Paul Cameron. Edited by Christian Wagner. Production designed by Patrick Tatopoulos. Starring Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, Bryan Cranston, Bokeem Woodbine, Bill Nighy, John Cho.

It’s such an intriguing premise. An everyman from the future, seeking some desperately-needed entertainment, signs up for an advanced procedure where the memories of a vacation are implanted into his head—memories so detailed that his brain will process it just like the real thing. But then something happens: while attempting to get memory implants, our hero learns that he has already been implanted with a lifetime of memories that constitute a false identity. In “reality,” he is a secret agent caught between two sides of a planet-wide conflict, and everyone is trying to kill him. That’s the basic plot engine that drives Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 film Total Recall (much expanded from a short story by Philip K. Dick), and now here’s the same plot again for Len Wiseman’s 2012 remake, which starts well enough, has some nifty visual effects and arguably good performances…but it’s cold, and doesn’t play enough with the central ideas at its core; it ultimately starts as a relatively smart sci-fi actioner, and ends up a dumb one.

The original film, which is the middle piece of a little sci-fi action trilogy that Verhoeven made in the 80’s/90’s (the bookends are Robocop [1987] and Starship Troopers [1997]), has certainly dated in its visuals, cheesy one-liners and over-the-top violence. But it also had its hands on a terrific conceit, one that eagle-eyed movie watchers will recognize as a twist on an old Alfred Hitchcock trope: instead of the innocent man wrongly accused, here is the guilty man who thinks he’s an innocent man wrongly accused. And Verhoeven played the paranoid fantasy to the hilt, especially in the way reality continued to fall from beneath its hero’s feet, even deep within the narrative (a sensibility that Dick, the godfather of mind-screwing sci-fi cyberpunk, would have approved of). The new Total Recall lacks that complexity, and lacks much interest in the inherent paradoxes within the source material; while both versions end with pell-mell action sequences, Verhoeven, a cunning satirist, undercut the material in interesting ways, up until the very last shot. Not so here. It’s non-stop action, and you’re either in or you’re out.

So, fine. Let’s be in. The new one stars Colin Farrell, subbing for Arnold Schwarzenegger, and he delivers a solid performance as a put-upon everyman named Douglas Quaid in Australia, which is one of two continents that can still support life in the future (the other being the “Federation of England”). The Brits live in luxury, while down under the citizens are crammed into squalid hovels that stack on top of each other within a teeming super-city. The commentary on class divides is…there, I guess. Every day Australians commute to England to toil in menial jobs, and they do it through a massive commuter rail-style chute called “The Fall” that plunges through the center of the Earth and out the other side, driving through the Earth’s core like it’s no big thing. Uh-huh. Quaid, who is happily married to police officer Lori (Kate Beckinsale), wants something more out of life, so he goes to Rekall, a shabby memory-implanting company that has the look and feel of a high-tech opium den.

Quaid is a fan of spy novels, so he signs up for Rekall’s “secret agent” package, and that’s when his reality switches tracks like a train set. A sleazy doctor notes something is wrong and immediately pulls a gun on him, and then soldiers burst in and try to take Quaid into custody. Even at home, Quaid isn’t safe, because Lori, after hearing his story, drops her compassionate façade and tries to kill him, leading to a chase through their hellhole neighborhood that is really quite well done. Quaid, now scared and confused, is led to a message from…himself, telling him that he’s been implanted with false memories, a sham marriage and a phony life. There are more scraps for him to find as he tries to piece together his old identity, which may involve Melina (Jessica Biel), a fragrant revolutionary whose feelings are clearly hurt when Quaid says, for the hundredth time, that he doesn’t remember her. And there are other figures like Matthias (Bill Nighy), a rebel leader, and his ideological opponent Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston), the evil ruler of England.

That’s probably enough of the plot to relate (familiar as it is). What I will say is that it opens up a series of improbable-but-entertaining action sequences that feel like the greatest hits of Blade Runner, The Fifth Element, Minority Report, and even a little Super Mario Brothers (a scene involving an elevator access corridor leading to a maze of shifting vertical and diagonal blocks seems ready-made for an eventual video game). It’s done very well, even though everything is an echo of better material. Patrick Tatopoulus’ production design is derivative but detailed, and I have to fully disclose that I love this kind of stuff, like the little underground shops that Quaid passes by on a trip to Chinatown, or the magnetic highway of the future that still has pileups and exit signs that go by way too fast. The movie lives in its fanciful settings and action sequences, and Wiseman helms them well.

What he ultimately misses, however, are many trace elements of humanity. Once Quaid learns who he really is, his long-term memory kicks in and he goes into full-on Jason Bourne overdrive, becoming a man of action with little conversation. Although he seems appropriately scared at first, he acquits himself so well that he eventually becomes unrelatable. Farrell, who is arguably a better actor than Schwarzenegger, nevertheless gives a less effective performance, because Schwarzenegger was given more chances to think and process—the remake’s busier pace doesn’t exactly help the scraps of character development that we need. The original also had fun with Arnold’s iconic status by subverting it in the early scenes involving domestic tranquility. When we learn that he’s “really” a spy, of course we buy in…and maybe we shouldn’t. That’s kind of the point, in a way.

Beckinsale, whose character is upgraded into a major adversary for the remake, is clearly having fun in the role of the good wife gone bad, but she lacks the spark and surprise Sharon Stone brought to the twists of the original; this Lori is persuasive as the wife and convincing as the trained assassin, but her two halves feel disconnected and unmotivated. Biel, who very often doesn’t get good action roles (or good roles of any kind), is perfectly fine as the yang to Lori’s yin tugging at Quaid, but she’s mainly reduced to an action figure, and granted only one moment that actually resembles human behavior: her determined look away after seeing Quaid and realizing he doesn’t know her anymore. Cranston, who fills the hole left by scenery-chewing Ronny Cox, is downright wasted. How bizarre to see him outclass every actor on television and yet see half a dozen movies this year where he gives a useless supporting performance.

The remake makes several omissions from the original: there’s no scenes that take place on Mars, very little humor, and it lacks the sly way Verhoeven and the screenwriters found new bizarre ways to top themselves; a triple-breated hooker even shows up at one point as homage to Verhoeven, and it feels singularly out of place. But the difference that truly hurts is an overall lack of ambiguity. The 1990 film was clever in how it treated a key scene where a friendly doctor (Roy Brocksmith) tries to convince Quaid that his secret agent adventure is just an elaborate delusion; even after the matter is dealt with, there are clues peppered throughout the story that truly make you wonder maybe the doctor is right. There’s a similar scene here where Quaid’s friend Harry (Bokeem Woodbine) tries to talk him out of his fantasy, and not a second of it is persuasive. This hurts the remake not because change is bad, but because the filmmakers haven’t found a sufficient climactic hook; it should be a dovetailing of complex notions about identity and existential value. By eliminating the paranoia and muting some of the plot twists of the original, the remake is more about a guy who learns he’s not who he thinks he is, but quickly (too quickly) gets over it.

This becomes fully apparent in the third act, which is, frankly, a mess involving robot soldiers and gravity-defying heroics while travelling through “The Fall,” where characters conveniently square off for perfunctory fights, one of which involves a knife. Why does a sci-fi adventure have to end with a character brandishing a knife? And how exactly do our heroes survive anything that happens in the last twenty minutes of this movie? That isn’t the problem, however. The problem is the movie makes you think of those questions by giving you nothing else to consider.

We live in an age of remakes, and some of them have been far worse than what they’ve done to Total Recall. Is it fair of me to keep referencing the original to illustrate this movie’s problems? I think so, because I don’t love the 1990 film so much that I shudder to see it remade. If anything, I had hoped Wiseman would improve upon Verhoeven’s flawed epic, but he has not—he’s made it safer, blander, and a little less fun. Still kind of enjoyable, but missing something major that Verhoeven’s film had. Although perhaps my memory is faulty. It can get that way sometimes, don’t you know.

GRADE: B-