Friday, August 8, 2014

Give 'Em Shell: TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES


I must admit the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have never really worked for me. There’s something about their characters that holds me at a distance. Maybe it’s because they’re so similar in look – big humanoid turtle things differentiated only by the color headbands their wear – and personality. They have the names of Italian Renaissance artists: Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Donatello. They all love pizza, do martial arts, shout “cowabunga,” and live with their adopted mutant rat father in the sewers below New York City. It’s a collection of silly details that never quite grabbed me in any form be it comics, animated series, video games, or feature films.

I still felt that distance in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a reboot of the live action big screen turtle movies. But somehow this transparently silly goof of an adventure movie kept me distracted, if not quite entertained. It’s not a good movie, but it’s competent as it runs through a standard superhero plot with a big bad threatening a city and the heroes who save the day. That its climax only puts about 10 city blocks in immediate danger is a nice change of pace. Is it progress that this summer spectacle is a retread of blockbuster beats from a decade or two ago instead of staking a claim in the apocalyptic stakes race we’ve been living through the last few years?

The movie follows an intrepid reporter (Megan Fox), the sort of ambitious young newsperson who is sick and tired of fluff pieces and wants to do serious journalism. One night she spots a group of mysterious vigilantes breaking up the evil Foot Clan’s nefarious deeds on the docks and comes face to face with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Some fun is had with their improbable details as Fox tries to explain to her newsroom colleagues (Will Arnett and Whoopi Goldberg) what she has discovered. She sounds crazy. Meanwhile, desperate to keep their existence secret, the turtles and their rat father set out to find and befriend her.

The human characters are stock flat types that don’t make much of an impact beyond whatever charms the actors bring. But there’s a CGI realism to the textures of the turtles’ and rat’s skin that makes them marginally more convincing as living beings. It also makes them far creepier than the phony rubbery costumes of their previous early-90’s live action appearances. Now they’re uncannily real and utterly fake in the same instance. We’re not talking the apes from Rise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes here. The Ninja Turtles speak with energetic voices (provided by Johnny Knoxville, Alan Ritchson, Noel Fisher, and Jeremy Howard) as their faces light up with giggly banter and gain flashes of gravitas. Their rat guardian Splinter (Tony Shalhoub) has damp and furry features of uncomfortably verminous countenance as his dojo voice intones ponderously.

Eventually, as a nefarious C.E.O. (William Fichtner) and Shredder (Tohoru Masamune), the head of the Foot Clan, team up to spray poison from the top of a skyscraper and make billions off the cure, the turtles and their new human ally get drawn into saving the day. It’s a small, thin plot. You’ve seen the basic beats before and here they’re replayed dutifully. Even the surprises aren’t surprising, you know?  At least it has a small, thin sense of humor about itself.

Arnett becomes Fox’s sidekick, providing sarcastic asides, while Goldberg gets the most charm out of far too little screen time. (I could’ve used at the very least one more scene with her wisecracking editor.) The screenplay by Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec, and Evan Daugherty is peppered with corny wisecracks and laughs that may not be entirely intentional, but still fit the silly mood. It's not much of a plot, and I certainly couldn’t tell you which turtle was which at any given time, but at least there’s room for a villain preparing to get inside a robotic samurai suit to say, “Tonight, I shall dine on turtle soup.” That’s the kind of straight-faced laugh line that makes me smile.

Speaking of straight-faced, director Jonathan Liebesman, behind spectacles both bad (Battle: Los Angeles) and okay (Wrath of the Titans), directs with a heavier hand than the material requires. It’s kid’s movie bounciness – the turtles are goofballs – smashed up against PG-13 roughness – a bad guy is dissolved from the inside out in somewhat graphic fashion. Lulu Carvalho’s beams-of-light-soaked cinematography is presented with a glossy seriousness, cut together in a standard amped-up chaos cinema style. I suppose when you’re dealing with material this flimsy, and so half-aware of its own inanity, grounding it in a sense of thriller weight makes the utterly weightless bounding of its inhabitants slightly less likely to float away into nothingness.

The overly familiar plotting is done and over with quickly and not as painfully as the who-is-this-for? tone or the tediously expositional rat would lead you to believe. The movie is completely empty-headed, a bland and mostly undistinguished effort that spends more time acting like it’s fun than actually being fun. It mostly goes through the motions, but at least it’s not a total waste. In the movie’s action centerpiece, a semi slaloms down a snowy mountainside as bad guys give chase and characters fall in, out, and around. It has a zip and novelty that makes it one of this summer’s better spectacle sequences, provided you can forget that there’s no towering mountain a mere 19 minutes out of Manhattan. But by that point you’ve already accepted that there are man-sized mutant turtle teenagers with ninja skills. What’s a little geographic confusion on top of that?

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