Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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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)


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]