Category Archives: Movies

Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro Review

To quote Hayao Miyazaki’s later work, Howl’s Moving Castle: “They say the best blaze burns brightest when circumstances are at their worst.” The quote seems to ring true in many instances, with it being particularly poetic in regards to Miyazaki’s very first feature film, Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro.

The 1970s were something of the dark ages of animated cinema. Mainstream animation was floundering after the death of Walt Disney (increases in censorship laws certainly didn’t help things out). Meanwhile, the only alternatives were the desperate and dated ‘adult’ animated films of the time, such as those from Ralph Bakshi. As such, the 1970s animation scene was riddled with features that were either insultingly childish or cringingly adult-pandering (sex and drugs, hyuk!).

It’s fitting then, that in 1979, the last year of that dark decade, an animated feature was released that would change the animation world for the better from that point on. The film in question was Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro. Based on the popular manga/anime series, Castle of Cagliostro is still seen as the pinnacle of the Lupin III franchise even today. More importantly, it was the feature film debut of Hayao Miyazaki, who would go on to have the single most prolific career in the history of animation. And in turn it also lead to the eventual creation of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and, by extension, Studio Ghibli. Castle of Cagliostro even inspired the western movie scene; seemingly reinvigorating the Disney animators (who often paid the film blatant homage in their own movies) and inspiring many of the key minds who would later form Pixar Animation Studios.

To put it bluntly, it’s hard to overstate just how much of a milestone achievement Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro was. Perhaps the best news is that – although it showcases some obvious limitations as Miyazaki’s first feature – it remains a timeless classic, one of the best in the action-adventure genre.

The story here is that master thief Lupin III and his accomplice Jigen have successfully pulled off their biggest heist at a national casino. Shortly after their getaway, however, Lupin discovers that their newfound riches are counterfeit, being among the legendary “Goat bills,” a counterfeit operation that has been increasing its influence on the world’s economies for centuries.

Lupin and Jigen track the operation to the small country of Cagliostro, where the malicious Count of Cagliostro has taken charge after the nation’s rightful rulers perished in a fire. The Count of Cagliostro is of course behind the counterfeit operation, and is also planning a forced marriage to the nation’s rightful heir, a young woman named Clarisse. Lupin then sets his sights on exposing the Count, sending his calling card to the Count in order to summon inspector Koichi Zenigata – Lupin’s longtime pursuer – to the location, to try and set a plan in motion to expose the Count’s schemes. Additionally, Lupin becomes enamored with Clarisse, and the romantic idea of saving her from the dreadful Count Cagliostro.

It’s a simple action-adventure setup, but its execution makes for one of the best films of its kind, with a consistently fun pace and many memorable set pieces. The film opens with a fantastic car chase (while still taking time to pause for a quiet moment – in true Miyazaki fashion – when Lupin and Jigen need to change a tire), and things only pick up when the gentlemen thieves make their way to the titular castle, where booby traps, ninjas and mysteries abound.

Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro is also one of those delightful animated films that takes full advantage of the medium to express its vision. In the aforementioned opening car chase, Lupin drives his automobile up a vertical surface to get to higher ground, effectively breaking the laws of physics. Later, Lupin manages to leap from one of the castle’s turrets to another, performing a superhuman feat of agility. Of course, no one in this movie is a super hero or wizard of any kind, so these aren’t directly feats of fantastic powers. Lupin III is simply an animated franchise, and so fantastic occurrences such as these are allowed to happen when need be. And there’s something charming about that.

Of course, being part of a franchise, the series’ key figures all come into play. Along with Lupin, Jigen and Zenigata, Lupin’s samurai-themed cohort Goemon also shows up (albeit sparingly), and the sexy lady-thief Fujiko is on her own undercover mission in the castle. Some fans of the overall franchise lament that some tweaks have been made to the characters’ personalities (most notably Lupin himself, whom Miyazaki depicts as a gentlemen thief, in stark contrast to the character’s often lewd, womanizing behavior, which is only referenced in the film as being a part of Lupin’s past as a “dumb rookie”). But truthfully, the changes work for the story being told here, and I personally prefer “gentlemen Lupin.” The fact that much of the character’s motivation in the film is to live out some romanticized adventure adds to the film’s charms. Besides, when a franchise lasts long enough to branch out into different continuities, such character changes happen all the time. This just happens to be Miyazaki’s personal interpretation of the characters, and it’s an interpretation that works.

There are, unfortunately, a handful of aesthetic elements that show the film’s age. While the main cast of characters are more fluidly animated than anything else at the time, and the environments are – as is the norm in Miyazaki features – truly captivating, the background characters can be a little on the stiff side. And while the music is still catchy and serves its purpose, this is the only Miyazaki-directed film not to be scored by Joe Hisaishi, and when compared to the scores of Miyazaki’s later features, it falls a little short.

Admittedly, those are only quibbles, and they’re only really present for those who may be familiar with Miyazaki’s later work. Seeing as Castle of Cagliostro was the legendary director’s first feature, and before he was one of the leading forces behind his own studio, it’s understandable that the film would have some noticeable limitations. Even with those limitations though, Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro has held up better than any other animated feature from its decade, and by quite a large margin.

Yes, Miyazaki would later perfect his craft (the subsequent Castle in the Sky is perhaps an even better adventure film, and features more of the director’s lavish imagination; while My Neighbor Totoro would mark Miyazaki’s shift in focus from simpler entertainment to deeper artistry). But there’s no mistaking that Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro lives up to its hefty reputation and influence. There’s never a dull moment, with the film often being as sweet and funny as it is action-packed and exciting. The film is even cited as being a precursor to the beloved action-adventure movies of the 1980s, including Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro began Miyazaki’s unparalleled streak of animated classics, and helped cement the director’s indelible style (the characters here seem to be a bridge between the traditional Lupin III look and what would later be Miyazaki’s own character designs). Just as impressive as its influence is how much fun Castle of Cagliostro remains even today. It’s still one of the most entertaining action-adventure films out there. Animated or otherwise.

 

9.5

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi Early Thoughts (Spoiler-free)

Wow. I mean, wow. I had high expectations for The Last Jedi, seeing how much I love The Force Awakens and how I greatly enjoyed Rogue One. But I was not expecting it to exceed my expectations as much as it did. Go ahead and call me hyperbolic, but I think it was probably the best all-around Star Wars film yet made.

Yes, I know that’s a bold statement. But I’m not usually one to be so quick at making such bold statements, so when I do, it’s kind of a big deal for me. Definitely a sign that whatever I’m making the bold statement about left an impression on me. And boy, did The Last Jedi leave an impression on me.

The Force Awakens was a return to form for the series, and introduced a great new cast of characters while re-introducing us to the ones we’ve loved since the originals (and wisely ignoring the prequels for the most part). As far as I’m concerned, The Force Awakens went toe-to-toe with The Empire Strikes Back, but right now, I think The Last Jedi betters both of those Star Wars greats.

I’m not going to go into details here, as to not spoil anything and to save most of my thoughts for a proper review. But I will say that the film opens with arguably the best space battle in the series. Usually, the space battle comes towards the end of a Star Wars film, but here you get it right off the bat, and it’s amazing. And the film just keeps it up from then on out. The LAst Jedi has the longest running time of any Star Wars film, but it’s consistently entertaining throughout its entirety.

Better still, The Last Jedi continues the great strides in character development started in The Force Awakens, with Rey and Kylo Ren in particular growing more as characters, and might even already be the two best-developed characters in the series.

I also can’t wait to see how fanboys will find the stupidest reasons to hate The Last Jedi due to it not being a part of their childhood nostalgia, while also trying to rewrite history and pretend that the prequels were ever any good. You know it’s going to happen. No matter how good these new Star Wars movies get (and they’ve been great so far), Star Wars nerds will find any reason to whine. Oh well, their loss.

Seriously, I can’t say enough good things about The Last Jedi. There are a couple of little gripes I have with certain character and story elements (which I can’t reveal here), but they’re inconsequential compared to how much the film does right. This was seriously one of the most entertaining moviegoing experiences I’ve ever had. I might even say it’s my favorite movie since Pixar’s Inside Out. I simply enjoyed The Last Jedi from start to finish. It’s entertaining, emotional, and captures that Star Wars magic perhaps better than any of its predecessors.

Whatever the filmmakers have in store for Episode IX, they have a hell of an act to follow.

Justice League Review

*This review contains some spoilers, but nothing that wasn’t obvious already, really.*

You know what? I hate Superman. There, I said it.  I hate Superman, and watching Justice League reminded me exactly why I hate him. Despite being named after a team of super heroes, Justice League goes out of its way to display just how useless the rest of the team is compared to Superman alone. His super strength is stronger than Wonder Woman’s, his super speed is faster than Flash’s; plus he can fly, lift buildings, has heat vision, ice breath, and is basically indestructible. In one scene, he nonchalantly throws Batman to the side as if he’s garbage. I hate that Superman can just do anything. I hate that he makes infinitely better super heroes look like nothing by comparison. I simply, flat-out can not stand Superman.

With that out of the way, let’s get to the rest of Justice League.

Since its inception with Man of Steel in 2013, the DC Extended Universe has been a shallow attempt at recreating what Marvel has done with its Cinematic Universe. While the MCU wisely took its time in bringing its different super heroes together, the DCEU seemed to be in a desperate game of catch-up, rushing the crossover aspects together with its beyond-muddled second entry, Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice. The DCEU has become so needy in its desires to replicate what Marvel has accomplished, that it seems to consistently forget to make coherent movies and strong characters to justify its extended universe.

But then, earlier in 2017, we had a glimmer of hope in the form of Wonder Woman. There was a movie that told a simple super hero origin story, but had a main character who was likable and fleshed out, not to mention it actually seemed to understand human emotion. Surely Wonder Woman signified a turn for the better for the DCEU? Surely these movies would learn from past mistakes and take notes from what made Wonder Woman work?

Nope. Here comes Justice League to undo all of that goodwill Wonder Woman established.

In all fairness, Justice League isn’t as much of a disaster as Batman V. Superman, nor is it as boring as Man of Steel. But it’s still a clunky, over-bloated movie that lacks focus and, even more disappointing, lacks any heart. It wants so desperately to be on the same boat as the MCU with its shared universe, but also makes the shared universe concept feel pointless with how insignificant everyone else feels compared to Superman. If one team member can take out all the others without breaking a sweat, why should we care that there’s a team at all?

Basically, the story here is that a being from another world named Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) invades Earth looking for the three lost “Mother Boxes” which, when combined, can destroy a planet or something. And so with Superman dead after the events of Batman V. Superman, Batman tries to form the Justice League to defeat this otherworldly threat…before completely giving up on the idea and deciding to use a Mother Box to resurrect ol’ Supes because everyone is useless compared to him.

“Steppenwolf makes me miss the villains of Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World. Yes, he’s THAT bad of a character.”

In all honesty, Steppenwolf is very likely the most boring, uninteresting villain in super hero movie history. I’m not exaggerating. Ciaran Hinds’ acting abilities are entirely lost on a character who is written without the tiniest shred of depth or motivation. So much as calling him a placeholder villain is giving him too much credit. I don’t even think he has a line of dialogue that isn’t about destruction or obtaining a Mother Box (which may as well just be called Macguffins). He’s an absolute non-entity. Perhaps worst of all, he’s a CG character who is entirely unconvincing. Every time he fights with the heroes, it looks like the Justice League is grappling with a PS3 monster.

Speaking of bad visual effects, Justice League is full of them. This is a movie aiming to be a big blockbuster, but one which appears the studios behind it didn’t have enough faith to put the extra funding into it.

The CG used to hide actor Henry Cavill’s mustache has already obtained internet infamy, and with good reason. It’s downright distracting. Apparently, Cavill has an obligation to another role that requires a mustache, so he couldn’t shave it. So the filmmakers just decided to CG the area in between his nose and upper lip, and it looks as weird as it sounds. Might I suggest a better option would have been to give Superman a mustache? Sure, Superman isn’t known for having facial hair, but with how often comic books – the origins of these characters – retell, retcon and flat-out ignore certain continuities, is adding a mustache to Superman really so out of the question? I mean, come on, you’re resurrecting the dude with a magic box, but a mustache? That’s just too far. Hell, if Superman had a Tom Sellick ‘stache going on I might actually like him (slightly) more. At the very least, it would be less distracting to see Henry Cavill’s actual mustache than to have a CG band-aid over it.

“Can somebody please get this bad CG off me?!”

The unholy trinity of bad visual effects in Justice League is capped off with Cyborg (Ray Fisher), a member of the Justice League whose mostly robotic body clashes obnoxiously with the human side of his face. It just looks really bad. I mentioned PS3 graphics earlier, but now I’m starting to feel like that was maybe a bit insulting to the PS3. I would much rather look at a ten-year old PS3 game than Steppenwolf’s ugly mug or Cyborg’s…visual awkwardness.

To be fair, not everything is outright horrible in Justice League. On the bright side of things, Gal Gadot returns as Wonder Woman, and is as charming as ever. Aquaman is portrayed by Jason Momoa, and actually seems to be into the character. Some of the action scenes are also decently successful in creating excitement, and unlike the oppressive “edginess and grit” of Man of Steel or Batman V. Superman, Justice League at least tries to lighten the mood at times. Sure, not all of the humor works – with the antics of the Flash (Ezra Miller) growing more exhausting as the film goes on – but I’ll take the attempt at fun over the forced brooding of Batman V. Superman any day.

Despite those few highlights, it’s hard to recommend Justice League. Even Ben Affleck’s take on Batman – one of the few positive qualities of Batman V. Superman – seems lackluster this time around, as though Affleck no longer cares following Batman V. Superman’s reception. The characters are one-dimensional, the plot is beyond thin, the pacing is cluttered and all over the place, it’s riddled with bad dialogue, and for a movie that needed to rely heavily on special effects, the effects in question are just really bad.

All that, and I haven’t even mentioned the seemingly pointless elements of the movie. A good example of this is the opening of the movie itself, which is presented as a video of Superman recorded by a couple of kids, asking the caped hero some questions after another rescue. The scene ends just as ol’ Supes is about to answer the question of “what is his favorite thing about Earth.” This scene doesn’t play into the main story, nor does it seem to have any thematic purpose. I honestly don’t know why it’s there.

At the very least, Justice League is the kind of bad movie I can get a kick out of talking about, which is more than I can say for Man of Steel or Batman V. Superman. But it’s also a blatant showcase of these DCEU movies not learning from past mistakes. And considering this is the follow-up to the delightful Wonder Woman, the results sting twice as much.

Maybe DC should just reboot this cinematic universe, but keep Wonder Woman canon and use it as the new starting point. Also, leave Superman out of it. Yeah, that’d be nice.

 

4.0

Spider-Man: Homecoming Review

I have to admit I was thoroughly lost during Spider-Man: Homecoming. Throughout the entire movie, I kept wondering how this Peter Parker kid became Spider-Man. I mean, what’s the backstory here? Why does he just have these powers? This is the kind of thing that begs for an origin story.

I am of course joking. Spider-Man’s origin story is such common knowledge that he, like Batman, doesn’t need another cinematic retelling at this point. 2002’s Spider-Man remains one of the best super hero origin story movies (along with, ironically enough, Batman Begins), and there really wasn’t a need for us to hear it again through the less-than stellar 2012 reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man. Besides, super hero films tend to be at their best once the origin story is behind them, with Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight remaining at the top of super hero storytelling, as they could focus more on the characters themselves and not have to worry about how their heroes earned their costumes and powers.

Spider-Man: Homecoming wisely does away with re-re-introducing us to Spider-Man’s origin story, with the details of being bitten by a radioactive spider only being mentioned in passing, and the death of his uncle Ben only being implied. So Spider-Man: Homecoming not only serves as another reboot to Marvel’s iconic web-slinger, but also, thankfully, works as something of a self-contained sequel to a narrative we are all beyond familiar with by this point.

This “proper reboot” of the franchise is only one of the newsworthy aspects of this new Spider-Man series, with the other big news being that this newest incarnation is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the most prominent movie franchise not called Star Wars.

We met this newest Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, where he was part of Iron Man’s team who did battle with that of Captain America. But now we have Spidey’s first solo outing in the MCU, and it actually turns out to be one of the best entries in the mega franchise, due in no small part to the film taking cues from 2004’s Spider-Man 2 by creating fleshed-out, relatable characters in both its hero and villain.

Not only does Homecoming show us Spider-Man still trying to learn the ropes of being a super hero (and often stumbling), but it also dedicates a good deal of time to Peter Parker’s high school life, and the real-world problems and hassles therein.

Meanwhile, the film’s villain is the Vulture, whose secret identity is one Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton). If the MCU has had one persistent problem – even in some of its better films – it’s that the villains have been largely forgettable, with only a select few standing out, and none of them really being anything more than a villain. What makes Toomes such a winning antagonist (along with Keaton’s excellent performance) is that, much like Peter Parker is depicted as a real kid, Toomes is a very relatable everyman. Tasked with cleaning up the damage that the Avengers leave behind (the film begins with Toomes’ crew beginning reconstruction on one of the set pieces of 2012’s The Avengers), Toomes and his men end up jobless as soon as the government decides to butt in. So Toomes, wanting to provide for his family and to keep his friends doing the same, goes rogue, and leads an underground operation that steals technology left in the wake of the Avengers, SHIELD, Hydra, and any other “super” organization, crafts their own weapons from it, and sells them on the black market.

The fact that Toomes is selling super-weapons to criminals obviously makes him the villain, but he’s also presented as a relatable figure who was wronged and simply wants to set things right. Unlike so many past villains in the MCU, Toomes actually has a strong motivation for his actions.

It’s because of how wonderfully realized both its hero and villain are that ascend Homecoming to being one of the better super hero movies of recent times, though unfortunately, it does suffer a bit from its supporting characters, which can be a bit of a mixed bag.

Peter’s best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) provides some good comic relief, but some of his actions may not endear him to audiences (the trailers already reveal that he learns of Peter’s secret life as Spider-Man, and he almost outs his best friend’s secret at the first opportunity). Peter’s crush Liz (Laura Harrier) works well enough for the plot, but she doesn’t exactly get a whole lot of character development. They are forgivable though, since their characters have enough likable qualities about them. Less forgivable is the character of Michelle Jones (Zendaya) who, as you may guess by her initials, is to be the MCU’s equivalent of “MJ” Mary-Jane Watson.

Seeing as this is the second cinematic reboot of the Spider-Man franchise, I perfectly understand the filmmakers trying to change up the characters a bit so we can see something we aren’t already overly familiar with. But the Michelle character is simply unlikable. Zendaya’s acting is fine, but what she has to work with doesn’t exactly make Michelle an appealing character. She’s obnoxious, pretentious, brags about not having any friends… She’s basically like a checklist of all the things older generations ridicule millennials for.

But the rest of the characters are all well and fine. This being the MCU, we of course have to have crossover characters involved, though Homecoming is wise to keep them to a minimum as to not take the focus away from the story at hand: Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) returns as Peter’s mentor. Meanwhile, Stark’s former driver and bodyguard Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) returns to keep an eye on Peter while Iron Man is off with bigger things. And in perhaps some of the best uses of MCU cameos, Captain America (Chris Evans) is featured in public-service announcements in Peter’s high school.

I really enjoyed how Homecoming is a relatively smaller-scale Marvel movie. We’ve seen so many cities get leveled in the Marvel Cinematic Universe by this point, that I’m starting to get more tired of the mass destruction than anything. But Homecoming takes the time to humanize both Spider-Man and the Vulture, while also showing us how complicated the lives of Peter Parker and Adrian Toomes can be. The stakes aren’t to save the planet, or even a city. It’s just about a kid trying to be responsible and to do the right thing, and trying to stop a downtrodden, misguided man who’s caught up in doing wrong. And by this point, that’s pretty refreshing.

Spider-Man: Homecoming doesn’t reinvent the super hero genre, but it does take inspiration from the better films from the genre’s booming early years (most notably Spider-Man 2) to make a film that may not be the most grandiose of super hero outings, but one that succeeds in the two areas where it most counts: story and characters. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have great action set-pieces, because it delivers on just that as well. But for the first time in a while, I feel like the MCU has a hero worth rooting for not just because of a charismatic on-screen presence, but also for his relatability. Just as noteworthy, the same can be said for its villain.

 

8.5

Some Scoring Changes (Hopefully for the Last Time)

Being an independent blogger/critic has its ups and downs. On the plus side, you are more freely allowed to tweak your ratings to reflect your changing opinions. On the downside, doing just that risks making your ratings look fickle and wishy-washy.

I personally don’t like changing my ratings, but sometimes (more often than I’d like to admit), I find that in order to keep a level of consistency with my definitions of each score, I have to make exceptions and alter a score for better or worse.

Now is another one of those times, as I’ve changed the scores for a handful of games. Though, hopefully, this will be the last time I make such alterations (though I don’t want to make an absolute statement on that, since I still could make an exception or two).

Keep in mind that if I lower the score for a game or movie, that doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve grown to dislike the game more (or like it less), but that, upon further evaluation, I think my sentiments and complaints in regards to it are better suited to a different score.

Here are the game’s whose scores I’ve just changed, and my reasons for them.

  • Donkey Kong Country and Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble have swapped scores. DKC now ranks at an 8.5, while DKC3 stands at 9.0. When I originally reviewed them, the scores were reversed, but upon thinking more and more about it, DKC3 is the deeper platformer (though my complaints about the music being a massive downgrade for the series still stand). DKC2 still ranks at a perfect 10, however. And that won’t change.
  • Tetris Attack has been lowered from a 9.0 to an 8.5. Again, it’s not that I think any less of it, but I weighed it against another block falling puzzle game that I awarded a 9.0 (Tetris Battle Gaiden), and came to the conclusion that Tetris Attack, while great, is probably better represented as an 8.5 in the falling block puzzle game department.
  • Yooka-Laylee, which I originally gave a score of 8.5, has been slightly lowered to an 8.0. Again, I haven’t suddenly decided that Yooka-Laylee isn’t as good as I initially thought, just that I think – after re-reading my review and assessing my complaints – it fits more into the 8.0 range.
  • Star Fox Zero has been (further) lowered to a 6.5, because of those damn controls.
  • Perhaps most notably of all, Super Mario Maker has gone from a massive 9.5 to a (still fantastic) 9.0. Once again, it’s not that my opinion on the game has changed, I still think Super Mario Maker is, in a lot of ways, one of the best things Nintendo has ever made. If anything, I made this change to further boost what the 9.0 score means. After all, a 9.0 is the third-highest score on my system, and has been represented by such great games as Mega Man 3, Shovel Knight, Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow and Overwatch. That’s a hefty lineup of games right there. Super Mario Maker also perhaps had a few more flaws pointed out in my review than most 9.5s. Though some of these issues have been addressed by Nintendo in patch updates, I still feel changing the score for SMM was the right call. Again, not that I think any less of the game, but if I want to be consistent with my scoring, I felt the change was necessary (I must also repeat that I feel this boosts the prestige of the 9.0 score).
  • I have also changed the scores for two animated films, Finding Dory and Wreck-It Ralph. Both of which were originally given 9.0s, but that I feel are better suited in the 8.5 level (an 8.5 is a great score, so please don’t think that I think any less of these movies).

Well, that’s all the changes I’ve recently made. Now I’m going to try my best to really evaluate if my words and feelings for a game (or movie) are best justified by the score I end up giving it. I don’t like changing my scores, and don’t want to have to change any of them again. So I want to make sure I get it all right the first time. This will be doubly true for games (and movies) rated 9.0 or higher.

In order to help me maintain this consistency, I soon plan to overhaul my Scoring System page, giving more detailed descriptions for each score, and even giving some prime examples of each score for both games and movies (Overwatch and Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, for example, seem to be my measuring sticks for the 9.0 score for games). Since I have actually used every rating in my system for games (including one 0/10), I will probably update the page with the video game examples first, with the movie examples following not far behind.

Anyway, sorry for this rant. Hopefully you don’t think any less of my scoring system for my fluctuating feelings, and hopefully I can be more consistent in the future.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (2016) Review

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows is the follow-up to the 2014 TMNT reboot, but the sixth overall film in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise. As far as I’m concerned, it’s also the best of the lot. Sure, like any TMNT movie, it’s not exactly great filmmaking, and you can easily point to its many flaws. But it’s also the most “Ninja Turtles” of any of the Ninja Turtles movies yet made. If you’re a fan of the franchise, young or old, Out of the Shadows is hard to top in terms of fan service.

Let’s put it this way, after five previous films, two reboots, and twenty-six years after the Ninja Turtles’ first big screen outing, Out of the Shadows finally brought characters such as Krang, Bebop and Rocksteady, and Baxter Stockman to the TMNT movie universe. It also marks the return of Casey Jones, it has the Technodrome in it, and it captures the feeling of the franchise better than any of its predecessors.

Again, Out of the Shadows isn’t what I would traditionally label as a “good movie,”and like any of the more enjoyable Ninja Turtles films, it’s a guilty pleasure. But it’s also the one I feel the least guilty for enjoying, because as a TMNT fan, Out of the Shadows is a fun ride.

The story here is that the Shredder (Brian Tee) is being transferred to a maximum security prison, but is planning a breakout via (wait for it) a teleportation device discovered by the mad scientist, Dr. Baxter Stockman (Tyler Perry). The Ninja Turtles Leonardo (Pete Ploszek), Donatello (Jeremy Howard), Michelangelo (Noel Fisher) and Raphael (Alan Ritchson) discover this news with the help of April O’Neil (Megan Fox), and try to prevent the Shredder from escaping.

Try as the Turtles (and the cops) may, the Foot Clan manages to successfully retrieve Shredder as well as two criminals being transferred alongside him, Bebop (Gary Anthony Williams) and Rocksteady (WWE wrestler Stephen “Sheamus” Farrelly). Shredder’s teleportation is intercepted by Krang (Brad Garrett), a brain-like alien from another dimension. Krang has plans to dominate the Earth, but needs Shredder’s help to do so. Krang has been trapped in this other dimension, and informs Shredder that Stockman’s teleportation device is merely a piece of one of Krang’s inventions, with another two pieces being lost on Earth some time ago. Krang and Shredder form an alliance, with Krang sending Shredder back to Earth to retrieve the remaining pieces of the device to open a portal large enough for Krang’s moving battle fortress, the Technodrome, to make its way to Earth for Krang to declare war on the human race.

Shredder recruits Bebop and Rocksteady to aide him in this mission and, using a canister of alien mutagen given to him by Krang, transforms the two bumbling criminals into a mutant warthog (Bebop) and rhinoceros (Rocksteady) to combat the Turtles.

Naturally, the four Ninja Turtles, as well as Master Splinter (Tony Shalhoub), April O’Neil and cop-turned vigilante Casey Jones (Stephen Amell) try to prevent the schemes of the small army of villains.

There are also some notable sub-plots this time around, with the turtles discovering that the alien mutagen could hold the power to turn them human, allowing them to live life outside of the sewers and be accepted by the people of New York, which actually gives the film some heart. There’s also a fun side-story revolving around Vern (Will Arnett) – April’s former cameraman – gaining celebrity status, as the Turtles allowed him to take full credit for defeating Shredder in the events of the first movie, as to keep their own identities secret.

Look, there’s a lot going on in the movie. When the story isn’t gobbledygook, it’s nothing short of insane. But again, if you’re a TMNT fan, it’s a whole lot of fun. Out of the Shadows may be nonsense when it comes to traditional storytelling, but it succeeds with flying colors in being a love letter to all things Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

If I have to be serious and point out the obvious issues with the story, the sub-plot involving the Turtles’ yearning to be accepted – while well-intentioned – is a bit underdeveloped, with this narrative thread being forgotten for lengthy periods at a time before being brought up again. And of course, with so many characters, most of them don’t get a whole lot to work with.

Perhaps a notable quibble in continuity is that Erick Sacks, the evil businessman who aided Shredder in the 2014 original, is nowhere to be found, not even being mentioned in dialogue. Sure, he wasn’t a great villain, but he played a large enough role in the first film that his nonexistence in this sequel is noticeable.

Maybe I’m just overthinking things a bit, however. This is a Ninja Turtles movie after all, it isn’t exactly trying to tell a compelling story. It’s just here to have a good time. If you’re a fan of the franchise, TMNT: Out of the Shadows greatly succeeds.

Fans who have grown up with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or young fans who are currently growing up with them, should have a really fun time. It’s obviously a flawed movie, not just in narrative, but even some of the jokes are a bit juvenile (do all kids’ movies that don’t come from Disney really need fart jokes?). And being a sequel to the 2014 film, the Turtles unfortunately keep their ugly character designs from that film (Bebop and Rocksteady’s animal forms are more humorous and fun to look at, however).

There’s a lot to gripe about if you’re looking at Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows from a more analytical view. But for TMNT fans, it spoon-feeds them almost every detail they’ve asked for from Ninja Turtles movies for the better part of three decades. It includes the majority of the franchises most iconic characters, has some surprisingly enjoyable action scenes, and the actors seem to be having a fun time with it (particularly Tyler Perry and Will Arnett, who ham it all up in the best way). It even includes a Vanilla Ice gag, and the end credits feature a updated version of the classic theme song from the 80s cartoon series!

I seem to be repeating myself quite a lot, but I can’t stress this enough. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows is not the kind of movie I would usually recommend, but if you consider yourself a fan of the franchise, Out of the Shadows pretty much plays out like a greatest hits of all things TMNT.

 

6.5

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014 Film) Review

The 2014 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot was treading on thin ice. Not only are reboots so commonplace these days that they’re almost parodying themselves, but early script leaks showcasing massive changes to the source material had TMNT fans enraged years before its release. Not to mention the presence of producer Michael Bay – who has directed the Transformers series into one of cinema’s most ghastly and incoherent franchises – didn’t help things much.

As it turns out, the script leaks were one of the best things that could have happened to this TMNT reboot, as the filmmakers seemed to take note of the fan feedback to turn the 2014 film into a more traditional Ninja Turtles film… meaning that it’s not necessarily a good movie (as its storytelling is muddled and its characters underdeveloped), but it can provide a fun time for fans of the franchise.

In this Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the four titular turtles Leonardo (Johnny Knoxville), Donatello (Jeremy Howard), Michelangelo (Noel Fisher) and Raphael (Alan Ritchson), as well as their rat sensei, Master Splinter (Tony Shalhoub), get a revamped origin story.

Here, the turtles and Splinter didn’t happen upon any mutagenic ooze, but were instead test subjects in a lab, who experimented on them in an attempt to create a mutagen that could make humans resistant to diseases. One of the scientists involved with the experiment is the father of April O’Neil (Megan Fox), who is working for Erick Sacks (William Fichtner). This being a Ninja Turtles movie, the experiment is actually a front to a darker purpose conducted by Sacks, under order from his master, Oroku Saki (Tohoru Masamune), who is secretly the leader of the Foot Clan, the Shredder.

April’s father of course discovers the true purpose of the experiment, and sets fire to the lab to destroy Sack’s plan from coming to fruition, before being killed in the ensuing chaos. A young April O’Niel rescued the turtles and Splinter from the fire, and set them free in the sewer, where they began to mutate over the years, as a side effect of the experiments. The mutated animals eventually gained humanoid properties and intelligence, becoming the Ninja Turtles and Master Splinter we now know.

Truth be told, I don’t really mind the change in the Turtles’ origins to give them a history with April O’Neil (she even gives them their names in this version). In this day and age, when we’re seeing so many origin stories from franchises we all know by heart being retold over and over, I suppose a tweak in an established origin story is actually kind of a nice change of pace.

The problem with this origin story, however, comes with the ninja aspects of the titular characters. In the traditional story, Splinter was the pet rat of a man who practiced ninjitsu, giving a stronger (albeit silly) reason why the these pizza obsessed, New Yorker turtles have learned the ways of the ninja from a giant sewer rat. But here, Splinter just happens upon a book on ninjitsu while sweeping the sewer floors one day, and decides to teach himself the art of the ninja, and pass it down to his adopted sons.

Granted, the Ninja Turtles, even in their original comic books, were supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, so a bit of nonsense is to be expected. But having Master Splinter know all of his ninja wisdom from some little book that he just happened to find in the sewers of New York is pushing things a bit.

Whatever though. This is still a Ninja Turtles movie, more so than Michael Bay’s atrocious Transformers films are Transformers movies, that’s for damn sure. So if there are stupid details in the plot, well, they aren’t exactly ruining a magnum opus.

Anyway, fast-forward to the present, and April O’Neil is a down-on-her-luck news reporter trying to find a big story to jumpstart her career. Together with her cameraman Vern (Will Arnett), April may have just found such a story as the villainous Foot Clan has started a crime spree in New York City, and that a mysterious, ninja-like foursome of vigilantes has taken the fight to the Foot. Unfortunately for April, her story about four humanoid turtles peaks the interest of Sacks, who seeks to find a way to resurrect his and Shredder’s long-dormant plot.

The plot is, as stated, quite silly. On the bright side, the story does allow for some good old-fashioned Ninja Turtles action (one action scenario sees the Turtles fighting the Foot Clan while riding down a mountain, which is far more exhilarating than any of the action scenes in the 1990s trilogy). On the downside, there are some questionable narrative aspects, even by Ninja Turtles’ standards.

Besides the aforementioned convenient ninjitsu book, the glaring narrative issue seems to be the villain scenario. Sacks seems to be the far more prominent villain than Shredder in the film. That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, if the movie more properly made Shredder out to be the “big bad” behind the scenes, but it doesn’t. The villainous plot all seems to be for Sacks’ benefit, with Shredder’s presence seeming tacked on. There actually is a reason for that, as the character who would become Sacks was originally intended to be the Shredder in the infamous leaked script, before fan outcry against the departure from the character’s Japanese heritage, which is a pretty prominent part of Shredder’s character. While the studio reconsidering Shredder’s overhaul was probably for the best in regards to future installments, it ends up leaving the Turtles’ arch nemesis feeling like an afterthought in this film.

If the movie has one other great flaw, it’s that the Ninja Turtles themselves are just too ugly. Sure, the CGI used to bring them to life is believable and detailed enough, but the art direction for the turtles is just unpleasant to look at. You get the feeling that the filmmakers wanted to “realistically” capture the look of a humanoid turtle, but maybe they should have stopped to think if that was the best route to go with the characters. By trying to make the Ninja Turtles look more human, they’ve only made them look creepy. More often than not, if a character is stylized to look cartoonish, there’s a reason for it.

Look, if you want a great piece of cinema, you’re obviously looking in the wrong place if you choose to watch 2014’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But if you’re a long-time Turtles fan, or a younger TMNT tyke, then the first entry of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot is, much like the first two entries from the 1990s, a good dose of Ninja Turtles fun. Sure, its story is riddled in nonsense and the Turtles are rough on the eyes, but 2014’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is an easy guilty pleasure for those who know the franchise.

 

6.0