Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

The 2014 incarnation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was an acceptable movie. It wasn't a completely abomination. In fact, it was perfectly watchable. I'm not saying it's great, just better than you might expect.

It is by no means anywhere near as good of a movie as it should have been. By now, those of us who grew up watching the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle cartoons and movies are now old enough to be the ones making the movies. Theoretically, in this age when comic book movies are at an all time high, a TMNT movie that comes out now should be the best damn Ninja Turtles movie ever, fulfilling some filmmaker's dream of making the TMNT movie he or she dreamt of making as a child.

Sadly, this is not the case. The 2014 movie feels like it's more the end result of a series of business decisions. Nickelodeon bought the rights to the TMNT franchise, and figured they might as well make a live action movie in addition to the current version of the cartoon show. Knowing that people would see it regardless of quality, they put just enough effort into making the film so that it would make enough money to warrant a sequel, but pretty much stopped there. For comparison's sake, it's not even on the level of something like Transformers, (which I admit liked.) It is, however, better than Transformers: Rise of the Fallen (which I hated.)

It's at least a better movie than Ninja Turtle fans feared it was going to be. Early in the film's development it was leaked that the 2014 film would change the turtles' origins so that they're aliens, not mutants. When filmmakers are actively considering making versions of characters that flagrantly fly in the face of what the fans want, expectations should be rightfully lowered.

Fortunately, the filmmakers changed their mind and went with versions of the Turtles closer to fan expectations. While this version doesn't stick to the origin story most of us grew up knowing, (which in reality was just a spoof off of Daredevil's origin story anyway,) it does at least adopt the version of the origin story from the current IDW comic series being co-written by TMNT co-coreator Kevin Eastman, (which is actually quite good, by the way.) In other words, they stuck reasonably close to the source.

However, the actual execution of their origin story, and the rest of the character development, falls flat. The film assumes you're already familiar with the characters through some other movie or TV show, so it does little to establish the turtles' personalities aside from some overhanded character design. For example, we only know that Donatello's the brainy one because he's got glasses and is covered in hi-tech goggles and Go-Pro cameras. He's nerdy. We get it.

The villains are equally flat. The Foot Clan are neither ninjas, nor robots, but just a squad of criminals terrorizing the city for no apparent reason. Shredder is present in the film, as is his adopted daughter Karai, but they do surprisingly little. Karai just gives out orders, and Shredder just fights. The only villain to get anything close to a story arc is a scientist named Eric Sachs, played by William Fitchner, a guy you recognize as a supporting actor in several movies you've seen, even if you can't remember specifically which ones.

Now, if you're wondering just how much character development one should even expect out of a Ninja Turtles movie, just look at the 1990 movie or the 2007 animated film, simply titled TMNT. Both of these films start out with the assumption that the viewer is coming in cold, with no idea who any of the characters are, and fleshes them out fully. The 2014 movie, feels like it assumes you've already seen those other movies.

Since I'm still focused on the negatives, I might as well talk about the character designs themselves. If you've seen the trailers, you're well aware that the designs of the turtles are pretty awful. They look less like giant turtles, and more like green skinned man-babies. However, they are not the worst offenders. Splinter, for some reason, is given a bald face, and as a result looks like one of the pinheads from the movie Freaks. Shredder's design is over the top in a way that can only be described as "Michael Bay." While Bay only produced, and didn't direct the film, it's moments like this where his over the top influence is felt. Instead of making Shredder's costume look like a samurai outfit covered in an excess of sharp edges, it's a mechanized suit that fires out a never ending supply of blades, and looks like a set of over-sized Swiss army knives strapped onto an off-brand Iron Man.

At least the film didn't do the one thing I was worried it was going to do, and that is "whitewash" the character of Shredder. Early trailers made it look like William Fitchner would be playing Shredder, a character that's supposed to be Japanese. Rest assured that the character is played by Tohoru Masamune, an actor of Japanese descent. Likewise, the film has Baxter Stockman played by K. Todd Freeman, a black actor. I don't even know if Stockman has a single line of dialogue in the movie, but at least he's depicted as an African American, as he's appeared in every version of the character except the 1987 cartoon, which had him as white.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is at least entertaining, even if it does manage to be underwhelming. It doesn't feel as much like a movie as it does like a really big budget TV pilot for a live-action Ninja Turtles series. If this were on TV, it would definitely get me hooked as a series, assuming more of the backstory and characters would be fleshed out in future episodes. As a movie, I wished they hadn't operated on the assumption that they could leave all of that for the sequels. Still, the action's alright. The jokes aren't bad. Megan Fox seemed to return to the level of acting she displayed in the first Transformers movie, (which I know wasn't great, but she definitely got worse after that movie.)

Definitely do not see it in 3D. I saw it in 3D partially because after seeing Guardians of the Galaxy in 3D I thought that maybe studios had nailed the art of making a film post-converted into 3D look as good as one shot natively. That, and my friends picked the showtime. While Guardians felt like a film that was shot with 3D effects in mind, Ninja Turtles was definitely not. If director Jonathan Liebesman was shooting it with 3D in mind, he certainly didn't know what he was doing. There are far too many quick visual cuts and shaky camera work for it to be comfortable to watch. Even in scenes where the camera is steady, it's clear that the conversion work is poorly done. For example, one scene that takes place in the rain looks like you're watching it through a shower curtain when the 3D effect is added.

If you're a fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, you'll probably enjoy the movie well enough. If the characters are completely new to you, the film isn't likely to make a fan out of you, but you still might enjoy it as a "put your brain in neutral" kind of movie. Either way, you might want to wait until it comes out on video. I'm sure it's a much more enjoyable film if you pay $1 to see it, versus $10, but if you've already seen Guardians of the Galaxy twice, and you want something fun and brainless to watch in cinemas, sure go head and see it on the big screen.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy is arguably Marvel Studios' biggest gamble to date. It's based on one of the more obscure teams of Marvel heroes, specifically an incarnation of the team that appeared in a series that only ran for two years, back in 2008. (Of course, Marvel revived the series in anticipation of this movie.) I imagine that when the film was first announced, I wasn't the only nerd who had to flock to Wikipedia to find out just exactly who or what the Guardians of the Galaxy even were.

Like many of my fellow nerds, I had faith that Marvel would deliver a solid movie. After all, Marvel Studios has had an unbroken string of hits worthy of Pixar, starting with Iron Man. (Not to be confused with properties Marvel licensed out to other studios, such as X-Men, or Spider-Man, which have certainly had their shares of hits and misses.) However, many were worried that Marvel was bound to stumble eventually, and that when it did, it would be with the crazy space-adventure movie, starring characters nobody ever heard of.

If Marvel does eventually stumble, it sure as hell isn't with Guardians. I'm not going to be so bold as to say that it's on par with a movie like Star Wars: A New Hope, but Guardians certainly captured the feel of A New Hope in ways that the prequel trilogy didn't. Guardians is full of the roguish space cowboy types that made Episodes 4-6 of Star Wars so enjoyable, and that were strangely lacking from Episodes 1-3.

The fact that Guardians worked so well as a movie is actually a bit surprising. On paper, it sounds like it should be a bomb. Of the five heroes, only one is human. Of the four non-human protagonists, one is a talking raccoon, and one is humanoid tree, capable of only saying the words "I am Groot." While the current trend of comic book movies is to tone down the more comic-booky aspects of the source material when adapting things for the big screen, such as dropping code names or costumes, Guardians fully embraces its comic book origins. Characters retain their names such as Drax the Destroyer and The Mad Titan Thanos. The story has the Guardians trying to stop a villain named Ronan the Accuser from trying to destroy the planet Xandar. This sounds like it should be the sort of movies nerds make fun of for years, as the worst possible idea anybody could come up with for a summer blockbuster, and yet it's proven to be one of the best ideas to come around in a long time.

Quite frankly, I'm sure that if this film had come out twenty years ago, it would have bombed in theatres, having been torn apart by 90's critics for it's wild and fun nature, and unabashed comic book feel, only to re-emerge as a cult classic after finding its audience on video. In other words, Guardians would have experienced the same treatment The Fifth Element received.

Yet, Guardians works as a movie, even if it doesn't sound like it should, because the filmmakers know when to play things for laughs, and when to play it straight. Despite the unquestionably sci-fi pulp nature of this film, the film never treats the story as being campy. It's loaded with (sometimes incredibly juvenile) humor, but treats its core story as earnestly as every other movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The cast they lined up for this film is perfect, and there are a few unexpected performances among them. Obviously, Zoe Saldana is great as Gamora, but having seen her in Star Trek, there's no reason to expect anything less. No, the bigger question was how Chris Pratt would do as the main character, Star Lord/Peter Quill. He's certainly developed a loyal fan base from his role as Andy Dwyer on Parks and Recreation, but aside from his voice-over work in The Lego Movie, he had yet to take on the leading role in a movie. Considering how much hoopla he's generated over getting in shape for this film, he better get used to sticking to that regimen because he's definitely proven he can helm a movie, and not just as a comedian.

The performances that really surprised me were from Karen Gillian and Dave Bautista. I had only seen Gillian as the kind natured Amy Pond on Doctor Who, so it caught me off guard how frightening and intimidating she was as the villain Nebula. As for Bautista, when I saw the trailer, I figured he'd been cast as Drax the Destroyer strictly for his size and muscle mass, but it turns out he's got a knack for delivering deadpan comedic lines, some of which make up the best moments in the movie.

Finally, there's Lee Pace as Ronan the Accuser. I've been a fan of Pace ever since his roles in Pushing Daisies and The Fall (which is easily on my list of top 5 movies.) Personally, I think he's one of the most underrated actors out there right now. This film is unlikely to boost his standing, but only because he's heavily costumed and covered in makeup. As Ronan, he is perfect in the role, giving his all portraying a villainous force to contend with, but you can tell he's secretly reveling in playing the character.

It actually shocks me to say this, considering how 3D adverse I am, but this is actually a film worth seeing in 3D. The first time I saw Guardians, it occurred to me it might actually be worth watching in 3D. When I saw the film a second time (yes, it does warrant watching twice in cinemas,) I did not object when my friend wanted to catch a 3D showing, and it certainly made for a more enjoyable second viewing. Not only did the film have dazzling visuals and a brilliant color palate, but every shot was composed in a way that it was clear that director James Gunn wanted it to look good in 3D. Even though the film was originally shot in 2D, they did a great job converting it into 3D so that everything from the wide-angle shots of deep space to the close up shots are not only easy on the eyes, but add to the immersive experience.

(Originally, I was going to comment that either they did an impressive job converting Guardians to 3D, or I've just gotten used to watching 3D movies, but I saw Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in 3D over the weekend, and that is a terrible, terrible conversion job. So yes, I can safely say the conversion job in Guardians is well above average.)

Now I can't talk about Guardians of the Galaxy without mentioning it's soundtrack. It's one of the first things about this film that grabs you. In particular, the opening credits gets its hooks into you with a scene featuring Peter Quill trouncing about a barren planet to Redbone's hit, "Come and Get Your Love." The film makes heavy use of 70's pop hits, but every one of them is as perfectly selected and placed as if it were in a Quentin Tarantino film. So for any parents out there with young kids, get ready for them to develop a sudden interest in the music your mom and dad listened to growing up.

For a summer that's felt like it's lacked a solid, knock-it-out-of-the-ballpark hit, Guardians of the Galaxy is the movie that should have been the anchor for the July 4th weekend. It may have been an audacious move on behalf of the marketing team to give this film the tagline, "You're welcome," but the film backs that tagline up, as well as prompting me to say, "Thank you, Marvel."