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

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fourstar

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I’ve been a loud defender of the Michael Bay production of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles since it first oozed into theaters two years ago. I went as far as to call the film “The Best Bad Movie of 2014” & “the last five years of bad taste in a nutshell”. High praise, I know. My point was that it’s the exact kind of campy cheese that in its own trashy way reveals & documents more about the blockbuster filmmaking landscape than a more prestigious property possibly could. It’s most useful in this world was as a perfect encapsulation of our worst cinematic tendencies, a cultural relic for future generations of schlock-hungry fools.

That trashy time capsule’s follow-up, a sequel titled Out of the Shadows, is just as enjoyable as the first Ninja Turtles film, but for an entirely different reason. Instead of pushing the brooding grit of the post-Dark Knight era of needless reboots to its most ludicrous extreme like its hilariously hideous predecessor, Out of the Shadows calls back to the light, fun, cartoonish energy that made the original Ninja Turtles trilogy such a nostalgia-inducing pleasure in the 1990s. I guess you could argue that banking on 90s nostalgia is a snapshot on where blockbusters are seated in 2016, but that’s not what makes Out of the Shadows special. Here’s what does make it special: a manhole-shooting garbage truck modeled after the franchise’s infamous pizza van toy; a pro wrestler that plays a tank-operating rhinoceros; a perfectly hideous realization of the villainous mech suit-operating brain Krang; etc. Given enough time, this is a film both silly & visually memorable (read: deeply ugly) enough to generate its own future nostalgia entirely separate from that of a previous generation’s (not that it was above playing the 90s cartoon’s theme song over the end credits). Kids are going to grow up loving this movie and its reputation will outlast the short-term concerns of however well it does or doesn’t do at the box office this summer. In that way, it’s a successful work of art.

I wasn’t quite so sure about Out of the Shadows during its early plot machinations. Early scenes of Megan Fox’s April O’Neil working “undercover” as a nerd (a hot nerd, as the leering camera insistently reminds you) and the titular turtles airlessly navigating a CGI cityscape are a cruel, dull bore. My enthusiasm picked up fairly quickly, however, thanks to the aforementioned pizza van/garbage truck. You see, this isn’t just a recreation pizza-shooting toy from my own youth; it’s one that adds the ludicrous appendages of mechanical arms that operate cartoonishly oversized nunchucks. Why? Why not. The film’s plot gets kicked into action by a highspeed prison break (complete with producer Michael Bay’s calling card excess of explosions) that frees the wicked Shredder from the temporary shackles he’s locked in at the end of the last film. A teleportation device places Shredder in the mechanical hands of the evil alien brain Krang, who opens up a world of purple ooze (you can’t get much more 90s than ooze, right?), interdimensional portals, alien warships, and all kinds of other high-concept wankery. The goal of these conflicts is, of course, to provide simple obstacles for the turtles to overcome, but I have great respect for the over-the-top, Saturday morning cartoon choices the film makes to set those targets up. It’s certainly a refreshing change from the too-dark-for-its-own-good villainy brought to the screen by William Fichtner in the first film, as amusing as that was to watch.

While we’re talking Krang, I’ll just go ahead & say he’s very close to being the greatest villain I’ve seen onscreen all year (the slight advantage goes to the much more naturalistic presence of Black Phillip there). An unholy combination of Yoda, Audrey II, and the oversexed gator from All Dogs Go to Heaven, Krang’s vocal performance is perfectly pitched in its over-the-top scenery chewing. He’s not alone. Tyler Perry’s signature yuck-em-up hokeyness is put to brilliant use as a low level villain mad scientist that’s less Dr. Frankenstein & more Neil deGrasse Tyson meets The Nutty Professor. Will Arnett returns to his role as the scaredy cat cad of the previous film, but is allowed far more breathing room to ramp up the pomposity. One of my favorite gags in Out of the Shadows is a scene where Arnett’s bagging his own breath in ziplocks to sell to schmucks impressed by his newfound celebrity as the turtles’ wing man. Pro wrestler Sheamus is perfectly cast here in his own corny way & probably could live out the rest of his life playing bit parts in kids’ movies without breaking a sweat. Tony Schaloub is still a hideous CGI sewer rat father figure. Megan Fox is still a hopelessly bland non-presence, but I began to find amusement in the way she constantly posed & mugged for the camera for absolutely no reason at all. Oh yeah, and Dennis “The Dummy” Duffy from 30 Rock drops by just because. These aren’t performances that are going to win any awards, but they are perfectly suited for kids’ media goofery. Actually, Laura Linney’s performance as a besides-herself police chief might be worthy of an award in a more serious film, but she’s always perfect so there’s no real surprise there.

I don’t want to oversell the shift in tones here. This is still the bloated, grotesque CGI spectacle people understandably pinched their noses at two years ago. As much as I enjoyed every bizarrely lovable second of Krang content in Out of the Shadows, he’s still a disgusting, digital depiction of a sentient brain literally mashed inside a giant, clunky robot. It’s gross. But, hey, kids love gross shit. The film makes a conscious effort to move away from the Dark Knight grit of its predecessor to take delight in such cheap, silly pleasures as watching a two ton warthog eat a trash barrel’s worth of spaghetti while his hairy CGI nipples jiggle. I got the same feeling watching Out of the Shadows as I did with last year’s excellent Goosebumps adaptation: kids are going to grow up loving it & that’s all that really matters. I’ll even go as far as to say that the film finds genuine pathos in unexpected places, namely the teen turtles’ anxiety over the way society treats them not as the good guys, but as hideous, mutant monsters (a feeling all teens share at some point, right?). I especially like the way the turtles describe themselves as “four brothers from New York who hate bullies & love this city.” It gives them a real Steve Rogers or Judy Hopps vibe I can genuinely get behind. That’s not what makes this film such a deliciously fun exercise in trash cinema delirium (that’d be Krang), but it was yet another admirable aspect of a remarkably silly, deeply ugly children’s film I had no business enjoying nearly as much as I did.

-Brandon Ledet

Mr. Holmes (2015)

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threehalfstar

Director Bill Condon’s name isn’t one you’re likely to hear often. He’s not a particularly flashy director; his films have a sort of low-key level-headedness to them that feel entirely different from the likes of visually overreaching auteurs like a David Lynch or a Wes Anderson. Very early in his career, however, he did helm two fantastic costume dramas that both packed a surprising punch considering their calmly handsome exteriors: Kinsey and Gods & Monsters. Due mostly to their superbly talented casts, a generally pleasing visual palette, and an unusually frank take on the grey areas of human sexuality, both Kinsey and God’s & Monsters are real emotional powerhouses that subvert the low-key vibes they boast on the surface. Condon has an elegant, adult touch to his costume dramas & biopics that make them alarmingly rewatchable & lingeringly poignant in a way you wouldn’t expect considering the basic confines of their structure.

After a brief foray into the business of Twilight sequels (a venture I can only hope paid nicely), Condon is seemingly getting back to what he does best. His latest film, Mr. Holmes, brings in Ian McKellen & Laura Linney, who were both fantastic in their respective roles in God’s & Monsters and Kinsey, for yet another low-key costume drama that initially seems suspiciously run-of-the-mill, but actually packs an emotional wallop. In Mr. Holmes‘ portrayal of what is probably the world’s most famous detective (and easily the world’s most famous Sherlock) struggling to reconcile his unusually sharp observational skills with the encroaching doom of senility, Condon has found a way to add another unexpected layer of depth to a character that has become perhaps overly-familiar at this point in pop culture. Just like how the costume dramas & biopics of Condon’s past have complicated & subverted their audience’s genre expectations, Mr. Holmes plays with what you would expect out of a Sherlock Holmes movie by slowly removing the elegance & mental facilities you would expect from Holmes himself.

Of course, this is just as much Ian McKellen’s triumph as it is Condon’s. The idea of McKellen playing an aging Sherlock Holmes will obviously be a major selling point for a lot of people tuning in to this humble indie drama & Mr. Holmes does not disappoint on that end. In three separate, but narratively interwoven storylines McKellen plays the infamous gumshoe at varying times of his waning life. In some scenes he’s as keen as ever & in others he struggles to walk the short distance across his study. Unlike with traditional Sherlock narratives, the point of Mr. Holmes is not to solve the mystery of a specific crime, but for the detective to solve both the mystery of human nature & the more haunting mysteries that the daily battles with a fading mind present. As Holmes slips into senility he begins to regret his life-long dedication to facts & logic and forces himself to learn how to connect with people on a more empathetic & emotional level before he loses the ability to connect at all. McKellen can be absolutely heart-breaking in these dual struggles, his piercing blue eyes calling for help from behind an eerily aging face.

This doesn’t mean that the movie can’t be fun as well. When Holmes is having one of his “good days”, McKellen shines as a comic talent. He’s got a bitchy, effete, intellectual air to him that can make you snort with laughter with the mere roll of an eye or an off-hand joke about death. This is especially true in scenes where Holmes is interacting directly with his own celebrity, scoffing at the novelized & feature film versions of his life and poking fun at the costume he’s typically depicted wearing. It’s McKellen’s tender, but catty approach to comedy that lures you into a comfortable lull that suddenly hits you right in the heart once all three of the film’s storylines culminate in a tidy, but satisfying conclusion. Condon & McKellen (along with a top-notch performance from an always-welcome Linney) have together crafted a rare thing: the well-behaved, but emotionally potent indie costume drama with only rare visual showiness (mostly in the occasional period-specific artifact: a worn book or photograph, bee-keeping gear, an ancient glass harmonica, etc.). Mr. Holmes might not be the best or most ambitious work of either Condon or McKellen’s careers, but it is a special treat watch something so simple shine so brightly– even if it is, in Sherlock’s case at least, the last time around.

-Brandon Ledet