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Thursday
Aug072014

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

I don’t remember a world when the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles didn’t exist. I had just turned one year old when the original cartoon debuted in 1987 and it was, to my recollection, the first thing outside of friends and family that I fell in love with. I’ve watched every show and movie, played every video game, read many of the comics and even owned much of the merchandise; boxes of various Ninja Turtles paraphernalia are still resting underneath my bed, in my closet and in my attic. While I’ve abandoned much of my childhood loves, the Ninja Turtles are the one thing I still enjoy to this day.

Couple my admiration with pre-release reports of a troubled production and various other controversies and I became sure the newest movie, succinctly titled “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” was going to be a disaster. After all, if they could change the design of the heroes in a half-shell to something so atrocious, surely the rest of the filmmaking decisions would follow suit. I didn’t want to, but I was ready to trash this film if the final product called for it. However, nothing pleases me more than to say that such negativity is unwarranted. Although the design of the Turtles have changed, their personalities remain intact. This is an impressive, action packed film with some terrific humor and an expectedly hokey plot that is both to its benefit and detriment. This new movie won’t convert non-fans, but if they can look past the visual changes, longtime devotees will find much to love.

April O’Neil (Megan Fox) is a television reporter in New York City who has been relegated to fluff stories. Much like any young reporter, she longs to make her big break with an independent investigation on the local criminal organization, the Foot Clan. She gets too close to the story, however, and finds herself stuck in a bad situation, only to be rescued by vigilante heroes that nobody has seen before. Her focus quickly turns to them and she ends up discovering that those vigilantes are actually mutated, walking, talking turtles. Pleasantries will have to wait, though, because a threat is looming over the city. The Shredder (Tohoru Masamune), the leader of the Foot Clan, is in cahoots with business mogul, Eric Sachs (William Fichtner), and together they intend on taking over the city.

As far as story goes, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” isn’t the most creative, nor does it deviate much from the tried and true formula set forth all those years ago in the original show: the Shredder hatches a ridiculous plan while the Turtles fight his goons and crack some jokes along the way, leading to a “close call” finale—when our heroes may or may not foil his plan at the very last second. This is all to be expected.

But as the old adage goes, it’s not the destination that matters, but the journey, and TMNT is filled with enough clever jokes (“That’s stupid” April says at one point after someone mistakes the Turtles as aliens, a clear reference to the pre-release controversy that suggested our heroes’ acronym may need to be modified to TANT, an unfortunate acronym depending on how one pronounces it) and surprisingly impressive action scenes to make that journey worthwhile. In modern cinema, ill-advised attempts to enhance the action through shaky camerawork and rapid editing have put a damper on what would otherwise serve up some serviceable excitement. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” for the most part at least, avoids this perplexing tactic. Things get hectic, sure, but the camerawork remains fluid; not once does it lose its way. A standout scene takes place on a snowy mountainside (though one must wonder where such a place exists in New York City), as the Turtles and their enemies slide downhill with all manner of chaos revolving around them. This sequence is well choreographed and extremely exciting, marking itself as one of the standout action scenes of the summer.

More interesting is that April’s connection to the Turtles extends beyond the “damsel in distress” role she has been relegated to in previous Turtles iterations. While I hesitate to explain what that connection is out of fear of spoilers, it nevertheless makes her inclusion in the narrative more integral than she has been in the past. In this movie, April O’Neal is a strong female character, a fearless reporter that has dreams of becoming more and not settling for mediocrity. She’s more than just a pretty face, despite what Megan Fox’s casting may suggest, even if the actress isn’t entirely believable in the role.

For fans of the franchise, the largest deficiency will undoubtedly be the design of the characters. Only Splinter (mostly) retains his expected look while Shredder looks like a metallic Edward Scissorhands and the Turtles could rightfully be classified as the Teenage Mutant Hipster Turtles, their design obviously updated to appeal to the young kids out there as they wear sunglasses on their heads and puka shell necklaces around their necks while Donatello’s tech equipment is akin to those obnoxious Bluetooth devices many folks wear even when not actually using them. More than anything else, the character designs leave much to be desired.

Other minor nagging issues rear their ugly heads from time to time, like the voice casting of Johnny Knoxville as Leonardo, whose voice is far too recognizable and clearly stands out from the rest of the gang, and some childish humor that, even though it fits within the context of teenage immaturity, is worthy of little more than an eye roll and disgruntled sigh. Luckily, this type of humor is few and far between, serving only as a minor detour from the spot on self-deprecating and pop culture jokes.

There is much to like in this new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Don’t let the pre-release controversy or lackluster trailers sway you; it is more than the sum of its parts. It may or may not work for the uninitiated, but Turtles fans are sure to have a good time.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles receives 4/5

Wednesday
Dec192012

This Is 40

If you ask me, there are two Judd Apatows: the director and the writer. The director is like Kevin Smith, a man who doesn’t really do much behind the camera in regard to cinematic flare, but knows how to pull a great comedic performance from his actors. The writer, however, is more like Woody Allen. His movies, despite their vulgarity, often hit deeper truths that come from a terrifically structured story, but are long winded, to the point where that sound structure starts to sag, usually all the way to their unnecessary and disappointing conclusions. With the sole exception of The 40 Year Old Virgin, whose runtime felt necessary to the story, all of his movies are like this, from Knocked Up to this week’s This Is 40. That meaning is still there, but you’ll have to sit through a lot of nonsense to get to it.

Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann, Apatow’s real life wife) are a married couple who are about to have their 40th birthdays. Naturally, they’re struggling with that realization, especially in the face of their growing troubles. Financially, Pete’s upstart record label, Unfiltered Records, isn’t doing too hot and Debbie’s shop isn’t pulling in enough to keep them afloat. At home, they have their hands full with their two daughters, Sadie (Maude Apatow) and Charlotte (Iris Apatow), the former of whom has hit that rebellious teenage phase all parents dread. Their sex life is on the decline and neither of them are in particularly good standing with their fathers either. Their seemingly blissful existence is about to be tested.

This Is 40, at its core, isn’t really about age, though one could argue their concerns and stresses stem from it. Rather, the film is about life in general, the type of struggles any family could go through, whether they be in their 40s, 60s or even their 20s. It’s about that inevitable period of time in a marriage when things get so tough that the validity of the marriage comes into question. All couples go through it at some point and the question becomes: do you fight through the rough patches or give in? As a 45 year old man married to a 40 year old woman raising two daughters, the story feels like a personal one from Apatow, like he has lived through much of what happens onscreen, albeit to a more comedic extent. If you haven't lived through it, This Is 40 will remind you of your parents, as many movies about aging couples do. It reminds of their struggle with age and mortality, money and lack thereof, and even how your father would fart and laugh while your mom cringes in disgust.

However, the weak link, the thing tearing those reminders down, is Paul Rudd. Although he has proven to be a solid comedic performer in the past, he has always had one problem: he can’t keep it together. During the funnier parts, like the opening scene where he takes a Viagra and talks about his penis, noticeable cracks in his façade seep through. In a movie like, say, I Love You, Man, where it’s all about laughs and the story means nothing, it’s okay, but in an Apatow film that is trying to reach deeper meaning, where the drama is just as, if not more, important than the comedy, it’s a problem.

Because of this, This Is 40 is the weakest and most tonally inconsistent directorial effort from Apatow yet. But again, there is some truthful resonance here, even if it is hidden in a bloated film that runs well over two hours (someone desperately needed to take the scissors to this thing and cut out 20 minutes, at least). In the end the film is optimistic about love, life and family while still acknowledging how hard they can be. In that sense, it’s realistic, but still finds the time to flourish it up with more than a few laugh-out-loud gut busters. This Is 40 is going to be a tough movie to sell, given that the younger crowd won’t be able to relate and the older crowd may find its more juvenile moments off-putting, but it still works, even if it’s on the basest of levels.

This Is 40 receives 3/5

Friday
Jun182010

Jonah Hex

Comic book movies are all the rage these days. With Iron Man, The Dark Knight and the X-Men flicks tearing up the box office, it should be expected. Coming soon are Thor, Captain America and The Green Lantern, but for now we have to contend with Jonah Hex, a cataclysmic disaster that was dead in the water from frame one.

The film stars Josh Brolin as Hex, a former soldier in the Civil War who had everyone and everything he ever loved taken away from him at the hands of the evil Quentin Turnbull, played by John Malkovich. On top of the emotional torture from watching his family burn to death, Turnbull brings him some physical pain by branding his initials on his cheek, though Hex quickly does away with it later by burning off the side of his face, leaving a giant whole in his cheek and a cleft lip on his right side. Now he lives only to seek vengeance and kill Turnbull, finding himself closer than he's ever been after gathering information on his whereabouts by talking to a dead guy (did I mention he could do that?). Oh, and there’s also a prostitute named Lilah, played by Megan Fox, who has some sort of history with Hex and loves him despite his monstrous looks.

I guess. Take away the credits and Jonah Hex is one hour and 15 minutes. There’s so little time spent on story that there practically isn’t one. Why does Lilah love Hex? How the hell did he get that power? And what is Turnbull’s motivation? After killing Hex’s family, we find out that he has a plan to destroy the soon-to-be-one-hundred-years-old America with a previously unused weapon, a bunch of shiny yellow balls that can apparently wipe out whole continents. His hatred for America is never explained. Nothing is. This thing putters along exhaustingly and still barely reaches the finish line despite its short runtime.

I suppose that’s okay, though, because the little bit of story that is here is unappealing and nonsensical. Stretching it out would have been unbearable. It’s a lose-lose situation no matter how it’s looked at. It hides behind the veil of a comic book and throws in some mysticism for good measure, but Jonah Hex is little more than a revenge picture, not unlike the hundreds of others we’ve already seen, and it’s a terrible one at that.

Its main drawback is that Hex simply isn’t an engaging character. He lost his family in a devastating fire at the hands of a madman, but he cracks jokes as often as possible. He pretends to be doing good deeds, but he’s a ruthless killer and will take you down if you step in his way. There’s no reason to root for him. The usually reliable Brolin gives a lackadaisical performance, as if he knew he was working his way through dreck and couldn’t wait to be done.

It feels that way for the rest of the actors as well. Most are miscast, including Malkovich and funnyman Will Arnett as Lieutenant Grass whose usage in the film is nebulous at best, but Fox trumps them all. Outside of one moderately passable creepy turn in Jennifer’s Body, she has churned out one bad performance after another, proving herself to be little more than eye candy.

The only thing left when you take away the nonexistent story, bad performances and uninteresting characters is the action, but the director Jimmy Hayward, whose only other directorial effort is the animated Horton Hears a Who!, doesn’t know how to stage them. Not since National Treasure have I been so bored watching what ultimately amounts to inconsistent, dull, phony action.

Writing credits on this train wreck go to Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, the minds behind Gamer and the two Crank pictures, and when they saw the potentially disastrous route this thing was heading down, they gave up their spots as directors and abandoned it completely. Consider this if you will: their previous films are dumb fun at best and just dumb at worst. Jonah Hex couldn't even meet those standards. And that's saying something.

Jonah Hex receives 0.5/5