Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, August 8, 2014

Recent Watches: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)


HEAVY SPOILERS AHEAD!


When it was announced that Michael Bay was producing a new film version of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the internet's reaction was not positive. Michael Bay’s films aren’t very good. They are punishingly long, carelessly written, incoherently directed, juvenile, sexist, racist, and immensely popular. The director had all-ready made mince-meat of one nostalgia property with his “Transformers” series, films I’m no fan of. However, Bay himself was not directing this newest incarnation of the Turtles. Instead, he was merely producing it under his Platinum Dunes development house, which has previously handled glossy, mall-friendly remakes of classic horror films. The chosen director, Jonathan Liesbesman, last directed “Battle: Los Angeles” and “Wrath of the Titans,” which did little to raise fans’ spirits. By the time Megan Fox had been cast as April O’Neil, it seemed like Bay was actively trolling TMNT enthusiasts. The point I’m making is that, going into 2014’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” my expectations were very low.

April O’Neil is a fluff-piece reporter for Channel 6 News and desperate to break into serious journalism. Her big break comes when she spots four vigilantes fighting against the Foot Clan, a crime syndicate/terrorist organization that currently has New York City gripped with fear. However, as the title gives away, these super-powered vigilantes aren’t humans but Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Working with the four Ninja Teens, O’Neil uncovers a conspiracy involving millionaire scientist Eric Sacks, the Foot Clan, and her late geneticist father, all of which leads back to the pizza loving, sewer dwelling, karate-trained turtle humanoids.

The internet was outraged when an early leaked script made the title characters into Teenage Alien Ninja Turtles. The final film ejected that idea. However, the new “Ninja Turtles” still makes some questionable alterations to the source material. A pet peeve I have with modern blockbusters is the insistence that the heroes and the villains have intertwined origins. The newest “TMNT” leans on this trend hard. April isn’t just a lucky reporter that stumbles on the team. Instead, her father’s experiments were directly responsible for creating Splinter and the Turtles. That’s a major change but it’s not what bothers me. Instead of learning the art of ninjitsu from Hamato Yoshi, Splinter learns martial arts from a pamphlet he finds in the sewer. This is not only stupid but a major betrayal of the source material. There’s no Asian mysticism and little focus on the Art of Invisibility. Of all the adjectives in the title, “Ninja” is the one the film seems less invested in.

Even though the teen’s ninja skills are minor plot element, the film maintains the villain of Shredder. Despite early reports, William Fichtner’s Eric Sacks never dons the armor. Oroku Saki is still the Shredder. He is, in fact, Sacks’ mentor. The two villains are working together to further their own evil schemes. This is why the Shredder is outfitted with a hi-tech suit of armor that can shoot magnetically manipulated blades, a potentially clever idea that film doesn’t fully exploit. There are some token mentions of the Shredder’s Japanese origins which the film sloppily ties Sacks in with. However, the Foot aren't ninjas anymore. Rather, they're generic modern bad guys, clad in body armor and ski masks while carrying machine guns. Karai is in the movie but merely fills the role of an important henchman. By completely removing Hamato Yoshi from the story, there is no preexisting rivalry between Splinter and the Shredder. Which means there’s no reason for the Shredder to hate the Turtles. The heroes stumble upon the scorn of their most important adversary. By downplaying the Asian elements, this “Ninja Turtles” loose most of the source material’s mythic qualities.

Michael Bay might not have directed “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” but Jonathan Liesbesman maintains his boss’ trademark look. The film has the same gritty but polished look of all previous Platinum Dunes productions. Lens-flares are employed regularly. Sea-sick green lighting crops up repeatedly. Sweeping crane shots are indulged in excessively. During several action scenes, and even a few non-action scenes, the camera jerks around spasmodically. The film does not feature a terrible lot of shaky-cam but just enough that it become difficult to follow. Liesbesman even throws in some of Bay’s most obnoxious habits. There are spinning loop-da-loop shots, lingering close-ups on cars (and Megan Fox's ass), and in-your-face product placement courtesy of Pizza Hut and Orange Crush. You’d think “Ninja Turtles” was a Michael Bay joint if it wasn’t for two things: The military has no role in the movie and the film isn’t three hours long.

Of all the previous adaptations of the source material, this “Ninja Turtles” probably has the most in common with the 1987 cartoon show. April works for Channel 6 News. Her boss, played by Whoopi Goldberg in a glorified cameo, is Bernadette Thompson instead of Burne Thompson. Her co-worker is Vernon. However, the movie even fucks that up. In the cartoon, Vernon was mostly a foil to April, constantly working to undermine her. Here, Vernon is a lonely middle-age guy who clearly has the hots for April. Will Arnett is well-cast in the role, making good use of his ability to ring laughs out of any line of dialogue. He plays her sidekick for most of the film, an unexpecting normal guy dragged along into a crazy adventure. This raises the question of why the movie bothered including the character at all.

The movie also doesn’t bother when perhaps it should have. Despite featuring the rest of the Channel 6 team, the film leaves out April’s best friend, the nerdy and perpetually dateless Irma. The film even had the opportunity to include her, since April has a disbelieving room mate played by Abbey Elliot. Aside from the Shredder, Eric Sacks is the secondary antagonist of the film. Sacks was invented for the film. Traditionally, the mad scientist in the Turtles-verse is Baxter Stockman. Why invent a new character when an established one easily could have filled the role? I was expecting some Krang-related last minute twist but… Nope. According to IMDb, Stockman is in the movie but I didn’t spot him. Fichtner is decent in the role and even brings some villainous glee to his generic lines. However, the character is ultimately forgettable, especially since he disappears before the end.

Which brings me to the Turtles. Much has been written about the newest designs, about how they’re ugly, grotesque, and even disturbing. The Turtles are ugly, there’s no doubt about that.  Their heads are small while there bodies are hulking. However, perhaps mutated humanoid turtles should be ugly. What truly pushes them into the Uncanny Valley are the additions of human-like nostrils, lips, and teeth. The Turtles are definitely over-designed and arguably hideous. Yet they grew on me. I like the decision to personalize each Turtle. Leonardo sports samurai style armor to go along with his samurai style honor. Raphael keeps sunglasses on his head and a toothpick in his mouth, along with some other biker-like decorations. Donatello sports a pair of high-tech goggles on his head, an electronic backpack on his shell, and even rigs his bo staff out with hydraulics. (He’s also been turned into something of a nerd stereotype, with his duct-tape mended glasses and snorting laughter.) Michelangelo is still a party dude but draws more from modern hip-hop culture then eighties surfer slang, which seems like a logical update. Splinter probably makes it out the best, looking like exactly what he is: A giant rat in a fancy robe.

What little bit of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” that works has to do, not with how the Turtles look but, with how they act. The film, more or less, nails the four teens’ personalities. Leonardo is the stoic leader, the rock that holds his brothers’ together. Though Johnny Knoxville was an out-of-left-field casting choice to voice the turtle, he is suitably heroic. Donatello is still the one who does machines and his technical know-how gets the gang out of a few scrapes. A cute tick they keep is his tendency to over-explain things. Raphael probably gets the most screen time which is to be expected since he has the juiciest character arc. Raph has to grapple with his anger and butt heads with his more responsible brother. Yet the four are family and Raph repeatedly puts his life on the line for them. A decent moment has him confessing how much they truly mean to him. Probably getting the most bad press is the take on Michelangelo. Mikey has an obvious crush on April and the film probably takes it too far. However, his role as the funny one is fulfilled with several genuinely amusing lines. No doubt the best scene in the film comes from Mikey. While ascending an elevator, and getting ready to face battle, Mikey starts to mindlessly beatbox. Instead of shouting him down, Raphael joins in, followed by the others. It’s a hilarious, light-hearted moment that roots the theatrical action in some sort of humanity. Or turtle-anity, if you will.

Splinter is still the Turtles’ father and the film doesn’t tip-toe around that relationship. Truthfully, a lot of what the Turtles do is motivated by saving Splinter. Casting the Lebanon Tony Shalhoub to voice a Japanese rat seemed like a weird decision. But Splinter isn’t Japanese any more, so it winds up not mattering. Surprisingly, Splinter even gets to kick some ass, whaling on Shredder during one of the film’s best action sequence. There are a few cute in-jokes here and there. Pizza falls on the rat’s head, as in the original film. Shredder utters his infamous catchphrase of “Tonight, I dine on turtle soup,” which is probably terrible but I like it. “Heroes in the half shell” and “Cowabunga” both get shouted. The Turtle Van puts in a late appearance. The film teases the possibility of Super Shredder at the very end. There’s even a possible reference to Usagi Yojimbo.

There’s still a lot of April O’Neil in the movie. Megan Fox’s acting skills have graduated from incredibly stiff to merely forgettable. Liesbesman comes close to engineering a few memorable action scenes. A car chase down a snowy hillside has one or two exciting moments even if its chaotically organized. The final fight between the Turtles and the Shredder features some decent action. The sound design is deafening, with the dialogue barely audible at times. The musical score by Tyler Bates shamelessly patterns itself after Hans Zimmer’s work, featuring much pounding noise and dissonant ringing. For every element I like about the film, there’s something else I can complain about.

Does “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” truly work? It is not terrible. It is also not particularly good. The film is not a childhood raping monstrosity, just a mediocre studio product that makes one or two major fumbles. The script stays truer to the spirit of the source material than Michael Bay’s “Transformers” films, even if it’s blatantly patterned after them. It is also not the worst Ninja Turtles movie, as it is slightly less embarrassing than “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III.” These are, admittedly, low bars to clear. When future fans reach for the definitive “Ninja Turtles” experience, the original film, the original comics, and the 2003 or 2012 cartoons is what they will grab first, not Hollywood's latest attempt to make green out of the Green Machine. [5/10]

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Recent Watches: Turtles Forever (2009)


As previously stated, the Ninja Turtles I most remember are those of the movies. Of course, I watched the Fred Wolf produced animated series that ran from 1987 to 1996. Revisiting the series recently, it’s not good in any traditional sense. Even its best episodes were devoted to selling toys. Most of the time, it was a goofy animated sitcom. As part of my TMNT retrospective, I gave the 2003 cartoon a look. The series has a devoted following. It’s beautifully animated and clearly put more thought into its writing than the ‘87 series. However, it’s not my Ninja Turtles. After marathoning a handful of episodes, the series’ heavily serialized storytelling burnt me out. (For the record, I’ve just started watching the 2012 series but, so far, I love it.) Even if I’m not the biggest fan of the millennial Turtles, I couldn’t resist the siren call of “Turtles Forever,” the feature length series finale that had the more serious iteration teaming up with the goofier one.

“Turtles Forever” begins in the world of the 2003 series. The Turtles’ lives are interrupted when news breaks of humanoid turtles foiling a heist. The Ninjas are confused because it isn’t them. Soon, they meet up with their doppelgangers, the cornball Turtles from the ’87 series. A trans-dimensional wedgie has landed the old turtles in the new turtles’ world, with Shredder, Krang, and the Technodrome close behind. The incompetent ‘80s Shredder quickly locates his millennial counterpart. However, this new Shredder is a ruthless sociopath and quickly takes over the Technodrome. Aware of the TMNT multi-verse, Nu-Shredder is determined to track down the Prime Universe and wipe out every incarnation of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that have ever existed.

Most of the fun of “Turtles Forever” comes from contrasting two wildly divergent variations of the same characters. The millennial Turtles are widely a serious, focused lot. The classic Turtles, meanwhile, crack jokes at every opportunity. Instead of using stealth and ninjitsu to get the drop on their enemies, the original Turtles walk down the street in broad daylight, sauntering into a pizza parlor for a slice. Most of the later Ninjas are baffled by their counterparts. Raphael is especially annoyed by the constant joking. Michaelangelo finds them amusing at first but quickly grows tired of their constant flippantness. Some of the best jokes in the film involve classic Raphael making some of his trademark fourth-wall breaking comments, which everyone else in the film find confounding. At first, I thought the newer series was being too hard on the original variations. The Party Wagon and Turtle Blimp both get trashed as useless vehicles. When arriving in the Fred Wolf dimension, the heroes have to rescue April from anthromorphized bananas. I mean, the eighties series was goofy but I don’t think it was never that goofy.

However, the filmmakers were aware enough to play both sides. A sweet moment has the neo-TMNT find the classic version of Splinter as comforting as their own. The climax of the film has both Turtle teams arriving in the Prime Universe. That is, the universe of the original Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird comics. The grayscale Turtles speak in gritty Frank Miller-style voice-over and are incessantly violent. They decry both newer versions as sell-outs. Even more amusingly, the comic version of Shredder is quickly disposed of, no doubt a reference to the character being an unimportant villain in the source material. The film is enough of a fan service-filled nerd-experience that it gives shout-outs to most every version of the Turtles that have ever existed, even the weird anime ones. (Though “The Next Mutation” and the “Coming Out of Their Shells Tour” are notably absent. Well, maybe not so notably.)

Another fun thing “Turtles Forever” does is show that the eighties Shredder and Krang could have been competent villains. ’03 Shredder arms himself with Dimension X technology. He remakes the useless robot Foot Soldiers into fearsome cyborgs. The mutagen is used to transform a horde of minions into super-mutants. Reoccurring villain Han more-or-less becomes a new take on Slash. Meanwhile, Tokka and Rahzar get brief cameos. The Technodrome itself is rebuilt as a floating, laser-spewing Death Star. The scene where the re-decoed Technodrome attacks New York, bursting out of ground and causing panic, is one of the best in the film. At the very end, nu-Shredder, who is apparently an Ultrom alien or somethin’, wears his own version of Krang’s growing suit. When the two face off, he proves how superior his technology is. The new version of Shredder is so ruthless, he truly is willing to destroy himself if it means wiping out his arch-enemies. The respective universe vanishing are presented in a clever way. The color fades away and then everyone is rendered as crude pencil drawings before vanishing all-together.

The cleverness of the film is best emphasized during its end. After pumping the Shredder up as the baddest dude in the multi-verse, he’s taken out accidentally by Bebop and Rocksteady. The final scene has the different Turtle teams returning to their respective universe. The Mirage Turtles rush off, hardboiled monologues playing overhead. During the final minutes, the camera pulls back, showing the characters as comic illustrations. From off-screen, we hear Eastman and Laird discuss the uncertain future of their then-new property. It’s a cute, even charming, moment and one that marks the film as a labor of love.

“Turtles Forever” is probably for diehard fans of the franchise only. There’s not much to the film and it feels more like a midnight snack then a proper cinematic meal. Yet the only real disappointment I have is that it couldn’t get the original ’87 cast members back because of some union bullshit. The sound-alikes they use are fairly convincing. The movie acknowledges the pros and cons of both cartoons while sneaking in plenty of in-jokes. Even as someone who only casually likes both Turtles cartoons, I still had a good time with it. [7/10]

Recent Watches: TMNT (2007)


Despite dominating the kid pop culture sphere during the early nineties, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles seemed to vanish around the middle of the decade. Yet the World’s Most Fearsome Fighting Team never truly went away. The cartoon series ran until 1996, for an astonishing total of ten years. The comic was published in one form or another for most of the decade. A new cartoon launched in 2003, ran for seven years, but failed to capture the public’s imagination the way the original did. There was even a misbegotten live-action television series, though I'll forgive you for forgetting it. A new theatrical film was rumored for a long time, at one point taking the form of a CGI/live action combo directed by John Woo. However, a new movie didn’t solidify until animation studio Imagi decided to make a computer animated feature, titled simply “TMNT.”

Though sold as a reboot, “TMNT” is actually a stealth sequel to the previous films. At the story’s onset, the Turtles are in crisis. Leonardo has spent the last few years in South America, helping out locals in need. Back home, Raphael has assumed the identity of a vigilante called the Night Watcher. Donatello, meanwhile, works tech support while Michelangelo is a kid’s party entertainer. April O’Neil and Casey Jones have shacked up together. A plot involving the Foot Clan and an eccentric millionaire collecting ancient statues draws the Turtles back together.

Considering the Turtles have existed in illustrated form throughout their lifetime, it’s surprising no one had previously attempted an animated feature. This comes as both a blessing and a curse. In animated form, the Turtles’ adventures can have a scope previously unseen. The journey here is epic, spanning continents and eons. The action scenes are bigger than ever. At the end, the Turtles face a literal army of Foot Soldiers. One fight tumbles through every floor of a skyscraper. “TMNT” is easily the widest reaching of any of the features.

The problem is that “TMNT” was not animated by a major studio with a limitless budget. I’m not saying it’s a bad looking film. Light and rain water are utilized well. The animation on the main characters is generally good. However, a number of sequences feel too much like video game cut scenes. The models are occasionally weightless and the backgrounds can be flat. The designs for the Turtles and Splinter are neat but the human characters are uninspired and generic. It’s obvious the animators did the best they could with what they had. But this is not Pixar quality. At times, it’s not even DreamWorks quality.

I’m not super fond of the plot either. The screenwriters wanted to squeeze an entire season’s worth of characters into one movie. The antagonist of the film is billionaire Max Winters. Winters is actually an immortal warlord who, millennia ago, fought alongside a band of warriors. Warriors that got turned to stone when a special portal was opened that unleashed thirteen monsters. Winters gathers the statues back together, causing his stone warriors to spring to life. In order to regain their mortality, Winters must gather the monsters together and send them back to their home dimension. In order to pull this off, he’s enlisted the Foot Clan, now led by Karai, whom comic readers know as the Shredder’s eventual successor. Bringing in Karai is a natural decision, especially if this film is meant to follow the nineties films. But the rest of the plot? I nearly fell asleep typing that out. The plot is a generic fantasy quest with about three MacGuffins too many. The runtime is packed full of unique characters so there would be plenty of toy opportunities.

However, the bland storyline almost doesn’t matter. “TMNT” gets the important stuff right.  Leonardo’s self-doubt over his leadership skills has caused him to flee New York. Attempting to put the team back together is his primary struggle throughout the film. While the other brothers have tried to live professional lives, Raphael has never given up fighting crime. The rivalry between Leo and Raph is something every version of the series has touched on. However, for the first time, the two actually come to blows. Twenty years of anticipation pays off as the two strongest turtles fight on-screen. And it’s glorious. Not only is the fight easily the best moment in the film, it’s also full of feeling. Leo says some hurtful things as emotions boil over. Raph lets his anger take control, beating his brother into submission. Until he realizes what he has done, fleeing the scene, fighting back tears. Upon returning home, Raphael throws himself on Splinter’s mercy. As always, he is the forgiving father. The brotherly bond, and a willingness to forgive, has been at this franchise’s heart from the beginning. “TMNT” stays true to that tradition why moving into unseen territory.

Many animated films cast face actors over experienced voice actors. “TMNT” is only partially guilty of this. The roles of the Turtles are played by experienced voice actors. Many of which, like Nolan North as Raphael, do fine work. Celebs are cast in the various supporting roles. Mako is a fine Splinter, as the actor had years of experience playing wise old Asian men. Patrick Stewart has a strong enough voice to carry the thin role of Winters. However, some of the choices are questionable. Sarah Michelle Gellar gives an uneven performance, as she doesn’t always seem invested in the material. Chris Evans probably would have made a fine live-action Casey Jones. He can do palooka well. Zhang Ziyi, similarly, would have been great as Karai. However, neither have much vocal strength and both seem ill-suited to a voice only performances.

Okay, you could say that Donnie and Mikey get shafted. Like they always do. I miss April’s day job as a reporter. Oh, and the pop-punk filled soundtrack is atrocious. The plot may be nonsense. Yet “TMNT” is a solid addition to the series. The Turtles act as they should, Splinter gets to kick some ass, and the film still packs in some honest emotion. I like the film enough that I’m still disappointed that if failed to reignite Turtle Fever. Though successful, the teased sequel never came to be and Imagi shut down only a few years later. It’s a good start and could have led to great things. [7/10]

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Recent Watches: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III (1993)



By 1993, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise continued to be enormously popular among kids. However, its total grasp on the kiddy zeitgeist was starting to slip. Critically acclaimed cartoon adaptations of popular superheroes, like “Batman: The Animated Series” and “X-Men,” had started to inch in on the Turtles’ established territory. The Ninja Turtles were no longer as hip among the playground crowd. These things I can attest to, as I was actually there. A few months after “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III” was released, the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers would premiere on American television, stealing the TMNT’s martial arts-flavored thunder and quickly eclipsing the older series in popularity. But before that happened, the Green Machine went back to theaters and back in time.

The film begins with the Heroes Four at ease, practicing via synchronized dance moves in their lair. April soon climbs down the ladder, baring gifts from a recent vacation to Japan. Among those gifts is a strange golden scepter. When holding it, April is thrown back in time to 17th century Japan. A Japanese prince is teleported to the modern day in her place. Determined to rescue their friend, the Turtles quickly figure out the mechanics of the magical device, heading into the past after her. Once in Edo era Nippon, the four turtles are embroiled in a plot involving an English trader selling guns to the samurai lord, eager to use the weapons in an upcoming war, something his son and the son's girlfriend are strictly against.

“Ninja Turtles III” is not well regarded by the franchise fandom. To put it mildly. Most consider the film the long-running series’ nadir. (Which isn’t very fair, considering this is a franchise where Venus and Carter are both things.) As a kid, I remember being disappointed in the film because the villain wasn’t Krang. Now that Shredder’s dead, that’s the second most important member of the TMNT’s rogue gallery, right? Or how about Baxter Stockman, Rat King, Leatherhead or Slash? I suspect I wasn’t alone in that disappointment. The film, instead, breaks wildly from Ninja Turtle canon, featuring an original story populated entirely with new characters. The film takes the characters out of their traditional urban setting, putting them in totally different time period. Hell, it’s a Ninja Turtles movie where ninjitsu plays a very small role. The Mutant Teens spent most of the film dressed as Samurais. Yet it’s not fair to judge Part III for what it isn’t.

So why do people hate this movie so much? The number one reason is doubtlessly the steep drop in quality concerning the special effects. The Jim Henson Creature Shop, who provided the fantastic suits for the last two films, passed on this one, leaving the effects duties to less disciplined hands. The animatronic heads are less expressive, with blockier faces and more exaggerated features. Whenever they have to talk or express emotion, the fakeness of the suits become apparent. The Turtles’ look more rubbery and their skin is dotted with odd liver spots. Splinter, meanwhile, is obviously a hand-puppet, as you never see his legs. While the last two films convinced you that these robotic creations were real characters, here they look like the unconvincing special effects they are.

There are other reasons “Ninja Turtles III” is considered the shitty one. The film has an obnoxious sense of humor. Throughout the entire film, the Turtles repeatedly drop random pop culture references, many of which have little relevance to the actual plot. There’s no reason for the characters to mention the Addams Family, Elvis, or Clint Eastwood and even fewer reasons for the film to find such references inherently hilarious. While the Turtles are in the past, Casey Jones has to take care of four ancient samurais in modern day New York. He does this by teaching them hockey and taking them out to a dance club, which leads to broad, embarrassing comedy. In the past, the Turtles obsess over Wet Willies and mock a fat dungeon master. It’s not sophisticated, is what I’m saying.

Moreover, the movie’s plot isn’t very interesting. Some consider the time travel device too far fetched but I don’t think that washes, considering the silly things Turtle fans do accept. Walker is a fairly generic bad guy, motivated by simple greed. The exact reasons he and Daimyo are working together aren’t elaborated on much. The looming threat of war is mostly kept off-screen. The film is also poorly paced. After arriving in the past, there are some action scenes with the Turtles attempting to rescue Mikey. After that, the story relaxes into a long, leisurely sequence of the Turtles hanging out in the village. Donnie is preoccupied with going home. Raph befriends a young child who he thinks is too serious. Mikey, meanwhile, starts to fall for Mitsu, the human samurai chick that is actually the time-displaced Kenshin’s love interest. Not until the very end, when the Turtles make their way back to the castle, does the plot begin to move again. And that plot is a fairly uninspired MacGuffin chase, the Turtles chasing after the scepter that can take them back home.

But I don’t hate “TMNT III” and am coming awfully close to calling it underrated. The film tries something different with the characters. The relationship Raphael forms with young Yoshi comes close to being touching, as it finds the turtle confronting his own anger. Michelangelo developing feelings for a human female might strike you as odd but it forms into an interesting storyline, especially when the turtle debates staying behind in the Feudal Japan. The story may be poorly paced but I appreciate the filmmakers attempting to tell a lower-key tale. Elias Koteas and Paige Turco are back and both give decent performances. Lame as the character may be, Stuart Wilson at least has some hammy fun as Walker. The action scenes are surprisingly well choreographed and features the Turtles using their weapons more then part 2 did.

The film still opened number 1 at the box office but didn’t have the staying power of the previous flicks. Despite plans for a fourth film, the series took an extended break from theaters. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III” is ultimately a failure but it’s an interesting failure that attempted to take the franchise in a different direction. It didn’t do it well but at least it tried. [5/10]

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Recent Watches: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (1991)


Turtle-Mania peaked somewhere in the early nineties, with the cartoon soaring in the ratings, the toys flying off the shelves, and the Turtles’ faces slapped on every sort of merchandise imaginable, from backpacks to green slime filled dessert cakes. The first theatrical film fed off that excitement, being so successful that it was, for a time, the highest grossing independent film ever made. A sequel had to be made. And fast. Nearly exactly a year after the release of the original, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze” ninja-chopped its way into theaters.

The film is a direct sequel, picking up days after the first. The Ninja Teens are still running high on their victory over the Shredder, despite Splinter’s insistence that they stay focused on their studies. (And April’s hope that they move out of her apartment.) Shredder isn’t dead though, somehow having survived a seven-story drop into the back of a garbage truck. With an even more fucked-up face, Shredder pulls together the remains of the Foot Clan in order to exact revenge on the Turtles. That revenge takes the form of the radioactive ooze that birthed the Turtles in the first place. The bad guys steal the last of the ooze in order to create two more warrior mutants, the brutish but child-like Tokka and Rahzar. The same ooze leads the TMNT to understand their past more fully.

One of the things I admire about the original “Turtles” film is how deftly it balanced the goofiness of the popular cartoon show with the grittiness of the original comics. “Secret of the Ooze” has no such interest in balance. In the first film, the Turtles smash a light before attacking their foes, in order to avoid detection. In the opening minutes of this film, the team steps out in bright light, in full view of a normal human, dispatching their enemies with slapstick comedy. So much for the Art of Invisibility. In that first scene alone, Mikey fights off opponents with a yo-yo and sausage links. Meanwhile, Donnie pretends to be an inflatable clown and whacks a guy with a foam bat. That dire silliness infects the entire production. While attempting to grab the last of the mutagen away from the Foot Clan, the Turtles enact a casual game of football, surfing on office chairs. Previously, the Foot Clan was a serious threat and beat Raph nearly to death. This time, they’re a complete joke, not a single one putting up a decent fight. Tokka and Rahzar aren’t much of a threat either. Their childish minds make them easy to outsmart. The worst thing they do is knock down some telephone poles and flip a car. Even that scene is undermined by a pair of wise-cracking old people.

“The Secret of the Ooze” was rushed into production and that shows in its ramshackle plot. There are elements of the screenplay that works. The origin behind the mutagen, an accidental mixture of industrial chemicals, is satisfying. David Warner’s Professor Perry is a decent addition to the Turtle-verse. He actually advances the plot while having a personality. However, most of the plot seems thrown together. Shredder surviving his fate in the first film seems unlikely. The Turtles searching for a new home is a decent story turn but stumbling upon the abandoned train station is awfully convenient. The movie introduces a new character in the form of kung-fu pizza boy Keno. Keno, as played by an overly earnest Ernie Reyes Jr., is more annoying then endearing. He floats in and out of the film, disappearing for long stretches. Mostly, he exists to help Raph infiltrate the Foot, which promptly gets the Turtle captured. The heroes escape that trap too easily, Splinter randomly showing up to save the day, before willingly walking back into the Shredder’s lair. The gladiatorial combat between the Ninja Teens and Tokka and Rahzar is never delivered on. Every time it looks like the fight is about to click in, the movie is sidelined by slapstick ridiculousness.

The biggest indignity of all faces the Turtles in the last act. The Foot’s junkyard base is apparently located next to a hip-hop dance club, an unlikely proposition. The fight tumbles into the club where Vanilla Ice, that signifier of early nineties schlock, is performing. The patrons don’t flee from the fighting terrapins. Instead, the funky white boy improvises a rap about them and the club plays along. Tokka and Rahzar are easily defeated, as the Professor pulls a plot resolution out of his ass via some fire extinguishers. Despite the movie around him being a goofball comedy, the Shredder remained a serious villain. He grabs a female dancer and threatens to slash her throat, proving once again how ruthless guy he is. The Turtles’ response? Michelangelo performs a bitchin' keytar solo which causes a giant speaker to explode, launching the villain through a window and into the equally improbable dock outside. The film wraps up on the potentially cool idea of Shredder drinking the last of the ooze, transforming himself into the Super-Shredder. (Even if his armor mutating along with his body makes zero sense.) However, the neatness of that idea is undermined by the Turtles refusing to fight Super-Shredder and the villain ending his own life by needlessly collapsing the dock atop himself.

The film is a mess of campiness and squandered potential. Yet it still gets a few things right. The characterizations of the Turtles remain strong. A concept that reoccurs throughout every version of the franchise is Leo and Raph butting heads. Here, the head-strong Raphael wants to pursue the Foot Clan while Leonardo is more preoccupied with finding a new home. That rashness gets him in trouble, again, and after rescuing him, the brothers are reunited. Donatello was mostly Mikey’s comedic foil in the first film. Here, he gets a juicy character arc of not accepting the casualness of their origin. He is also more fully established as the one who does machine, as his techno know-how comes in handy a few times. I even prefer Adam Carl’s thoughtful vocal performance over Corey Feldman’s. I also like Paige Turco as April more then Judith Hoag. Turco seems more comfortable in the part. The creature effects are even better then last time too. The Turtles’ faces reach a new level of expressiveness. Tokka and Rahzar are memorably cartoonish in their designs as well.

“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze” is a lesser film than the first. The sloppy screenplay and an abundance of kid-friendly silliness sinks it. However, I can’t hate the movie. Any film that gifts the world of pop culture with a bit of ridiculous cheese like the Ninja Rap can’t be all bad. However, I have a lot less nostalgic affection for this one. Instead of playing off the original’s good example, it’s more-or-less the silly kid’s flick we expected the first one to be. [5/10]

Monday, August 4, 2014

Recent Watches: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)


I was born during that magical time known as the late 1980s. Growing up in the early nineties, I was right in the target demographic for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles merchandising juggernaut. The Turtles are one of the earliest pop culture fads I can remember being invested in, though I don’t know how much that had to do with genuine interest and how much had to do with it being the popular kid thing of the day. In preparation for the new theatrical film, I’ve gone back and revisited the original Ninja Turtles cartoon. Which has made me realize the version of the Turtles I truly remember and have nostalgia for isn’t the goofy animated series but rather the live action film, simply known as "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."

In theory, a live action Ninja Turtles movie sounds terrible. The premise behind the series, laid out in its title, is intentionally absurd, originally meant to mock the popular comic books trends of the time. Despite the comical premise, those original comics are fairly dark and violent. The theatrical film takes many cues from those original stories. The plot – which shows the Turtles’ first encounter with April O’Neil, Raphael meeting up with Casey Jones, the rivalry between Splinter and the Foot Clan, and the eventual showdown with the Shredder – is taken straight from the source material. Most of the far-out sci-fi elements of the cartoon are ejected. There’s no Krang, Dimension X, or Technodrome, while the Foot Clan are regular ninjas, instead of robots. By following the comics so closely, the film is lended a certain grittiness which helps the ridiculous premise go down easier. However, the filmmakers were smart enough to realize that the cartoon show, silly as it was, was the most popular incarnation of the characters. So April O’Neil is a nosy reporter, Michelangelo spouts surfer slang, the Turtles love pizza, and Leonardo’s swords drawl blood all of once. There’s even a few cute shout-outs to the show, in the form of April’s yellow trench coat or the heroes briefly tooling around in a VW van.

By blending elements of the comic and the cartoon, the film pulls off an impressive tonal balancing act. Though less violent then the comics, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie” is still considerably edgier then the Saturday morning cartoon show. Raphael shouts “Damn!” so much that it almost becomes his catchphrase. Unlike the cartoon, there are real risks involved here. The Foot intends on killing the Turtles, beating them savagely. They torture Splinter and burn down April’s antique shop. Shredder runs a miniature crime cartel and isn’t interested in loftier goals of world domination. Yet the film also indulges in the slapstick goofiness that regularly characterized the show. Michelangelo goofs around during the fight scene, spinning on his show during one moment. There’s even some silly sound effects, like when Donatello squirts water in the ninjas’ faces. The fight scenes are far-fetched enough that I’m honestly baffled that the film was criticized for its violence upon release.

What ultimately holds the whole movie together isn’t its mixture of grit and goof but its overarching sincerity. The film has a firm grasp on the Turtles’ personalities. Leonardo is the leader of the team. Though seemingly self-assured in his abilities, and easily holding the team together, he is still gripped with self-doubt. Raphael is less cool and rude then an active rage-oholic. Anger boils inside of him which he can only vent by beating up random street vigilantes. That same rage forces a schism between Raph and his brothers. Early on, during a surprisingly effective scene, Splinter reminds Raph that his family is there to help him through his strife. That emphasis on familial love and bonding forms the film’s heart. The rivalry between Leo and Raph drives the middle portion of the film and their eventual reconciliation creates a strong dynamic for the finale. The Turtles’ brotherly bond holds them together and Splinter’s fatherly love connects them. The four are reduced to tears when their father call out to them using mystical ninja joo-joo.

A lot of children's entertainment of the time had anti-crime message, encouraging kids to stay away from drugs and street gangs. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” has one of those too, yet never feels preachy or heavy-handed. The warehouse where the Foot Clan and its trainees hang out reminded me a lot of “Pinocchio’s” Pleasure Island. The teen boys play video games, pool, skate board, and dance to loud music. The limits of the PG rating prevent the sex and drugs from being on-screen but both are assumed by their absence. The film makes it clear that each of the kids in the Foot Clan have troubled home lives. Without laying it on too thick, the script points out that the kids’ angers are born of pain, rejection, and bitterness. Shredder and the Foot Clan, like many real life predators, preys on that vulnerability, creating a place where the boys feel love and accepted, all while indoctrinating them into a life of crime. The Ninja Turtles’ family bond gives them strength. The same sort of love and acceptance is what the troubled youths truly need and what Danny, the young boy that moves the plot along a few times, ultimately accepts by the end. The film doesn’t hammer home this moral, instead letting it breath naturally in the story.

Something people probably don’t talk about much is how good “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” looks. Director Steve Barron didn’t have the most notable resume before this, mostly directing music videos, previous Jim Henson productions, and cult classic “Electric Dreams.” Yet his “Ninja Turtles” is a handsome-looking film. The sets are beautifully constructed, subtly invoking the look of the original comics. There’s a surprising moodiness to Barron’s composition. The scene where Splinter or Raphael talk is filmed in intimate close-up, the room behind them dark. Shredder’s first appearance has his shadow dramatically cast on the floor. The way the camera emphasizes the sharp curves of his armor draws a direct line from Darth Vader to the Shredder. The villains’ final showdown with the heroes is seriously tense, moreso then you’d ever expect kids’ flick to be. Moreover, the special effects in the film are fantastic. The Turtle suits are beautifully realized. While watching, never once did I see the Turtles as anything other then living characters. They blink, smile, gasps, and talk seamlessly. Even the fight scenes are believably pulled off, which is impressive since I’m sure the actors inside the suits could barely see and move.

In conclusion, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie” might be my favorite incarnation of the characters. More or less everything I associate with the franchise is proudly, and fantastically, represented here. Elias Koteas is perfectly cast as Casey Jones. The film moves along at a smooth rate, even allowing for quieter moments like the extended stay on the farm. Really, the only issue I can pick with the film is that Michelangelo and Donatello get the short stick as far as characterization goes. The movie has even aged fairly well, aside from a one-off reference to “Moonlighting” and some synth-clicking on the otherwise fantastic score. (Oh, and “Turtle Power,” I guess.) Maybe it’s the nostalgia talking, but I think it’s true now as it was when I was six years old: This movie is awesome. [8/10]

Friday, August 1, 2014

Bangers n' Mash 46: Dracula Through the Ages

July went by quickly, didn't? I apologize for the lack of updates here of late. The month has been extremely hectic. I'm hoping to turn that around this month but I probably shouldn't make promises.

Anyway, here's the latest episode of the Bangers n' Mash Show. There was some talk about vampires on the Facebook recently which is coincidental but appropriate. In this episode, JD and I discuss the greatest of all vampires: Count Dracula, himself. We mostly focus on the Hammer films but squeeze in a few other notable Dracula flicks. It's a good episode.



Like I said, more stuff coming soon. Hopefully.