Bumblebee (2018)

It is exceedingly rare for me to ever abandon a movie-watching project. I will occasionally drag my feet on some of my more daunting endeavors (for instance, it’s been five months since my last entry in my eternally ongoing Roger Ebert Film School series), but fully abandoning something once I’ve started is against my character as a self-flagellating completist. There is one major exception I can think of that contradicts this personal ethos, however: Michael Bay’s Transformers series. After catching a brief glimpse of a giant robot fighting a robo-dinosaur with an enormous sword (or some such exciting frivolity) in the trailer for a late-franchise sequel to Michael Bay’s Transformers, I decided to run through all five films in the series to see what I had been “missing out” on. I abandoned the project after just one movie, genuinely unable to continue. Between the soul-deadening CGI action, Shia LaBeouf’s “Ain’t I a stinker?” mugging, and the endless shots of Michael Bay drooling over Megan Fox’s exposed midriff, the 2007 film Transformers defeated me like no other cinematic monstrosity I can recall. I’m recounting this here to explain why the spin-off Bumblebee is such an unfathomably effective rehabilitation for the Transformers series. I can’t think of a big-budget franchise with a more drastic tonal turnaround that this wholesome, adorable spin-off to a series previously defined by broad, obnoxious machismo & cynical commercialism. I went into Bumblebee defeated by & disgusted with the Transformers; I left wanting to adopt one as a pet & a bestie.

A major factor of this turnaround is the change in creative voices in front of & behind the camera. Michael Bay is still writing (and cashing) checks as a producer on Bumblebee, but directing duties have been passed off to Laika mastermind Travis Knight, whose previous film Kubo and the Two Strings was one of Swampflix’s favorite movies of 2016. Knight’s expertise in animated storytelling is extremely useful in the CGI action sequences of the Transformers brand. The complexity of a sentient robot unfolding & rearranging its various parts to reassemble as a common automobile in these movies is usually sidestepped by making the visual display so bewildering that it’s impossible to coherently nitpick (or even observe) what’s on display. Not only does Knight clear up this visual clutter (once described as a “Cubist” use of CGI by an overzealous critic) with a clarity & simplicity in Bumblebee‘s action sequences; he also enhances them with the heartfelt emotional core that informs Laika’s consistently endearing output. That shift from horny leering & macho fist-pumping to genuine emotional investment in the film’s characters is likely also somewhat due to something never before seen in the Transformers franchise: a female screenwriter, Christina Hodson. Between Hodson’s writing & Knight’s emotive eye, Bumblebee doesn’t even take the time to salivate over the young, exposed body of its main female character (a teenage loner played by The Edge of Seventeen‘s Hailee Steinfeld). That’s a depressingly low bar to clear, but given Transformers‘s track record it’s remarkable all the same. Bumblebee even goes a step further by making that female character the POV-commanding protagonist, so that we care about her thoughts, her emotions, and her personal growth. Go figure.

Steinfeld stars in Bumblebee as an amateur car mechanic in 1980s California whose hobbies include working on a half-finished sports car her father left behind when he passed away & brooding alone to The Smiths instead of engaging with her surviving family. This teenage-brooding crisis turns around when she discovers and fixes up a VW Beetle abandoned in her uncle’s junkyard. What she doesn’t know (but the audience does) is that the Beetle in question is actually an alien transforming robo-species from a distant planet who is damaged & scared. This mismatched pair, the alien robot & the teenage mechanic who adopts it, teach each other strength, confidence, and familial love in a relatively small, contained story that happens to also include a bloodthirsty Cold War American government & a warring alien robo-species who want nothing but to tear them apart & destroy them. The story that unfolds from there is heavily informed by 80s & 90s kids’ movies clichés: resentment over a single-parent’s ability to move on; the big bad government’s stubborn insistence on destroying an adorable creature it doesn’t understand; the same-old 80s high school bully archetypes we’ve seen echoed & parodied into oblivion over the decades, etc. It’s a nostalgic 80s lens that naturally derives from the film’s Spielbergian schmaltz in its story about an E.T.-esque naive creature who needs help from an Earth child to find strength & find a path home. It’s a template that’s been repeated in titles as beloved as The Iron Giant & as lowly as Monster Trucks because, on a basic level, it just works. Even without this franchise’s origins as an adaptation of 80s Hasbro action figures, Bumblebee’s indulgence in 1980s Spielbergian nostalgia (along with tossed-off references to pop culture touchstones like Alf & The Breakfast Club) would still be more than justified, as it’s reinforced with a surprisingly genuine emotional core.

There are plenty of smaller details to praise about Bumblebee: John Cena’s turn as the broad The Marine-esque villain, the endearingly playful 80s pop soundtrack, the oversized emotions conveyed by the titular robot’s gigantic anime eyes, etc. Mostly, though, this film is remarkable for finding such an adorable & heartfelt angle on something that was initially so obnoxiously nasty it appeared fundamentally flawed & irredeemable. When Bumblebee crash-lands into this wholesome 80s kids’ adventure movie from his home planet, it feels like he’s fleeing the intergalactic clutches of Michael Bay’s libido & garishly rendered CGI. We’re as lucky to have him as the teenage loner who discovers him & fixes him up. It’s just too bad we can’t also hug him through the screen ourselves to show proper thanks.

-Brandon Ledet

A Quiet Place (2018)

The production company Platinum Dunes’s recent trajectory is an illustrative microcosm of where mainstream horror filmmaking is currently situated in the 2010s. The Michael Bay-funded production brand got its start in horror in the early 2000s, buying up the rights to bankable intellectual properties like Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and A Nightmare on Elm Street and reshaping them into big budget Hollywood blockbusters, much to horror fans’ . . . horror. These passionless remakes, combined with that same era’s torture porn grime, painted a grim picture of where horror was going as a medium. Platinum Dunes made a sizable profit off a genre it only saw value in as a vehicle for making a sizable profit, but in the long-term found that exercise both creatively unfulfilling for themselves and alienating to the genre fans they were catering to (at least according to producer Brad Fuller in a recent interview with Shock Waves). Recently, they found much greater success by producing an original property helmed by a creative voice with a personal vested interest in seeing it done right. A Quiet Place has already made over $200mil on a $17mil budget without retracing the steps of a previous classic and without alienating the genre film fans that made it a success. Along with last year’s adaptation of IT, A Quiet Place’s overwhelming success indicates that although it’s possible to make a tidy profit off the horror audiences studios usually take for granted with thoughtless dreck, it’s even more rewarding to pay attention to the quality of the work instead of using the genre as an “Anything’ll do” placeholder. A Quiet Place is in many ways as a traditional mainstream horror with wide commercial appeal, but it’s an example of that medium done exceptionally well. It’s a shame Platinum Dunes and other well-funded production companies didn’t realize the financial potential for that balance back in the grim nu-metal days of the early 00s.

Although tracking A Quiet Place’s arrival through the trajectory of Platinum Dunes is illuminating in picking apart the status of the modern horror, the true auteurist voice behind the picture is The Office vet John Krasinski (another repeat Michael Bay collaborator). Like the producers behind the film, Krasinski admits to not typically being a fan of horror, but fell in love with the original script’s premise when presented an opportunity to play the lead role. Krasinski’s passion is exactly what was missing from the company’s early remakes of horror classics. He not only signed on to play the father figure at the center of the film’s dystopian creative feature nightmare, but also insisted on personally rewriting major elements of the screenplay, directing, and eventually casting his own wife (consistently impressive badass Emily Blunt) as his co-lead. This isn’t exactly the mainstream horror flick equivalent of John Cassavetes putting his own family through hell in projects like A Woman Under the Influence, but Krasinski does make this mainstream genre flick feel surprisingly personal. It’s easy to detect what drew him to the project. A real-life father, Krasinski turns this high-concept monster movie into an expression of fatherly anxiety over the traditionally macho concerns of serving as protector over a vulnerable wife & children. It’s a remarkably Conservative (and rigidly gendered) way of depicting a family-in-crisis dynamic (Michael Bay is involved, after all), but one that’s self-reflective & repeatedly challenged as it falls apart in the face of impending doom. Although each character in A Quiet Place’s drastically limited cast gets their share of the spotlight and their own internal conflicts, the film overall feels like a solid Dad Horror movie, a nice compliment to all the great Mom Horrors of recent years: The Babadook, Goodnight Mommy, We Need to Talk About Kevin, etc. The trick is that even if these macho protector anxieties are as personal to Krasinski as they were to Trey Edward Schults in the superficially similar It Comes at Night, the Platinum Dunes commitment to commercial appeal makes sure they don’t distract the movie from delivering the traditional horror genre goods. It’s one of those rare instances where the personal & the commercial reach a wonderfully harmonious equilibrium, true movie magic.

The surprise of A Quiet Place’s commercial success is neither Platinum Dunes finding a second chance on the horror media landscape nor how personal Krasinski made the project feel. It’s that a largely silent, subtitled monster movie was able to appeal to such a wide audience. In the not-so-distant future, a species of blind, bug-like creatures with an exceptional sense of hearing has seemingly wiped out the majority of the human race. This isn’t explained in an opening text crawl or expositional dialogue, but rather the block letters of newspaper headlines that were used for similar information dumps in 1950s sci-fi B-pictures. A small family carefully maneuvers through this environment, speaking only subtitled sign language and tiptoeing barefoot in avoidance of the aggressive monster-bugs that will destroy them if they make a single peep. This delicately quiet environment sometimes makes for a distracting theatrical experience (I was very aware of the rest of the audience and the sounds of Avengers: Infinity War bleeding over through the walls), but it also sets the mood for an excellent jump scare environment. Loud noises and sudden monster attacks are heart-stopping in their intense clash with the near-silent atmosphere they erupt from. It also helps that the monsters themselves are impeccably designed (appearing to be a gumbo of details borrowed from Alien, Cloverfield, and Starship Troopers), with features that only become more interesting as their onscreen exposure increases late in the runtime. The “If they hear you, they hunt you” gimmick is a fantastic starting place for a horror film, but given general audiences’ aversion to subtitled dialogue and impatience with quiet builds (that were a few compulsive cellphone-checkers in my own audience) it’s amazing that the film could make its world so instantly accessible to so many people. It’s probably the closest a largely silent feature film has had to wild commercial appeal since the Oscar-winning comedy-drama The Artist nearly a decade ago.

While the wonderfully tense creature feature atmosphere is what got butts in the seats, it’s Krasinski’s commitment to the film’s familial drama that affords it a lasting effect. This is the story of a flailing father figure struggling to maintain traditional family values (with prayer before meals, clearly defined gender roles for his children, the whole deal) in a world thrown into chaos by hearing-sensitive monsters. Early on, when he’s shown surveying his farmland dominion from atop a silo while his wife preps a nursery for their unborn baby inside, the movie feels like a North-Western survivalist power fantasy where the bearded flannel men of Instagram can daydream about their macho roles as Protector after the inevitable downfall of society. The subversion of this Doomsday Prepper fantasy is much subtler than the critique that drives 10 Cloverfield Lane, but the initial rustic Pinterest calm is thoroughly disrupted by the film’s chaotically violent conclusion. The first cracks in his macho armor are presented by his deaf teen daughter (Wonderstruck’s Millicent Simmons, whom Krasinski smartly insisted on casting over hearing-abled actors), who is vehemently frustrated with the traditionally femme domestic roles he attempts to force on her. This is matched by her perpetually petrified brother’s reluctance to being trained as a hunter-gatherer future-Dad. What’s even worse is the father’s failure to protect his wife & kids form the monsters invading their idyllic Norman Rockwell homestead. When his wife asks, “Who are we if we cannot protect them?” you can see Krasinski slipping into an existential Conservative Dad crisis both in front of and behind the camera. For all A Quiet Place’s merits as an adventurous, high-concept creature feature with wide commercial appeal, it’s that protective paternal anxiety, especially skewed towards Macho Dads, that makes the film feel like a substantial work. Disregarding Platinum Dunes’s shaky reputation within the horror community and Cinema Sins-style logic sticklers’ nitpicky complaints about its premise & exposition, it’s remarkable how much personality & genuine familial tension Krasinski was able to infuse into this genre film blockbuster; it’s the most distinctive film to bear Michael Bay’s name since Pain & Gain.

-Brandon Ledet

Transformers (2007)

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Two cataclysmic events in my life have lead me to this desperate hour, where I’m considering watching the entirety of the live action Transformers franchise for the very first time. First, I found myself intrigued by the convoluted mythology and grave, self-obsessed tone of the trailer for the upcoming fifth entry, The Last Knight, which is being reported as the final directorial contribution to the series from explosion fetishist Michael Bay. Secondly, I recently fell in love with Bay’s 1998 disaster pic Armageddon as the beautifully constructed, spiritually corrupt Conservative fantasy piece that it truly is. These freaky, reality-shattering occurrences have lead me astray, tempted me into a den of sin. I knew it was wrong to watch Transformers, a transgression I’ve avoided for an entire decade until now, but I did so anyway. I was rightly punished for crossing that line.

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matches Armageddon‘s massive runtime and occasionally approaches its attention to heightened visual craft, but it is in no way in the same league as that morally deficient masterwork. At one point a single-scene character shouts, I kid you not, “This is a hundred times better than Armageddon, I swear to God!” They are the worst of liars. The reason that one-liner is worth mentioning is that Transformers is in many ways not an action fantasy piece, but instead the absolute worst designation any film can achieve: a failed comedy. After kicking things off with a little jingoistic Army worship, the film gleefully launches into its true bread & butter: a torrent of shitty, often offensively unfunny “jokes.” Bernie Mac plays a sleazy car salesman who repeatedly yells “Mammy!” in the broadest delivery possible. Characters are made fun of merely for speaking Spanish or Hindi as their first language. Half of the bloated runtime is dedicated to the hilarious idea that the film’s protagonist is interested in fucking Megan Fox, a pursuit the leering camera very apparently identifies with. Once the titular transforming robots show up, they join right in with both the racial caricature and the Megan Fox Is A Total Babe lines of humor. They even add a little scatilogical flavor to the painfully unfunny comedy by pissing on one of the antagonistic G-men who slow down the plot. I’d like to claim that the jokes in Transformers would only appeal to ten year old boys who don’t know any better, but the film pulled in $700 million at the box office, so I guess the joke is ultimately on me for not laughing along.

As someone who regularly enjoys and promotes the sillier, campier end of genre cinema, it goes against everything I believe to say this, but I think Transformers would have been a much better film if it actually took its own ridiculous premise seriously. As a film built around a series of Hasboro toys (shape-shifting robots from a war-ridden planet that hide among us as common automobiles), the film is already wildly goofy enough in its basic DNA that there’s no need to lighten the material with constant, insensitive bro humor. By turning every single narrative beat in the first two hours of the film into a stale joke (Heh, heh. I like it when the black robot says, “This looks like a cool place to kick it.” Heh, heh.) and opting to center its story on the human characters who encounter the robots instead of the titular alien beings everyone paid a ticket to see in the first place, it’s as if Transformers is constantly apologizing for its own existence. Assuming the audience couldn’t possibly want to actually watch the talking robots film advertised on its poster, Transformers dedicates about two thirds of its runtime to watching Shia LaBeouf feebly try to charm the (short) pants off Megan Fox. LaBeouf is convincing as a high school con man here (just as he’s convincing as an adult con man drifter in American Honey), but for some reason we’re asked to identify with his sleazy, insincere ways and laugh at his slimy, immature humor. Megan Fox is . . . less convincing as a small town high school student, but it’s not really her fault that she was cast merely to look supermodel beautiful so Michael Bay could drool at her consistently exposed midriff. Did I mention that she’s hot and a gear head? It doesn’t matter, because she’s not a talking robot alien, which is what most people paid to see.

Full disclosure: I did attempt to watch this Transformers franchise-starter when it was first released about a decade ago, but I couldn’t make it all the way through. The first 50min of the film bored me to tears and when the robots started talking I just found it too goofy and had to abandon ship. I now see how wrong I was. The first hour of Transformers is indeed still a boring humor vacuum, but the talking robots honestly aren’t all that bad. A straightforward sci-fi action film about two Cybertronic races (the Autobots and the Deceptions) fighting for possession of an intergalactic MacGuffin known simply as The Cube and debating in grave, heavy-handed speeches about whether humanity is worth saving (“Humans don’t deserve to live,” “They deserve to choose for themselves!”) doesn’t exactly sound like anything new or unique. In fact, after the Marvel takeover that’s unfolded in the years since this film’s release, it sounds like par for the course for the modern, bloated blockbuster. However, when Transformers leaves LaBeouf & Fox’s “hilarious” nonstarter romance behind for its concluding half hour of nonstop robot battles, it starts to feel like a passable slice of Hollywood entertainment. Careless destruction of property & faceless casualties pile up while Bay matches his robo explosions with a soaring, almost religious orchestral score. I’ve heard the robots’ ever-shifting, impossible transformations in these films described as a form of Cubist art before, which is a little lofty of a critical claim, but actually starts to make sense once the battle gets out of hand. Then, when it’s all over, LaBeouf & Fox make out on the hood of a robot car (which, it’s with noting, is a sentient being), reminding the audience that the film wasn’t always entertaining. In fact, most of it focused on these two dweebs for no discernible reason.

I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t enjoy any of Transformers before that concluding robo-battle. The film’s 80s-obsessed music cues were often pretty funny, especially in comparison to the jokes in the dialogue. The actress who played Shia LaBeouf’s mother, Julie White, was a total charmer in her all-too-brief performance, especially when she joins in in oggling Megan Fox’s hot bod. I even got a laugh out of two (!) Shia LaBeouf one-liners: one where he describes the Autobots as “robots, but like super advanced robots,” and another where he answers his parents’ question, “Why are you so dirty and sweaty?” with “I’m a child.” My biggest laugh in the film, though, was when a cop abruptly tells LaBeouf to shut up, since it’s exactly what I had been thinking for at least the first hour of the runtime. If all the humans of Transformers had just shut up and let the robots do the talking/battling, the film might have actually been entertaining, or at least less painfully embarrassing (it’s especially difficult not to feel bad for Jon Tuturo & Tyrese Gibson here). It’s in the climactic battle when Michael Bay really lets loose. Hundreds of human lives are squashed within minutes without a stray, momentary thought given to their loss. A steering wheel comes to life and eats a Stuck Up Rich Brat’s face. Everything explodes and is ground to dust in a lovingly shot cacophony. It’s too bad that the two hours preceding that cathartic release is embarrassed of its own nature as a Transformers film and buries its talking robots under an insurmountable mountain of ill-considered “comedy.” I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I hope future entries in the franchise take their robo-alien folklore a lot more seriously.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #20 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005) & The Battle of 1998’s Celestial Apocalypses

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Welcome to Episode #20 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our twentieth episode, the last of 2016, Brandon & CC discuss two films from 1998 about Americans blowing up a celestial body before it blows them up first: Armageddon & Deep Impact. Also, CC makes Brandon watch the irreverent sci-fi comedy The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005) for the first time. Enjoy!

-CC Chapman & Brandon Ledet

Armageddon (1998) Doesn’t Contrast the Small Scale Apocalypse Narrative of Last Night (1999), It Explodes It

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When Last Night played the festival circuit in 1998, critics made a big deal about how its small scale, intimate depiction of the Apocalypse was entirely antithetical to Michael Bay’s massive explosion orgy of the same year, Armageddon. Almost a decade later, it’s still an interesting point of contrast. There are obvious ways that an indie budget Canadian black comedy wouldn’t match up to a massive Hollywood special effects spectacle, mostly in terms of scale. Armageddon is packed to the gills with recognizable faces (Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Steve Buscemi, Owen Wilson, so many more), while Last Night boasts the muted star power of niche Canadian indie superdarlings like David Cronenberg & a before-she-was-minorly-famous Sarah Polley. Last Night saves money & energy by not at all addressing the mechanism for the world’s end, instead focusing on the personal reactions of a small group of people to the grief it inspires; Armageddon dedicates more than half of its bloated 150min runtime to blowing up an asteroid “the size of Texas.” Last Night limits its scope to the city of Toronto, while Armageddon attempts to span the entire globe (or at least a version of the globe where the USA eats up 60% of the terrain) and utterly destroys three major cities in the process. These financial & genre differences are to be expected from the get go, though. What’s really interesting outside the two doomsday films’ sense of scale is the relative blackness of their souls.

For all of Last Night‘s Gen-X cynicism & neurotic existentialism, it’s above all else a humanist story. We join the world well after it has accepted its impending communal death and although the film often chooses to laugh through the pain, it makes a point to celebrate the way characters, often strangers, comfort each other in their shared moment of grief. Armageddon is an entirely different kind of beast. The Apocalypse depicted in Michael Bay’s film is not a crisis that must be accepted & emotionally processed; it’s an obstacle that can be overcome by a tough son of a bitch American badass who blows stuff up real good. We first meet our supposed hero (Willis) launching golf balls at oil spill protestors & chasing an employee around his rig with his adult daughter. The black-hearted conservative fantasy continues when he & his rag tag crew of “roughnecks” (who at one point, no joke, self-describe as “a bunch of daddies”) are recruited to blow up the Texas-sized asteroid, because the pansy nerds at NASA just could not get the job done. So much of Bay’s film is outright despicable. Steve Buscemi’s asked to charmingly deliver a torrent of pedophile humor. Every depiction of a foreign country (who apparently all sit on their hands while America saves the day) is cartoonish in its culture-gazing, especially in the comic relief of its Chinese businessmen. One of the film’s many climactic crises is solved when a man violently tosses aside a trained female astronaut (with practically no dialogue) to bang on a machine with a wrench & yell at it until it works. Thousands of lives are lost as entire cities crumble, but less thought is given to casualties than to finding more space for yet another Aesosmith song or a lengthy assembling-the-team montage. Armageddon doesn’t muster one ounce of the compassion or the empathy of Last Night and often feels actively deplorable in its views on humanity, both political & spiritual. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that the film is worthwhile in its own right.

As ugly as Armageddon‘s hostile, conservative soul in its terms of narrative & dialogue, it’s an absolutely gorgeous film to behold. With the low attention span of a Hausu or a Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Bay’s camera carefully considers each kinetic set-up and somehow turns a succession of beautifully crafted shots into a rapid fire assault on the senses & sensibilities of its audience. The way Last Night understands basic human fears & intimacies and the way they galvanize in timed of widespread crisis is impressive, but I don’t think the film ever approaches Armageddon‘s attention to filmmaking as a craft. It’s not even a question of budget, either. Even when you ignore for a minute all of the CGI buildings and hand-built miniatures Bay can’t resist gleefully exploding every few narrative beats, he has a distinct touch as a stylist. I’m not sure McKellar can claim the same in Last Night. The intense colors, framing, and rhythms of Armageddon are far above the film’s intelligence level in terms of plot & dialogue and it’s fascinating to watch something so smartly beautiful used for such an ugly, evil purpose.

I don’t mean to imply that Armageddon needs to be reassessed as some kind of overlooked masterpiece. If anything, it’d full-blown camp spectacle. Details like the opening narration about dinosaurs and the unfathomably awful animal crackers seduction scene had me howling with laughter, when I’m fairly sure that was far from their intent. Last Night‘s joke about the world’s biggest (and presumably final) guitar jam playing Bachman Turner Overdrive’s “Taking Care of Business” was the only gag that got that big of a laugh out of me, even though I’d say that film is the one that “deserves” to be championed as a lost classic. Armageddon is much more firmly in the so-bad-it’s-good side of that divide. It takes everything touching, mysterious, and humanist about Last Night and explodes it into a mean-spirited spectacle of jingoistic hero worship & casual misogyny. And yet, I found myself floored by Bay’s disaster epic for the entirety of its impossibly bloated runtime, a reaction I certainly did not expect on this revisit. Last Night is the more artful, empathetic portrait of humanity in crisis and fulfils every desire you’d have for a small budget indie about the Apocalypse. Armageddon, on the other hand, refuses to be ignored as a remarkable achievement in its own right, even if it is the exact polar opposite of McKellar’s black comedy and, arguably, a loud exemplifier of the worst aspects of modern Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking. As deplorable as Armageddon is as a Death Wish-style conservative fantasy piece, I’ll never sarcastically deride its inclusion in the Criterion Collection again. I get its appeal now, despite my better judgement.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the apocalyptic black comedy Last Night, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film & last week’s look at its studio comedy equivalent Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012).

-Brandon Ledet

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

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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

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

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One of the best aspects of the ancient art of recording television on VHS tapes was the commercials that you’d incidentally gather as a byproduct. A VHS recording of an old Sifl & Olly episode or Lifetime Original Movie may have been made irrelevant by the advent of YouTube, but the much trashier, more disposable art of a television ad is for the most part lost in the process. There’s a reason websites like Everything Is Terrible go back and dig up this garbage. An advertisement can serve as a time capsule of the era in which it was made. Even something as mundane as a car commercial feels strangely foreign 20 years later. A VHS recording of a pan & scan Jurassic Park isn’t particularly useful in 2015, but if you read between the dinosaurs there’s some useful glimpses into the world that was watching it: what the people were wearing, what hacky jokes they halfheartedly chuckled at, what bullshit later haunted their attics & dumps. Advertising is a low form of art, but it’s art that can later serve as a cultural relic.

Bad movies can work the same way. Mac & Me has just as much to say about where our culture was in 1988 as Cinema Paradiso, if not more. What kind of a sense of 1959 would you get if you only watched North by Northwest & The 400 Blows and completely avoided the likes of Attack of the Giant Leeches & Plan 9 from Outer Space? An incomplete one. We are not sophisticated people at heart. Our garbage has a lot more to say about who we are than our fine art ever will. When we create fine art we transcend our true natures and achieve greatness beyond our limitations. When we create garbage we’re being honest about the ridiculous fools we are at heart. A bad movie is a mirror to our worst, most banal impulses. A great bad movie makes us love those impulses. A great bad movie makes us love being a dumb, simple people.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Michael Bay’s production of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was The Best Bad Movie of 2014. It deserves to have great longevity as a cultural relic, as it somehow captures the entire zeitgeist of our worst cinematic impulses in one ridiculous package. I’m talking lens flairs, found footage, product placement, inclusion of viral videos, over-reliance on CGI, shaky cam, action confused by quick cuts, large-scale destruction of a major city, a phony third act death crisis, and a dubstep beat for the rap song that plays over the credits. The film itself is an example our greatest, most frequent sin of recent years: the reboot. More specifically, it’s a gritty reboot, the most ludicrous gritty reboot of the post-Dark Knight era (although the peculiarly humorless I, Frankenstein certainly gave it a run for its money there). To top it all off, it boasts an above-it-all sense of irony that compels the movie to periodically point out how inherently silly its premise is. Characters poke fun at one another for “doing the Batman voice” and frequently mock the idea of talking humanoid turtles. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is the last five years of bad taste in a nutshell. Or, if you will, on a half shell.

Despite its self-aware irony, there are still glorious moments when the film loses itself in its own ridiculousness. A few action set pieces, particularly a downhill slide and a rooftop battle, are the kind of far-fetched, detached-from-physics kind of fun that you’d expect in franchises like Fast & Furious and, less effectively, Transformers. The movie’s villains, a mech soldier Shredder & a corporate prick William Fichtner, are genuinely terrifying figures worthy of the film’s dark tone. There’s a “beating up the bad guys” vibe in the way the villains are dealt with that feels more like a sincere kids-playing-with-action-figures kind of storytelling than some of the film’s more ironic detachment. The found footage sequence briefly mentioned above, however, finds the film losing itself in its own ridiculousness more than any other. In this scene investigative reporter April O’Neil is digging through her childhood camcorder recordings only to discover that she herself raised the Ninja Turtles as pets in her father’s laboratory. April O’Neil is the source of the Turtles’ affinity for Pizza Hut® pizza; she is the one who named them after Renaissance painters; she is the one that saved their lives by casting them to the sewer. It’s a highly unlikely connection that the film makes & one I greatly appreciate for its lunacy.

There’s even a sense of purpose to the film’s hideous creature design. After April saves the infant Turtles by sending them underground they go through a strange transformation. Through a brief stop-animation effect & training montage, the cute-as-a-button Turtles morph into the ugly, alien-looking things that have been derided since the movie was first advertised. It was only until actually watching the film (as opposed to the ads) that I realized their ugliness had a purpose (even if it wasn’t intentional): puberty. The “Teenage” part of the characters’ namesake is stressed heavily in this incarnation. Their awkward, not-at-all-right appearance is only the tip of the pubescent iceberg. The teenage Turtles are hormonally violent, potentially dangerous young men who dream about running away from home as soon as they’re old enough and spend way too much money on their vehicle in the meantime. They struggle with creaky voices, fart openly, listen to loud music, get coked out on high doses of adrenalin, and have to answer to an angry rodent father figure when they miss their curfew. The most off-putting detail of all is the way they constantly hit on a nonplussed April O’Neil, calling “dibs” on her & whispering “She’s so hot I can feel my shell tightening” in moments of unearned, unseemly bravado, but also excitedly freaking out when she actually responds to them, bragging “I totally talked to a girl!” The Turtles are just as much teenagers as they are ninjas in the film and it’s just as awkward & disgusting as teenagers are in real life.

There are a few other bright spots to praise, like a legitimately cool animation effect that opens & closes the film (in a look that tips its hat to the characters’ comic book roots) as well as the decision to shroud the iffy CGI in darkness, which I think always benefits the format (as opposed to brighter looks like Avatar’s). The casting also shines here. Faces like Whoopi Goldberg, Taran Killam, and Will Arnett keep the mood light as physical reminders not to take the film too seriously. Arnett’s particularly funny as the flustered butt of throwaway gags, like when a Turtle calls him a “human nerd” or when he’s cooking alone to “Careless Whisper” in his apartment. Megan Fox is serviceable, not too distracting in her portrayal of April O’Neil, but not adding much either. I like to think of her here as the human Michael Bay calling card, as if the superfluous explosions weren’t enough on their own. As mentioned above, William Fichtner’s villain is as chilling as always; it’s a performance that honestly feels like it belongs in a much better film. The movie’s tone may be self-contradictory in places, but it ultimately is successful in being both a cheap thrills type of fun at face value as well as a comprehensive cultural relic when considered in the context of its place in time.

The worst part about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is that I have so much fun watching it. I eat this garbage up. I first saw the film alone in a theater on a Friday night, drunk, and lightly surrounded exclusively by groupings of young dads & sons. I felt like a total goofball to be the only one chuckling as they watched in respectful (or bored) silence. C’mon, dads! It’s a fun movie! Tony Shalhoub totally plays a gigantic, scrotum-esque rat! C’mon kids! Shredder totally has badass knives for hands! My enthusiasm was unreciprocated long after I left the theater as well. No one was interested in even talking about the movie, much less watching it. I still can’t convince people to watch it, even for a goof. My love for 2014’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a dirty secret only because no one cares to hear it. I believe the problem is that my timing is too soon. That 1993 Chrysler commercial incidentally archived on a VHS cassette during an X-Files episode wasn’t culturally significant until at least 2000. In a few more years the gritty Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot will cease being a fresh, undistinguished wound and earn its rightful status as a precious artifact, a prime specimen of our modern blunders, a more valuable cultural marker than all of the Boyhoods & Birdmans in the world. As a shoddy product so distinctly of its time, its value will only increase as the years soldier on.

-Brandon Ledet