Mini-Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Out of the Shadows

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The four turtles in NY.  Image Source: YouTube

Okay, so I’m an original TMNT aficionado.  I grew up during the first independent comic craze of the mid 80s and then watched as TV struggled to get to grips with the new resurgence of comic mania (the original Flash TV show mania and hype (and letdown) in the 80s is probably a reason why I never got super invested in the hype for the current slate of DC/Marvel TV shows).  I didn’t have access to a (dedicated) comic shop at the time (I had to buy my comics from the spinners at Waldenbooks or Eckerd Drugs–now Rite-Aid), or I probably would have picked them up as I was into all things ninja/martial arts at the time.  I’ve seen the original trilogy, the multiple incarnations of animated series, and own the animated movie version that existed before this current reboot of the franchise.

So, coming from a TMNT aficionado (won’t say fan), is this movie any good?  In a word, no.  This is from Nickelodeon films and it all but screams “kid movie.”  It is if they took the cartoon (from the 80s), mixed it up with the original movie with the goofy suits, changed the goofy suits to slick CGI actors, and threw in an 80s/90s mixtape because, hey that’s what Guardians of the Galaxy did and it worked for them, so it’ll work for us too. There are so many elements that don’t work in the movie–the dialogue, the shift in tone from goofy to serious and back to goofy.  The motivations of characters or lack of motivations.  The forced plot lines and betrayals that seem forced.  And so on.  I can’t tell you how many times I had to suspend my disbelief in order to keep watching the movie.  Even from the opening sequence where the Turtles are “skating” across the buildings of the NY skyline–which seemed like a good, cool intro.,–had me wondering about all the damage they were causing.  There’s a reason why city officials go out of their way to build skate-parks and encourage skaters to use them instead of city streets and curbs–the damage skateboards can cause is enormous, and that’s on cement.  I don’t think the glass that most skyscrapers are made of would fare any better–yet, the filmmakers didn’t even take that into account when designing, planning, or displaying that scene.  And it just goes on from there.

Yes, TMNT is supposed to be campy (they are teenage turtles who know ninjutsu), but Eastman and Laird were able to find the right balance of farce and heart in their depiction of the characters.  This one is all farce, right down to the “flatulence jokes” of the henchmen, which begs the question of why the “baddest” villain of all time (aka Shredder) would tolerate his newest henchmen if that is all they could do.  It would have made a better movie, had the two henchmen been created within the first ten minutes of the movie and hunted the turtles “to extinction.”  Sort of like what Kraven the Hunter does to Spider-Man in several of his storylines.  Then it would have made the “moral crisis” of the movie (manufactured as it was) at least relevant: “hide among the humans as humans to save ourselves or stay true to our turtle forms and find a way to beat these two hunters as a team/band of brothers.”  As it stands, the way this actually plays out in the movie is very weak and not very convincing.

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Character Sketches for BeeBop and Rocksteady.  Image Source: TeenageMutantNinjaTurtles.com (a TMNT fan site).

On the whole, I only finished the movie because: 1) for completeness sake–I’ve seen most everything else Turtles-related, so I might as well see this since it is on streaming and 2) I’m trying to stop abandoning movies mid-stream (I have at least four movies–Terminator: Genisys–I looking at you that I started, but did not finish because of the overall hokiness to them) and I’m trying to stop doing that (although this movie sorely tested my resolve).

OVERALL GRADE: D  (My suggestion–watch this ONLY if there’s nothing else to watch and make sure that you understand that you are going to most likely need to metaphorically “dive into the kiddie pool” in order to get through this one.)

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Great Actors in Small Roles: Madalyn Horcher as Sgt. Leach

011 Madalyn Horcher as Sgt. Leach_joesmoviestuffdotblogspotdotcom

I watched Jack Reacher: Never Go Back a few nights ago and I liked the movie.  In particular I like both the character and the actor playing Sgt. Leach, Madalyn Horcher.

“Helper”

The character of Sgt. Leach is one that is a “helper” character to the main character, meaning that this character finds out information and gives it to the main character in order for the plot to advance.  In function, this character is on-stage to provide exposition and/or plot complication for both the audience and the main character.  Dr. John Watson from Doyle’s Sherlock stories is probably the best known helper, but it can range to much smaller parts such as Sgt. Leach in this movie.  In many cases, the helper is put in physical peril, and sometimes dies, so this can be a thankless role for some actors.

Sgt. Leach: Understated

I think the reason why I noticed Madalyn Horcher’s performance is the “understated” nature of how she plays the character.  While I’ve not served in the military, my uncle and grandfather did and they explained that while on duty, there is a certain detached “decorum” that soldiers are expected to follow (sort of like Spock from Star Trek), but if you know how to read what’s being said and the tonality of how it is being said, there are a whole range of emotions that you can pick up from a soldier.  Horcher’s performance captured all of the nuances that I’d imagined in my mind’s eye every since my uncle told me about his military experiences.  This is why it is so important to look for (and cast) actors who can bring the right emotional intensity to a specific role.

While the movie wasn’t necessarily a critical success, nevertheless it was a pretty interesting story made better by the actors in both small and large roles.

 

 

Dark Tower Redux

 

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You know, I’m almost sorry that I posted that I was conflicted about the failure of the Dark Tower movie to connect with fans.  I mean, this very blog takes its name from a line that Jake speaks in the first book (paraphrasing): “Go then, Gunslinger.  There are Other Worlds Beside this one).  My point being simply that Stephen King DID NOT invent the Dark Tower or the mythos that has grown up around it.  His story is but ONE of MANY out there–yes, it is the most popular, but it is NOT the only story that has been told or will be told about the Dark Tower.  He doesn’t own the Tower anymore than J.K. Rowling owns “Magic.”

However, some really ugly arguments and memes have sprung up around the failure of the movie and just want to take a moment to address some of the most problematic ones.

SCRIPT
So this is where most of the critics and fans have expressed most of their disappointment.  The movie is only approx. 90 minutes long, but tries to infuse 7-8 books worth of material (from my understanding–haven’t seen the movie yet) into this (very) short time-frame.  However, the element that really concerns is the fact the movie writers are essentially “work-for-hire” contractors and considered the lowest on the totem pole for the creative endeavor of the movie.  This is where the problem lies–a movie is a creative endeavor, true, and you need all parts to work, but the script (the story) is the most important part.  Without a solid script, even the best actors and directors are going to struggle.  Yet, writers of screenplays get no version of royalties if the movie does really well nor is their input sought (usually) for rewrites as in many cases they are replaced with other writers and movies become written essentially by committee.  Another thing that hurts writers is the fact that it is a closed system that privileges only a few.  Even in today’s internet connected world, you still have to move to Hollywood if you really want a serious chance at writing a screenplay–how is this even still a requirement in 2017?  If there’s an awesome screenwriter in Wisconsin, the internet is MORE than robust enough to allow that writer to write wherever works for them.

IDRIS ELBA AS ROLAND
This one is the most troubling.  Yes, King based Roland on the “gunslinger” archetype made popular by actors like Clint Eastwood and Yul Brynner.  However, nothing precludes Roland from being portrayed by an actor of another race, even though King’s description may have indicated/favored another race.  There is a tendency on the Internet today to label a person, or group just to be able to belittle said person or group.  Everyone wants a winner, or wants to be associated with a winner.  However, in a capitalistic structure such as the American movie industry there HAVE be winners and losers–there’s no way around it.  You can do things to help swing the pendulum in either direction, but there are no guarantees in a creative endeavor.  If it doesn’t “win,” then there’s this need to find a scapegoat and the Internet is currently on this kick where a diverse person/group gets the blame irregardless of whether or not its fair (I direct your attention to the 2016 Ghostbusters movie as prime example of this).

SONY
Speaking of Sony, I should probably note that Sony also has taken blame in this from many circles.  Sony, as a huge faceless conglomerate, tends to get a lot of blame for things that are beyond their control.  We (probably wrongly) think of the director as the most important component of a movie (I would argue it is probably an equal weight between writer, director, and movie talent), but I haven’t seen or heard anyone criticizing the director, but the studio.

We all hope for our favorite properties to “hit it out of the park” (a la The Lord of the Rings), but at the end of the day–is it the studio that failed to deliever on the story you wanted or was it the script?  Which of the two is more intricately tied to “story” and “story” formation, ideation, and creation?  For me, opening up the system and allowing it to be based on merit (good writers) and not location (living in Hollywood) or more importantly, networking (good a “pitching” a story instead of good at “writing” the story) would be a far more equitable system that might result in a rise in quality in the stories being told, and as a result, increased satisfaction from fans who just want their stories “done right.”

 

 

The Dark Tower

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The Childe (Apprentice Knight) Roland holding up a sword.  Book Cover.  Image Source: GoodReads.com

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The Man in Black vs The Gunslinger (Stephen King’s The Dark Tower). Movie Poster. Image Source: Wikipedia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A movie version based on Stephen King’s Dark Tower series releases this weekend and the reviews are not favorable.  It currently stands (Aug. 4) at 18% on Rotten Tomatoes.  I’m actually ambivalent and conflicted about how I feel about this development.

On one hand, I’d like to see this movie be successful because it stars a Person of Color (Idris Elba) in a lead role playing someone other than a “drug dealer”/”gangster”/”any other stereotypical roles” that people of color are generally relegated to in movies.  Also, I’ve read quite a few books of this series and I know how the story ends, so even though this series isn’t one I’m invested in, I do have familiarity with the material, so I’d like to see a good adaptation of it just for that reason.

On the other hand, everyone seems to forget that Stephen King didn’t “invent” the “modern” conception of the Dark Tower.  That honor goes to Robert Browning in his poem, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.”  And even he wasn’t the first as the title appeared as a line in Shakespeare’s King Lear.  And even though we don’t where it originated, we can assume that Shakespeare borrowed it from an even older source.  My point is that the Robert Browning poem is old enough to be in the public domain and ANYONE can write stories based on it.  Stephen King didn’t invent the Dark Tower, he only popularized it and moved it from the realm of English Literature classrooms out into the general public.

Yet, whenever someone mentions the Dark Tower, immediately the discussion turns to Stephen King’s universe.  For me, as a lover of the Dark Tower mythos (remember, I even had a board game called the Dark Tower as a child), this is more than aggravating.  It would be as if Disney’s Snow White was the ONLY version of Snow White being talked about, when we know that there are a multitude of versions out there.  Yes, Disney’s version gets the lion’s share of attention, but there is still space for other stories based on the fairy tale to exist and thrive, which is NOT the case with the Dark Tower.

I guess I’m writing all of this to say that a part of me is glad that the Dark Tower failed as a movie.  Not for any malicious intent or even to make Stephen King any less rich (it won’t), but rather that now, perhaps, other stories based on the “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” can find purchase in the public consciousness and that Stephen King’s version of the Dark Tower doesn’t become the only version of the Dark Tower that exists in the world.  “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” is a remarkably rich and varied poem–other writers should be allowed to formulate successful stories and worlds with the Dark Tower as a backdrop just as King was allowed to do by the publishing industry.

Comic-Con Week: “IT” (Stephen King movie)

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Pennywise from IT (Image Source: Pinterest)

Okay, so I’m cheating a little with this one.  “IT,” the upcoming movie based on the Horror novel by Stephen King did make an appearance at Comic Con, but it was in a panel session and did not release a trailer to the public over the weekend (I think they called it the “IT” Experience).  However, yesterday they released a super-creepy official trailer to go with their super-creepy teaser trailer from earlier in the year.  So I’m going to feature it in Comic-Con week even though the trailer released afterwards.

So this movie–IT Movie Trailer–looks to be a full-on horror movie.  I don’t really like horror movies, but having said that, I may try to see this in the theaters.  I’m still undecided.  The thing that I like about this one is that, like Stranger Things, it follows a cast of children trying to overcome the “Big Bad” in the small town of Derry where they live (in this case a clown).  Stranger Things was influenced a lot by the works of Stephen King and I really enjoyed the themes and way that ST turned out.  From the trailers, this movie seems to have been inspired by ST, but wants to amp up the scare factor.  And that’s where I may have to “tap out.”  I may have mentioned it before, but I’m more into suspense than pure horror in that I prefer a mystery (it can be a creepy mystery), but I like there to be a problem to be solved rather than feeling horror and dread for characters.  I can’t quite tell which way this movie is leaning as there are aspects of both the creepy mystery angle and horrific jump-scares in both of the trailers.

Another thing is (again) the nostalgia factor.  I have read the novel (it’s been some time ago, however) and I have watched the TV movie version from the 1980s(?).  So I’m fairly familiar with the characters, plot, and conflicts, but I’d like to see the 2017 take on the work to see how it stacks up to the other forms that the story has taken.  And even if I don’t see it in the theater, I will probably see it at some point just for “completeness” sake.

Comic-Con Week (Ready Player One)

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Image Source: Collider

Okay, okay, I know I’m behind the times on this one.  This project made the rounds about 1-2 years ago (maybe longer) and everyone one was talking about it.  It is a book by Ernest Cline entitled Ready Player One (RP1) and it apparently is a “pop-culture” phenomenon in that it references a ton of things from “my” generation (those growing up in the late 70s, 80s, and early 90s).  So, yes I knew about this project before the movie trailer debuted at Comic-Con.  And yes, I knew about the pop culture references and in-jokes that it was supposed to contain.  But here’s the thing: Game of Thrones. Now I’m going to catch heat (i.e., be flamed) for this, but RP1 had the same level of “hype” associated with as did Game of Thrones and I am NOT a Games of Thrones fan (I’ll do a deep dive into why at a later date).  So I figured this is probably just a Games of Thrones clone with VR as just The Expanse (another show I tried to watch) was just a Games of Thrones clone in space.

However, the trailer–Ready Player One Trailer–convinced me otherwise.  This is one of those where I had to “see it in order to believe it.” Steven Spielberg is the director and it seems (to me at least) a return to form.  It has an interesting world and the action seems like it is going to be amazing just from the brief look at it that we get from the trailer.  Also, try playing the “see what pop icon you can find in the trailer” game–I saw two obvious references–The Iron Giant and the DeLorean from Back to the Future.  Actually, I did see others, but that would be spoilers–see if you can spot them (hint look closely during the Iron Giant scene & during the robot fighting scene).  To steal a line from a 1970s commercial for the board game Connect Four: “Pretty sneaky, sis.”

I’m probably going to watch the movie first and then read the book–that tends to be the way I do things unless I’m ahead of the curve (rare, but does happen sometimes).  If the movie (& book) is as good as the trailer makes it appear, this is one project that I will be happy to have been wrong about.  I’ll take fun over depressing any day and this looks fun!

Ranking the Spider-Man Movies

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Image Source: Superhero Wikia (Art by John Romita)

I think I may have mentioned it on the blog before, but in case I haven’t, Spider-Man is my favorite superhero.  I really gravitated towards him in high school and his athletic abilities and biting (no pun intended) humor really won me over as a character.  I’ve seen several sites ranking the Spider-Man movies, so I thought I’d get in on the act myself.  Following is a list of the current Spider-Man movies so far that I’ve ranked in order of my own personal preference as to the best (& worst) of the Spider-Man universe (regardless of studio, be it Sony or the MCU).  I’ll be updating this post both when I see Spider-Man: Homecoming and when other movies are released with Spider-Man as the primary character.  As with my Marvel post, I’m going to try to keep things spoiler-free, but (as always) I can’t guarantee that things that I mention won’t spoil things for knowledgeable Spider-Man fans.

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Image Source: Wikipedia

Spider-Man 2

This is by far my favorite Spider-Man film.  This film had everything that I wanted in a Spider-Man film: the idea of personal responsibility, the idea of with great power comes great responsibility, great special effects, great villain, great internal character conflict, great external conflict and an ending that gets it (mostly) right.  There are some things that this movie gets wrong, but is as accurate a depiction of Spider-Man as a character and as a comic (so far) that I’ve seen as a movie.  Things were changed and manipulated in Spider-Man 2 that is different from the comic, but I can see the reasons for each change.  To me, this stands as the (current) definitive Spider-Man movie.

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Image Source: Wikipedia

Spider-Man 

Okay, so I like this one, but not nearly as much as its sequel.  I think my enjoyment for this one was muted because it is an “origin” story and I know Spider-Man’s origin like the back of my hand at this point.  Seeing the character evolve (especially when you already know the story) isn’t nearly as impactful as seeing an original adventure featuring the character and I think that’s what hurts this one the most.  Also, the changes the filmmakers made didn’t seem to be needed (unlike the sequel), so I didn’t really feel that the Spider-Man that I knew from the comics and games was presented on-screen faithfully.

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Image Source: Wikipedia

Amazing Spider-Man 2

Okay, this one is one that the critics and I disagree on.  Critics hated this movie.  I think it is okay.  Not great, not horrible, but in the middle.  I liked the fact that they tried to incorporate the “Gwen Stacey” storyline and that they had the guts to try to replicate it on-screen, even if it didn’t hit/work just right.  I also like that Peter and Gwen were young adults, not high-schoolers and that eliminated one of my dislikes of the first Amazing Spider-Man movie, teen angst (see below).  Too many villains and too much “convenience” really hampered the story and brought it down in my opinion.

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Image Source: Wikipedia

Amazing Spider-Man

In a word (or two), teen angst.  This is what kept me from seeing it in the theaters and why (along with a modified retelling of the origin story) kept me from seeing it until much later when I was able to rent it cheaply.  For me, I made the right choice. It wasn’t as bad as I feared it would be, mostly because of the actors’ performances, but Spider-Man/Peter Parker is better when he is put in the young adult role, not in the teenage role.  Yes, I know he started/was bitten as a teenager, but the stories that helped grow the character and push him into mainstream consciousness are not his teenage years, but his young adult ones (as a photographer for the Daily Bugle, trying to make rent, trying to hold up his relationships with family and friends, while at the same time trying to be Spider-Man and live up to “Great Responsibility” creed).

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Image Source: Wikipedia

Spider-Man 3

Easily the worst of the Spider-Man movies.  This is a prime example of filmmakers not trusting their source material and cherry-picking it for what they want without understanding why it works.  Venom should have been awesome in this movie.  The whole Peter/Mary Jane marriage sub-plot should have worked, the antagonist/ally sub-plot should have worked, but no one tried to understand the storylines from the comics.  Venom works, not because he is a psychopath, but because the symbiote  loves and hates Peter Parker.  It doesn’t want to turn Peter into a “dancing fool” as the movie portrays, but it wants to join with Peter.  When he rejects it, it hates him and wants to kill Peter and it knows everything about Peter Parker–it knows just what will affect him physically and psychologically–and it can disguise itself and be anyone at anytime.  Now throw in Peter wanting to marry Mary Jane and there is the plot that the movie should have followed.  Again, an almost horror take on the superhero genre similar to where Avengers: Age of Ultron should have gone.  How can Peter protect himself and his future wife (i.e., when the movie opened she should have been his fiancé) from a psychopathic killer out for his blood when he can’t even tell where and when that killer is going to strike?  I have the original Venom storyline and I know how that character can be used in stories based on the original writer’s (David Michelinie) interpretation and the original artist’s (Todd McFarlane) illustrations.  What audiences got instead was a watered-down (way down) version of this story without very elements that evoke menace in the character/story.  I could go on, but you get the picture–this one is bad, both because it is bad and because of so many missed opportunities.