Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: Turtles in Time (Blu-ray Review)

PG – 96mins – 1993


 

COSMIC CRUISE

“Relax, April, It’s just your ordinary time-travel-equal-mass-displacement thing.”

After sitting out The Secret of the Ooze, Elias Koteas and Corey Feldmen both reprised their respective roles of vigilante Casey Jones and the voice of Donatello in this second – and final for some 14 years – big screen sequel to 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Having not seen Turtles in Time since the bygone days of Ritz VHS rentals, I had – in the intervening two decades – lazily adopted the general public perception that this culture (shell-)shock ‘turtles out of water’ time travel adventure was a hokey and frivolous farce; a lesser beast than its two more weighty predecessors.

So imagine my “mondo surprise” following my blu-ray revisit last night to find that I actually prefer this third film! I am so used to modern franchises getting progressively darker and moodier as they progress, but it is actually to the credit of this Stuart Gillard-steered cultural exchange that the tone is lighter and more consistent throughout – these turtles have dispensed with Shredder and the Foot Clan and found their groove!

“Talk about your Quantum Leap!”

With Jim Henson’s Creature Shop replaced by All Effects Company on animatronic duties, the turtle suits do look a tad more obvious (eyes are rounder, spots stand out more and the green skin tone more vibrant), but aside from a couple of instances where you can spot a gap between the bandana and eye holes, they aren’t jarringly different or cheaper-looking. Plus a more cartoony-vibe actually suits the film’s more jovial tone.

With human compadre April O’Neil (Paige Turco) accidentally sent back to feudal Japan thanks to a magical golden sceptre (or “weird Japanese antique egg timer”) she picked up at the flea market, it is up to the amphibious foursome to “open wide the gates of time” and follow her back to the 15th century in order to bring her home.

“Hello mustard?!”

“Okay, so my Japanese is a little rusty…”

With the sceptre balancing out any paradoxes by replacing any time travellers with the same number of people from the earlier period, it is up to aged mentor Splinter (James Murray) and Casey to be on babysitting duties for some understandably confused honour guards, while the turtles are plunged shell-first into a large scale civil war.

This does make the narrative somewhat lopsided, with the impressively grandiose jaunt in Japan taking precedence (that was where the budget was spent, after all), but to make a return to the franchise more appealing than simply feeding junk food and teaching hockey to some bemused foreign warriors, Elias Koteas plays a dual role as bearded spy Whit in 1603.

The pizza-lust and landslide of popular culture references are still reliably in place – although allusions to Elvis, James Dean and The Three Stooges do mean they’ll stay relevant for longer than Wayne Gretzky. So, too, are Raphael’s (Tim Kelleher) “turtle tantrums,” while profuse weapon usage during the battle sequences and the imparting of some sage advice to young villagers does lend the comedy some levity – and Raph a character-enhancing epiphany.

CR@B Verdict: 3 stars

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Alice Through the Looking Glass (Cinema Review)

PG – 113mins – 2016 – 3D


 

THE MATTER WITH THE HATTER

First announced four years ago, The Muppets resurrector James Bobin inherited the directorial top hat from Tim Burton (who stayed on in the capacity of producer) for this slow-tracked sequel to Disney’s 2010 live action Lewis Carroll remake.

“You’ve been gone too long, Alice.”

In the years following Alice’s (Crimson Peak’s Mia Wasikowska) slaying of the Jabberwocky and return to the sexist reality of 19th Century life, she has followed in her sea-fairing father’s footsteps as Captain of The Wonder. Upon debarking, Captain Kingsleigh is distraught to learn her father is dead and her spurned former fiancé, Hamish (Leo Bill), is now her boss, smarmily demanding she be demoted to clerk – no wonder our free-thinking heroine is desperate to escape once more to the dreamlike surrealism of Underland!

Stylistically in keeping with the colour-crowded, CG-heavy Alice in Wonderland, Looking Glass takes an “un-impossible” turn for the darker when the old gang of flamboyant friends tells Alice that the clown-faced Mad Hatter (Johnny Black Mass Depp) is dying of depression following the dim discovery that his estranged family of ginger hat-makers (headed by patriarch Rhys Ifans) have perished.

Desperate to put the colour back in his ghost-white cheeks, Alice tasks herself with entering the Grand Clock Tower and procuring the Chronosphere (think H.G. Well’s antique contraption mixed with General Grievous’ wheel bike) from Time (Grimsby’s Sacha Baron Cohen) himself, allowing her to journey back on the oceans of time to save the tragic Hightopp brood. But can you ever really change the past, or simply learn from it?

The grandiose time travel concept (Time is a he who has automaton Seconds for minions, who in times of need can club together into larger Minutes and giant Hours) is cleverly constructed, however no matter how poetic the plot or nifty the FX, I still don’t ever believe that the human actors are really anywhere but in front of a green screen – no matter how affected their accents or kooky their clothes.

Alice PosterDiverting from Carroll’s prose, Looking Glass successfully manages to pack more of an emotional wallop than its superficial predecessor thanks to an entangled backstory which reveals the reasons for the White (Anne Hathaway) and Red Queen’s (Helena Bonham Carter) sisterly squabbles – and the awkward medical justification for the latter’s inflated bonce. However, a lot of the surreal side characters feel like little more than frivolous window dressing in this “curiouser and curiouser” continuation which will put a Cheshire Cat-sized grin on the lips of those who loved Burton’s interpretation, but won’t convert any detractors.

CR@B Verdict: 3 stars

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (Blu-ray Review)

PG – 88mins – 1991


 

OOZE THE DADDY?

“What did you expect, that they’d come out quoting Macbeth?!”

Arguably, Golden Harvest/New Line Cinema’s fast-tracked return to the sewers finds a better balance between bandits and buffoonery than its schizophrenic predecessor of the year before, ramping up the silliness of the obviously preposterous scenario while toning down the ass kickin’ and dulling the pitiful relatability of the real world elements. The recouped and recovering Foot Clan, for instance, are this time portrayed more in a Power Rangers-esque Putty Patrol mould of faceless drones.

From endless pop culture references (“Wax on, wax off!”) to an intrinsic role for the mutagen-containing contaminated cannisters which brought life to the subterranean slice scoffers, all of the most popular and instantly associated elements of the franchise are back for The Secret of the Ooze. Even arch nemesis Shredder (François Chau) manages to dig himself out of the junk yard following his diving “death” during Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles rooftop climax!

But there is also much that has changed since the first film, with Paige Turco replacing Judith Hoag as April O’Neil – who now works for Channel 3 rather than 6 – while love/hate romantic counterpart Casey Jones is not even mentioned! Donatello is sounding a lot less like Corey Feldman, too – while the improved animatronic turtle heads courtesy of Jimt Henson’s Creature Shop are more malleable to such an extent that they are almost too expressive. On a sidenote: this film is dedicated to the legendary Muppets puppeteer, who sadly passed away in May 1990.

It’s a huge shame that the opportunity to bring brainless brutes Bebop and Rocksteady to the big screen was scuppered by a difficulty with legal clearances, with wolf Rahzar and snapping turtle Tokka (both voice by Frank Welker) instead being the mutagen-modified monsters a vengeful Shredder forces scientist Jordan Perry (David Warner) to create to fight his enemies in a “freak versus freak” revenge plot.

“Didn’t we see these guys on Wrestlemania?!”

As much as I initially favoured the injection of more comic frivolity, come the climatic showdown I did start to crave a dose of the dramatic. Instances where Shredder contently looks on while his infant-minded creatures are fed poisonous donuts during a fight scene strains credulity. The in-universe incorporation of Vanilla Ice’s “Ninja Rap” theme song into proceedings when the battle spills over into a dance club in which the star is performing is acceptable as a camera-winking cameo, but the scene stretches on waaaay too long – and when Shredder steps onto the stage only to be defeated by loud music, you do start to question whether you’re watching Bill & Ted!

“Go ninja, go ninja, go!”

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze starts strongly but this bodacious demand-dictated big screen re-tread ultimately falls foul of sequel-itis: more of the same, but BIGGER – which we literally get when Shredder gets a muscle-bulging, armour-enhancing dose of mutagen. As voice-of-reason Splinter (Kevin Clash) remarks with a (realistic) roll of his eyes: “Oy!

CR@B Verdict: 2 stars

The X-Files: I Want to Believe (DVD Review)

15 – 100mins – 2008


 

BILLY’S GOT TALENT

Growing up in a household without Sky television, my only exposure to Chris Carter’s phenomenally successful supernatural serial was when BBC One belatedly started showing it pre-Match of the Day on a Saturday night. A few choice episodes stand out from this truncated terrestrial transmission, but I’d never go so far as to call myself an avid X-phile.

This might go some way to explain why it has taken me the best part of EIGHT years to catch up with this second theatrical release, which came a decade after 1998’s Fight the Future, six years after the show’s largely Duchovny-less ninth season and six years before January’s “event” mini-series revival (which I plan to binge-watch on blu-ray come its June home video release).

Years after they have left the FBI, Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) is a fugitive from the organisation, while Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) is a doctor at a Catholic hospital. Despite protestations that they “can’t look into the darkness again,” the old team are lured back into paranormal investigation when Father Joe (Billy Connolly), a former priest with a dangerous past, claims to be having psychic visions which could lead to the safe rescue of a kidnapped agent – and the apprehension of some twisted backstreet surgeons. But does Father Joe really have a super-human talent for tapping into the voice of God, or is he elaborating a fiction to atone for his diabolical sins?

Beyond its horrendous tagline of a subtitle, the main issue I had with I Want to Believe is its scale. It’s a competent enough drama (if lacking the prepossessing kick of the show’s extra-terrestrial edge), but it feels small, reserved and as unhurried as the film’s near-persistent softly falling snow. Carter and co-writer Frank Spotnitz give over a lot of time to moping, sighing and consternation from their philosophical characters. As evidenced:

“I’m lying here cursing God for all his cruelties.”

Even the strangeness of a Frankenstein-alluding climax can’t disguise this sequel’s calmer, more meditative tone, making it feel more like a water-treading mid-season double-bill than a cinema-worthy game-changer – and even less like a spectacular finale to a long-running franchise (which it effectively was until season 10).

In this regard it also serves a double fault of largely eschewing the mytharc of Mulder’s missing sister (which formed the backbone of the series when a monster of the week didn’t show up), while simultaneously assuming a fan’s level of franchise knowledge (Skinner’s cameo, references to previous case files, Mulder and Scully’s sleeping arrangement). Yet it fails as both a worthy wrap-up and a purposeful stand alone adventure, existing solely to eek a few more dollars from the parched pockets of a thirsty fanbase – now that’s a talent!

CR@B Verdict: 2 stars

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Blu-ray Review)

PG – 96mins – 1990


 

SEWER SAMURAI

“Where do they come up with this stuff?!”

It’s been a good number of years since I last watched this original Golden Harvest/New Line Cinema live action Turtles treatment, but a US trilogy blu-ray triple-discer was the perfect excuse for a rewatch of this alternative origin story ahead of Out of the Shadows on May 30th.

Amazingly, the physicality of the Jim Henson Creature Shop-designed animatronic shell suits still holds up 26 years later, with ragged rat Splinter (Kevin Clash) arguably looking better here than he does in CG in Platinum Dune’s 2014 reboot. His meditative characterisation is also the perfect counterpart to his teenage student’s goofiness (“Hrrm… kids!!”), and you genuinely sympathise for the furry Yoda-like mentor when he is kidnapped, strung up and tortured by arch-nemesis Shredder (James Saito) and his gang of lost boys-turned soldiers, the Foot Clan.

It is in the film’s portrayal of this real-world street crime undertaken by misguided kids feeling rejected by society that a real dissonance in tone is felt. While the sewer-dwelling siblings are getting teenage kicks from trading 90s pop-culture references (Rocky, Wheel of Fortune, Wayne Gretzky, Grapes of Wrath, Ghostbusters) and frivolous banter (“Give me three!”), the grittiness of the plague of thievery which reporter April O’Neil (Judith Hoag) is investigating lends the film a darker tone akin to punkish urban noir – a million miles from animatronic heads doing James Cagney impersonations!

This uncomfortable alliance is most evident when Raphael’s (Josh Pais) gang attack is juxtaposed with Mikey’s (Robbie Rist) playful symbol clashing – its as if director Steve Billie Jean Barron wanted to retain the “gnarly radicalness” of the popular Fred Wolf Films cartoon series while balancing the kid-friendly yucks with a more visceral and conscientious adult-appealing levity, like Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s edgier original panel-premiering inception.

There’s an astute level of catharsis achieved by a post-second act out of town ‘breather’ sequence, not to mention a nostalgic appeal to the dated vibe, but in attempting to darken such a wacky premise my mind was drawn to an uncomfortable recent parallel: Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four. I’ll always look on this memento from my childhood through rose-tinted glasses, but Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is not without its faults, even if the pizza guzzlers’ irresistible charm wins through in the end. Hrrm, kids!

CR@B Verdict: 3 stars

X-Men: Apocalypse (Cinema Review)

12A – 144mins – 2016 – 3D


 

MU WORLD ORDER

While I don’t tend to pay too much heed to reviews before I’ve watched a new release, my lackadaisical approach to seeing this sixth Marvel/20th Century Fox X-stalment (NINTH if we are to include the 2 Wolverine spin-offs and Deadpool) has meant that before taking my seat in the cinema yesterday evening I was well aware of the glut of two star write-ups Bryan Singer’s Days of Future Past follow-up has received.

Tying directly into the sting at the end of the previous film, X-Men: Apocalypse opens with a colourful-if-chaotic prologue set in Ancient Egypt, establishing the transferable abilities of premiere cyber-mutant, En Sabah Nur (Oscar “Poe Dameron” Isaac). Beneath my 3D glasses my eyes were struggling to keep up with the tumult of effects and exposition hastily edited together in a headache-induced blur of visual noise.

Not a good start, I thought, and if things stay like this for the following two-hours-and-twenty-minutes I can well understand the backlash… However, once the Stargate-esque opening title sequence concludes and we fast-forward to 1983 (this is the McAvoy rather than the Stewart continuity, in case Wade Wilson was asking), the action settles to a more measured pace, allowing you to appreciate the effort – and expense – put in to the shots.

That’s not to say that the locations settle, for his is still a large-scale, globe-encompassing blockbuster, with Berlin, Poland, Auschwitz, Cairo and New York all featuring in this prequel trilogy closer. Reawakened, Apocalypse – as Sahar Nur now prefers to be known – tours the planet to recruit the deadliest mutants to become his upgrade-enhanced “Four Horseman” and aid the invincible menace in ridding the modern world of the weak and returning Earth to the glory days when he was worshipped.

You could question why an immortal God-like monster with Apocalypse’s immense abilities requires assistants, but by roping in Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Steve Jobs Fassbender) to join his gang, the CG destruction is at least grounded in human drama. The man they used to call Magneto has been in hiding in Poland for the past decade, settling down with a loving wife and daughter in an attempt to put the White House calamity behind him. But when tragedy shatters his domestic bliss, Erik’s rage rises once more.

Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is also haunted by a ghost from his past, with his love for Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne, returning from First Class) and his pain at having to wipe her memory still weighing him down. Time-stopper Quicksilver (Evan Peters) is also back in town on personal business, and Apocalypse really hits its stride when drama and spectacle collide. Speaking of spectacle, this film is at its most awe-inspiring when it lets loose with the violence, and I was surprised to see this still achieve a “12A” rating, as some of the bone-crushing and blood-letting is brutally intense.

Although you could argue that the stakes aren’t exactly as universe-definingly fateful as the film would like you to believe (after all, we know Apocalypse doesn’t succeed in wiping out mankind as we’ve seen 3 films set after these events), there is still much to enjoy and invest in here, with a stand out being a zipping set-piece soundtracked by Sweet Dreams Are Made of These perfectly encapsulating the period and timbre. A cameo from a certain adamantium-enabled man-imal (you know Hugh) is also claw-some, and as superfluous as it is, for continuity’s sake it’s nice to finally see how Professor X lost his locks.

Short of using Cerebro, I’m clueless as to why so many critics have given X-Men: Apocalypse such a rough time – while it is long and its bulging ensemble set-up is busy, it’s also fun, rounded and far from shallow. Yes, it takes an unnecessarily petty pot-shot at The Last Stand (“The third films are always the worst”), but Singer’s confident enough that his saga-stitching threequel is not equally as disappointing. Ignore the critics who want you to believe that it is (no doubt all for the sake of “ironically” utilizing the quote) and make this one X you do give another chance.

CR@B Verdict: 4 stars

The Land Before Time III: The Time of the Great Giving (DVD Review)

U – 70mins – 1995


 

IRRATIONAL RATIONING

“There is no ‘fair’ when it comes to survival”

When the Great Valley’s watering hole of Thundering Falls begins to run dry, even drinking the morning dew from the tree-stars and rationing the depleted remaining supply cannot stop infighting from causing clashes between the various dino-herds who had learnt to live harmoniously in this once verdant sharp tooth-secluded paradise.

“We don’t share with anyone!”

Can virtuous long neck Littlefoot (Scott McAfee) and his band of dynamic friends help find a new water source before the Valley is decimated, or will the increasing threat of fires engulfing the parched land become a dangerous reality?

Having already collaborated just 12 months prior on The Great Valley Adventure, the same creative team – headed by director Roy Allen Smith – really started to find their feet with this second saccharine-sweet sequel to Don Bluth’s classic original.

Watching these family-friendly films in such close proximity, the shared moral sentiments – prejudice is bad, teamwork is good – and stringent structural framework – grandiose evolutionary montage, opening narration, status quo disrupted, status quo restored, closing narration – are beginning to become eye-rollingly repetitive, but that doesn’t mean I am blind to the fast-growing franchise’s merits.

The Time of the Great Giving is actually a far more worthy, confident and cohesive Jurassic jaunt than its patchy predecessor. Michael Tavera’s edifying songs are still unsubtly twee, but they are catchier and more palatable this time around, while the animation is noticeably sharper and more adept than the flat and rushed efforts of 1994’s Valley.

There’s still a predictability to the characterisation and events – a bullying band of antagonists are insipidly goofy (“bigger is better”), while three horn Cera’s (Candace Hutson) stubborn father (John Ingle) is so unreasonable you just know he is bound to come unstuck eventually (“sometimes fear makes adults act differently”) – but this is still harmless and heart-warming fare which promotes propriety in a way which is not only appealing to hatchlings.

CR@B Verdict: 3 stars