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...

Friday, August 1, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy Review: "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" for Marvel Studios

By Andrew Braid

Directed by James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Djimon Hounsou, Karen Gillan, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio Del Toro
Release Date: August 1, 2014
Presented in 2D, 3D and IMAX 3D (specially formatted for IMAX screens)

It goes without saying now that Marvel Studios' cinematic hot streak is a game-changing, industry-shaping and unprecedented one. Even when one of their movies falls somewhat short of greatness (Iron Man 2, for instance), it still scores big time at the box office and any sour taste is quickly forgotten about once their next movie hits screens just a short while later. But all the risks they've taken along the way so far pale in comparison to what's riding on Guardians of the Galaxy, their 10th feature film since 2008 and the last "Phase 2" Marvel movie before next year's mega-anticipated release of Avengers: Age of Ultron. Directed and co-written by James Gunn (the cult director of Tromeo and JulietSlitherSuper), Guardians follows a ragtag group of cosmic heroes that, in stark contrast to the likes of Iron Man, Thor or Captain America, the vast majority of viewers have never even heard of before. In fact, they even lack much of a long history on comic book shelves: while the original Guardians of the Galaxy team debuted back in 1969, the current team which the film adapts was only formed back in May 2008 (coincidentally at the same time the original Iron Man was released and kickstarted the whole Marvel Studios canon). This film is the make-it-or-break-it point, the film meant to kick the doors wide open to a whole slew of cosmic characters from the Marvel Universe, and most importantly proof that the studio can get audiences to not only turn out for but fall in love with their characters no matter how unfamiliar or obscure they may be. 
It's the biggest gamble Marvel has made so far, and I can most happily attest that, at least on a quality level, they've once again knocked it out of the park.

"What a bunch of a-holes..."

Guardians of the Galaxy opens with Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) as a child being abducted by a mysterious alien spacecraft in 1988, following what has already been a traumatic, emotionally devastating day for the young boy. In the present day he's become a self-styled intergalactic outlaw who calls himself Star Lord, roaming the galaxy on the lookout for his latest score. He believes he's found it when he comes across an unknown ancient artifact hidden on the planet Morag, one which he ends up escaping with by the skin of his teeth. But it turns out this orb contains an Infinity Stone (a term Marvel fans ought to be very familiar with), an immensely powerful and destructive object which could spell certain doom for billions of people on the planet Xandar, who are the target of the fanatical Kree warlord Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace). Ronan, under an agreement with the Mad Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin, setting the stage for his time to shine in Avengers 3), will stop at nothing to obtain the orb, and his genocidal quest gradually forces the Guardians of the Galaxy to form an uneasy alliance with one another. The role call includes vengeful brute Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), trained assassin and favoured "daughter" of Thanos Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and the inseparable bounty hunter duo of walking tree Groot (Vin Diesel) and genetically-engineered raccoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper). They're the only hope Xandar has, and they're up to the task... if they don't get each other killed first.

Much like Captain Kirk before him, Gamora's not the only alien beauty that Star Lord's tried to win over with his charms...

When it's all boiled down to its base elements, the plot for Guardians of the Galaxy is a very familiar, well-worn one: a ragtag group of outsiders is forced together by circumstance to save the day from the forces of evil, all in the name of trying to secure a valuable MacGuffin object. But in terms of execution, director James Gunn the film counters this familiarity with a particular brand of winking acknowledgement and carefree irreverence. Peter Quill, a child of the 1980s still clinging to the dated pop culture of his youth before being scooped up from Earth, uses this filmgoing savvy not just for the sake of humour (particularly any line involving Footloose) but to point out the tropes the story is so gung-ho about diving into. Through Quill the film compares the orb everyone's chasing after to the Maltese Falcon, the classic movie king of MacGuffins. The opening credits unfurl as he sets foot on a mysterious new world in search of treasures, recalling Raiders of the Lost Ark with its moody, unknown atmosphere, only to soon undercut it once Peter kicks out the jams to Redbone's "Come and Get Your Love". Much of Guardians of the Galaxy is built upon taking what you'd expect from a sci-fi action movie and subverting it with its own kooky sense of humour and self-awareness, all while still getting us genuinely engaged on an emotional level with its gang of misfit outlaws. Gunn's approach is much like that of his Marvel alumni Joss Whedon (albeit not quite so shoved in your face). And does it work? Well, as Rocket Raccoon might say...

"Oh... YEAH..."

Marvel's success on the moviemaking scene so far has all come down to their innate understanding of character, always giving it top priority over the story itself. Even if the film's story stumbles at any point, the audience will still be engaged if they're invested in the plights of our heroes and enjoy being in their company. Heck, even in a twisty, paranoia-laden conspiracy thriller setting like the recent Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the focus of the film is put on the characters first and foremost. Guardians of the Galaxy is no different in that regard, prioritizing character interaction and comedic interplay above a galaxy-threatening plot that, for much of the runtime, our heroes can hardly muster any energy to care about. What's most impressive about Guardians is how well-balanced its titular ensemble is. All five of the Guardians each get ample time to shine with great laugh lines and badass action moments. Groot may lack a vocabulary (he only ever says "I am Groot"), but he more than makes up for it with heart and soul, always the most well-intentioned of the group. Rocket Raccoon takes every chance he gets to steal a scene, combining flippant wisecracking with the impassioned anger of a wounded animal. He's experienced much abuse and loneliness in his past, and needs the powerful yet naive Groot by his side more than he'd ever like to admit. Dave Bautista proves a huge surprise as Drax, playing his violent, dumb bruiser of a character with such utter conviction and sincerity that he actually manages to get some of the biggest laughs in the entire movie. Zoe Saldana's Gamora is namely playing the straight-woman of the group dynamic (an essential part of any real comedy ensemble), but she gets plenty of opportunity to kick ass in a fight and shows strong chemistry with Chris Pratt's Star Lord (I will now never stop laughing at the phrase "pelvic sorcery"). Speaking of Star Lord, Chris Pratt takes his big breakthrough opportunity and owns it in what's destined to be a star-making turn. Pratt oozes brash swagger, coolness and charm, and he kills it when it's time to show the character's goofier side. At the same time though he allows us to see the more emotional underbelly of what makes Peter Quill tick, a man clearly shaped by unresolved traumas and a longing for the life he's lost.

Another close escape for the legendary outlaw Star Lord...

The film is packed with inventive and high-energy action throughout its running time, delivering all the spaceship battles, brawls and shootouts one could ask for without ever going too overboard into excess. The action is always tied into the flow of the story- it never exists purely for its own sake, and it's always infused with a smattering of laughs as our mismatched team of outlaws bicker and struggle to coordinate with one another. It's all supported by fantastic visual effects, creating worlds of huge scale and creating all manner of alien characters through both extensive makeup work and first-class computer animation. Rocket and Groot in particular are amazing CG creations- if Superman's tagline was "You will believe a man can fly", then Guardians of the Galaxy's tagline ought to be "You will believe a raccoon can talk, while also wielding a high-powered space machine gun". Further adding to the visual grandeur is the use of 3D, something which Marvel movies have struggled to really utilize up to this point (usually ranging from decent yet unnecessary to downright detrimental to the viewing experience). Despite being post-converted the film was clearly planned with 3D in mind, having a lot of fun throwing things at the audience, swooping through tight openings in ship chases, and evoking a grand sense of awe as every new location seems to reach out into the stars of space. I particularly have to recommend seeing the movie in IMAX 3D if you can, as several scenes from the movie have expanded the film's aspect ratio to fill the full IMAX frame, making for one truly eye-popping experience.

Aside from being equally hilarious and flat-out awesome, Rocket and Groot are amazing creations of CG visual effects, making them all the easier to believe in as characters.

Guardians of the Galaxy is the most shamelessly fun, deliriously funny, and satisfyingly action-stuffed blockbuster this whole summer, one that's destined to have amazing replay value among both Marvel fans and movie fans in general. Unlike previous continuity-heavy "Phase 2" Marvel films Guardians is wholly accessible as a standalone action-comedy, yet the Marvel diehards can still expect to be greatly rewarded as they see how this latest film fits into the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe (and get some cool character cameos and easter eggs in the process). It revels in and slyly winks at its own sense of familiarity, all while using its amazing cast interplay, offbeat humour and killer soundtrack to infuse it with its own distinct and irresistible flavour. The summer movie season this year has recently been suffering a deadly dry spell (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes notwithstanding), and Guardians of the Galaxy proves to be the perfect blockbuster  to give the moviegoing scene some much-needed spark and vitality again.
While every hot streak has to go cold at some point, for the moment at Marvel it seems that the sky's the limit. Heck, if Guardians is any indication, the limit clearly goes beyond not just the sky but the reaches of space itself.

Final Review Score: 9.5 / 10

+ An amazing cast where everyone on our team of heroes gets ample time to shine
+ A gut-bustingly hilarious script with tons of killer team interplay and subversive irreverence
+ An expertly paced 2 hours that's packed with one exciting, creative action sequence after another
+ Fantastic visual effects are joined by surprisingly great use of 3D (particularly in IMAX)
+ Accessible blockbuster fun that's still stuffed with fanservice 
+ The music (both Tyler Bates' score and the lively 70s/80s soundtrack) kick all kinds of ass, proving integral to the film's distinct identity
+ That end-credits scene... (I wouldn't dare spoil it, it's just too awesome)