Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, September 1, 2014

Director Report Card: Hayao Miyazaki (1979)

Last month, the internet was shaken straight to its nerd-heart by news that Studio Ghibli might be closing its door. These initial reports turned out to be slightly exaggerated but, at the very least, the beloved animation studio is taking a break. This is following Hayao Miyazaki, the most critically acclaimed of all their filmmakers, officially retiring last year. I've long been an admirer of Miyazaki, which I realizes makes me exactly non-special in anime fandom. I've been wanting to do a proper Miyazaki Director's Report Card for years, since I've owned all of his movies for quite some time. Because everything here at Film Thoughts moves at its own pace, I'm just now getting around to it.

Despite my last several Report Cards being loaded with concurrent Report Cards and bonus reviews, I will not be reviewing the films of Isao Takahata or the other Studio Ghibli filmmakers. I would have liked to, and probably will at some point, but, seeing as how Halloween starts in 18 days, time is of the essence right now. So one will have to do.

1. The Castle of Cagliostro
Rupan Sansei: Kariosutoro no Shiro

Lupin III is a long-running, beloved franchise in Japan. The series follows the adventures of a world-renown thief, the grandson of Arsene Lupin, Maurice Leblanc’s famous 19th century gentleman thief. Lupin, along with his two best friends, sometimes love interest, and his Interpol investigator archenemy, have appeared across numerous platforms over his forty-seven years of history. From Monkey Punch’s pricklier/sexier/more violent manga, to several different television series of varying softness and popularity, to annual television specials and theatrical films, to even two live action movies; Lupin and his cohorts have been wildly popular enough to show up in just about every medium possible. Despite its iconic status in its home country, the series has never really caught on over here. “The Castle of Cagliostro” is the second of the Lupin III theatrical movies. It would probably be relatively obscure in this country if it wasn’t the directorial debute of Hayao Miyazaki, who would go on to become the most beloved animator in the world since Walt Disney. It also happens to be a pretty good movie in its own right.

Despite being part of a long, still on-going series, enjoying “The Castle of Cagliostro” requires no previous knowledge of the Lupin the 3rd universe. Part of the series appeal is that its characters are easily explained. Most of them, in fact, aren’t much more than fictional archetypes. Jigen, Lupin’s best pal and constant confidant, is soft-spoken, his face usually obscured by an ever-present, sloping fedora. He’s also the best shot in the world, which makes him more-or-less a modern (or sixties mod anyway) version of the wild west gunslinger. Goeman is an anachronistic samurai, whose blade can cut through anything, who doubtlessly shares a common ancestor with Sanjuro and Zatoichi. The love of Lupin’s life and sometimes the thorn in his side is Fujiko Mine who is like a Bond girl on the offensive, since she always gets one over on Lupin. Zenigata dresses like Alain Dulon in “Le Samourai” and is the Sheriff Nottingham to Lupin’s Robin Hood. Though their relationship is more comical than antagonistic and the two frequently wind up working together. Then there’s Lupin himself. Like his grandfather, he’s a thief. How gentlemanly he is varies from version to version but he’s always a rogue and a trickster, whose wileness makes him incredibly likeable and whose charm makes him endlessly entertaining. The series has been described as a cross between James Bond and Indiana Jones but, at its best, the series is funnier than Bond, more unpredictable than Indy, and is less gimmicky than both.

The Lupin III films and TV episodes rarely drew anything from Maurice Leblanc’s original Lupin stories. “The Castle of Cagliostro” takes a little more than usual, featuring a few stray references to the far-flung source material. The title and the name of the film’s villain are taken from what is probably Leblanc’s most famous story. Otherwise, this is an original tale. In it, Lupin and Jigen job a casino only to realize they’ve stolen a horde of counterfeit money. Tracing the fake dollars back to the tiny nation of Cagliostro, Lupin and his friends are pulled into a plot involving a princess held captive, an evil baron, a booby-trapped laden castle, and a hidden treasure.

If most of the Lupin characters are riffs on popular culture types, then “The Castle of Cagliostro” pulls from even older source material. The film is, in many ways, a fairy tale. Clarisse is the princess of the tale. She is held captive in an isolated tower, like Rapunzel before her. While he doesn’t climb up any hair, as a honorable thief, Lupin seems to fit the role of her rescuer. The evil Count Cagliostro fits the role of the fairy tale villain too. He is cruel and greedy. He holds Clarisse for no reason other than marrying her will make him the inheritor to her family’s fortune. Naturally, he plans on killing the girl immediately afterwards. In the final act of the film, the Count even puts on a black mask and fancy cape, fulfilling his role as a comic book supervillain. The booby trapped laden castle reminds me of classic fairy tales too. “The Castle of Cagliostro” draws from a number of literary sources, young and old.

More than anything else, “The Castle of Cagliostro” is infectiously, uncontrollably fun. From its opening minutes, it establishes its joyous goofy streak. The movie begins with Lupin and Jigen fleeing a casino with their stolen cash. The two leap into the air, legs extended, bounding forward like a pair of Bob Fosse dancers. The musical score underlines the absurdity of the image with a flighty bit of synth on the soundtrack. The first major action scene of the movie is an over-the-top car chase. Stumbling upon some bad guys doing bad things, Lupin and Jigen take chase. The tiny yellow mirco-car they're in weaves around flying debris. In an early, stand-out moment, the tcar actually drives up the side of a cliff wall, getting the drop on the pursuers. Early moments like this establishes “The Castle of Cagliostro” as a fun-first, logic-second action flick.

There are a number of wonderful action sequences in the film. Strictly for the sake of fun, the villain is armed with ninja-like henchmen. Walking around with slopping, simian posture, the fighters are decked out with iron gauntlets ending in impossibly sharp claws. Later on, we find out the claws even shoot out like rockets. A daring escape from the castle involves characters leaping onto a flying gyro-copter, weaving through machine gun fire, falling from burning planes, and landing precariously in a moving vehicle. Yet the best orchestrated action is saved for the film’s climax. The hero and the damsel, the villain close behind, run to the clock tower outside the castle. Running inside, the fight scene takes place among the whirling gears and gyros of the clock’s inner working. Having to avoid being crushed in giant gears or running across spinning cogs adds an amazingly dynamic quality to the scene. Undoubtedly an inspiration to “The Great Mouse Detective,” it’s an incredibly clever final fight and one of the most memorable things about a film that has no shortage of memorable moments.

“Castle of Cagliostro” also happens to be really funny. There’s almost a Buster Keaton-like quality to the way Lupin wiggles his way out of crazy scenarios. While sneaking into the castle through the water system, Lupin is comically pulled through a series of paddles and flapping doors, taking it all in good stride. While attempting to reach Clarisse’s tower, he clamors up the side of the building. He stumbles around, attempting to get a grappling hook to operate. When the rocket rolls down the slope, he takes chase, running at Sonic the Hedgehog-level speeds, and leaping through the air between towers. Even the character seems startled that it worked. A lot of the humor also comes from contrasting the hero’s devilish charm with his more square opponents. Maybe the funniest moment in the film is when Lupin disguises himself as Inspector Zenigata, fooling the castle guards into a conflict with the cop and his squad of identically uniformed enforcers. The slapstick conflict takes place on a overly narrow stairway and escalates quickly.

Yet even more humor simply comes from the interaction between the characters. Lupin and Jigen have clearly been friends for a long time. When the thief is keeping something to himself, the shooter grapples with his friend, attempting to wring an answer. A tiny but fascinating moment comes when the two don swimsuits to sneak into the castle through the river. While diving beneath the surface, Lupin tells his friend there’s a small hole in the floor, just as he trips in it, splashing under the water. It’s the kind of tiny, real life moment many other films would have left out. As rewarding as the relationship between Lupin and his friends are, the strange bond he develops with Zenigata might be more so. The two eventually end up in the dungeon of the castle, surrounded by the skeletons of explorers who have tried, and failed, to escape. Among the dead is a Japanese soldier who took his own life after leaving a message scratched into the stone overhead. Both men stop to pay respect to the dead man. This proceeds the thief and the cop forming a temporary truce and shows a common bond between them. In the last act, the two more-or-less team up, the inspector helping to blow the lid off the Count’s counterfeiting. The begrudging, oddball respect the two enemies develop for each other makes the relationship more complex than simply the dumb cop chasing the smart crook.

“The Castle of Cagliostro” is a big adventure flick arguably without a major romantic subplot. The plot is mostly launched when Lupin comes upon some bad guys chasing after a pretty girl. He immediately takes to protecting the girl, who, of course, turns out to be Princess Clarisse. Rappelling down the cliff with a Bond-style gadget grappling hook, Lupin holds onto the unconscious girl. He immediately takes a shine to her. After she runs off, he holds onto the silk glove she left behind. The meeting between the two in the tower purposely recalls a heroic prince coming to save an imprisoned princess. But Lupin’s not a prince. He’s a thief and a scoundrel. Fujiko describes him as a “ladykiller” later on. Yet Lupin doesn’t leap on Clarisse. He seems hypnotized by her innocence. When she hugs him at the end, he visibly recoils, holding himself back. Because he would like to take the girl but he knows it would be best for her if he didn’t. Deep beneath the action-adventure spectacle and pulp-mystery plot line, “Castle of Cagliostro” is the story of a cad learning to become a gentleman.

Before working on his first feature film, Hayao Miyazaki had mostly worked in television, including fifteen episodes of the first Lupin III television series. He was actually the second choice to direct “The Castle of Cagliostro” and only took the job after the original director bailed. It’s hard to imagine a filmmaker as detail oriented as Miyazaki directing his first feature film mostly by happenstance. Yet the animation is as vivid and detailed as any of his future movies. An incredible amount of attention is paid to the cars the characters drive, what clothes they wear, what guns they use. One close-up is on Lupin’s cigarette lighter, which is shown to be insanely realistic. Food crops up repeatedly in the film. One moment blatantly contrasts the nobles inside Castle Cagliostro eating a glamorous feast with Lupin and Jigen chowing down on instant ramen. Yet all the food looks delicious, whether it be spaghetti in a bar or the Count scooping a cooked egg out of its shell. The vehicles are realistic, from Lupin’s rickety Fiat 500 to the gyro-copter the Count flies around in. The walls of Clarisse’s tower are painted with stars and separate suddenly and fluidly. A trapdoor is activated by the blinking eyes of a bust of Caesar. The character designs are agreeably cartoony but don’t let that distract you from the unbelievable amount of work that went into making the world of “Cagliostro” feel real and lived-in.

Despite being his first feature, many of the reoccurring themes and trademarks that Miyazaki would revisited are present in “Cagliostro.” The character designs follow Monkey Punch’s original sketches to a degree. The men are lanky but broad-shouldered and much attention is paid to their long legs. However, the faces have a gentle roundness to them and the eyes are clear and expressive. The film displays much of what would, in time, become the Studio Ghibli house-style. The villain’s favorite mode of transportation provides the director with his token flying sequence. Miyazaki pointedly took the time to transform femme fatale Fujiko into a tough action chick, armed with grenades and uzis. Clarisse might be a damsel in distress for part of the run time but it should be noted that she attempts to escape her situation before she does anything else. It was clear from the beginning that flight and strong, but not overly sexualized, female characters were things that interested Miyazaki.

“The Castle of Cagliostro” is so joyously likable that its hard to imagine some one not enjoying the film. But some people didn’t. The film actually underperformed at the box office when it was first released. Hardcore Lupin fans sometimes look down on the film for the changes it made to the source material. In the manga and animated series, Lupin is more of letch and a conman. Here, he is so enamored of Clarisse’s innocent that just touching the girl forces him to back away. In the manga, you can be certain that Lupin would have taken advantage her. Jigen is funnier and Goemon is more talkative. Fujiko, usually a hyper-sexual femme fatale, barely shows any cleavage. Instead of a simmering sexspot, this version of Fujiko most resembles a female commando, spending most of the film in a camouflaged jumpsuit. You can’t really deny that Miyazaki buffed off the property’s rougher edges in the name of wider accessibility. Yet the changes works in favor of the film, helping to capture a lighter, more fun atmosphere.

It might not be the director’s most personal film or his most polished. As good as the animation is, some of it is undeniably dated. The cheesy score also marks the film as a product of the seventies. Flaws and all, “The Castle of Cagliostro” is a ripping good yarn. It’s a fantastic introduction to the Lupin III characters while still operating smoothly as a stand alone story. It has lots of action and laughs but still takes its characters and plot seriously. For a first time feature, it’s incredibly impressive and a good sign of things to come. [Grade: A-]

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Bangers n' Mash 48: The Thing (1982) Commentary

There's no reason for my co-host and I (mostly I) to work so hard on getting two episodes of the Bangers n' Mash Show out a month. Our listeners, few though they might be, are clearly a patient lot, considering weeks can by between episodes even within the month.

However, I feel bad about the Ninja Turtles episode being so late, even if it was because of my personal hardware problem. So JD and I got together to record a commentary episode which can be released very quickly because of their very nature. It's for John Carpenter's "The Thing," as requested by one of our listeners. They require usually zero editing, which makes them both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because, again, they can be released immediately. A curse because they sound like shit. All of JD and I's stammering, pausing, unrelated blabbering, and gross mouth-noises has to stay in. Case in point: At one point, the dog barks. And at another time, the phone rings. JD and I ramble off-topic repeatedly and, sometimes, just quietly watch the film. It's terrible and I apologize. Hopefully somewhere in this incoherent two hours, you can gleam something entertaining or insightful.

Anyway, our next one will be better. More reviews and a Director's Report Card coming soon.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Director Report Card: Lucky McKee (2014)

6. All Cheerleaders Die 
Co-directed with Chris Sivertson

“May” was the break-out film for Lucky McKee and the foundation for the director’s loyal and growing cult following. This is good because “May” is brilliant. However, true McKee fanatics know that it wasn’t his first feature-length film. That honor falls to oddball, micro-budget zombie riff “All Cheerleaders Die.” Co-directed by McKee’s buddy Chris Sivertson, whose promising career was unfairly jackknifed by that Lindsay Lohan stripper movie, the original “All Cheerleaders Die” is fun but not much more than a goofy, extended in-joke. For followers of the director though, it’s fascinating. Even that early in his career, the themes that would reoccur throughout all of McKee’s films were present. So when news trickled out that Lucky and Chris, wiser and more disciplined now, were reuniting to direct a new version of “All Cheerleaders Die,” I got excited. Excited enough that the film topped my list of most anticipated films this year. This is before the middling reviews started to roll in. Actually sitting down to watch the newest version of “All Cheerleaders Die,” I kept my expectations measured.

For a low budget horror movie that’s a remake of a lower budget horror movie, “All Cheerleaders Die” has a surprisingly complicated plot. The film begins with obnoxious cheerleader stereotype Alexis dying in a brutal accident, all caught on-film by her childhood best friend and would-be cheerleader Maddie. A year later, Maddie integrates herself into the cheer team, planning to take revenge on the insincere cheer bitches. Instead, she becomes genuine friends of the other girls and even starts a budding lesbian romance with cheer captain Tracy, much to the chagrin of Maddie’s wiccan ex-girlfriend Leena. After getting the squad to collectively turn on the football players, especially the overly macho leader Terry, all four girls get run off a cliff. Using crystal-driven witchcraft, Leena resurrects all four cheerleaders as blood-sucking revenants. Magical mistakes and bloody vengeance, wrecked by both genders, follows.

As a remake, “All Cheerleaders Die” is actually fairly successful. The original revolved around the cheerleaders and the football players taking a retreat into the woods and playing a game of “boys vs. girls” that soon turned deadly. The only female survivor of the massacre, a foreign exchange study with magical powers, returns a decade later during the high school reunion to revive her fallen comrades as vicious zombies, who tear apart their killers in bloody ways. The remake, smartly, rejects the time jump, which was one of the original film’s biggest problems. The football players facing off against the cheerleaders is maintained but only as a thematic concept. The witchy exchange student becomes a witchy outcast, which probably makes more sense. Many of the character names are reused and one of the original’s nastiest gore gags, involving a bear trap, is ramped up to include four bear traps. 2014’s “All Cheerleaders Die” is certainly bigger than its predecessor.

But at what cost? The tilt-a-whirl tone of “All Cheerleaders Die” is established early on with its opening scene. The film begins with a barrage of obnoxious rap music and shaky hand-held camera work. Alexis introduces herself in as hateful a manner as possible. She insults a zit-covered outsider, displays an anti-intellectual attitude, dresses in revealing clothes to distract her teachers, and is an all-around queen bee super bitch. When the opening scene ends with her taking a head-first swan dive into the football field, sickening cracking sound included, I was revealed. Thank God we won’t be spending the whole movie with this character, I thought. Obviously, McKee and Siverston are making a statement with this opening, that “All Cheerleaders Die” is a movie that won’t tolerate mean girl bullshit. Yet a first scene this off-putting is likely to send audience members fleeing.

It takes time for the viewer to ease into the film. We are introduced to enough characters in a short enough time span that the audience is thrown off. Blonde Tracy has inherited Alexis’ queen bitch position as cheer captain, as well as her star jock boyfriend Terry. Maddie’s motivation, joining the cheer team with the intention of ruining Tracy and Terry’s senior year, is established early but doesn’t inform most of her actions. Sisters Martha and Hanna are reduced to broad stereotypes. Martha is a devout Christian, an attribute we don’t hear about until Terry mocks her for it. Hanna, meanwhile, is the school mascot and always in her big sister’s shadow. Leena floats along the edge of the story, cradling a dead cat, until she becomes important at the half-hour point. With so much going on, the film doesn’t have time to even give the football players broad stereotypes. “All Cheerleaders Die” is jam-packed with stuff and, considering its 89 minute run-time, doesn’t have time to explore it all.

All of this is before the supernatural juju is activated. After bringing the girls back from the dead, the movie throws in even more weird shit. Hanna and Martha switch bodies, the shy little sister now in her hotter older sister’s body. She immediately takes advantage of this by jumping the bones of Martha’s patient boyfriend. The original “All Cheerleaders Die” featured an incredibly awkward sex scene. The bathroom-set fucking session featured here is nearly as badly framed, including an obvious body double shot. For vaguely defined reasons, the five girls share intense emotions. So when Martha gets off, they all get off, no matter how inconvenient it might be. The shared consciousness subplot comes up a few times and never feels like more than a contrived plot device. The girls are resurrected by magical stones, still embedded in their bodies, that glow when intense emotion is felt. Surely there would have been a less clich├ęd way to show that the five zombie cheerleaders share a connection.

Which isn’t to say that “All Cheerleaders Die” doesn’t feature some agreeably gonzo humor. Upon being resurrected, Tracy turns her nose up at Leena’s goat milk and seeks subsistence across the street with her sleazy neighbor. This leads to the zombie squad claiming their first victim. One of the most inexplicable sequences in the film has Tracy joining the high school’s resident stoner in his pot van. The two get high together which, combined with Martha/Hanna’s magically shared orgasm, causes Tracy’s stone to exit her head, fly across the van, and bullet itself through the stoner’s brain. It doesn’t make a lick of sense but provided a refreshing amount of “what-the-fuck” for this viewer. The sister swapping subplot, though totally unnecessary, leads to a few laughs as well. When Martha-in-Hanna’s body confronts her boyfriend about sleeping with Hanna-in-Martha’s body, the boy’s genuine confusion produces a chuckle or two. The last act escalates in such ridiculous ways that the viewer might find himself laughing in disbelief that the movie chooses to go there.

Calling “All Cheerleaders Die” a horror-comedy is a correct assessment. The movie freely mixes morbid plot points and blood and gore with surreal laughs. Except when it doesn’t. The first half-hour follows the expected plot beats of a high school drama, with bitchy betrayals and budding romances. The big car crash that follows is a grim moment of horror, showing how easily cruel sexism is supported by the high school system. The screw turns again the next day, with the film completing its transition into out-there horror/comedy. In the depth of the last act, the film attempts serious horror again. We discover how deep Terry’s villainous streak goes and a horrifying memory from Maddy’s past is revealed. The bluntness of the reveal is near tasteless and the way the film goes back to its high-strung genre shenanigans left this watcher with tonal whiplash. Lucky McKee is a smart guy and has pulled off successful genre mash-ups before. I can only assume he did this on purpose.

That last act proves especially problematic. I’m uncertain how to feel about Tom Williamson as Terry Stankus. As a misogynistic high school jock, he’s most effective, casually dismissing the women in his life and not pausing to use violence. Even after committing murder, he remains steadfast in his casual sexism. However, upon discovering the girls’ secret, Terry becomes a full-fledged supervillain. That’s not an exaggeration either, as a last-minute plot twist has him gaining genuine super powers. Just as the audience is becoming invested in the cast members, Terry slashes through the girls with a knife worthy of Michael Myers while throwing out lame one-liners. The resolution of the plot involves another character discovering mind-blowing magical abilities. After building him up as a serious villain, Terry is bluntly disposed of.

Nearly all of Lucky McKee’s films are characterized by themes of gender relations. “All Cheerleaders Die,” for its myriad of flaws, doesn’t back away on that. The villain is an unrepentant sexist and he attempts to drag his cohorts down into the same venomous mindset. This is best displayed when Tracy confronts Terry about his disgusting attitudes, causing the jock to strike his (soon-to-be-ex)girlfriend. The movie also boldly features three lesbian, or at least bisexual, characters. McKee has featured lesbian romances in enough of his films that you could makes accusations of him fetishizing it. Yet he always cooks up organic reasons to feature girl-on-girl love. The romance that develops between Maddy and Tracy, and the feelings still lingering between Leena and Maddy, are some of the more natural parts of “All Cheerleaders Die.”

The movie is also a proud member of the high school horror sub-genre. A less squirrely film probably would have focused more on how Maddy, formally an outcast, infiltrates the cheerleading squad so easily. Here, it only makes up one or two scenes before the film has to move on to other business. One of the sharper critiques comes when Terry, newly freed of his girlfriend, decides to manipulate his way into some freshman girls’ panties. Maddy appears and quickly defuses his attempted seduction. Once again, the movie has to get to more things before this plot point can develop any breathing room. “All Cheerleaders Die,” had it been more focused, could have been a biting horror-satire about cliques and social ladder climbing, a horror-riff on “Heathers” if you will.

There are other minor complaints too. The film is full of overly obvious musical cues which has, admittedly, always been something of a problem with McKee. Even the musical score, which blatantly quotes “Rosemary’s Baby,” isn’t free from this problem. The film also lacks much of the visual sense McKee has displayed in his previous films. The colors are muted and, save from one surprisingly frank lesbian encounter, the film’s direction is lacking in energy and intimacy.

The cast is a mixed bag as well. Brooke Butler gives probably my favorite performance in the film. Tracy starts out as a typically vaporous blonde. As the film goes on, she reveals a vulnerable and honest soul. After coming back from the dead, she even displays an upbeat, chipper attitude, which wrings laughs out of the highly uneven material. Sianoa Smit-McPhee is also decent as the gothy Leena. She certainly has no problem playing quirky. Reanin Johannink and Amanda Grace Cooper both show off some decent comedic chops. Tom Williamson can’t make Stankus’ last minute shift into cartoonish super-villainy work but, before that, he’s perfectly convincing as a sexist d-bag. Sadly, the film centers itself around one of its weaker performance. Caitlin Stasey is never convincing as a high school outcast. The character’s revenge quest plays such a small role in the final product that, even if the actress could have made it work, I doubt it would have had much effect on the viewer. Stasey is, basically, another bland leading lady.

“All Cheerleaders Die” doesn’t know what type of movie it wants to be. It’s an outrageous horror comedy, an indictment of male entitlement, a roasting of high school bullying, and a big-and-bloody genre exercise. Unlike McKee’s best films, he can’t balance these ideas into a coherent whole, producing a jittery, highly uneven final film. Maybe the addition of Chris Sivertson threw the equation off. The movie ends on an unpromising sequel hook. Hopefully, that’s only a joke, as I imagine McKee’s time would be better served on a different project than “All Cheerleaders Die II: Cheer Harder.” [Grade: C]

Monday, August 25, 2014

Bangers n' Mash 47: Turtle Power

Hey guys, how have you been? Seems like it's been a while since you've heard from me. Normally, long breaks between projects happen because I'm lazy, or my time is limited by work or something like that. Instead, about two weeks ago, my PC died. My personal computer is where I kept all my audio and visual projects. We tried a bunch of different things, like new video cards and ports, before realizing that the motherboard was shot. The computer was old so this was not a huge surprise. However, it wasn't the best time for it to happen, as I was in the middle of editing the below episode of the Bangers n' Mash Show, in addition to having a bunch of other stuff soon-to-be-released stuff in the oven. Luckily, my hard disks weren't harmed so, after quite a bit strum und drang, I was able to retrieve all of my stuff. Right now, everything is set up on my laptop (which is also, I'll add somewhat ominously, quite old.) and spread across several external hard drives. It's been a huge pain in the ass and a very uncertain time.

Anyway, that's why it's been two and a half weeks since an update. Hopefully, things will get back to normal now.

Since I devoted a week to reviewing all of the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" movies, it probably won't surprise long time readers that I decided to base a podcast episode around the same time. However, in the 72 minutes below, I went way beyond the TMNT films. JD and I discuss the original animated series in great detail, the other animated series in less detail, and a lot of the other oddball things related to the long-running multi-media franchise, like the comics, live action show, video games, and even the live musical stage show. It's a pretty good episode though I don't know if it was worth the wait.

Now that I've got all my shit back together, work can continue here at Film Thoughts. I've started work on a new, very exciting Director's Report Card, which I hope to start posting before the end of the month. I've also got a few loose reviews here and there too All of these things will be released before the Very Special Time of Year that will start next month. Y'all know what I'm talking about. As always, more stuff coming soon.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Recent Watches: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)


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]