Thursday, August 28, 2014

TMNT 2014: Leaving Michael Bay's Legacy Behind


We're all familiar with Michael Bay by now. Whether you like his movies or not, we can all agree on the blueprint he uses to make them. So while Bay wasn't technically sitting in the director's chair for this Turtles installment, his producing credit plastered all over its advertisements gave me the distinct impression that it would be using the same outlines even if it colored them in differently. And it is from this precise position I can say that, even with its abundance of problems, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a pleasant surprise.

If Michael Bay's movies are essentially a distillation of the worldview of a 15-year-old boy, Jonathan Liebesman's creation is instead a distillation of the worldview of a 12-year-old boy. How is that an improvement if we're going backwards? Bay's pimpled, insecure, furiously masturbating teenager is replaced with a slightly more innocent, endearing, bashful youth, and any loss of maturity is forgiven due to the lack of spunk to be cleaned up afterward.

The most interesting aspect of the movie is undeniably its perspective. The story is told from the point of view of April O'Neil (Megan Fox), a young, passionate journalist who discovers the Turtles during their fight against the Foot Clan and whom the camera manages to only objectify once. Nobody believes her when she says she saw a group of crime-fighting turtles, and her dual struggles to learn the truth and to have her investigative talents recognized are surprisingly sympathetic. The events carry both a sense of urgency (April is eventually fired for her eccentric pursuit) and a sense of humor (her roommate asks her mom if she can move back home in response to April's bizarre quest), and this makes her character feel human and gives the film an emotional core—even if only a slight one. She starts out with enthusiasm, but only through the conflicts of the film does she find the bravery and sense of belonging to stand by her convictions. This focus fades in and out as the Turtles become the center of attention and the movie shifts gears into action territory, but it's there to provide some sense of limited narrative coherence to the story.


Of course the "shifting gears" metaphor isn't really accurate in this situation, since in changing from April to the Turtles the movie doesn't so much shift from second to third as it does jump entirely from one car to another. The homely but reliable minivan of April's character is ditched for the fast but unpredictable sports car of the Turtles' action. The problem with sports cars is that to be effective they need an expert driver, and Liebesman—or any of the numerous assistant directors—isn't up to the challenge. If the action scene scale goes from the careful choreography of The Raid to the chaotic confusion of Transformers, this is definitely closer to Bay's unidentifiable CGI mishmash. But there are one or two solid sequences, and the best is undeniably the slide down the mountain (which unfortunately has all its highlights spoiled in the trailer), and while there's not much which stands out about the fight scenes, for the most part they work.

What absolutely does not work is the central antagonist, Shredder. His design operates under the standard Michael Bay misconception that "more = better," and in loading up his armor with a laughable amount of blades it makes Shredder into a comically large Swiss army knife. There's no weight to the character, either literally or figuratively: the Turtles throw him around like a rag doll, and there's never any point where he poses them a serious threat. Our heroes' only moment of weakness comes at the hands of Shredder's student, Eric Sacks (William Fichtner) and his ability to suck the Turtles' power from their mutated blood. But Sacks is sidelined because he lacks Action Scene Potential, and thus the film continues to keep its plotting and action separated in different vehicles.

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As unintentionally hilarious as Shredder is, there's also some purposeful comedy laced throughout the film. Most of it rises both from the Turtles' relationship with each other and from their communal struggle to put on a brave face despite being teenagers. When they're together, they have a natural (albeit limited) amount of chemistry. In one scene they take an elevator to the top of a tall tower, and as the long ride begins to bore them they start beat boxing. This scene works as a litmus test for the movie: if it doesn't leave you smiling, this movie's not for you. Like this scene, a lot of the comedy can come off as trying too hard—like Mikey's obsession with the cat playing Chopsticks with chopsticks, or the continuous attempts to shoehorn in old catchphrases like "cowabunga"—and you'll either find them endearing or annoying depending on whether you're mad at Bay and Liebesman for ruining your childhood.

For me, most of the movie was pretty hit or miss. Its central problem is that, even when it does connect, it's never out of the park. At best it manages a couple base hits and maybe a ground rule double, but not enough to put much of a score on the board (sorry, I know it's not baseball season anymore, but I'm no good with football metaphors). Fortunately, it's nowhere near as offensive as the Transformers movies, and at worst it's simply a disappointing, unfunny bore—and at just over 100 minutes, it's much more bearable than a lot of other recent blockbuster failures. In the end, it comes down to whether you look at it as a genuine attempt at an action-comedy or as dispensable children's entertainment. If the former, it's particularly unsatisfactory, barely meeting the lowest standards of real cinema; if the latter, it's unimpressive but nothing to whine about.

That budget is just shameful though. When will we realize that throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at shortsighted, uninspired screenplays can only produce something less than mediocre?

2014 Ranked | Superhero Movies Ranked

"TMNT": Turtle redesign by Ancorgil on Deviant Art

2 comments:

  1. I wasn't as critical of this movie as most high profile reviewers and dedicated bloggers. I enjoyed myself immensely, was laughing often, and was very impressed by the visuals. I think you really need to be a TMNT fan, and I don't know if you are based on your analysis, but you seem somewhat forgiving. I agree it's a definite step up for Bay in terms of creating a more tolerable movie, even if it's meant for 12 year olds. Less sex, and possibly therefore mature in perspective. Still, it had immense energy (in my opinion), it was a lot of fun, and I didn't mind Shredder at all. Check out my review on my blog for a full opinion, but I understand the minor bashing here, your love/hate analysis. Two stars is way low, but when I saw Rotten Tomatoes' critic consensus, I kinda knew I would be the odd one out giving it 10/10. Thanks.

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    1. Yeah, I think that between TMNT fans and Michael Bay haters, everyone was going into this film ready to hate on it. I ended up giving it 4/10. I had fun, but I think it helped that I went in with the lowest of expectations. I also saw it in a theater populated by stoned teenagers, so they helped create an atmosphere of enjoyment. At first I thought they'd be annoying, but having them laugh at all the jokes and get excited at all the action helped me maintain the right mood I think. I definitely don't plan on watching it again, but I also certainly don't regret seeing it. It definitely had the good fortune of staying away from the occasionally offensive material in Bay's films, so I'm happy to say I wouldn't blame anyone for giving it 10/10.

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