Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Scruffy Nerfherder Presents: The Top 12 Best Disney Villains

By Andrew Braid

Ah Disney, one of the few true constants in my life. Ever since I was little you've been there for me, whether with all manner of VHS tapes or in your now-yearly slate of new films that I'd often get excited to see in theatres (and considering I was a 90s kid growing up in the middle of the Disney Renaissance, I'd say it was a great time to become a Disney fan). You've made me laugh, made me cry, occasionally made me cringe at dated, uncomfortable stereotypes... any which way, you're a major part of why I grew up to love film (and in particular animation) like I do today. Seeing as Disney Animation's latest film Big Hero 6 (their 54th official full-length feature) prepares to blast off into theatres on November 7, I'd say it's as convenient an excuse as any to write up a bunch of Disney articles over the next month or so leading up to its release. And what better way to start than with one of the most popular and hotly-debated questions among fans: Who are the greatest Disney villains ever?
Part of Disney's longstanding success can be attributed to giving their loveable heroes equally dastardly foes to face. Whether they're after money, power, a throne, revenge, or they're just flat-out crazy, the best of the best in Disney's stable of big bads manage to be frightening, imposing, funny, creepy, or even all of the above. In fact there's so many good ones that narrowing it down to merely a Top 10 just didn't prove possible for me. So let's look back through Disney films old and new to find the baddest of the bad guys and gals.

First, here are the ground rules:
-They must be the main villain of the movie. Sidekicks only qualify if their pairing with the main villain feels essential (ie. you can't seem to separate the two).
-This list only applies to theatrically-released, official-canon Disney Animation features
-However, Pixar Animation films are also eligible for this list (though don't expect a lot of them on here- Pixar's output is surprisingly lacking in exceptional villains)
-This list is all personal opinion (and for fun), so it's pretty likely that your own choices will vary at least somewhat, maybe even drastically.

Before we truly begin, a few honourable mentions:

The Queen (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Because you gotta respect the classics.

Captain Hook (Peter Pan)

Because this is a prime example of how to make a villain funny, but also still threatening.

Prince John and The Sheriff of Nottingham (Robin Hood)

Because spoiled mommy's boy + shameless money-gouging scoundrel = comic gold.

Hades (Hercules)

Because he's easily the biggest saving grace in a flawed movie that could use a few more saving graces.

Lotso (Toy Story 3)

Because some of the best villains are the kinds who just "snapped" one day...

Hans (Frozen)

Because seriously, what a dick.

And now for the main event, the Top 12 Best Disney Villains, starting with...

#12: Cruella de Vil (101 Dalmatians)

Cruella: Anita, darling!
Anita: How are you?
Cruella: Miserable, darling, as usual, perfectly wretched!"

Why is this a Top 12 and not just a regular old Top 10? Because despite slipping out of initial Top 10 rankings when making this countdown, no one can deny this iconically heartless fur-lover her time in the spotlight. 101 Dalmatians is a pretty solid talking animals Disney movie on its own, but what makes it not just one of the classics but one of the most historically popular and enduring entries in Disney's animation canon is its villainess. Aside from being a garish, scathing parody of any rich high-ups in the fashion industry, Cruella proves she's a real-deal "DeVil" (ha!) as she organizes the kidnapping, murder and skinning of dozens of adorable puppies, all for the sake of a fur coat that she'd probably stop wearing after a month anyway once her next big thing comes along. When she wants something she will do anything (and I mean literally ANYTHING) to get it, especially if it means wreaking havoc through the roads like a madwoman. She spreads disgusting cigarette smoke and ill will to anyone she comes across, and she's only really happy when that happiness comes at the expense of other people's misery.
Her theme song says it all: if she doesn't scare you, no evil thing will.

#11: Lady Tremaine (Cinderella)

Tremaine: "Now, let me see... There's the large carpet in the main hall- clean it! And the windows upstairs and down- wash them! Oh yes, and the tapestries and draperies..."
Cinderella: "But I just finished-"
Tremaine: "Do them again! And don't forget the garden. Then scrub the terrace, sweep the halls and the stairs, clean the chimneys. And of course there's the mending and the sewing and the laundry..."

What. A. Bitch.
Lady Tremaine is one of the more innately human of Disney's villains, namely in how simple her forms of cruelty are. She's not some all-powerful demon witch, but an ordinary 50 or 60-something woman who treats her unwanted yet oh-so-nice and pretty stepdaughter like garbage every chance she gets. She's not a woman of great power or standing (although it's obvious she wants to be and always tries to play the part), but what power she does have, namely that of control over Cinderella, she rules with an iron fist. Not only will she do everything she can to ensure our passive young heroine will never get her happily ever after, but she's the kind of sinister person who'll revel in building up Cinderella's hopes only to have them torn away from her. Her design is classic, with a glare that can pierce like daggers and an uppity smirk of self-satisfaction that still makes my skin shiver. She's the kind of villain we love to hate because she reminds us of our innate human capacity to be every bit as cruel, self-serving and spiteful as she is.
Seriously, what a bitch.

#10: Shere Khan (The Jungle Book)

Shere Khan: "Why should you run? Is it possible you don't know who I am?"
Mowgli: "I know you alright. You're Shere Khan."
Shre Khan: "Precisely. And you should know that everyone runs from Shere Khan."

Shere Khan's built up quite a notorious, fearsome reputation for himself across the jungle- from the wolves to the elephants his name incites panic-stricken fear.  And not only does Shere Khan himself know this, he revels in it, making it clear with the utmost calm and class that he is not to be f***ed with. Even as the hypnotizing snake Kaa (who's a fun villain in his own right) has Mowgli right in his clutches, he's left cowering in the face of Khan- he's just the kind of presence that you don't dare to ignore. A major part of the character's appeal is his voice, that of Oscar-winning actor George Sanders (most famous for playing Addison DeWitt in All About Eve), who captures the perfect balance of intimidating and sophisticated (my favourite moments happens during the scene pictured above, when he starts scratching Kaa with his claws in a hilariously casual, almost absentminded manner, as if he doesn't even know that he's doing it). He's one of the rare cases of a villain who not only has a serious ego, but proves with every moment he gets why that ego is warranted.

#9: Charles Muntz (Up)

"An old man taking his house to Paradise Falls... 
...and that's the best one yet. I can't wait to hear how it ends..."

One of only two Pixar villains to make it on this list (you can probably guess who the other one is), Charles Muntz really seems like anything but a villain at first. For the first half of the film we know him mostly as a brave, intrepid explorer and the inspirational idol for old Carl Fredricksen since he was a boy, and when we meet him again many years later he proves quite friendly and accommodating to his guests (even if his tracker dogs haven't made the best impression). But then we find out about his search for the lost bird (Kevin), the bird he's vowed to find and prove the existence of for decades now, and that's when any pretensions of hospitality start to crumble away and we see just how far down he's gone into his own personal Heart of Darkness-style descent into madness. This really gets to what makes Muntz stand out as a villain compared to so many others of the Disney/Pixar ilk: there was a time when he was in fact a good, decent man. He's been searching for so long in order to regain the reputation he lost, and has lost countless dogs trying to search an impossible maze, that part of you can't help but empathize with him. But it becomes clear soon enough that the good man that used to be Charles Muntz is long gone, with only an obsessed, paranoid, ruthless and murderous shell of a maniac remaining in his stead. The scene where he knocks down a row of pilot's helmets one by one is genuinely terrifying at any age, and coupled with Christopher Plummer's unhinged performance it makes abundantly clear that what Muntz may lack in youth he more than makes up for with merciless drive.

#8: Yzma and Kronk (The Emperor's New Groove)

Yzma: "Excellent. A few drops in his drink, and then I'll propose a toast, and he will be dead before dessert."
Kronk: "Which is a real shame, because it's gonna be delicious."

The Emperor's New Groove is a surprisingly great film in Disney's canon despite how decidedly un-Disney it feels (it shares much more in common with old-school screwball Looney Tunes comedy), and if you asked anyone what the key ingredient to that success must be, they'd undoubtedly have to give big credit to scheming advisor Yzma and her lovably doltish right-hand man Kronk. Voiced by the legendary Eartha Kitt and comic voice actor extraordinaire Patrick Warburton, these two easily steal every scene, showcasing an endlessly riotous rapport that feels downright timeless in its appeal. While Yzma is plenty good enough to stand as a villainess on her own merits of enthusiastic scheming and ego-centric lust for power (one only knows there's never enough great female comedy villains out there), the oh-so-loveable Kronk is like the perfect yang to her cunning yin, to the point where imagining the two apart just doesn't feel right. You know that Kronk is too nice and well-meaning a guy to be working for Yzma, but damn it he just seems to be having too much carefree fun with everything he does, whether he knows its evil or not. Together they make an unforgettable team that will leave you rolling in the aisles (and hopefully that's not because they poisoned your drink).

#7: Gaston (Beauty and the Beast)

"It's not right for a woman to read! Soon she starts getting ideas, and thinking..."

It hardly even needs to be said: no one brags, no one pursues, and no one utterly loves himself like Gaston. What makes Gaston unique is how in any other fairy tale-style story he's probably be the hero: a tall, muscled, good-looking hunter and town hero who's the best at everything. Well, except handling rejection: his constant, insistent pursuit of Belle's hand in marriage is based completely off his own shallowness and inflated ego that tells him he deserves the best and won't take no for an answer. To him Belle is just the prettiest face in a town with a handful of pretty faces to go around, and not a free-thinking woman whose intellect and kindness deserves to be appreciated and respected. But seeing how Gaston is a "hero" who's surrounded himself with yes-men, no one will stop him when he takes drastic and even despicable measures for the sake of his own selfish goals, including having her innocent father locked away if Belle doesn't submit to him. And yet, despite all that awful things Gaston is capable of, despite all the underlying darkness of his soul... he's just too much fun to watch for you to actually hate him. Instead of being disgusted by him you mostly find yourself too busy laughing in incredulous disbelief, saying to yourself "Is this guy for real?!" It certainly helps that he has a whole song devoted to how awesome he is, and you have to give the guy credit because man is it fun and catchy as all hell. The definition of conceited, Gaston is a perfect example of the Disney villain we love to hate.

#6: Ursula (The Little Mermaid)

"My dear, sweet child. That's what I do. It's what I live for, to help unfortunate merfolk, like yourself, poor souls with no one else to turn to..."

Inspired by the drag queen Divine (most famous for her starring turn in the go-for-broke John Waters film Pink Flamingos), Ursula is a Disney villain with a true diva attitude. While others may shame her and think her a hideous sea witch, Ursula shows real pride in herself and her body, and consequently loves to take advantage of all those "poor unfortunate souls" who can't just be happy with how they are. That desire to change yourself, to become beautiful and "perfect" to impress that special someone you're crushing over, is exactly the kind of anxiety and longing that Ursula preys upon to give herself more power, and when she sees her opportunity to get the favourite daughter of King Triton added to her collection she knows she's hit the jackpot. This leads into yet another classic among classic Disney villain tunes (yeah, there's a fair number of those), a number that embodies her character in a nutshell: seductive  in her promises, but barely even hiding her untrustworthiness. Unlike many other villains on this list Ursula often observes and spies from a distance, having her twin eels act as her eyes while she watches her plans unfold. But when the time for action beckons she's more than willing to get her own hands dirty, disguising herself as a beautiful maiden with a literally hypnotic voice if it means ensuring naive young Ariel fails to uphold her bargain (besides, this diva wouldn't dare let some skinny little tramp get her hands on the stud in the end). Unlike many other villains out there, Ursula's pride in herself is the kind you can't help but admire and respect, even if she devotes her life to swindling shallow impressionable fools out of their lives.

#5: Scar (The Lion King)

"Long live the king."

Scar always tends to rank pretty high among most people's lists of Disney villains, and there's plenty of good reasons why. For one, he deserves credit for being one of the few Disney villains whose big master plan, you know, actually succeeds: Mufasa dies, Simba vanishes without a trace, and he ascends to the throne for several years (even if he's later dethroned by Simba's return, he still pretty much got everything he wanted). But it takes more than mere accomplishments to make a villain great, and Scar's got plenty of conniving personality to spare. He's an expert manipulator that would fit right into a Shakespeare tragedy (well, aside from the whole "being a talking lion" part), calculating enough to toy with the emotions of others and convince them to doubt not just others but also themselves. He's got that equally upper-class and slimy voice (provided by the awesome Jeremy Irons) that makes his presence so amusingly sly yet decidedly uneasy. He has plenty of Nazi-marching hyenas to get dirty work done for him, but still proves deadly when forced to enter the fight himself. And then there's his big musical number "Be Prepared", which still handily ranks among the best villain numbers of any Disney film.
In a rare case for a Disney film, we actually get to see how the villain does once he's actually gained the power he's been after, and let's just say Scar's much better at usurping rulership than actually ruling. He leaves Pride Rock to darkness and ruin, uncaring towards anyone's needs but his own, childishly irresponsible in a position of power that requires accepting the far-reaching duties of a real adult. Nevertheless, Scar proves a formidable schemer, fighter and puppet-master that no denizen of Pride Rock should ever underestimate.

Not to mention how he made himself the animal kingdom's definition of fabulous.

#4: Syndrome (The Incredibles)

"You sly dog! You got me monologuing!"

Yep, you know once I said I was allowing Pixar villains on this list that Syndrome just HAD to pop up somewhere. As comic book supervillains go, Syndrome's origins are an interesting twist to say the least. An obsessed fanboy who grows up feeling bitter and rejected, he uses his amazing technological know-how to build himself a Bond-style evil lair in a deserted island volcano (he clearly took some notes from You Only Live Twice- as does much of the movie, come to think of it). While his rage and motivation comes from a childish and petty place, the severity and darkness of his actions and outlook make him a force to be reckoned with. This is a man who's already killed dozens of former superheroes before he even started courting Mr. Incredible to his island, a man whose second-in command Mirage is held hostage under threat of death and he doesn't even flinch. Combine that with a smirking smartass personality and an ingenious master plan that will render superheroes obsolete (you gotta admit, it's pretty cool), and you've got yourself a bad guy who stands among the best that comic books have to offer.

#3: Professor Ratigan (The Great Mouse Detective)

"Oh, I love it when I'm nasty."

If there's any Disney villain out there who's not getting enough appreciation, it's Ratigan. The Moriarty to Basil of Baker Street's Sherlock, Ratigan is without a doubt the most gleefully, shamelessly fun villain of any Disney film to date. Sure he commits all manner of dastardly deeds and devious plots for the sake of power and settling a score with his oh-so-clever rival, but really he just does it because he just enjoys being evil. He's not just over-the-top, he's so over-the-top that he makes most Bond villains look toned down by comparison. He'll drown widows and orphans not because they did anything to him, but because he wanted another evil deed to boast about in his musical number (plus he was probably just bored that weekend). But what really makes him interesting and even scary beyond that "evil because WHEEEE!" motivation is how his huge ego conflicts with his self-image complex. He's a big hulking rat, a "lower" beast of a creature who goes to great lengths to hide what he really is behind fabulous suits and a classy sense of style. When characters like Basil point out what he really is ("no more than a rat") it drives Ratigan up the wall with rage, and you can see it clean on his face even when he tries his best to hide it. If there's one thing Ratigan can't stand it's having to face himself in a mirror, and by the time we reach the spectacular Big Ben clocktower climax he completely gives up any pretense and reveals the true savage beast lurking inside him all this time. Suddenly this comically overblown baddie becomes a genuinely frightening presence, and we realize that he never really needed that damn cat to threaten people with in the first place- in fact the cat seems less scary now.
Plus come on, he's voiced by Vincent f***ing Price. You have to rank him high for that alone.

#2: Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty)

"Well, quite a glittering assemblage King Stefan. Royalty, nobility, the gentry, and...
...oh, how quaint- even the rabble."

Before she became a revenge-seeking antihero-turned-mother figure played by Angelina Jolie, Maleficent was known as the "mistress of all evil", a powerful, spiteful sorceress who you really shouldn't forget to invite to your next baby shower (come on guys, it'll take like 2 minutes to write up the card and mail it off to... whatever her address is). Of all the Disney villains out there Maleficent's design is undoubtedly the most iconic and memorable: wicked yet elegant, gothic and graceful with a simple black/purple colour scheme and pale skin with a shade of green. Of all the classic-era villains she definitely stand out the most, both in terms of her immense power and intimidating veneer of calculating calm. She's more than strong enough to back up whatever threats she intends to make, and her sinister smile and cackling laugh can swiftly turn to furious rage if you don't say the right things around her. Her plan is simple yet diabolical (cursing a beautiful baby girl to die on the cusp of her reaching maturity), but once Prince Phillip starts gets involved she takes things to a whole new level of twisted irony, plotting to lock him away until he's but an old withered husk, then sending his broken spirit towards the beautiful woman he loves as a dying shell of his former self. You gotta admit, usually the old-school fairy tale villains didn't tend to show that level of creativity. Add in the fact that she turns into a badass dragon (a detail the live-action movie unfortunately flubbed up) and you've got a classic villainess who belongs on every list of the best baddies the Mouse House has to offer.

#1: Judge Frollo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame)

"The time has come, gypsy. You stand upon the brink of the abyss. Yet even now it is not too late. I can save you from the flames of this world, and the next. Choose me, or the fire."

Say what you will about The Hunchback of Notre Dame as an overall movie  (a risky, dark and complex story held back from classic status by its annoying Disney-mandated comic relief), but when it's good, it's freaking fantastic. And no part of the movie shines brighter than its villain, Judge Claude Frollo. He's got all the makings of a great Disney villain, from his twisted ruthlessness to voice actor Tony Jay's pitch-perfect performance, but Hunchback goes the extra mile and then some to create a deep, complex character whose layers make him all the more despicable. He is a deeply devout and religious man, but he's also a fanatic who uses said religious belief as an excuse for persecution and attempted genocide. He kills Quasimodo's mother, tries to drown him as a baby, and only saves him because the fear of doing ill will in the eyes of God for once makes him show mercy (and he soon decides to keep Quasi around mostly because he might grow up to "become of use" to him). He feels insane musical-assisted Catholic guilt over his lustful feelings for Esmerelda, and decides that the healthiest option is to burn her at the stake to destroy the temptation (because old-school Catholics are nutters that way). And that says nothing of how he treats our poor hero Quasimodo, acting as a mentally abusive parent who bullies him into fearing the outside world and keeping himself isolated and alone with no one to talk to (I can imagine Quasi and Queen Elsa could swap some stories if they ever crossed paths). The film posits the question in the opening scene of "who is the monster and who is the man", and it becomes evident quickly that Frollo more than lives up to being the former. No matter how much he tries to justify his action as God's will, it becomes obvious within minutes that he's really just committing his long, loooong list of awful misdeeds for his own twisted, selfish needs.
And if that doesn't make someone a monster, then I don't know what does.

What are your favourite Disney villains? Feel free to discuss and thanks for reading!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Scruffy Nerfherder Presents: The 10 Best Movies of Summer 2014

By Andrew Braid

Well, this long summer has finally drawn to an end, and if you're a Hollywood executive, the news wouldn't seem to be particularly bright from a financial perspective. While there were few outright flops, many big summer movies fell under box office analyst expectations, and only one movie (the crowned summer b.o. king Guardians of the Galaxy- who would have though a few months ago, right?) has grossed over $250 million domestic, compared to four last year and three in both 2012 and 2011. In particular July, usually the biggest and most integral month of the summer movie calendar, was utterly flaccid compared to previous years, with an utter lack of heavy hitters (the only real big movie that month being Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) resulting in a 30% decline from the previous year, the worst year-to-year decline recorded in decades. From this kind of perspective, it seems like this summer's movies were mostly pretty weak, lacklustre efforts, an unmemorable slate of films that's not worth talking about much, let alone sincerely looking back upon.
And that's where I'd have to call you out and say you're wrong.
Because if you're looking through a quality perspective we got some pretty awesome movies this summer. Sure, maybe the weren't all originals or groundbreaking masterpieces, but there were more than a few great times to go around in those comfy theatre seats and air-conditioned auditoriums. With most years I'll be lucky if the summer movie season can offer me enough genuinely great movies for a Top 5, but Summer 2014 was practically an embarrassment of riches by comparison, one that's going to make narrowing down my year-end Top 10 much more difficult than usual (hell, I might just end up saying "f*** it" and make it a Top 15 or 20- I guess we'll wait and see). So with the back-to-school season back in swing again, I thought it'd be a good time to look back and remember the good times we had at the movies this summer, the buttery cream of the popcorn crop that remind us why we all love Hollywood cinema in the first place (even with whatever bullshit they make us put up with next).
So here, in no particular order, are my picks for the 10 Best Movies of Summer 2014!


Directed by Nicholas Stoller
Written by Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brien

An early smash hit back in May, the latest comedy from the ever-talented Seth Rogen (joined by writer/producer/director partner Evan Goldberg) takes a simple premise (a new family ends up moving in next door to a raucous fraternity house) and knocks it out of the park, adding another example as to why Rogen is, like it or not, a generation-defining comedian. The consistent stream of laughs are expectedly raunchy through and through, but what makes the comedy stick (and gives the film a surprisingly good level of heart) is how gosh-darn likable all these characters are, and how much you find yourself wanting these two sides to work it out (the characters may step a bit over the line on one or two occasions, but not in a way that makes you turn against anyone). Seth Rogen is in fine form as usual, but Rose Byre goes above and beyond the typical wife/mother role and genuinely kills it every chance she gets (it helps that she and Rogen have excellent chemistry playing a married couple). It's Zac Efron who really surprises though as frat leader Teddy, a fun and good-natured college guy who realizes that his life is never going to get any better than his current fratboy days, and will do whatever he has to if it means making that big party last as long as it can. Throw in some memorably kinetic party sequences and you're left with a comedy guaranteed to give you a great time, even if it doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel.


Directed by Gareth Edwards
Screenplay by Max Borenstein; Story by David Callaham

While some were left feeling disappointed or cheated by the latest revival of Japan's world-famous King of the Monsters (likely due to the film's outstanding-yet-misleading marketing), Godzilla nonetheless brought back the old-school giant monster movie in an (appropriately) big way. Following inspiration as much from early Spielberg films like Jaws as it does the old-school Toho kaiji films, the film saves up on its huge-scale giant monster action, carefully and patiently building as we get to know the human cast who find themselves helpless in the face of these force-of-nature Goliaths. The film works to establish emotional connection to the action and destruction by framing it through a human perspective, lending the proceedings a massive sense of scale and a grounded level of plausibility- the viewer becomes part of the human crowds, awestruck and stunned in the face of such disaster around us. And when the film finally does reach its epic kaiju bout conclusion? Hoo boy does it deliver...
King of the Monsters indeed.
(For a full review of Godzilla, click here.)

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Directed by Bryan Singer
Screenplay by Simon Kinberg; Story by Jane Goldman, Simon Kinberg and Matthew Vaughn

Arguably the most anticipated movie going into this summer, the seventh film in the X-Men movie franchise (though really the fifth, seeing how everyone hated The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, to the point where this film undoes anything that happened in the former and refuses to even acknowledge the latter) also proved to be the best so far. Despite being inspired by the famous 80s comic book storyline of its subtitle, Days of Future Past namely feels like a Terminator movie starring Wolverine and Charles Xavier, using the high-stakes drama of its post-apocalypse future scenes as a launching pad for a surprisingly fun 70s-set caper involving prison breaks, espionage and political assassination. It's tightly paced and never loses the viewer in its frequent intercutting of past and future, the action is the most impressive of any any X-Men film to date, and several characters in its ridiculously stuffed cast get at least some good moments to shine. It also proves quite effective as both a continuity clean-up and a major culminating story for Wolverine and Xavier. A more matured and noble Logan must come full circle and give his old mentor's past self the guidance his lost soul desperately needs, both for his own betterment and the sake of mutant-kind. An emotional talk between Xaviers past and future proves a standout sequence not just for this film but the entire franchise, and the much-talked about "Time in a Bottle" scene proves better than anything that everyone's pre-judgmental hate for Evan Peters' Quicksilver was dead wrong (if anything you're left wishing there was a lot more of him). What could easily have been a blatant fanservice movie ends up proving a top-tier comic book movie in its own right, offering compelling evidence that maybe it's not so bad if Fox holds onto those X-Men rights for a little while longer...

Edge of Tomorrow

Directed by Doug Liman
Screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth and John Henry Butterworth

If there's any real contender for this summer's Most Pleasant Surprise, it's gotta be this one. The trailers looked solid yet unspectacular, struggling to stand out in a sea of one mega-blockbuster after another. But as it turns out Edge of Tomorrow is not quite what it seems, infusing its sci-fi/action movie premise ("Groundhog Day, but with mech suits") with a darkly comedic edge and a Tom Cruise performance that deliberately (and oh-so-entertainingly) plays against the actor's usual "Badass McGoodguy" persona. The film mines a lot of pleasure from showing Cruise's William Cage die in battle over and over (and over) again, but in a way that gradually builds a compelling character arc- like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, Cage genuinely learns to be a better person through his repeating time loop (that and he learns how to kick some serious alien ass). Everything in Edge of Tomorrow is a pleasant surprise, from its great action scenes to period-piece regular Emily Blunt's "Full Metal Bitch" Rita Vrataski, who proves to be arguably the best female action hero in some time (definitely the best I've seen in anything out this year). While the ending may (possibly) have a hole or two in it, you're still left with a more than fulfilled feeling walking out of the theatre, with a little more hope in the Hollywood system. See, studios? Great things can come from taking a chance on an original blockbuster...
...That's actually based on a Japanese light novel (damn, so close!)

22 Jump Street

Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
Screenplay by Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel and Rodney Rothman; Story by Jonah Hill and Michael Bacall

With The Lego Movie and now 22 Jump Street, director duo Phil Lord and Chris Miller just had one hell of a year, and have officially proven they can do no wrong when it comes to making you laugh your ass off (no matter how unlikely or seemingly-bad the premise). The meta nature of the first film comes back in even greater force this time around, deliberately poking fun at the fact that this is an unnecessary sequel that's just a more expensive rehash of the first one ("Just do the same thing again, everyone's happy"). However, instead of forcing a reset on the character arcs of the original like so many other lazy sequels (comedy or otherwise), 22 Jump Street actually grows and deepens the partnership between Jonah Hill's Schmidt and Channing Tatum's Jenko, as Jenko gets an opportunity to rediscover his high school football passions and the undercover duo questions whether that first big assignment was just a fluke (because meta!). This genuine sense of growth and emotional connection for these inherently ridiculous characters is a big part of why the film delivers as the rare (almost unheard of) example of a comedy sequel that's actually as good as the original (despite blatantly acknowledging all the scenes that it just copy/pastes from the aforementioned first one). But namely it's Hill and Tatum's spectacular screen chemistry that carries the film once again, making us both laugh and genuinely feel for this pair of wannabe-cop doofuses to such an extent that you find yourself thinking "maybe those end credits jokes are right- I really could watch these two get into wacky hijinks forever!" Then again, as tempting as 22 Jump Street might make that seem, I hope they don't try to push their luck and actually make the walking punchline that is 23 Jump Street.
...Oh yeah, too late for that...

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Written and Directed by Dean DeBlois

Making a follow-up to a film as acclaimed and beloved as How to Train Your Dragon would be a monstrous challenge for anyone, but writer/director Dean DeBlois (now flying solo after working on the first film with Chris Sanders) steers the ship on this breathtaking, exhilarating and beautifully emotional sequel with an assured, confident hand that makes it look almost easy. Despite being a sequel meant as the middle chapter in a trilogy (the main influence being The Empire Strikes Back), How to Train Your Dragon 2 functions surprisingly well as a self-contained narrative in its own right, following Viking dragon rider Hiccup five years after the first film as an adult torn between the responsibilities of being a chief and the freedom of exploring and living amongst the dragons he's learned to befriend. Hiccup and Toothless are just as compelling and loveable as ever, but it's his father Stoick and long-lost mother Valka who steal the show with a reunion and subsequent musical moment that may very well rank as the two most beautiful, moving and truly romantic scenes of any film this year (animated or not). The action is thrilling, the animation gorgeous, the score marvellous- much like the first film you spend the duration as awed by its technical achievements as you are its alternately hilarious, touching and poignant story. It's a sequel that's every bit as great as its revered predecessor (in some ways even better), and will leave you impatiently anticipating How to Train Your Dragon 3 (now set for release in June 2017).
(For a full review of How to Train Your Dragon 2, click here.)


Directed by Bong Joon-ho
Screenplay by Bong Joon-ho and Kelly Masterson; Story by Bong Joon-ho

Nearly swept under the rug and tarnished in the editing room by its U.S. distributor The Weinstein Company (because Harvey Weinstein's just kind of evil that way- and he has an extensive track record to prove it), the latest film from Bong Joon-ho (Mother, The Host- NOT the one based on the Stephanie Meyer book) is a prime example of why studios don't know what they're talking about when they think they should meddle with greatness. Snowpiercer is so many things all at once, be it a chillingly bleak science fiction story, a darkly funny social class satire or an intense, suspenseful action-thriller, and yet it all gels together so seamlessly where so many other movies would fall apart. Like its massive train that barrels around a frozen world, the film is always charging full steam ahead with one plot surprise and inventive idea after another, grabbing you by the balls with its gripping sense of unpredictability. And yet it still demands to be seen more than merely once- then you'll get to see laid bare all the careful setup of its many moving parts and clever machinations, and gain a deeper understanding of the complex character relationships that populate its narrative. If you love not just sci-fi but any kind of film that dares to be this original and refreshing, then do yourself a favour and check it out through whatever digital rental or video-on-demand service you have available to you.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Directed by Matt Reeves
Written by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver

So yeah, between this, Edge of Tomorrow and Snowpiercer, 2014 has proven a great year for blockbuster science fiction. With Dawn the long-running Planet of the Apes franchise proves in spectacular fashion that it's anything but dated in the modern moviemaking landscape, following up the surprise hit Rise of the Planet of the Apes with a bigger, bolder and achingly sombre sequel that builds off Rise's foundation and ends up outclassing it in every possible way. Dawn feels much closer to the old-school PotA films in feel with its more overt science fiction themes and its dark, pessimistic outlook, but given new emotional dimensions with its motion-capture cast of apes, a visual effects marvel if there ever was one. Andy Serkis once again commands the screen as ape leader Caesar, but this time he's got competition in the form of Toby Kebbel as the bitter, scarred former lab ape Koba. In a year of blockbusters lacking in memorable or noteworthy villains Koba stands mightily at the head of the pack, a genuinely sympathetic and astute character whose burning hatred for the humans who abused him drives him down a path of increasingly monstrous actions that only dooms what chance there was for the two sides to achieve peace. If Rise was the Batman Begins-esque reboot, then Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is The Dark Knight of this new Apes series,  a huge leap forward that's just as thoughtful, grim and morally complex as it is grippingly entertaining.
(For a full review of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, click here.)


Written and Directed by Richard Linklater

Okay, let's get a few things straight about Boyhood. It is not some oh-so-perfect, flawless, "movie of the year/decade/century" (yes, the ads have actually used such a quote) masterpiece. At a huge 165 minutes the film is too long and unwieldy for its own good, with the final half-hour in particular mostly just dragging on and feeling its length. While the lead actor playing the titular boy at the film's core (Ellar Coltrane) gives a solid performance, Mason Jr. often feels like a cipher rather than a real fleshed-out character, and what we do get of a personality once he gets older mostly proves to be somewhat of a pretentious hipster asshole (but hey, to each his own if you like that kind of character, I suppose). The film struggles to find balance between slice-of-life realism and a more film-like narrative, with results that constantly shift back and forth from artful and compelling to forced and cliched. And then after over two and a half hours it all just stops with a smug, self-satisfied ending that chooses to needlessly spells out the film's message/conceit, as if it didn't trust its audience to realize for themselves "what it all means".
So yeah, it's far from perfect.
Having said all that, Boyhood is still plenty good enough to warrant seeing for yourself. The whole idea behind it (filming a whole film about a child growing up into adulthood with all the same actors over the course of 12 years) is a fascinating and truly daring experiment that at the very least demands the attention and respect of any devoted filmgoer. While the acting quality varies all over, Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as Mason Jr.'s parents both give excellent, possibly career-best performances that makes these people feel like real, flawed yet likable human beings (honestly, I kind of wish the movie were centred more around them). And when this messy, uneven behemoth actually works, it can be downright captivating to watch Richard Linklater make his on-the-fly filmmaking experiment unfold. For better or worse, it feels completely unlike anything you'll see all year, a sprawling yet intimate epic about growing up and living in the moment.
Oh wait, I mean, what if it's really the other way around? Like, the moments are just constant, man? Whoa, did I just blow your mind, dude? (seriously, screw that ending)

Guardians of the Galaxy

Directed by James Gunn
Screenplay by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman

If choosing the best movie of the summer (hell, maybe even the whole year) came down to which one was the most flat-out, unabashedly fun, then Guardians of the Galaxy would win hands-down. It's a film that both comfortably fits inside the successful Marvel Studios wheelhouse while also injecting its own subversively cheeky personality, all matched by director James Gunn's mix of reference-laden visual flair and groovy-as-groovy-gets soundtrack of 70s and 80s pop/rock hits. The cast absolutely kills it, with all five Guardians getting ample time to shine and show a delightful repartee with each other, whether it's the inseparable Rocket and Groot or Star Lord and Gamora's slowly sizzling romantic tension (and don't forget about Dave Bautista's Drax, easily the film's biggest surprise as he brings both straight-faced humour and angry pathos to what could easily have been yet another dumb brute character). In fact, seeing how the film has become such a box-office titan and beloved pop culture piece (it's currently still the #1 movie in theatres as I write this), recommending it seems almost redundant at this point.
So yeah, if you somehow haven't seen it already, just get it done and keep in the loop about what all that #Grooting business is about.
(For a full review of Guardians of the Galaxyclick here.)

What were your favourite movies this summer? Thanks for reading, and have a great fall!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Scruffy Nerfherder Presents: The Top 10 Best Batmans

By Andrew Braid

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the creation of arguably the most iconic and overwhelmingly popular superhero in comic book history: the caped crusader, the world's greatest detective, the dark knight, Batman. While his three-quarters of a century as a character in comics is massive and wildly varied, the character also has a long, diverse and very rich history in film and television, perhaps more so than any other single comic book hero. This includes 8 live-action feature films (soon to be 9 with the looming release of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice in 2016), two different sets of 1940s adventure serials, a classic live-action television series, numerous animated shows, literally dozens of animated movies, and more guest appearances or cameos than you could shake a Bat-stick at. Naturally this would cause many a Bat-fan to ask a serious (and not very easy) Bat-question: which is the best version of their iconic childhood hero? There's so many versions to choose and compare that even narrowing it down to a Top 10 list is far from a Bat-picnic. But in honour of the character's 75th anniversary I plan to take on this challenge and do just that, presenting today my picks for the Top 10 Best Batmans!
First, the ground rules:
-This list is strictly regarding film and television incarnations of the character.
-Both live-action and animated versions are being included.
-This is all subjective and based on personal preference, so keep that in mind (I probably didn't need that last reminder, but you never know).

Alright, let's light that signal in the sky and kick off our countdown, starting with...

#10: Rino Romano

Appearances: The Batman (2004-2008), The Batman vs. Dracula (2005)

Look, it was either this or Val Kilmer, so deal with it. 
In all seriousness though, The Batman has always been seen as some awkward "middle child" among the various animated television incarnations of the caped crusader. Whereas the much-loved and lauded shows that preceded (Batman: TAS) and followed it (Brave and the Bold) both chose one extreme and stuck with it, The Batman felt like it was trying to find a middle ground: kind of but not really that dark (most of the time, anyway- the episodes involving the first Clayface and Robin's origin being notable exceptions), and occasionally silly without ever going into full-on silver-age camp. Mostly it was an excuse for cool-looking and fast-paced hand-to-hand action scenes with all manner of martial arts moves coming from every single character (yes, even the fucking Penguin). At the centre of it all was a younger, late 20s Batman who's still early in his career and has plenty left to learn. Experienced voice actor Rino Romano (the original english voice of Tuxedo Mask, for all you fangirls out there) takes on the role here and does a measured and all-around solid job, if not a spectacular one (though there's this one episode where he gets infected with Joker venom that lets him stretch his acting range more than usual). The distinction between his Bruce Wayne and Batman vocals is more subtle than in many other versions, but he still gives us a Batman with an edge of cool who proves plenty formidable in a fight. 

#9: Peter Weller

Appearances: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (2012/2013)

A feature-length adaptation of Frank Miller's iconic Batman story The Dark Knight Returns (live-action or animated) had been long-anticipated by many fans of the character, so casting the right actor to play an aged, out-of-retirement version of everyone's favourite crime fighter was crucial to say the least. Enter Robocop himself Peter Weller, lending the role less the feel of gruff, grizzled growling that you might expect and more the tone of a wise yet tortured veteran, one who finds out that his old habits really do die hard. His voice lends Miller's Dark Knight a sense of weariness and (perhaps particularly appropriate for this incarnation of the character) an almost-calming sense of authoritarianism. When one of the book's most famous moments comes up (the fight with the mutant leader- "This is an operating table... and I'm the surgeon"), Weller's delivery has no growls or bellows. Instead he sounds like a disappointed teacher (I do mean that in a good way): this is what Gotham has come to, this is what he has to deal with and clean up, these are the misguided faces of a new generation that he'll have to take it up on himself to whip into proper shape. It's a distinctly unique interpretation of the character, one that particularly stands out considering the iconic source material.

#8: Bruce Greenwood

Appearances: Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010), Young Justice (2010-2013)

Bruce Greenwood, probably best known for playing several U.S. movie presidents and as Captain Pike in the J.J. Abrams Star Trek movies, might not initially have seemed like an obvious choice to play Batman, even for an animated incarnation. But his performance for the acclaimed DTV movie Batman: Under the Red Hood turned out so good that he was asked to reprise the role for the underrated (and unfairly cancelled) Young Justice. Despite a whole different kind of story, his work on Young Justice actually feels fairly consistent with the approach he takes in Red Hood, namely how Greenwood plays Batman primarily as a stern yet loving mentor and father figure. He can play the part just as gruff and imposing as anyone else, but its that underlying paternal layer he embodies that helps make Under the Red Hood so heartbreaking, whether he's reminiscing the good memories he had with Jason Todd as a young Robin or desperately trying (perhaps in vain) to convince the resurrected adult Jason/Red Hood that murder and revenge aren't the answers to fixing Gotham's problems (their climactic moral debate is truly compelling, and far more engaging than any standard round of fisticuffs). He knows better than anyone how easy it is to cross that line, and failing to teach a son that can only take a heavy toll on his conscience. 

#7: Adam West

Appearances: Batman (1966-1968), Batman: The Movie (1966), The New Adventures of Batman (1977), SuperFriends: The Legendary Super Powers Show (1984)

Once loved by millions of audiences in a fever of "Bat-Mania", then derided by many fans who desperately wanted their comic book idol to be taken seriously, the 1960s Batman television series fortunately seems to have been regaining cultural and fan appreciation over the last few years or so (and should only continue to grow with the release of this year's Complete Series box set). While credit must absolutely be given to the show's writers for their often-clever camp cheekiness, Adam West's almost magically straight-faced line delivery made sure that just about every thinly-veiled absurdity hit its mark. Despite the show's tongue-in-cheek parody approach, he truly felt like the Batman of the Silver Age comics come to life, to the point where the comics in turn tried harder to be more like the TV series. His approach perfectly reflected the era- his identity as Bruce Wayne is barely concealed yet never discovered, his Bat-gadget supply literally has no limits, his villains' plots are often as insane as they are inane, and the mind-boggling leaps of logic in his deductions are somehow always right. West played it all with only the slightest of hints that he was in on the joke, whether he danced the Batusi or laid the onomatopoeia-assisted smackdown on evildoers. While later reprisals of his role as the Caped Crusader proved decidedly lacking, we'll always have the original series to cherish for whenever we want to hear Adam West say something utterly ridiculous with only the utmost of conviction (his many appearances on Family Guy notwithstanding).

#6: Will Friedle

Appearances: Batman Beyond (1999-2001), Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (2000)

This one is maybe kind of debatable, seeing how this isn't the standard Bruce Wayne Batman. But if you ask me it honestly doesn't matter, as Terry McGinnis (and Will Friedle as his voice) handily proved his mettle over the course of Batman Beyond's run. He's a new kind of Batman, a cocky, rebellious and surprisingly capable teenager who feels very much like he's taken a page or two from Spider-Man's book. But Terry proves to be more than just some souped-up Robin in a Batman costume: while he lacks the same kind of training, experience and detective intellect as Bruce Wayne (now an old man serving the Alfred role as Terry's mentor), he proves to be resourceful, creative and determined enough to live up to the mantle and carve out his own legacy as the Dark Knight of a new era. Thanks as much to Friedle's likable, funny and good-natured performance as it is the show's quality writing, Terry McGinnis makes for a more immediately sympathetic and relatable version of Batman, raised with a mostly ordinary (if occasionally troublesome) middle-class childhood before tragedy strikes and inspires him to don the upgraded new suit. Considering how often he has to hold his own against the practically legendary Kevin Conroy as elderly Bruce Wayne, Friedle makes it look almost easy and develops a fantastic rapport with his mentor in the process. He may not be the original we're all so familiar with, but this Batman 2.0 undoubtedly proves his worthiness. 

#5: Will Arnett

Appearances: The Lego Movie (2014)

It's no secret that Batman is a huge scene-stealer in The Lego Movie, and watching it again it's not hard to see why. Will Arnett delivers a killer parody of the Dark Knight, in particular all the more self-serious and gritty takes on the character that have mostly dominated the pop culture landscape over recent years. Lego Batman is a super-cool badass and he knows it, and can't seem to help using it as an excuse to get away with being a total egocentric jerkwad. In doing so Arnett's take on the character, matched by a Bat-voice that would probably still sound great even in a genuinely serious Batman movie, reveals the paradoxical nature of our culture's overwhelmingly huge, obsessive love for the character. We know he's a jerk, a billionaire vigilante who clings to childish ideals (and maybe even childish attitudes) as an excuse to beat up criminals and puts his vast wealth towards making anything he can slap a Bat-symbol onto. But at the same time we can't help but love him anyway, since he basically embodies what many of us wish we could be ourselves- rich, badass and awesome at just about everything.
Well, except managing a good healthy relationship.

I don't actually have a reason for putting this here, other than the fact that I can't stop laughing.

#4: Diedrich Bader 

Appearances: Batman: The Brave and the Bold (2008-2011)

This show has a Bat-musical episode. Guest-starring Neil Patrick Harris. As if you need more reasons to watch this show...

To be honest #4 and #3 are practically a tie, and I'm still mulling over which one is actually better, but the fact that they both rank so high should say plenty about the very different qualities each brings to their Bat-portrayal. First up is voice actor Diedrich Bader, who plays the caped crusader in the fantastic (possibly underrated? Wait, can we actually still call it that anymore?) animated series Batman: The Brave and the Bold. The series namely played as a direct adaptation of the Silver Age era of Batman's comics history, though a lot of the time it plays like a giant love letter to the character's rich 75-year history as a whole, with every episode featuring different team-ups of heroes and villains, be they recognizable, goofy, campy, obscure or even downright weird. The series was usually comedic in tone, often pointing out its inherent absurdity while also sincerely embracing it, and Bader pitch-perfectly plays Batman as the justice-obsessed, crime-fighting straight man. He understands that no matter how silly a story or scenario gets, Batman always takes himself seriously. Hell, he's so devoted to the cape and cowl that we very rarely ever see him as Bruce Wayne throughout the show (you could count the number of episodes we see Batman sans mask with one hand). That makes it all the more impressive when the show throws us a curveball with "Chill of the Night", a genuinely dark and tragic episode where Batman tracks down Joe Chill, the man who shot his parents dead all those years ago. The show makes it clear that despite all the humour and Silver Age antics this is still the Batman we all know, and Bader nails it when he gets to go for genuine emotional turmoil. No matter what the script calls for, Bader gamely plays it completely straight and gives it his all, whether he's fighting, brooding, flirting, singing, body-swapped with Batwoman, or eating nachos. Wait...

Look, I just couldn't help it. Can you really blame me?

#3: Michael Keaton

Appearances: Batman (1989), Batman Returns (1992)

Still the definitive live-action Batman for many growing up in the late 1980s and 90s,  Michael Keaton surprised many when he donned the rubber Batsuit (complete with its infamous inability to turn one's head while wearing it- seriously, watch the movie again and you'll totally notice). Thought of namely as a goofy comedic actor in roles like Mr. Mom and Tim Burton's previous film Beetlejuice, many were sent into an uproar over the initial casting announcement. But famously all those quick-to-jump detractors soon ate their words when they were treated to the first truly serious and gothic screen iteration of Gotham's dark knight. As Bruce Wayne he was an awkward, brooding loner, with a puzzled, uncertain face that can say so much despite his lack of words. But when he dons the suit he brings a truly intimidating presence, one who strikes fear into the hearts of criminals without even having to raise his voice (I still can't remember a single moment where he ever shouts, screams, yells, or  utters anything a decibel louder than average speaking volume). The intense focus on the character's duality makes scenes like this one all the more surprising, lending a sense of genuine unpredictability to what this Bruce Wayne guy is really capable of. It's for good reason why many 80s kids like Seth Rogen will still attest that Keaton is the best Batman.

#2: Christian Bale

Appearances: Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Alright, I'll address the elephant in the room upfront here: yes, Bat-Bale's famous/infamous raspy growl of a voice is oh so very easy to make fun of to this day, and probably for all time (and having Bane impressions to bounce off of has only made it worse). But when it comes time to watch the movies on their own, in the context of their gritty, sprawling crime saga and epic action, the Bat-voice weirdly fits right in. Despite having a less gothic and more grounded approach to the character and to Gotham City itself, Bale's Batman still handily proves both imposing and fearsome as a shadow of the night (it helps that, much more so than any other live-action portrayal so far, this is a Batman who looks like he could seriously kick your ass in a fight). More importantly however is Bale's full-throttle commitment to the role, truly throwing himself into the character and just how effectively he builds himself as Bruce Wayne first before Batman. We truly feel his pain, his loss and confusion as to who he wishes to be, and we're allowed ample time to see him ponder and wrestle with himself (particularly when he seeks Alfred's devoted yet reluctant guidance). Both his socialite billionaire Bruce Wayne and his raspy-voiced warrior Batman come off overtly like a man doing a performance. Because we've seen the real man behind the masks, we can see right through his overplayed rich jerk and his infamous Bat-growl. He's both Bruce and Batman, but at the same time he's also neither- underneath all that is a man lost in longstanding trauma and guilt, a man who wishes to follow in his parents' footsteps and save the city they helped build.
Whereas previous live-action Batman movies often allowed the villains to steal the show and overshadow Batman himself, Christian Bale's performance makes that all but impossible in the game-changing Nolan trilogy. Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight was already an iconic force of nature, but when he finally gets to be face-to-face with Bale's Batman? Bat-Bale goes toe-to-toe with Ledger, and as Joker himself says in the same scene, he didn't disappoint- it reminds one of the famous diner scene in Heat, two legends finally staring each other down as they embody the duelling sides of law and chaos. Bale's Dark Knight becomes more than just a man over the course of Nolan's epic trilogy- he becomes a legend. And it takes a legend to anchor a series like this one.

#1: Kevin Conroy

Appearances: Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995, 1997-1999), Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993), Batman & Mr. Freeze: Subzero (1998) Batman Beyond (1999-2001), Justice League (2001-2004, 2004-2006), Batman: Gotham Knight (2008), Superman/Batman: Public Enemies (2009), Superman/Batman: Apocalypse (2010), Justice League: Doom (2012), Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox (2013), Batman: Assault on Arkham (2014)

Honestly, could it be anyone else? From the beginning of the revered 90s animated series to present day in DC Animated features and the Arkham video game series, Kevin Conroy has been, continues to be, and pretty much simply IS Batman. His Batman voice is perfect to the point of being definitive- dark, brooding and commanding without ever feeling forced or overplayed. Not only that, but he's done by far a better job than anyone else of distinguishing Bruce Wayne as a separate performance, a public playboy facade cleverly concealing the damaged and driven soul underneath (the ways he so seamlessly shifts between the two voices in many scenes is often downright remarkable). He adapts to whatever kind of scene he needs to with utmost ease, whether it's a deadpan joke or a somber musing, a howling scream of fury or an earnest insistence of hope. He even grows over time along with the rest of the DC Animated Universe, whether its as the Justice League's would-be loner or as a grizzled old mentor in Batman Beyond. No matter what the situation, no matter which movie or TV episode, you always hear the same thing from Kevin Conroy:
You hear vengeance.
You hear the night.
You hear BATMAN.

Plus, as it turns out, you also hear a great set of pipes. Close us out, Batman!

Thanks for reading, everyone! And Happy Bat-iversary!

Friday, August 8, 2014

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) Review: Heroes in a Half-Assed Shell

By Andrew Braid

Directed by Jonathan Liebesman
Starring: Megan Fox, Will Arnett, William Fitchner, Johnny Knoxville, Alan Ritchson, Noel Fisher, Jeremy Howard, Tony Shaloub, Whoopi Goldberg, Tohoru Masamune
Release Date: August 8, 2014
Presented in 2D and 3D

All it took was four words for the whole internet to turn against a new rebooted live-action take on the late 80s/90s mega-franchise that was the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: "Produced by Michael Bay".
And honestly, why wouldn't they? Michael Bay has made much of his fortunes off of  dumbed-down, much-hated new versions of various 80s properties, whether its directing the bloated explosion-fest Transformers series or producing stale, unnecessary reboots of revered horror icons like Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and A Nightmare on Elm Street. The Bay-owned production company behind those stale retreads, Platinum Dunes, is at it again with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and oooh boy did it not take them long to piss off nearly every Turtles fan on the planet. Leaked early versions of the script a few years back made huge deviations from the canon (in particular the idea of making the Turtles aliens instead of mutants) that practically embodied everyone's worst fears of what Hollywood's soulless monster Michael Bay was doing with their beloved childhood nostalgia, prompting a huge rewriting overhaul. Implications that the Turtles' traditionally-Japanese archenemy the Shredder would now be sneaky-faced white guy William Fitchner (he's a really good character actor, but still) drew even more ire from fans all too eager to bash this affront on their childhoods, and the reveal of the Turtles' designs in the first teaser trailer gave them whatever added ammunition they needed for mocking parodies like this one (along with many, many others).

To be fair, that one on the top really does look better than the face they went with...

The movie's certainly had one constant, seemingly never-ending uphill battle to try and win over audiences, and even the fact that Michael Bay isn't actually directing it hasn't assuaged anyone's pre-emptive ire or fears (the track record of the film's real director, Jonathan Liebesman, includes such defining classics as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, Battle: Los Angeles and Wrath of the Titans). Now that the film's finally been released to the public, I can honestly say this to all those many skeptical TMNT fans out there:
This is far from the worst that's ever happened to the Ninja Turtles franchise (that honour will always belong to the Coming Out of Their Shells music show, followed closely by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III), nor is it really the outright disaster that one would expect from a reboot with Michael Bay's name stamped on it.
Having said that, it's still an undeniably bad movie, but for (mostly) less exciting reasons than you'd think.

"Ow... still less painful than hearing Splinter sing about skipping stones, though..."

Our story begins with the criminal organization known as the Foot Clan, led by the Shredder (Tohoru Masamune), striking terror into the hearts of New Yorkers. Wanting to take down the Foot while also finding a big break to be taken seriously as a journalist, news reporter April O'Neil (Megan Fox) follows fleeting evidence of an unseen vigilante taking the fight to the Foot. What she discovers is not one but four vigilante heroes, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: leader Leonardo (voiced by Johnny Knoxville), angry wannabe loner Raphael (Alan Ritchson), nerdy tech whiz Donatello (Jeremy Howard) and the goofy, not to mention very horny Michelangelo (Noel Fisher). It turns out however that these Turtles are very familiar to April: they and their father/sensei Splinter (voiced by Tony Shaloub) were her childhood pets back when her father and industrial mogul Eric Sacks (William Fitchner) were using them as part of mysterious experiments that ultimately resulted in the Turtles' mutation and the deaths of several Sacks employees, including April's scientist father. Though April looks up to Sacks, it turns out (big shock) that he's actually been allied with the Shredder this whole time, and now wants to capture the Turtles and use their magic blood (yes, that dumb plot trope again, as if we didn't see enough of it in movies like Star Trek Into Darkness and The Amazing Spider-Man) to launch a deadly mutation gas from a huge tower across New York City (once again ripped off from movies like The Amazing Spider-Man). With the reluctant help of news cameraman Vernon Fenwick (Will Arnett), can April help the Turtles save the day from Sacks and the Foot Clan before they can unleash their cliched diabolical plot? More importantly, will you find even one plot beat that isn't lazily ripped off from every other action blockbuster out there?

And even more importantly, will the movie feel obligated to sexualize Megan Fox, even though it's supposed to be made for kids? (Then again, you already know the answer to that one)

The centre of the film is its new twists on the Ninja Turtles' origin story, and I can officially say that it carries on Platinum Dunes' proud tradition of overexplaining and needlessly complicating a simple yet effective backstory. For decades now Splinter and the Turtles have had two variations of their origin story (one where Splinter was once a human martial arts master wrongly disgraced by Oroku Saki and left homeless in the sewers, the other having Splinter as a pet rat owned by a kind martial arts master that's murdered by Shredder), but one key detail remains constant: the toxic canister spill that mutates the turtles happens purely by accident. They don't have some great destiny they were born to fulfill- they're just fun-loving teenagers who love pizza, kick bad guy butt and try to fight the good fight because crime is a major bummer, dude. But the changes made here are not only pointless and unnecessary, but they feel incredibly forced and shoehorned, built around piles of coincidental connections between all the major characters. It just so happens that not only are April's father and main villain Eric Sacks responsible for the experiments that created Splinter and the turtles in a lab, but April even gave them their names when she was a kid! Then 15 years later, April just so happens to be the first human to discover the Ninja Turtles' existence, and in the very next scene she pulls out a box of her father's research explaining everything that she just had lying around in her closet all this time, and completely forgot about all this stuff until just now! (you think you'd more clearly remember this stuff when it involves, oh, I don't know, the death of your father) Then it turns out Eric Sacks just so happens to have been adopted and raised in Japan by the Shredder, and it just so happens that the Turtles are crucial to their whole deadly mutation virus plot. But wait, how did the Turtles even learn kung fu in the first place? Oh, that's easy- when they were kids in an abandoned sewer, Splinter just so happens to find a random "Art of Ninjitsu"book lying under some rubble, and uses that to teach himself and the turtles martial arts. That's not just lazy- it's insultingly lazy, and it's a clear case of trying to "fix" what was never broken in the first place in order to fit into some structure of bulls*** Hollywood screenwriting cliches.

But really all the dumb, needless changes you could make to the origin story wouldn't be enough to sink this movie on their own. Nah,  the overwhelmingly predictable, by-the-numbers story and plotting do more than enough damage to sabotage Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles mere minutes into its (mercifully reasonable) running time. Every beat feels stale and familiar, making the viewing experience less like watching an engaging narrative unfold and more akin to sarcastically asking yourself "Gee, I wonder what's going to happen now?" over and over again. Literally nothing takes you by surprise or does anything that you weren't already expecting, and that includes the film's humour. While the Turtles get a few amusing moments (in particular the elevator rap scene embedded below), much of their jokey banter and wackier antics is outright groan-inducing. But when the comedy scenes involve human characters? It practically redefines the term "dead on arrival", namely because none of these characters have any personality beyond the most stock, boring and one-dimensional ones the filmmakers could find at the second-hand screenwriting thrift store. The dialogue is so generic and half-hearted that the "jokes" practically blend in with everything else in a sea of blandness.

In fact, the movie is so focused on just putting checkmarks on its "To Do" List that it doesn't even bother to develop any of its characters whatsoever. Literally no one in this entire movie goes through any kind of character arc- no one grows, no one changes, no one provides any kind of emotional backbone for the rote story to fall back on. When Splinter is critically injured and left for dead (and can only be saved by, you guessed it, a "magic blood" antidote), we have almost no reason to care what happens to him because we hardly even learned much about him, and neither April or the Turtles seem to learn anything from the experience of trying to save him. The closest thing to an exception is Raphael, but not only is his arc the exact same thing we've seen the character go through in just about every other iteration of the series ("I think and act like I want to be a loner, but in reality I love my family more than anything!"), but the execution is so sloppy and rushed that it practically feels like his big epiphany moment at the end comes completely out of nowhere. It feels like all the in-between scenes that would have developed this arc are missing from the movie, most likely because the trio of screenwriters couldn't have been bothered to write said scenes in the first place.

Even the marketing tweets seem to have more effort put into them than this movie's script (and that's not saying much).

The visual effects are a mixed bag all around, with Shredder's bulky enhancements faring best. The motion-capture CG effects used to bring the Turtles to life are fairly expressive, decently detailed and have a few nice design touches (things like Donatello's tech goggles and Leonardo's more overtly samurai-esque clothing are neat), but they never really manage to feel like a physically believable presence, instead constantly reminding you that you're looking at a decently-constructed computer creation (plus their more human-like nostrils and lips are just as off-putting now as they were back when the trailers were first released). Splinter however fares worst, with an ugly CG model that looks like all the hair and body details are smoothed out, and large quasi human-esque eyes that look borderline soulless and devoid of any range of expression. Everything does moves fairly well in the film's competent yet occasionally choppy and mostly uninspired action sequences (a late-movie setpiece where April and the Turtles escape down a snowy mountain is the closest thing to a genuine highlight in the whole movie), and the 3D is implemented well in often-gimmicky ways, but none of its enough to save the visual and technical aspects of the film from being any less generic and indifferently-crafted than its script.

Pictured: Indifference

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles won't quite leave you "shellshocked" (as the terrible end-credits rap song would suggest), but by no means is it anything other than a major letdown, both for longtime Turtles fans and younger newcomers to the franchise. The film only injects some new energy into the characters in the most rote and superficial ways, and there's not a single element that doesn't feel like it was hashed together from the spare parts of numerous other Hollywood blockbusters, many of which (like The Amazing Spider-Man) weren't even that good to begin with. It's like creating a Frankenstein's monster and trying to convince us it's "hip" and "fresh", but without putting any effort into hiding the hastily-sewn stitches that hold all the rotting parts together. Once you've watch that elevator rap clip posted earlier in this review, then there's no reason you need to see the rest of the movie- that's basically the full extent of what little it has to offer.
If you haven't seen Guardians of the Galaxy yet (and you should, because it's awesome), do yourself a favour and go see that instead. If you've already seen Guardians of the Galaxy, do yourself a favour and go see that again instead. If you have kids you want to take to the movies for a fun time, do yourself and them a favour and go see Guardians of the Galaxy (or really just about anything that doesn't have the words "Turtles" or "Planes" in the title) instead. If you really, really want to satiate some huge itch for a new take on Leo, Raph, Donnie and Mikey, then just stay home and watch some episodes of the current Nickelodeon TV series instead (trust me, it's genuinely pretty great). Because it's not just the Ninja Turtles who deserve better than a soulless, lazy, shamelessly cookie-cutter summer blockbuster like this one.

Final Review Score: 3 / 10

+ The Turtles themselves feel right for the most part, portrayed as more or less the same characters we all know and love
+ Shredder is actually pretty cool in this movie- imposing, formidable, and his bulky (almost mech-like) new design is great
+ A few fun moments here and there do eke out (the big action setpiece on a snowy mountain, the freestyle elevator rap)
+ Good use of 3D (okay, I might be grasping for straws now on this "Pros" column...)
+ Unlike so many other things with Michael Bay's name attached, the film avoids feeling needlessly bloated with a reasonable, fairly painless 100 minute runtime (yep, definitely grasping for straws now...)
+ It's still nowhere near as bad as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III (okay,  I doubt that even counts as a compliment...)

- The whole film feels overwhelmingly predictable, by-the-numbers, generic and derivative
- The changes to the Turtles' origin story are egregious, needlessly complicated and built around a ridiculous number of inane, forced coincidental connections
- Every single human character is stock, bland and one-dimensional, and there's nary a single character arc to hold the story together
- The humour ranges from kind of amusing to groan-inducing when it involves the Turtles, but with the human characters it's consistently dead on arrival
- The film's CGI visual effects creations are a mixed bag, with Splinter in particular looking downright ugly and off-putting
- Action scenes are generally competent yet mostly uninspired
- Various instances of characters making glaring oversights or outright stupid decisions (particularly April)
- Forced, often lame references to famous lines/catchphrases from the original cartoon (though hearing Shredder say "Tonight I dine on turtle soup" is awesomely hilarious)
- Michelangelo's constant horniness for April borders too much on creepy territory...