Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

★★

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles PosterDirector: Jonathan Liebesman

Release Date: August 8th, 2014 (US); October 17th, 2014 (UK)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Comedy

Starring: Megan Fox, Will Arnett

Despite never holding the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in any sort of nostalgic regard, one of the most enduring memories I have of my school-morning television-gorging is the theme song to the original 1987 cartoon. The lyrics “when the evil Shredder attacks” have outlasted many a childhood theme song (I can’t even remember the Batman intro), to the point where I now wonder whether I actually watched the show or simply tuned in for the music and then retreated into a cereal paradise. I’m sure I did watch though; I remember being entertained even on gloomy weekday mornings — surrounding content notwithstanding, what eight-year-old boy wouldn’t be entranced by a quartet of giant green turtles doing karate?

Now that I’m a bit older, I guess the surrounding content does matter more. A great deal more. And while Jonathan Liebesman’s live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is not a movie devoid of everything except computerised action, there is quite of lot the giant-green-turtles-doing-karate shtick going on. Liebesman has procured an action portfolio in his time as a director, especially in recent years via films such as Battle: Los Angeles and Wrath of the Titans. This isn’t as gritty as Battle: Los Angeles but it does employ the same kinetic ground-level tact: snappy panning shots, often incomprehensible. CG also plays a significant part, the movie’s visuals echoing those in Transformers of big beasts thumping each other in not-so-engrossing waves of manufactured pixelation (Michael Bay serves as an executive producer). It’s certainly not on that franchise’s level of abomination though, and Megan Fox is a bit better here than she was there.

She plays April O’Neil, a puff piece reporter with eyes set on bigger things. To its credit the film initially disposes of origin story tendencies and invites us into a world with pre-established goodies and baddies: the latter, the Foot Clan, a tyrannical body of fighters ravaging New York City. During one of their raids (or something) April spots a vigilante fighting back. Four, in fact. Raphael (Alan Ritchson), Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), Leonardo (Pete Ploszek, voiced by Johnny Knoxville), and Donatello (Jeremy Howard). Such an unfettered invitation suggests boredom with the narrative norm and injects immediate urgency. On the flip side, it does feel like there’s a first act missing. Characters don’t get a proper introduction as much as they are coloured with broad brush strokes — heroes, villains, corporate leaders, roving reporters, deceased family members.

This pacy open also sets a shallow tone long-term as the piece swaps the fleshing out of these characters for splurges of exposition. We hear Shredder (Tohoru Masamune) bemoan society’s attempt to “reduce the Foot Clan to a myth,” which seems to be the driving force behind he and his troupe’s antagonistic relationship with the city. The turtles’ basic lineage is also revealed via extended chatter; some combination of breakthrough science and mystical hijinks. The screenplay’s avoidance of setup also means the stakes are low — we spend very little time getting to know those on-screen therefore when the inevitable happens (self-sacrifice), it does so without any emotional clout.

And despite the origin-dumping opening, the inevitable does happen quite a lot. Writers Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec, and Evan Daugherty give in to clichés on purpose: scattered journals and tapes decorate the floor of April’s room because she is a journalist reaching for the brass ring; there is a grandmaster rat in the sewers who guides the turtles, which means long, pointed facial hair and a wise gown; and, of course, the usual nefarious backstabbing is abound. The turtles don’t escape conventionality either, which is quite something given they are, well, giant green turtles doing karate. All four act like goofy teenagers unaware of what they’re doing but aware that they’re fairly good at doing it. They are supposed to be witty and a bit erratic: one of them makes a Star Wars joke because that’s what cool teens do, though I couldn’t tell you which one. I do know that Raphael seems angrier than the other three. He wears a red bandanna for metaphorical purposes.

Michelangelo, orange, develops a romantic soft spot for April that the piece plays on with some comedic success. His feelings are nothing compared to those Will Arnett holds for his broadcast partner though. Arnett is quite likeable as Vern Fenwick, the everyday cameraman pining for the pretty girl. As such, every second line he speaks manifests as an attempt at light satire: “Nothing better than dropping off a pretty girl at a rich guy’s house.” The rich guy in question is old enough to be April’s father — in fact, before tragedy struck he worked closely with her father — but that is beside the point. Arnett’s misplaced hope adds some human energy in places human energy is otherwise lacking, such as the aftermath of a sewer fight sequence.

There are some amusing moments, mainly when the film pokes fun at itself for being so absurd. An impromptu elevator beatbox, for instance, eliminates any potentially serious edge from the fight sequence that follows. Which is how it should be. We never feel like we’re watching something buoyed by any sense of its own self-importance, desperate to shine a light on the criminal underworld or the state of NYC pizza. But then that’s all it can be: a frothy action romp. And unfortunately this romp doesn’t have characters worth investing in, or enough funny gags to hide the weightlessness. When all is said and done, it really is just giant green turtles doing karate.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - Megan Fox

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Paramount Pictures

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

Transformers Revenge of the Fallen PosterDirector: Michael Bay

Release Date: June 19th, 2009 (UK); June 24th, 2009 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science-fiction

Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox

When it comes to giant robots hitting each other, this is more horrific and dim than Pacific Rim. After being punched illegally below the belt last time, we’ve carelessly staggered back for round two where everything is bigger, louder and even more insulting. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, then, hones in on a once universal toy that has moved on from mild swearing to juvenile leg humping. Michael Bay’s second instalment looks neat for a while but once the materialistic disguise wears away we’re left with an outing that makes up for in immaturity what it loses in efficiency.

There is no structure here. No beginning, middle and end. It’s just a mass of special effects that progressively squanders specialness and a bunch of indecipherable machines who relentlessly fritter away parts. At two and a half hours long and over $200 million spent, Revenge of the Fallen simply isn’t good enough.

A few years have passed since the events in Transformers. Sam (Shia LaBeouf) is heading off to college, Mikaela (Megan Fox) is fixing vehicles and the Decepticons are looking for another reason to attack. Fortunately, a piece of the cube from the last film innocuously falls from an old T-shirt in Sam’s closet (imagine that!), setting in motion a series of events involving odd symbolic visions, the Pyramids of Giza, Optimus Prime and stealing the Sun. Or something.

Humans and Autobots now work together as part of a military NEST branch that targets Decepticons. Straight away, we see Autobots project the form of attractive females. A few scenes and countless soaring fireballs later (Bay can only withstand five minutes without including an explosion this time) the focus shifts to Megan Fox suggestively bending over a motorcycle, because that’s how mechanics roll in her neck of the woods. At least we know where we stand. The Transformers trademark has transformed from a children’s plaything to an adrenaline-fuelled macho void, and for absolutely no justifiable reason. Bay even uses college sex as an excuse to unleash his beloved brand of action-packed booms. His woman characters — because, let’s be honest, nobody else would dehumanise the female gender like this — are sold as nothing more than window dressing to pull in adolescents who know no better. Rachael Taylor’s smart scientist is out, services no longer required. Too intelligent obviously. Her substitute is Isabel Lucas, who exists solely to have a thing for Shia LaBeouf. Do the Oscars give out an award for misogyny?

The film is even more of a mess than its predecessor. From start to finish proceedings play out as a constant battle where the only people who care about civilian fatalities less than us are the filmmakers. “Worldwide casualties are in the neighbourhood of 7000,” we hear before the outing hastily returns to what’s important (loud bangs). The conclusion of this continuous war is a human versus robot encounter that is outrageously implausible even within the context of maximum implausibility. Though, it is rather poetic that the main monster here takes the form of an enormous hoover, particularly given Revenge of the Fallen is a total moral-vacuum. A National Security Advisor shows up at one point to explain the details of what happened previously. The moment actually works on two pathetic levels: both as a quick fix for those who avoided the first film and as a driving force for this film’s narrative. Essentially, Bay relies on simplifying that which is already simple because he feels it’s the only way his audience can understand the plot.

The piece even begins to suffer in the only area where it normally impresses. Sure, the visuals are pristinely executed and rather impressive for a while, but the mystique soon dissolves in favour of splurging cinematic yuck. A spread of music videoitis is rife; the camera simply cannot sit still and instead consistently circles characters in tandem with puppet string musical interludes. There’s never a hair out of place as good looking people appear even better looking and the average Joe doesn’t exist. We’re even rewarded with moments of slow motion, bestowing a longer life span upon the explosions. Ben Seresin’s cinematography is so obviously trying to impress that it manifests as desperate. And still, sequences unfurl with ugliness — watch out for the Decepticons landing sloppily on Earth.

Revenge of the Fallen is actually at its best when the Transformers aren’t around, when what’s playing out on screen is an awkward family comedy. Driven by stupid humour, the sequences involving Sam and his parents are the most entertaining. Kevin Dunn and Julie White offer brief junctures of light relief as Mr and Mrs Witwicky. (In truth, these sparsely spread few seconds go down like a glass of ice cold water in the desert). Shia LaBeouf annoys a tad more than in the first film, but it’s unfair to chastise him for the all-encompassing faults strangling a severely lacking script. Megan Fox has even less to do than in the first flick, if that’s possible.

It might not be a total money-making scheme yet — that’s the next one — but Revenge of the Fallen is undoubtedly the grandest black hole in a star-destroying franchise. Nothing’s salvageable from the wreckage. This is cinematic homicide and Michael Bay is guilty as charged.

Transformers Revenge of the Fallen - Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Paramount Pictures

Transformers (2007)

★★

Transformers PosterDirector: Michael Bay

Release Date: July 3rd, 2007 (US); July 27th, 2007 (UK)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science-fiction

Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel

It’s Transformers week everybody! Indeed, unlike you lucky people across the Atlantic who’ve had a whole seven days to digest Michael Bay’s latest installment of metal mayhem, for us cinema folk here in the UK Transformers: Age of Extinction is hot off the press. I’ve not seen it yet. (Admittedly, the robustness of the word “yet” in that sentence is questionable.) To tell you the truth, I’m not a great admirer of Bay’s adopted franchise. It all started in 2007.

Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is a stereotypical boy teenager. He’s into cars, girls and late-19th century exploration. Perhaps that last attribute isn’t the most applicable to a male adolescent, but it’s part of an eccentric mosaic that sets Sam apart from the rest. It could simply be a feeble plot point, but who am I to judge. Certainly, Sam has a crush on his classmate Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox) but the only way he’s going to get her attention is with an engine.

Turns out his new car is a Transformer. There’s a multitude of other stuff going on — political struggles, technological misfire, a band of surviving soldiers in Qatar (that’s in the Middle East, by the way), the arrival of evil Decepticons, the arrival of friendly Autobots — but at its most basic, and this film is rather basic, Transformers is about giant robots punching and kicking and wheeling each other.

Director Michael Bay cannot contain himself. His immaturity spills out across the screen from the get-go: a gravelly, deep voice kicks off proceedings ushering in the overly macho tone; an array of snazzy camera angles each act as a sales pitch for the next military helicopter; it only takes six and half minutes for the first (and second, third, fourth) explosion to shake the screen. Bay absolutely has a way with visuality. He’s able to create carnage that looks impressive and that sounds impressive. But it’s all very movie trailer-esque, as if we’re watching a feature length advert for the next blockbuster only it’s stuck on a loud, grating loop.

Substance would take a back seat if the back seat still existed — Megatron probably crushed it. He, or it, is the villain. Adversary of the human-appreciating Optimus Prime who arrives promptly with his band of misfit car pretenders to save the day. They’re robots though, and they’re not blanketed in enough development to make us care. Nor are the human characters and, although the likes of Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox (she’s far from the worst thing in this film) amass their very best collective effort to generate some sort of viewer connection, one doesn’t exist.

It could be that goings-on shimmer with an unhealthy sheen of artifice. The CGI looks good but ultimately acts as a momentary veil over the real problem: shallowness. There are four female characters dotted throughout the almost two and a half hour runtime. That’s about one for every six male. (At least, males with lines.) We’ve got two mothers who seldom appear, a smart analyst played efficiently by Rachael Taylor who’s treated as though she’s dumb despite being the smartest of the pack, and Megan Fox whose role is almost entirely based on her cosmetic allure. The US President doesn’t make a full-body appearance but we do hear him mutter some chauvinist line to a flight attendant — oops, there’s a fifth female.

There’s arguably an even larger issue at hand here and it’s to do with us, the audience. But what audience? It’s eternally tough to care about giant car shape-shifters because they do little else but fight, so in that sense Transformers might not be for me. I’m not into meaningless vehicular smackdown, that’s fine. It’s a film for kids then, one for the younger boys and girls who do get a genuine kick out of that sort of thing. Only there’s Megan Fox bending over car bonnets. And hold on a minute, those child-friendly robots have started swearing now. It’s only mild here, but the defamation of what once was a children’s 80s cartoon flick and toy line is catapulted into the next stratosphere in Transformers 2 and 3. There obviously is an audience for the franchise, it’s already made over two billion dollars worldwide, but the respect between filmmaker and his viewership is seemingly only half-mutual. (Come on Michael, we know Qatar is in the Middle East).

The aforementioned runtime is also unnecessary, particularly when scenes involving irrelevant clothes removal and lamppost handcuffing take up five minutes of screen time. This is the director at optimum indulgence. It’s more boring than annoying. In Michael Bay’s material world where only good-looking people exist and big booming fireballs carry more weight than sturdy narrative, Transformers is probably a masterpiece. In the real world, it’s a film that alienates the young audience it should be targeting in favour of a guaranteed cash prize.

Early on Mikaela’s jock boyfriend says, “Oh no, this is not a toy”. He’s talking about a car and he’s completely right. Transformers ain’t a toy anymore. The innocence is gone.

Note: This was originally posted over at Movie Pilot, where you’ll find more articles and reviews from myself, plus the occasional poll. We all love polls, right?

Transformers - Michael Bay

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): DreamWorks, Paramount Pictures

This Is 40 (2013)

★★

Director: Judd Apatow

Release Date: December 21st, 2012 (US); February 14th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Comedy

Starring: Leslie Mann, Paul Rudd

The Valentine’s Day film always goads suspicion. Like releasing a Christmas flick in December, a children’s adventure during mid-term, or a horror movie on Halloween, the legitimacy of the proverbial February 14th film (the date This Is 40 was released in the UK) often comes into question, at least in these semi-cynical eyes. How would it fare in cinemas on any other generic weekend? A moot point really, particularly in terms of critically assessing the piece. But the decision to hold out for a specific release date lends its hand to a lack of confidence in the product in the first place. And sadly, when it comes to Judd Apatow’s This Is 40, a confidence deficit is only one of many headaches. Misdirection, grating characters and a badly written screenplay sit atop a list of negative traits associated with a comedy that’s only occasionally funny, and ought to thank its lucky stars that some semblance of watch-ability is retained through the accommodating faces of Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd.

Seemingly happily married, but unhappily ageing, Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) live with their two young daughters. They must be pretty well-off too as Debbie owns a boutique and Pete runs his own record label; a venture he probably undertook to get away from his wife every now and again, or maybe it was to embellish himself in a false sense of youthful hipness. It’s not that he doesn’t care for Debbie, but there’s only so much baseless moaning a human can endure. Debbie has just turned 38 — that’s forty to every other sane person — and cannot handle the overbearing, horrifying toll it is taking on her. Only nobody really cares about her age. Especially not the audience. And that’s the problem.

Going into a film titled “This Is 40” you are absolutely aware of the self-opulence about to be hurled your way, but that doesn’t soften any blows from water balloons filled with whine (and not the alcoholic kind) as they relentlessly strike your face. Debbie cannot fathom waking up to the big four-oh, which is a petty mindset in itself but might have had some comedic legs within the boundaries of structured character development and a cohesive narrative. However she’s too jolly too often, making it difficult to engage with any semblance of sympathy that may or may not exist. Debbie lies on medical forms to hide her age, yet she doesn’t even bother to use a consistent date of birth. Further tarnishing matters is her relationship with husband Pete, one that skips foot-by-foot between hot coals of happiness and hatred quicker than the first penis joke is sounded. The duo get up to generic antic after generic antic, from hash-cookie gorging to awkward family gatherings that are no longer awkward. Heck, the film itself struggles to identify any prerogative – “The sort of sequel to Knocked Up,” reads the poster.

The best character is Sadie, Pete and Debbie’s eldest daughter, because she is easy to relate to; when met with end-of-the-world stipulations we concur with her inexperienced spitefulness, knowing it’s not terminal. There’s a significant difference between a 13-year-old cursing the earth over a Lost ban enforced by her parents, and a grown-up churlishly denouncing her existence over age. Besides, if someone prevented me from watching Lost, I’d lose the plot too (“It’s not frying my brain, it’s blowing my mind”). Interestingly, This Is 40 is an Apatow family affair: Judd directs, Leslie stars, and their two children Maude and Iris act.

Another nail in the coffin is hammered tediously by way of a fairly uneventful plot. Although comedies are driven first and foremost by gags, quips and puns, a baseline story must be present in order to provide a buffer. Nothing happens in the opening 30 minutes (of an unnecessarily long two hour runtime), other than the establishment of how great the family before our eyes have it in life. Both daughters amble around with iPads, the two parents drive their own glimmering cars, the house is spacious and homely, Pete spends his time gorging on delicious-looking cakes and Debbie eats out with her father at up-scale restaurants. Sounds pretty good to me. And other than the groan-inducing issue of getting older that pitifully tries to veil itself as a narrative, no authentic dramas arise until proceedings are too far gone (by that time, the JJ Abrams condemnation has played out and there’s no way back into my good books). Historically Apatow has been hit-or-miss in the director’s chair, and neither his directorial nor his writing skills are up to standard here.

Thankfully, there are a few positives. Even though many characters are lifeless, they benefit enormously from embodiment by a pair of very likeable actors. Paul Rudd is up there with the best comedic performers around today, someone whose timing and wit often exceed the material in front of him. Pete is not the most annoying character, but without the spark provided by Rudd he’d likely be the most boring — instead, that accolade goes to camera-fodder Desi, played by Megan Fox, whose existence in the film seems only to advocate prostitution because it affords you a nice car. Leslie Mann, although straddled by the gripe-ridden Debbie, once or twice manages to valiantly charm her way through an annoying character and relax into that recognisable humorous self in moments of respite. Chris O’Dowd is criminally underused as an employee at Pete’s record company, but manages to be funny when given the chance. Melissa McCarthy, Lena Dunham and Jason Segel also find time for a cup of coffee. Oh, and there’s a very funny Simon & Garfunkel joke. I’m out.

Hampered by shoddy characters, all too familiar comedy tropes and a messy narrative, This Is 40 ain’t even good enough to be a one star film. Occasional murmurs of humour seep through, and likeable faces shield the piece from too much brutal disharmony, but a lot more is required. Sadly, neither man(n) can save this one: Ant nor Leslie.