(Netflix Streaming, November 2015) I did not expect much from this latest eponymous effort to revive the Turtles for the big screen: I’ve never been a big fan of the TMNT comic books, TV show or toys, and the various attempts to make a big-screen franchise out of them over the years are starting to look desperate. This latest version bets heavily on special effects to create computer-animated versions of the turtles set against a live-action New York. Much of it is almost instantly forgettable, except for a surprisingly good action sequence set on a snowy mountain (conveniently located near New York). Director Jonathan Liebesman is most at easy handling big action spectacles, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has a big truck sliding down a snow-covered incline, with ninja turtles jumping all over the place in an effort to do something fairly trivial. It’s the sole (but significant) highlight of a film that otherwise doesn’t manage to make different characters out of its amphibian heroes, nor make much out of its human characters (as nice as it can be to see Megan Fox on-screen again.) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’s tone is resolutely juvenile despite half-hearted attempt at fake grittiness, and ILM’s top-notch special effects work doesn’t quite manage to keep things interesting outside the action sequences. Having no real reason to exist except to sell toys and reboot a franchise of undistinguishable films. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles seems to exemplify the worst in contemporary blockbuster filmmaking: so much effort for so little results, forgotten as soon as the next such effort makes it to the big screens. My low expectations weren’t even partially met.
(On Cable TV, January 2013) The sad news is that Wrath of the Titans doesn’t have the arch melodramatic tone that made its predecessor so much fun to watch: “Release the Kraken!”, anyone? The good news is that this sequel to Clash of the Titans remains a relatively entertaining action/fantasy film: the bare-bones plot serves handily as an excuse for well-choreographed action sequences involving grander-than-life fantastical creatures. Director Jonathan Liebesman shows a good eye for flowing action sequences, and the film has a few gorgeous continuous shots in which the action plays out beautifully. Tons of fiery special effects add more interest, especially when dealing with the skyscraper-sized end boss. Sam Worthington holds the film together as no-nonsense reluctant hero Perseus, but Bill Nighy has a bit of fun as a half-mad god while Liam Neeson also makes an impression as a bound Zeus. Thematically, there’s a flicker of interest when we realize that the story is taking place at the twilight of the gods’ influence over human affairs: there’s a last-hurrah atmosphere to the plot that interesting in its own right. Still, let’s not kid ourselves: this is pure spectacle, the fantasy elements being excuses for bigger action set-pieces. Wrath of the Titans works well in this context, and delivers the high-gloss entertainment factor that viewers of the first film expected. That first entry wasn’t all that good, but this follow-up best succeeds at what it tries to do, and that’s already quite a bit better than many recent action/fantasy hybrids.
(In theatres, March 2011) Some movies are difficult to appreciate on their own rather than as references to something else, and since Battle Los Angeles is so derivative, it feels natural to keep rubbing it against other movies to see how it compares. There’s such a glut of alien-invasion films at the moment that seeing marines fighting alien invaders in Los Angeles feels more redundant than interesting: Even in trying to blend the attitude of Independence Day with the aesthetics of Black Hawk Down, Battle Los Angeles basically becomes a hackneyed collection of war movie clichés with alien taking over the role of the unrepentant enemy. It certainly doesn’t qualify as serious Science Fiction: The film buries itself in nonsense every time it tries explaining what’s going on, from alien coming to Earth for its water to them having military tactics so naïve that they would get them kicked out of West Point freshman year. From a thematic point of view, it’s tempting to put Battle Los Angeles in a cultural zeitgeist in which Americans are realizing the limits of their imperial reach and transposing this fearful guilt against an enemy as powerful to them as they are to countries that they have invaded, but that subtext is lost in the film’s gung-ho hoo-rah attitude. The emphasis here is on the combat scenes, the shakycam feeling of being in a firefight and the nobility of its warrior-characters. Threadbare narrative arcs, largely indistinguishable characters, functional writing and incoherent editing don’t do much to make this film likable. Other than the end battle and an interesting freeway sequence, most of the action scenes are too grimy and disconnected to sustain interest: Like many contemporary action directors, Jonathan Liebesman needs to know when to calm down and provide sustained long shots. Meanwhile, Aaron Eckhart is solid as the square-jawed hero, while Michelle Rodriguez does what Rodriguez does best –and there’s nothing wrong with that, even though it reinforces the feeling that we’ve seen all of this before. On the other hand, especially measured against recent downbeat alien-invasion films such as Monsters and quasi-brethren Skyline, Battle Los Angeles has the considerable merit of ending on a triumphant note, and delivering much of the good old-fashioned heroics that we’d expect from this kind of film. It doesn’t make the film any good, but it makes it satisfying once the end credits start rolling.