Now I Know How You Die Hard Transformers Fans Must Feel: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

TMNT

The wildly popular Transformers movie franchise is often trounced by critics for a number of reasons. Most commonly I hear about how the movies took a beloved childhood series and strayed from the spirit of the source material. I could not relate. I played with Transformer toys growing up, sure, but I didn’t adamantly watch the series, and I couldn’t have given you any of their names. To me, the movies were nothing more than poorly constructed money farms. Then they announced that Michael Bay was producing a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle reboot. But with Bay Just producing, maybe the director had a chance? Jonathan Liebesman. He’s directed a few action films, none of which were of great note. “Still, it’s Turtles” I thought “It can’t be that hard to get right, I mean none of the previous movies were works of art. I’ll just wait to see who they cast”. The realization that Casey Jones wasn’t going to be in the movie was almost as heart wrenching as the fact that Megan Fox was cast as April O’neil. Sorry, I’m letting my nostalgia seep into this review. It’s just that for the first time, I think I know what those true Transformers fans must have felt like.

 

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is the fifth big screen title for the heroes in a half-shell, and is a complete reboot. The real focal point of the film is April O’neil, who is a doggedly determined reporter that wants to break away from the puff pieces she’s always assigned. This leads her to investigate a local crime organization known as “The Foot”. She learns that someone is thwarting some of The Foot’s operations. She eventually finds herself in a trap set by The Foot to lure out these vigilantes. They are, of course, the titular turtles. As April gets closer to the four reptile brothers, she learns how they came to be, and begins to comprehend just what the villains have in store for the city of New York. Along they way she meets the Turtles Master; a rat named Splinter and their nemesis; The Shredder.

 

The premise is pretty standard Turtles stuff. It’s a franchise about four anthropomorphic turtles named after renaissance artists who have mastered ninjutsu and fight organized crime in the city. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a franchise that survives on a mixture of weirdness and charm. This film lacked  the charm and amped up the weirdness in all the wrong ways. Megan Fox sucked every quirk out of the character of April o’neil. No longer the smart and tough reporter, she reduced April to a pretty face to look at that served only to spout exposition to the audience. The turtles were…. uncanny. Their faces were unsettling to look at and I simply couldn’t get a tangible grasp on their being and where they belonged in the world of the film. The most frustrating thing was that it felt like the entire cast was on the verge of rolling their eyes because they thought the concept of a Turtle movie was above them. The movie would literally make fun of the weirdness and charm that made this series, and then make half an effort to duplicate it. I once went up with a group of people to sing Bohemian Rhapsody at a karaoke place. I was embarrassed, so rather than get super into it like the others, I attempted to save face and just sort of stood up there awkwardly and quietly sang along while the others were practically rolling on the ground. If the other movies were like the people singing and rolling on the ground, this one was me. None of us could particularly sing very well, but all the others were far more entertaining to watch.

 

This movie is worse than Turtles in Time a film that is almost universally recognized as the worst in the franchise. A big problem with this film was just how poorly it was written. The villains have no real goals other than some conceited plan to make lots of money, despite already being ridiculously rich. It felt like, with the exception of the turtles themselves, everyone was simply reading a rough draft of the script word for word. Most of the lines were there to blatantly state the obvious to no one except the audience. They spent far too much time explaining the nonsensical plot, and ultimately failed at that. There were one or two jokes that landed, but the majority of the humor was squelched by a lack of enthusiasm and heart. In it’s attempt to be a gritty reboot, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles managed to be the one thing I didn’t expect it to be; boring.

 

If you’re interested in my reviews of the other Turtles movies check them out here.

 

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Reading at the Movies: World War Z

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Their presence in fiction mirrors the reality in which we reside; a reality that reflects the fact that zombies are everywhere. In fiction they’re a world wide threat bent on nothing in particular except eating people. In reality we just have an over saturated amount of TV shows, books, comic books and concept art that caters our cultures insatiable and weird appetite for these cannibalistic corpses. I’m part of the problem too, I love a good zombie movie and can appreciate the moral and logistical quandaries that they present to those attempting to survive in their world. World War Z is the best zombie story I have ever consumed. Let me be clear, I am currently talking about the novel by Max Brooks in which an unnamed (and certainly not Brad Pitt) UN worker travels around the world AFTER the big Zombie war interviewing survivors. Like anything that becomes remotely popular it demanded a cinematic representation! And so we got a film with the same title….and that’s about it.

 

World War Z (film) stars Brad Pitt as a UN worker by the name of Gerry Lane whose task it is to finds himself thrust into the center of a massive scale zombie epidemic. He is tasked with finding the origin of the disease with the hope of figuring out just what can be done to stop the spread of the infection. This takes him all around the world, where he observes a few different temporary solutions that various cultures have enacted to help protect themselves…all of which end up failing. It’s a sort of follow-the-bread-crumbs adventure in which Brad Pitt straps magazines to his forearms as a type of makeshift armor to prevent being bit. Honestly that was my favorite part.

 

World War Z (novel) is narrated by an unnamed UN worker that is tasked with traveling around the world to interview survivors of the zombie war. The novel starts out with the war being over. Humanity won the fight against the zombie threat, but just barely. Each chapter is an oral report of how a different culture or people group witnessed and consequently survived their particular encounter. The accounts range from a colony yuppie campers attempting to flee north in their caravan of luxury motorhomes to a Japanese teenage gamer who must figure out a way to escape from his skyscraper home. Major battles are discussed in great detail and the entire course of the fight is laid out in different styles and flavors for the reader to savor.

 

Brad Pitt’s starring vehicle hovered around the 200 million dollar mark to make. It was ok. It was an honest to goodness zombie fest in which millions of zombies ran very quickly towards the protagonist at almost every turn. The film managed to gloss over the intricate details laid out in the novel and replace them with faster enemies and bigger explosions. It was a visual effects feast that practically begged you to just switch off the part of your mind that yearns for a plot within a story. Sure there was a goal Gerry was trying to attain, and it had to be done quickly, but it is nestled safely under an enumerable amount of human corpses. It had it’s merits, and while the large scale attacks were impressive to look at, they had little effect on my emotional reaction to the film. It was the tight, claustrophobic scenes that amped up the suspense.

 

The Novel offered a large series of individual stories that, when combined painted a picture of the full scale that the fictional zombie plague had on a vast number of cultures and individuals. Each account has it’s own protagonist and their own setting. Some read like a pulp adventure novel while others are absolutely chilling in their dissection of human nature. While the zombie threat is ever present and the main focus of the novel, it isn’t the sole enemy. Some accounts take into account the psychological damage associated with seeing your loved ones turned into monsters, it looks at the depravity of humanity, at times allowing for very little room to distinguish between the real horrors of humanity and the fictional horror of the zombies. Unlike the film, the book uses the traditional “slow zombies” and manages to make them terrifying. The narrator of the book takes a back seat to the survivors, the everyday people that did what it took to survive.


The World War Z novel was so good it ought to have it’s own movie. As it stands it does not have that. Aside from a few, almost coincidental similarities, the novel and film that share a name are worlds apart (within the scope of the zombie genre). Where the film was your run-of-the-mill action film with a massive budget, the novel presents you with a great number of individual stories, each interesting and unique, but working together to form the most compelling Zombie story I’ve ever experienced.

Returning to Video Game High School with season 2

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While I tend to focus the vast majority of this blog on feature films, I found myself bending slightly by reviewing the “movie” version of the web series Video Game High School. What was presented on Netflix as a feature film, was actually the entire first season of Rocket Jump Studios internet series. I was completely unaware that the series was in existence until stumbling across it on Netflix. While it took time for me to get into the cheesy, albeit enduring premise, I ended the evening in awe of the writing, acting and overall production. It has more cheese than nachos on the moon, but that’s part of what made the show. Imagine my surprise when the second season suddenly popped up on Netflix! It took very little time for me to consume the, considerably longer, next chapter.

The series picks up exactly where season one left us. “The Law” is shunned and trying to win back some cred, BrianD is still trying to prove himself and define his relationship with Jenny Matrix, who in turn has to deal with her mother becoming VGHS FPS coach. Ki and Ted also try to figure out both where they stand with each other and where they want their Video Gaming careers to head. The second season has a pretty great arch that encompasses each main character, while not compromising the individual storylines.

The show boasts the same sharp writing that made season 1 one of my favorite comedy series, and it only gets better with this recent addition. With the season consisting of longer episodes, it felt much more like a standard sit-com, as far as time was concerned, but the freedom that the creators have over their environment offers a chance for jokes to run so rampant that it’s near impossible to catch them all. Brian Firenzi returns to his role as “The Law”. He was the main villain in season 1, and returns as a… well I guess just a jerk. He’s often times a villain, sometimes a hero and almost always a loser. He’s also absolutely hilarious. The main characters are funny, but a ton of credit is due to the supporting cast. The video game references and gags come at you non-stop, it’s a show geared towards nerds and game lovers, but has a level of chemistry that can be enjoyed by anyone. Like I said, it’s incredibly cheesy, but well worth your time.

Web Slinging with “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”

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This weekend I watched my fifth Spider-man movie in theaters. I had no real intention of seeing it, but was invited at the last minute by a friend that had an extra ticket, so I, naturally agreed. There are few movies that I would pass up to see for free in theaters, and Spider-man anything would never be on that list. I had decided not to spend money on it because of the recent poor reviews, most of which stated that this was a disaster not unlike the unfortunate Spider-Man 3 that Sam Raimi dissapointed audiences with in 2007. The Spider-Man character is just about on everyone’s top ten favorite super heroes list, which is exactly why they keep making these movies. The recent reboot of the series seemed unnecessary, but proved to be quite good, despite similarities to the last series. And so, with a positive results the creative forces decided to jam pack as much as they could into the sequel. While not detrimental, it proved, at the very least, distracting.

 

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 starts off with a flash back to Peter’s parents escaping from, we-aren’t-sure-what. There is a big spectacle as Peter’s father struggles to upload a mysterious file while fighting a villanous man that intends to bring their jet crashing to the ground. The file is uploaded. With that distraction gone we jump directly into the life of present day Spider-Man, which is really all we wanted anyway. Peter, during the opening spidey-sequence rescues an engineer from being run over, and in doing so introduces us to the movies big villain. This engineer, a nobody by the name of Max, becomes Electro. Electro is basically electric force in human form. Peter then must wrestle with the death of his Gwen Stacy’s father, the return of a child hood friend who is dying of a genetic disease and the unknown reasons his parents abandoned him. The movie throws around more plots than the vials of plutonium that are stolen at the start of the film… which is a lot.

 

First, the good: Visually, the movie is fantastic. The action sequences are well produced, smooth and exciting. The actors gave it their all, with Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone absolutely killing it with their chemistry. Jamie Foxx was almost a little too cartoon like with his character… but it worked. This was a step away from the darker hero movies of late and a step back about two decades into a more fantastical hero universe. I particularly loved the score and sound effects associated with Electro. Albeit a little corny, the music had me grinning. Garfield presents a fantastic Peter Parker, one that encapsulates the youth of today. Even though the Raimi series doesn’t seem to be much of a distant memory, Garfield pulls the character into 2014 flawlessly.

 

The bad: There was too much trying to be accomplished in this movie, and because of that issues got muddled and things didn’t make sense. In particular, Peter’s search for why his parents left him was a waste of time. There was a large portion of time and emotion devoted to Peter discovering what his parents were doing and what happened to them for very little pay off. The second plot I took issue with was the Green Goblin. Dane DeHaan did a fine job playing Harry Osborn and the Green Goblin, but it felt rushed and unplanned. We go from meeting the cahracter for the first time, and having him be a good friend of Peter’s to a murderous goblin a little too quick and with too little explanation.

 

The Spider-Man curse is packing the stories too tightly. Amazing Spider-Man 2 was a blast to watch, but it was bogged down by confusing plot points and unexplained circumstances. That being said, what it got right was keeping the pace exciting and visuals stunning. Also I loved the return to a more fantastic, amazing heart of the super hero genre.

The Thing (2011) The Thing Anthology Part III

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We are in a constant state of ever expanding cinematic universes. Successful standalone films are few and far between these days, once something is found to be profitable, it only makes sense to milk that cash cow dry, critics and fans be hanged! If it makes money, you continue to grow the franchise, it’s the way Hollywood has been working. So, it came as no real surprise that in 2011 we were “treated” to a prequel to a very successful (and my personal favorite) sci-fi horror film from the 80’s. The Thing  replicated the same title as the 1980s iteration; an oddly appropriate move given the nature of the monster in the series. The Thing (2011) is the third installment in this quasi-franchise. It started with The Thing From Another World  in 1951, was remade in 31 years later with The Thing (1982) and a prequel to that film leaves us with what is now somewhat of a period piece of a 1980s scientific expedition gone awry. Maybe in 30 more years we’ll get a proper sequel, but I hope not.

The Thing doesn’t pluck it’s story from thin air, but actually has a very appropriate starting point. In the 1982 version, the scientists stumble upon a destroyed Norwegian camp and one huge spaceship encased in the antarctic ice. The Thing (2011) tells the story of just what happened at that Norwegian camp. While we know the events are probably very similar to the horrors that unfolded in the original film, we didn’t know the exact details until this film came out. Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is hired to aid the in the retrieval of an alien spaceship and life form that has been frozen for many millennia. To their horror, the life form is not only alive, but wanting to feed. In standard Thing fashion, it proceeds to eat and replicate the motley crew of scientists in the most horrific and gross ways possible. Paranoia and terror run rampant as the isolated group must attempt to sift the “thing” from the humans before it reaches the general population of the world.

While the plot is virtually indistinguishable from John Carpenter’s classic, they manage to throw in a few original ideas that work really well, and of course there are plenty of jump scenes. I especially liked the way they were able to distinguish the humans from the monster in this film. Without giving it away, it was completely different from the last film, but made complete sense in the scope of the universe. The acting was actually pretty top notch, Joel Edgerton in particular did a pretty great job as the American helicopter pilot, channeling Kurt Russell quite well while still managing to be his own character. It was spooky, it was fun but it wasn’t great. While The Thing (1982) was one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen, this iteration lacked the claustrophobia and grit that it took to really leave the audience unsettled. The CGI, in particular couldn’t compare to the practical effects used in the 80s in it’s ability to make me queasy. The atmosphere managed to be more comforting as well. The original film used the environment, the dark and the cramped base to make you feel utterly unsafe the whole movie. The base in this film seemed much larger, the weather tamer and the thing itself was far more tangible than it was when it attacked the American base. Instead of revealing it’s monster form only while transforming or going in for the kill, the monster would hunt in the form of a mass of flesh and bones, crawling around on all fours while it actively searched for other people to kill. What made John Carpenter’s Thing so frightening was how it would try to get away unless it was threatened. It would do anything to get away from prying eyes and transform into human form, then try to trick the others.

This was a fun prequel that took new approaches to the similar storyline presented 30 years prior. With a fresh new cast and take on the cinematic legend, The Thing (2011) managed to give some mild scares and some genuinely suspenseful moments. Where it falls short is in it’s presentation of the monster itself. What was an intangible horror is reduced to something that looks like it hopped out of the latest Men in Black movie; also the fact that it’s atmosphere was not the proper material you need to conduct the type of horror that made The Thing as truly horrific as it was.

Part 1 Part 2

 

 

John Carter? Never heard of him.

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When visualizing the sci-fi film genre, I picture it as a large grumble of pugs (a grumble is in fact the correct term for a group of pugs) vying for the undying attention of the general public. They’ll do anything to please the masses, if only they’d be taken to a good home. Science Fiction, when done correctly, can be a massive money maker for movie studios. But they’re fighting against all the other cute little pugs attempting to grab your attention. So, in the scuffle of being cute, a lot of people overlook some rather pleasant and well behaved pugs for ones that, although initially cute, turn out to be impossible to train not to poop on your favorite chair once you bring them home.

Now that I have that terrible analogy out of the way, I’d like to introduce you to an overlooked pug, as it were. John Carter was a flop. Disney blamed Carter for the majority of it’s $84 million loss in it’s quarter ending in March of 2012. The movie had everything going for it, a good cast and a proven director, yet it was raked across the coals by critics and proved to have one of the worst marketing plans in recent memory. For this reason, I completely ignored it and focused on most of the other Sci-Fi films that year, of which there were many. On a whim I checked John Carter out from the library. The only way I ended up spending money on this movie is by accruing a late fee because I lacked the motivation to watch it in a timely fashion. Imagine my surprise when I sat down and observed a well rounded, beautifully filmed action adventure piece that took place on mars.
The visuals alone prove an exciting experience, introducing alien landscapes in ways that, although familiar, are fresh in their potential for hazard and peril. The creature creation with some of the alien life forms was a lot of fun, and having Carter himself be a Civil War era soldier thrown into the futuristic Martian war zone was fun. Taylor Kitsch does a decent job as the titular hero. While I was kind of leery of his portrayal of the character on Earth, once he hit martian shores and we began our fish-out-of-water story, he carried my attention and my allegiance the entire film. While it’s more or less a standard adventure story, John Carter manages to be engaging and far more entertaining than I had anticipated. Carter embarks on the, all too familiar, reluctant heroes journey. Though we’ve seen it before, he does it well. Andrew Stanton shows his directorial chops once again by creating a convincing atmosphere despite the alien nature of the world.
It’s a shame John Carter did so poorly. I had almost no intention of ever seeing what was a solidly produced and very entertaining movie. It was just another example of an adorably well behaved pug being outshined by a misbehaving chair pooping one.

Gravity

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    Life is precious, but it has a terrible survival record. Life is also difficult. Be it attempting to survive on almost no resources in the vacuum of space or driving to work on a weekday morning in rural Ohio. It’s not the severity of the danger or the devastation of the circumstances that test the merits of humanity, it’s how those circumstances are dealt with. Alfonso Cuarón uses imagery that is both awe-inspiringly beautiful while simultaneously gut wrenching and horrifying to focus on the trial of a particular human being. This human has dealt with other, arguably more trying, emotional circumstances in her life, but that’s not what we’re going to watch. What we’re going to watch is a woman attempt to re-enter Earth with all the odds against her. We’re going to watch a woman be pitted against the cruelty and indifference of the celestial elements and come to grips with what it means to fight for survival.

    Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a medical engineer on her first trip to space. While she is having a less than ideal time, she’s comforted by the nonchalant musings of veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) as he enjoys his final space walk before retiring. As they near the finish of the mission, their ship is destroyed by space debris, leaving the two stranded in space with limited means in which to travel. Realizing they must make a trek to the International Space Station in hopes of finding an escape pod. Kowalski, being the senior astronaut keeps a pretty level head throughout, while Stone must dig deep to find courage she never thought herself capable of. George Clooney puts in an ideal performance for his role, but it’s not about him. This movie is about Ryan Stone, particularly how she handles the situations that are presented before her as well as the events of her past.

    Gravity is nothing short of gorgeous. If you find the movie boring, if you don’t like the acting, if you think the premise is far fetched (in my opinion it is none of these things), you have to at least admit to the fact that it is, perhaps, the most visually awe-inspiring space film ever made, providing a greater understanding of the vastness of space in comparison to a single astronaut. The images of space and the views of earth contrasted against the miniscule bodies of the actors involved easily gets the point across that they’re in a dangerous, but incredible surrounding. Watching two actors, Bullock in particular, attempt to survive against all odds is thrilling. Alfonso Cuarón keeps the premise on the edge of believability providing an inspiring look at bravery in the face of the most intimidating surroundings. The dialogue, which is crucial to the success of the film, is both emotionally charged and concise. We don’t get flash backs or long exposition on each of the characters history, we get to watch two people fight with everything they have to live. Arguably, Clooney plays the part a little too casually. Iit worked well. But what does it mean to live? That is one of the questions brought up, primarily through the use of breath taking visuals, that the director asks the audience. Sure, Ryan might survive the ordeal, but if she does, what difference would it make, ultimately, in her life? It’s much more difficult to live than it is to survive.

    Alfonso Cuarón uses some of the best imagery I’ve ever seen in a film, some of which I have no desire to give away in case you haven’t seen the film. It’s not all just pretty pictures, he stages the scenes so we’re drawn completely into the emotional depth of his vision. Using the screen as his canvas, pictures are painted before our eyes displaying both the safety and seclusion as well as the danger and savageness of both space and life. Gravity is a wonderful film, using a near perfect mix of sound, visual and emotional stimulation to present something that is far more than a physical tale of survival. Space is the great unknown, it is where you look to gain perspective on just how small we are. In the same way, Cuarón attempts to give that perspective to his characters. He wants them to know that living and surviving are two entirely different things, one is a passive action, while the other is a brutal and unforgiving fight.