Brandon’s Top Campy Treasures & Trashy Comedies of 2016

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1. The Mermaid – At heart, The Mermaid is a very basic tale of “evil” humans learning that making money isn’t necessarily more worthwhile than simple universal needs like clean, unpolluted water & air. What’s fascinating is the way that director Steven Chow (of Kung Fu Hustle fame) tells this story through a kaleidoscope of different cinematic genres. Part earnest romcom, part heartbreaking drama about environmental destruction, part spoof of the 60s super-spy genre, The Mermaid is a bizarre, hilarious, wonderfully idiosyncratic live action cartoon that might stand as the director’s most satisfying work to date. Chow’s hyper-specific & increasingly focused comedic lens feels like a melting pot of aesthetics that establishes him as a sort of goofball auteur. At different times throughout The Mermaid, I felt sincere romance, I laughed until I was physically sore, and I sat in abject terror as the movie took a nastily violent turn in his portrayal of just how evil humanity can be. Like most parody artists (or at least most of the ones who are good at what they do) Chow has an innate sense of how genre tropes work & how they can be repurposed for varying effects. The film requires a leap of faith in its opening minutes, but once you get into its cartoonish, almost psychedelic groove it’s greatly rewarding as a slapstick comedic fantasy with a charming interspecies man-and-mermaid romance & a unique visual palette, one that puts its cheap CGI to profoundly effective & deeply silly use.

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2. The Greasy Strangler – As a creature feature, The Greasy Strangler undeniably delivers the goods. Although a decidedly camp-minded comedy, it boasts a truly hideous, horrifying, grease-coated monster that’s sickening to behold. What I find much more unique, however, is the way the film satirizes and sets aflame the modern indie romance genre. The color palette & social awkwardness of titles like Juno or Napoleon Dynamite (or whatever their post-aughts equivalent would be) is meticulously recreated here, but employed for a grotesque effect. This is quirk used for pure evil. Within seconds the antagonistic humor of this dirt cheap indie horror comedy establishes itself as the definition of not-for-everyone, but it shouldn’t feel too out of step for folks who’ve spent enough time following Adult Swim’s ever-evolving line-up over the years. I wouldn’t fault anyone who disliked the film for being cruel, grotesque, or aggressively stupid. Those claims would all certainly be valid. As a nasty slasher by way of Eric Warheim, however, that’s just a natural part of a very unnatural territory.

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3. The Love WitchThe Love Witch plays like a restoration of the best camp film you’ve never heard of. It’s pursues an eerily accurate dedication to recreating the half-hearted attempts at sophisticated smut of many erotic horror B-pictures of the 60s & 70s, right down to the awkward dead space that punctuates each line of dialogue & the over-use of goofy lighting tricks to evoke its love potion psychedelia. Filmmaker Anna Biller doesn’t rely solely on easy humor & cinematic nostalgia to make this schlocky throwback worthwhile, however. She instead uses her backwards gaze into the B-picture abyss to reappropriate traditionally misogynist modes of genre filmmaking for a fresh, fiercely feminist purpose. The Love Witch filters modern feminist ideology through old modes of occultist erotica & vaguely goth burlesque to craft the ultimate post-modern camp cinema experience. Biller establishes herself as not only a stylist & a makeshift schlock historian, but also a sly political thinker and a no-fucks-given badass with a bone to pick, which is more than you’d typically expect from an intentionally “bad” movie about witchcraft & strippers.

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4. The Bronze – Anyone going into The Bronze looking for Melissa Rauch to deliver the broad, calculated comedy she’s associated with on The Big Bang Theory is going to be shocked by the loose, raunchy cruelty she brings to the screen here. Rauch helms The Bronze as a writer/lead actor & the film reveals that her personal sense of humor has a wicked mean streak to it that is sure to alienate a lot of fans, but also draw in some new devoted ones, myself included. Besides the dark humor of her merciless selfishness, The Bronze‘s ex-Olympic gymnast protagonist is eternally horny in a purely animalistic, Jerri Blank sort of way. She’s constantly barraging her mild-mannered, Midwestern counterparts with phrases like “cock hole” & “clit jizz” and lights up the screen with the film’s centerpiece: an epic sexual encounter that could only be pulled off by a pair of oversexed Olympic gymnasts. Some of my favorite comedies of the past decade have been this gender-swapped version of raunch cinema (The To Do List, Appropriate Behavior, Wetlands, etc.) and The Bronze fits snugly among them. Combine that genre subversion with the film’s heartless cruelty, the novelty of its gymnastics-world setting, and expert use of my all-time favorite movie trope, the plot-summarizing rap song, and you have a strong contender for a future cult classic.

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5. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping – Andy Samberg’s greatest achievement to date lovingly skewers the totality of hedonistic excess & outsized hubris on the modern pop music landscape. Popstar smartly & lovingly dismantles the entirety of pop’s current state of ridiculousness from EDM DJ laziness to the devastation of a negative Pitchfork review to Macklemore’s no-homo “activism” to U2’s invasive album release snafu. The modern pop documentary format, the character, his world, and our own pop music terrain all back up each ridiculous gag Samberg & his fellow Lonely Island bros throw at the screen, making the film out to be an efficient little comedy machine in comparison to the sprawling, Apatow-dominated landscape comedic cinema’s been exploring to death in recent years. You’re never entirely shaken by a throwaway gag like a baby playing drums like Neil Peart or an artist responsible for the “brilliance” of catchphrases like “#doinkdedoink” having the self-confidence to declare the Mona Lisa “an overrated piece of shit” because the movie is well-calibrated enough to support those kinds of over-the-top indulgences. There’s certainly loose improv afoot in Popstar, but it’s arranged & edited into highly functioning efficiency.

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6. Ghostbusters – Easily the most over-complained about film of 2016, the Ghostbusters reboot is an all-around hilarious, well-made popcorn flick. I most appreciated the way director Paul Feig & casting director Allison Jones have delivered an undercover SNL cast ensemble. When they just comprised half of the main cast in the original property, all four of the Ghostbusters are SNL players in the 2016 version: Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon, and honorary cast member (through regular, fully-committed hosting gigs) Melissa McCarthy. They’re also backed up by the bit role roster of Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Steve Higgins, and Cecily Strong. More convincing yet, the movie is proving to be something of a star-maker for the consistently funny McKinnon, who’s been up there with Strong, Bryant, Moynihan, and (formerly) Killiam as one of the most essential backbone pieces of the show’s current cast. If Ghostbusters did nothing more than promote & develop Kate McKinnon’s screen presence, it would already have done its job, but by lighting internet nerds’ idiotic indignation on fire in the process, a nontroversy the film addresses directly in some brilliant moments of meta-commentary, it stood out as one of the more notable dumb comedies of the year.

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7. Clown – Without any intentional maneuvers in its fashion, music, or narrative, Clown effortlessly taps into a current trend of reflective 90s nostalgia by lovingly recreating the horror cheapies of that era. It does so by striking a very uncomfortable balance between horror comedy & gruesome misanthropy, forging a truly cruel sense of humor in a heartless, blood-soaked gore fest featuring a killer clown & his tiny tyke victims. You’d have to change very few details of Clown to convince me that it was actually a Full Moon Features release made twenty years ago. Besides small details like cell-phone usage and the inclusion of “That guy!” character actor Peter Stormare, the only noticeable difference is that, unlike most Full Moon “classics”, it’s a genuinely great product. Clown is smart & incredibly uncomfortable, but houses its horror film thrills in a very specific era of nontheatrical genre trash, so it’s easy see how its better attributes might be readily dismissed by those not in tune with its highly specific aesthetic.

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8. The Boy – I expected The Boy to play out more or less exactly like the last PG-13 evil doll movie to hit the theaters, the largely disappointing Rosemary’s Baby knockoff Annabelle, but the film sets its sights much higher than that light supernatural tomfoolery. It’s far from wholly original as a horror flick, but instead pulls wacky details from a wide enough range of disparate sources that it ended up being an enjoyably kooky melting pot of repurposed ideas. A sharp left turn in the third act of The Boy completely obliterates the psychological/supernatural slowburn established in its first half & delves into some utterly bonkers motherfuckery that should be a crowdpleaser among schlock junkies & trash gobblers. I’m always a sucker for the evil doll movie as a genre, so it was a given that I’d see The Boy no matter what, but the film really does prove itself to be a solidly fun thrill of a horror trifle in the end, even if it functions as a pastiche.

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9. Pee-Wee’s Big HolidayPee-wee’s Big Holiday is essentially Pee-wee’s Big Adventure on a Big Top Pee-wee scale & budget, which is all that fans could really ask for in a direct-to-streaming release after a 30 year gap. It also helps that the film finds Pee-wee just about as charming & hilarious as he’s ever been, even if its financial freedom & resulting ambition are somewhat diminished. All the movie has to do to succeed is provide Herman (who’s billed as playing himself) with a variety of backdrops & supporting players to bounce his bizarrely childish humor off of. In one highly pertinent scene, Herman proves that he can entertain an entire village of on-lookers with a single, ordinary balloon. Just about the only aspect of Pee-wee Herman’s Big Holiday that isn’t bare bones in this way is Joe Manganiello’s involvement. Manganiello, also playing “himself,” enters the scene as a living embodiment of a Tom of Finland drawing on a motorcycle. The gay subtext certainly doesn’t end there. By the conclusion of the film, Herman & Manganiello’s instant attraction to each other fully blossoms into a really sweet, very romantic story about “friendship”. If there’s any chance for a non-Pee-wee fan to enjoy Big Holiday it’d be in watching just how naturally & enthusiastically that “friendship” develops.

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10. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows – 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 dispiriting snapshot of 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 did or didn’t do at the box office this summer. In that way, it’s a successful work of art.

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11. Nine Lives – Speaking of 90s nostalgia, mark August 2016 down as the exact moment it reached peak ridiculousness, since we’re apparently now making movies about corrupt businessmen who learn life lessons by getting turned into talking animals again (in this case a cat). And I’m talking real movies with real theatrical releases, too, not just some straight-to-DVD trifle from Air Bud Entertainment. Said talking animal comeback film, Nine Lives, even features two (!!!) Academy Award-winning actors and hinges its lovable furball antics on topics as hefty as greed, adultery, the ethics of leaving a vegetative state loved one on longterm life support, and attempted suicide. If you regularly find yourself losing valuable time to internet wormholes of cat-themed home video, you’re likely to get a kick out of Nine Lives‘s simple pleasures: a cat drinking scotch, a cat falling over, a cat slow-dancing with his human daughter, a cat rushing to prevent his human son’s attempted suicide. You know, the little things.

12. Mother May I Sleep With Danger? – James Franco’s 2016 remake of the Tori Spelling Lifetime Original Movie Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? is a biting sociopolitical commentary on the pervasive homophobia, sexism, and rape culture issues that plague college campuses in the 2010s. That’s a half-truth. The film is also a shameless, leering camp fest about lesbian vampires that sometimes borders on the less-than-prestigious realm of dime store erotica. Either way you look at it, it’s is easily the most outrageously entertaining work I’ve seen from Lifetime in decades (unless you include those Mommie Dearest marathons they do every Mother’s Day; those are hilarious). It’s funny, it’s trashy, it’s dirt cheap, and it’s more than a little bit sleazy: pretty much the perfect calibration for an instant Lifetime classic. Better yet, its penchant for cheesy sleaze feels 100% earnest, never truly crossing into the winking parody of an Asylum mockbuster or a ZAZ-style spoof, despite what you may assume from its pedigree. If this vampiric “re-imagining” is an indication of where Lifetime programming is currently headed, we’re in for some tawdry good fun in the years to come, a second golden age of made-for-television schlock.

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13. Hardcore Henry – This trashy novelty’s central gimmick of mirroring the look of 1st person shooters by mounting GoPros to its camera/stuntmen is a lot to handle for 90 minutes of action cinema and the video game-thin plot & villains that accompany it don’t help much either. There’s far more to hate about Hardcore Henry than just its video game gimmick, too. Its rampant misogyny, gay panic humor, and constant, gleeful violence & gore are sure to turn off a lot of folks, rightfully so. However, I don’t personally see much of a difference between the misanthropy on display here and the macho-hedonism of any other generic shoot-em-up. Hardcore Henry is loud, obnoxious, one-note, nearly plotless, and entirely over the top in its meat-headed self-indulgence, but so are a lot of my favorite hallmarks of action cinema: Commando, Rambo IV, Invasion U.S.A., etc. I contend that the film’s glaring, perhaps even deplorable faults are all outweighed by its consistently goofy tone (particularly in the scenery-chewing sorcerer villain & 1st person POV visual experimentation). There are hordes of 13 year olds who’ll latch onto Hardcore Henry‘s naked girls, guns, and cocaine version of masculinity in an unsavory way, I’m sure, but I never really look to my dumb action movies for moral high ground and, truth be told, those kids will grow out of it eventually. Hopefully.

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14. The Shallows – The 2016 version of the giant shark creature feature is smart to recognize its place within this trashiest of cinematic traditions. The popcorn thriller The Shallows is brilliant in the way it keeps things simple. It’s Blake Lively in a neon bikini fighting off a CGI shark for 90min. What do you need, a road map? There’s so much swinging The Shallows in the direction of goofball camp: a couple especially silly encounters with CGI dolphins & jellyfish, a gratuitous explosion, a hideous model of a whale carcass, a caricature of a witless drunk so over the top it could’ve comfortably existed in the 1930s, a puke-eating sidekick named Steven Seagull (who’s easily up there with Black Phillip for Animal of the Year), etc. Even the film’s basic 1-shark-vs.-1-woman premise has a campy appeal to it. However, the shark attacks do have a real gravity to them as well. There’s intense gore in the film’s moments of self-surgery & genuine heart-racing thriller beats when our hero & her friend the seagull have to stave off real-life dehydration & cabin fever. The Shallows is satisfied relegating itself to a 100% trashy surface pleasure ethos, but it doesn’t let up on the practical results of its central scenario’s violence & confinement and that dual goofy/scary balance is what makes this such effective summertime schlock.

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15. Elvis & Nixon – Written around the photo op/publicity stunt in 1970 when Elvis Presley visited the White House & was awarded an official title as a federal narcotics agent, Elvis & Nixon is a low-energy camp delight. Taking great pleasure in its own historical inaccuracies & caricaturist liberties, the film finds easy camp value in casting Michael Shannon as Elvis & Kevin Spacey as Richard Nixon and propping the mismatched pair up in a room (the Oval Office, of all rooms) merely so it can stew in its own unlikelihood. The result isn’t anything mind-blowing or revolutionary, but it is an offbeat pleasure to behold. Elvis & Nixon finds its best possible self in its laidback, weirdly relaxed vibe. Instead of pushing for big, unlikely moments between The President & The King, the film instead finds lowkey fascination in a past-his-prime rock ‘n roller living out a fish-out-of-water comedy in a political atmosphere he knows nothing about.

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16. Look Who’s Back – A Borat-style farce in which Adolf Hitler clumsily navigates & eventually finds popularity in the modern world, Look Who’s Back mixes seemingly tame, broad comedy with fiercely biting, unforgiving political satire, a tonal whiplash that’s as odd of a delight as it is difficult to classify. The film starts with a sci-fi/fantasy premise where Adolf Hitler is mysteriously transported to modern times Germany and follows his first-person POV as he tries to make sense of concepts like selfies, television, the internet, etc. This broad, cheaply campy farce mostly functions as a Trojan horse for the film’s real bread & butter: unscripted, Borat-style street interviews where Hitler interacts with the modern public. A lot of folks treat Hitler like a joke — hugging him, posing for pictures, chirping “I love Hitler!” & honoring him with a Nazi salute — an uncomfortable gaze at toxic hipster irony & modern refusal to engage with life sincerely. However, Look Who’s Back‘s main mode of political satire is in pairing Hitler with real-life, unscripted people who agree with his nationalistic, horrifically racist rhetoric when it comes to the issue of Muslim immigration. They aren’t all easily identifiable neo-Nazi skinheads, either. Think of the German equivalent of your average diehard Trump supporter and you pretty much get the picture. Look Who’s Back is something of a structural mess, but it’s a fascinating mess with a surprising amount to say about current political attitudes towards immigration that disgraces a vast majority of The West, America included (obviously).

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17. Keanu – Not unlike their sketch comedy show, Keegan-Michael Key & Jordan Peele’s debut feature is not always consistently funny, but has really great, transcendently absurd moments. A fun action movie spoof featuring a cute kitten, plus some remarkable flashes of both Anna Farris and George Michael content, Keanu’s more memorable touches are rare gems to come by (especially in light of George Michael’s recent death). It also gets major bonus points in my mind for being the first movie I’ve seen smart enough to include not one, but two Future songs on its soundtrack, which is a resource more movies really need to start tapping into.

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18. Masterminds – A harmless madcap bank heist comedy starring Zach Galifianakis & three Ghostbusters (Jones, Wiig, and McKinnon), Masterminds is essentially a feature length visual punchline. The machinations of Zach Galifianakis’s hapless security guard being coerced into robbing a bank by his milquetoast seductress, Kristen Wiig, or her sleaze ball cohort, Owen Wilson, aren’t nearly as amusing as just the mere look of him. The Prince Valiant haircut, the full beard, the tight novelty t-shirts: Zach Galifianakis is the fashion version of a slapstick pratfall. Certainly, there are funny turns of phrase in the film (mostly delivered by Jason Sudeikis’s cold-as-ice contract killer) but no dialogue made me laugh nearly as hard as just the distinctly awkward visual tableau divisive comedic director Jared Hess crafted with his vanity-free players. In many ways Kate McKinnon was perfect casting for this comedy style, as it’s the criticism she most often receives from her work in SNL. She doesn’t deliver jokes so much as that she is the joke, striking such a specifically strange, crazy-eyed image that no verbal play is needed to sell the humor. This might not be enough for some folks, but just the mere sight of her posing for wedding photos with Zach Galifianakis to an Enya song is personally all I need to guffaw.

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19. Suicide Squad – The studio meddling of Suicide Squad, with its joke-heavy re-shoots, shoehorned-in neon color palette, diminished screen time for Jared Leto’s Joker, and Guardians-aped soundtrack was admittedly haphazard & disharmonious, but it at least made the troubled material a decently fun action picture in the process. In a lot of ways Suicide Squad is just as bloated & tonally inept as Dawn of Justice & Man of Steel. It’s never boring, though, and thanks to some studio meddling it actually allowed for a few interesting moments & decent performances to shine through all of director David Ayer’s trashy genre film bravado. In an ideal world I wouldn’t necessarily want to see Ayer’s Sabotage (a film I described as “oozing with scum” & “garbage water pessimism” in my review) reworked as a superhero spectacle, but Warner Bros. found a way to make that formula remarkably palatable. Kudos to the studio for reigning in Ayer’s bad taste & aggression just enough to make the movie work while still allowing it to breathe new, testosterone-corrupted life into what was previously a drab, depressive franchise. Suicide Squad is not the winning success the budding DC Comics film franchise desperately needs to turn its frown upside down, but I left the theater in a much better mood than I did with the two Batman & Superman films that preceded it.

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20. Scooby-Doo & WWE: Curse of the Speed Demon – Recognizing that its larger-than-life cast of musclebound pro wrestler characters don’t necessarily have to live in a wrestling ring in their animated form, Curse of the Speed Demon picks an entirely new context for them to flex muscles & deliver promos in: off-road monster truck racing. The sequel to WWE’s original Scooby-Doo collaboration plays less like an animated pro wrestling picture & much more like a little kid’s imagination as they smash together Hot Wheels toys in a sandbox. Instead of attending a second WrestleMania, Scooby & the Mystery Gang find themselves at Muscle Moto X, an impossible Vince McMahon startup that combines monster truck mayhem with dirt track speed racing. As the plot unravels, Curse of the Speed Demon gets further & further away from realistic versions of what off-road pro wrestling monster truck races might look like (as unrealistically goofy as that starting point is on its own), eventually just says “Fuck it.” and indulges in some Mario Kart-type cartoon races & settings you’d find doodled in an eight year old’s dream journal.

-Brandon Ledet

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

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

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fourstar

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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