Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

★★

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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

The Lego Movie (2014)

★★★★

Directors: Phil Lord & Chris Miller

Release Date: February 7th, 2014 (US); February 14th, 2014

(UK) Genre: Animation; Action; Comedy

Starring: Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Morgan Freeman

“Everything is awesome!”

Everything is also chaotic, bonkers and pretty hilarious too. The Lego Movie doesn’t hold back. It cracks the obvious gags when they’re hovering around. There’s a lot of shouting, screeching and wailing, and that’s not just from the children watching in the same screening as you. Engines are set to full-throttle from the off and remain that way. What’s left then, is this gigantic ball of merriment that sees it origins in a whole host of previous box office-busting successes, but one that also conjures up a few smart quips of its own. Truly abiding by its ‘Universal’ rating, The Lego Movie builds on the colourfulness, catchy riffs and outright pandemonium aimed at the young’uns, and ends up also divulging a witty, often reminiscent backbone for the oldies. So yes, everything is awesome.

Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) is a middling construction worker who blends into his job and surrounding world as much as the next Lego figure. He abides by the bustling code of Lego life, a step-by-step process meticulously ticked off by everyone, a job designed to assist progress, and an anthem heralding President Business’s (Will Ferrell) seemingly glorious society. On the periphery though, there’s a menace, an evil at work. President Business has devious intentions, with sights set on using the ‘Kragle’ to glue the world motionless. Only the MasterBuilder can stop him, and maybe Emmet isn’t as ordinary as first perceived.

Unlike the mechanical and simple block-by-block creation style, The Lego Movie manages to deliver a well-rounded story with unimaginable scope. We’re bumbling around a fairly stagnant period of animation on the big screen, a time far removed from the Lion King’s and Shrek’s of cinema, films that combined humour and joy with underlying strands declaring positive living. The Lego Movie teeters on the verge of getting back there. For all its energetic prowess and funny moments, the film motions along a deeper, more satirical platform. One that denounces a lack of intuition and promotes difference. President Business — aptly named — embodies the proverbial symbol of power-hungry, corrupt domination. The addictive song “Everything is Awesome”, sung everyday all-day by the civilians of Bricksburg, is a means to an end for the evil overlord. It’s catchy for a reason, constructed by President Business to brainwash the masses. Yet there are those aware few fighting against the autocratic system, a misfit band of special, talented Lego warriors. This narrative works; it has meaning, evokes emotion and demands investment, even amongst all the surface madness and hilarity. The film trumpets variety against monotony and should be admired and applauded for doing so, perhaps even more so than for its many other accomplishments. Having said all that, it is interesting to consider how much authenticity this prevalent notion of non-corporate domination holds, when you take into account the film’s basis: a multinational, mega-encompassing, money-gorging branded toy.

Snappy comedy is one of the films main triumphs. A lot of the time you find yourself laughing not just on the back of current pop culture references (when Batman refers to Bruce Wayne as a “cool guy”), but also at the expense of historic political blunders — voting machines, for example. The gags are constant, relentless even, but their respective foundations are juggled around allowing a freshness to circulate throughout the film’s progression. On the odd occasion that a consistently fielded joke does become wearisome, writer and director duo Chris Miller and Phil Lord work hastily to replace staleness with another funny wisecrack, and very often that wisecrack is another jaw ache-er.

The dialogue is an audible sea of movie-innuendos, for the experienced and the novice. Aside from bountiful puns and hidden humours rewarded to tickle the quick-eyed (“Bob’s Kabob” is outstanding), we also get hilarious Star Wars absurdities and are showered with a number of popular superheroes — at one point proceedings take on a very Avengers’ Battle-of-New-York-like manifestation, with portals and whizzing machinery aplenty. Batman plays a significant role all through the film, and is probably the only running joke that slightly wears towards the end, which is a shame because Will Arnett does a tremendous job with the raspy Bat-voice, even if you’re throwing honey at the screen by the time the credits roll.

In fact, all of the voice-acting sounds terrific. Chris Pratt provides that exuberant bravado as Emmet, one that gradually pitches more assuredly as the film progresses. Emmet strikingly resembles another animated hero, Flick, both in characterisation and story arc. Similar to the A Bug’s Life protagonist, Emmet is an over-eager-yet-normal guy who possesses the willpower to do the extraordinary. Much like Flick, his apparently crazy, useless ideas are those that turn out to be crucial and imperative — the double-decker couch, for instance. On the contrary to Flick though, who was originally a spanner in the ant hole, Emmet tends to blend into his surroundings and therefore must ascend more than an echelon of innovation to save the day. Elizabeth Banks is zesty and strong as the voice of Wyldstyle, Emmet’s partner-in-heinous-prevention, a wickedness perfectly sounded loud and nastily by Will Ferrell as President Business. Liam Neeson is arguably the best of the lot though, his distinct raspiness toned down (or up) a tad to combat any Batman correlations. Neeson voices Bad Cop/Good Cop, but mainly Bad Cop, and provides a fair helping of humour as the Lego police officer carrying out President Business’s gluey work. A whole host of other names — from Morgan Freeman to Jonah Hill, and Channing Tatum to Cobie Smulders — add their choral airwaves to the very fun and easy-listening vocal front.

Visually, for the most part, the film succeeds too. It runs into a bit of a problem as events set sail across before diving under water. Up until this point, we’re fully engrossed in Lego-land where everything is constructed wonderfully of Lego pieces. The landscape accommodates those ever-noticeable spherical cogs, ready as always to ground an attached brick (a notion that goes over nobody’s head). Water, then, also runs and sprays as Lego parts, until the crew of saviours find themselves underneath the substance which then turns into a non-Lego, standard computer-animated sea. It’s a bit odd, and for a moment removes the viewer from the plastic world. In all fairness though, that’s nit-picking at its crudest and as a whole, the visual output explodes with colour, fluidity and life.

Based on a toy that encourages creativity and imagination, The Lego Movie upholds and listens to its own traditions rather than decimating them (à la the poor-tasting Transformers franchise). The film is controlled, uncontrolled chaos, a rapidly advancing and visually accomplished offering that sparks life into the animation genre. For over an hour and a half you won’t be able to keep the smile off your face, unless it’s to exhale another round of laughter.