Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

2016 #48
Jonathan Liebesman | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Japanese | 12 / PG-13

While I was killing time waiting for my coffee to brew before I sat down to watch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, 2014 edition, I drafted the introductory paragraphs to this review. Yes, before I’d even started the movie, so sure was I that I would dislike it. Naturally they took an appropriately condemnatory tone, talking about how it was a product and not a movie, designed primarily to sell tie-in plastic to grown men who wish they were still children, etc etc. Unfortunately writing those paragraphs was a waste of my time, because I can’t use them, because — shock of shocks — I actually quite liked this movie.

Now, let’s immediately throw some caveats on that, because it’s clearly riddled with flaws. The story is slight and so filled with over-familiar tropes that it barely bothers to play them out in full. On the bright side, that does mean it rattles along. However, the grand plan/climax is lifted straight from The Amazing Spider-Man. The action is often poorly directed, a too-close whirlwind of pixels. That said, there’s one sequence so OTT crazy that — if you ignore that the film is supposed to be live action and embrace the wild camerawork, physically impossible antics, and mind-boggling speed — it’s almost impressive. The CGI is variable: the Turtles themselves actually look alright, maybe even good, but Splinter is piss poor.

Megan Fox is miscast, not that she can act anyway. She’s clearly only there because producer Michael Bay thinks she’s hot (bit too plastic for my taste). Shredder is Bay-ed to the max, essentially becoming a Transformer made of knives. The Turtles’ personalities are pretty one-note, but not unfaithful to the original — the franchise started life as a spoof of things like Daredevil, after all, not a realistic character drama. That said, turning Mike into basically a turtle version of Michael Bay — i.e. he’s focused on lusting after Megan Fox and occasionally causing explosions — is a little cringe-y. Quite a few bits are a little cringe-y, actually; but they’re tempered by a few comedic bits that hit home, and a general veneer of “well, it could’ve been worse”.

“Well, it could’ve been worse” is pretty much the definition of “damning with faint praise”, but for all those many problems, I actually enjoyed myself while watching the film. It was funny enough, it was exciting enough, it was almost well-made enough. It’s not a good movie, but I did think it was an “entertaining enough for a couple of hours on a particularly lazy evening” kind of movie. And, despite the weak reviews it’s been receiving, the trailers for the second movie make it look better. I’m not going to fork out cinema prices to see it anytime soon, but on the strength of this first one, I will eventually. Which may not please the plastic-pedlars, exactly, but is a better result than I’d expected.

3 out of 5

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows is in cinemas worldwide now.

Wrath of the Titans (2012)

2014 #78
Jonathan Liebesman | 95 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA & Spain / English | 12 / PG-13

Wrath of the TitansThe 2010 Clash of the Titans is primarily remembered for its bad early-3D post-conversion, but must’ve made enough money to greenlight this sequel. I deemed Clash passably entertaining and expected no more here. Sadly, Wrath can’t deliver even that.

A confused story connects workmanlike action sequences and mediocre CGI (the cyclops resemble Shrek characters). A romantic subplot consists solely of The Hero kissing The Female at the end. New ideas sporadically rear their head, but Liebesman can’t ring anything interesting from them. Clash’s strong points — creature design; retro-styled gods — are AWOL.

The end result is all bluster and no heart.

2 out of 5

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.

Battle Los Angeles (2011)

aka Battle: Los Angeles

2011 #86
Jonathan Liebesman | 116 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Battle Los AngelesBattle Los Angeles (on screen; Battle: Los Angeles on posters — c’mon, let’s have some consistency with punctuation! Punctuation matters) seemed to come in for a wall of criticism when it hit cinemas way back whenever. For my money, though, it wasn’t that bad.

Others have described it as “Independence Day meets Black Hawk Down”, and for once that formulaic “X meets Y” description is bang-on. Like ID4, there’s a worldwide alien invasion in progress by a superior species that dominates Earth’s forces pretty quickly. Unlike ID4 (and therefore more like Black Hawk Down) there’s no multiple perspectives or look at the command level; we just follow a small band of men on a very particular mission — head to a police station and extract civilians before the US Airforce bombs the area in three hours’ time — with only snatched glimpses of the wider conflict on news reports, Cloverfield style. It’s a different way of handling a military-focused big alien invasion movie, so that works.

For the most part, anyway. It’s thrown away at the end as our particular band of heroes wind up the only military presence left in LA and happen across the command & control centre of the enemy, promptly setting out to destroy it with laser-targeted missiles. Small scale “one force in a much larger battle” drama is exchanged for world-saving grandeur. Ah, America.

Somebody please think of the childrenThis kind of gung-ho militarism is laid on too thick. It seems fine for much of the film, but then as it heads into the second half and, especially, the third act, we have to suffer all manner of speeches and Emotional Moments that lack weight due to characterisation issues. The latter is badly handled for all kinds of reasons. All of the marines are entirely clichéd; so too are their story arcs; too much time is wasted trying to make us care about them — there are too many and they’re too shallowly drawn; things are worsened when a couple of civilians are added to the mix, who suffer from all the same problems… except they’re perhaps under- rather than over-developed. As we reach the third act, anything approaching plausible characterisation is jettisoned. Like the small-scale focus, what begins as naturalistic ends up with Big Speeches and all manner of Emotional Moments.

Where the film excels, however, is the other side of gung-ho militarism: action. I don’t hold with the criticism some levelled that it’s too reliant on ShakyCam, confusing the action to the point of incomprehensibility. Maybe that happened on the big screen, I couldn’t say, but while these aren’t the greatest or most clear sequences I’ve ever seen, they’re certainly not hard to follow. The film uses its gritty, handheld, Saving Private Ryan-borrowed style to good effect for much of its running time, Keep the home fires burningevoking the likes of the aforementioned as well as Black Hawk Down and The Hurt Locker in terms of conveyed realism. As I said, this is very effective for an alien invasion movie.

But, much like the early focus and characterisation, as things progress towards the climax this is slowly abandoned, showing a lack of the commitment to its world and story that Cloverfield or Monsters exhibited. There’s an increasing number of shots from the enemy’s perspective; the climax seems to abandon the earlier handheld style almost entirely for the sake of a grandstanding finale.

There is an even better film tucked away inside Battle Los Angeles. One brief dialogue scene discusses the similarities between the human soldiers and alien grunts, but the intriguing idea that they’re intelligent beings following orders just like us is sadly not built upon. There are obvious parallels with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but aside from the audience spotting shots that are reminiscent of news footage, the threads aren’t drawn out or commented on. Instead Battle LA does two things: military sycophancy, which is typically American and typically tiring or laughable (depending on your mood), and some stonkingly decent action sequences. The ending... and also the posterThey may take a little while to get to, but they’re relatively worth the wait.

What could have been a thought-provoking brain-switched-on commentary-on-the-world sci-fi film is instead a brain-switched-off gung-ho sci-fi action flick. I’ve seen better, I’ve seen worse, but treated as blokey weekend-evening entertainment this is fine.

3 out of 5