TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: OUT OF THE SHADOWS
As I often do before I write a review of any sequel, I went back and reminded myself what my reaction was to the previous film. Wow, I really didn’t like the 2014 incarnation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I know I wasn’t the only one, but director Jonathan Liebesman (Darkness Falls, Battle Los Angeles, Wrath of the Titans) somehow managed to combine boring versions of these creatures, alongside even more wooden human characters. I was especially tough on Megan Fox as well as the overall washed-out, nondescript look of the turtles. What a difference a couple of years and a new director can make.
Around the same time the first TMNT film was out in theaters, director Dave Green had a film out called Earth to Echo, a work that leaned heavily on his knowledge of family-oriented ’80s films like E.T. and Stand By Me as well as more recent kids-oriented sci-fi like Wall-E, The Last Mimzy, and Super 8. In a way, it makes sense that a younger director like Green might have been heavily inspired by the 1990, men-in-suits version of the Turtles and remember what made that film work in terms of story, energy and overall comic book vibe. The upshot is that his TMNT: Out of the Shadows is a far more engaging, vibrant, exciting and humorous romp through a end-of-the-world dilemma that does exactly what the title implies—it brings the sewer-living ninjas into the light to fight both their old enemy Shredder (Brian Tee) and a new extraterrestrial bit of nastiness in the form of Krang (a part robot, part tentacled brain monster voiced by Brad Garrett).
More than any previous version of the Turtles I can think of, Out of the Shadows makes a genuine effort to make each of the four main characters unique entities, to the point where an enemy could exploit their differences in an effort to tear them apart and make them trust each other less. As silly as it might sound in a Ninja Turtles film, the effort put into any level of character development make a massive difference. At one point, the Turtles’ sensei, Master Splinter (a giant rat, voiced by Tony Shalhoub), tells them that they are no longer boys, that they are becoming men. And much like the Turtles, the overall feeling of the film feels more grown up, which is not to say there isn’t mile after mile of silliness and broad-stroke comedy, but there’s something stronger about the entire effort.
One of my biggest gripes about Megan Fox in the previous film was that her portrayal of a broadcast journalist was so awful and wooden that it stank up the joint and tainted everything around it. That problem has more or less been neutralized in Out of the Shadows by only showing her on camera for a brief moment at the end of the film. Rest assured, it’s still terrible, but for the majority of the film April is more of an agent, working with the Turtles to expose a new threat in the form of scientist Baxter Stockman (a grotesquely over-the-top Tyler Perry), who is plotting to break Shredder out of prison and help assemble a device that will open up an intergalactic portal, allowing Krang into our world and to take it over.
Something had happened to Fox in the last couple of years, and she seems to take herself a lot less seriously and just roll with the jokes made at her expense by simply taking the lead and making a lot of them herself. Her April O’Neil seems more at ease, funnier, and, dare I say, more likable this go-round. It probably isn’t a coincidence that Out of the Shadows introduces us to a partner in missions for April with Casey Jones (Stephen Amell of TV’s “Arrow”), a cop who has a personal stake in seeing Shredder recaptured, along with his two henchmen Bebop (Gary Anthony Williams) and Rocksteady (pro wrestler Sheamus), both of whom are transformed into walking-talking animals as well, much like the Turtles. While the film wisely doesn’t reduce April and Casey’s relationship to a budding romance, the two do have a great action chemistry that elevates the proceedings. Casey works so well, in fact, that when Will Arnett’s Vernon Fenwick re-enters the storyline, it’s a big anticlimactic.
The film’s climax reminds us who its producers are—Michael Bay and his Platinum Dunes cohorts Andrew Form and Bradley Fuller—and when you see how big the scale is, you’ll think you’re watching a Transformers movie. And not unlike Bay’s franchise films, Out of the Shadows pulls in quality actors for supporting roles as if that somehow validates the film’s existence the tiniest bit. Enter Laura Linney as New York Police Chief Vincent, who also happens to be Casey Jones’s boss, who doesn’t believe a word of his story about how Shredder got away or that there are animal-like monsters roaming the streets of the city. Doubting despite evidence to the contrary seems to be a main ingredient of Bay’s sci-fi movies.
But it’s the film’s underlying message of this team of outsiders named after artists—Michelangelo, Donatello, Leonardo and Raphael—who want to be accepted as something more than just freaks of nature that got to me. Sure, it’s a mostly predictable superhero movie on the surface, but underneath there’s a message, not about wanting fame and glory, but about wanting those that you protect to actually know someone is looking out for them. TMNT: Out of the Shadows is not a great movie, but it’s still pretty good and ranks a whole lot higher than the previous entry in the series. More importantly, I’m genuinely curious where the Turtles’ adventures take them next.
ME BEFORE YOU
If this had just been a film about Louisa Clark (as played with more pure energy and delight by “Game of Thrones” Emilia Clarke than you could possibly imagine) going to and from her job at the local tea shop, spending time with her obsessively in-training boyfriend Patrick (Matthew Lewis), and going home to her lovely family, I would have seen Me Before You as a truly pleasant profile of a ridiculously good human being. And that would have been good. It’s easy to love watching Lou navigate her uncomplicated life where everyone adores her, including her mother (Samantha Spiro), father (Brendan Coyle) and best friend sister (Jenna Coleman, of “Doctor Who” fame), but without a little drama, there’s not much to force Lou to see beyond her small-town world and wonder what lies in the world outside.
Based on the quite popular novel by Jojo Moyes (who also adapted the screenplay), Me Before You has Lou lose her job, forcing her to look for work outside her comfort zone, as a caregiver for a wheelchair-bound Will Traynor (Sam Claflin, from several Hunger Games movies), who became paralyzed in a freak motorcycle accident (he was actually struck by one in a rain storm). Will’s parents (played by Charles Dance and Janet McTeer) seem to select Lou for the job not because she has experience, but because she seems to possess the necessary bubbly spirit they hope will draw their son out of his gloomy shell.
As directed by theater veteran (and first-time feature filmmaker) Thea Sharrock, the movie leans heavily on Clarke’s ability to make us smile, laugh and sometimes cry. She is a dominating force for quirky sweetness in ways her work on “Game of Thrones” never once hinted at, and few things are greater than an actor defying all expectations. Much is made of Lou’s colorful, thrift-shop wardrobe, but Clarke uses them as both a reflection and embodiment of Lou’s personality. She wants her very appearance to raise the spirits of anyone she comes into contact with, and eventually Will succumbs and allows her to genuinely care about him.
Despite the Sparksian undertones the trailer and commercials for Me Before You might have you think are present, this is not a conventional love story for a particular reason I won’t reveal here. And while it seems fairly obvious that Will is not in the best of health (he has sudden bouts of pneumonia that hit him hard from time to time), that’s not what rests in the core of his demeanor. We find out through the course of the film that Will was the type of man who valued his freedom and physicality above most other things. He had a girlfriend, whom he pushed away and ended up with his best friend, but even that isn’t keeping him in a deep funk that presumably Lou will save him from. If this were that type of film, I likely wouldn’t be recommending it so strongly.
Me Before You has plenty of issues keeping it from being great. Moyes does her story a great injustice by glossing over some of the particulars of life as a paralyzed man. Stephen Peacocke plays Will’s male nurse, who fills in Lou on some of the less tidy elements of Will’s day-to-day living, but even that is fairly tame. And while graphic accounts of Will’s lifestyle might be too much for those looking for pure romance, it might have also shown us how deep Lou’s commitment to healing this broken man really was. In addition, the on-the-nose soundtrack, consisting of tracks by Ed Sheeran, X Ambassadors, Imagine Dragons, and more, almost spell out the emotions we’re meant to be feeling from scene to scene; it borders on gross sometimes.
But there are other unexpected aspects to the film that I truly adored. Pretty much any sequence with Lou and any combination of family members is wonderful. There’s something about the way they interact that struck a chord, with its brand of unconditional love and unbridled honesty that might come across as that special brand of low-level cruelty that only family members know how to dish out. When juxtaposed alongside Sam’s parents, there’s clearly an underlying commentary about the British class structure. Writer Moyes seems to feel that working-class families are tight-knit and caring, while upper-class families throw their money at problems and hope that does the trick. Sam’s parents are actually quite caring, but they are also absent from their son’s life for large stretches, perhaps proving the point.
If Me Before You seems like the type of film you wouldn’t be caught dead going to, feel free to check it out, let it surprise you on several levels, and put your faith in Emilia Clarke to deliver a very different style of independent woman to the screen. In a decidedly anti-fairy tale manner, it’s the young peasant girl who sets out to save the prince living in the castle, held prisoner by his own dark thoughts. I think this one might get through your hard heart; give it a shot.
To read my exclusive interview with Me Before You star Emilia Clarke and author/screenwriter Jojo Moyes, go to Ain’t It Cool News.
HOW TO LET GO OF THE WORLD AND LOVE ALL THE THINGS CLIMATE CAN’T CHANGE
In 2010, filmmaker Josh Fox made a unique type of activist doc called Gasland, which ended up getting an Oscar nomination and sparked a sequel three years later. Fox’s approach made itself clear fairly early: while he give us a certain amount of facts and figures on his subject, his primary means of getting his message across (in this case, about the human and environmental costs of petroleum extraction method known as fracking) were going to be the voices of those impacted most directly by fracking—the small-town residents who were lied to and taken advantage of by the big oil companies.
With his most recent work, How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change, Fox tackles the broader and potentially more devastating phenomenon of global warming, but in a way like I’ve never seen done. Absent are the charts and graphs that Al Gore gave us in An Inconvenient Truth. Again, Fox gives us some of that in the first 30 minutes of his film, but rather than simply parade out one doomsday scenario after another, he admits that the prospects for our future on this planet have bummed him out to such a degree that it has overwhelmed him. To hopefully counter this environmental depression, Fox seeks out stories around the world of people actually doing something to keep the conversation going about climate change, folks whose undeniable spirit and drive are tested but who refuse to give in to despair, even if their homes are endangered by rising sea levels.
Fox tracks the aftermath of recent global disasters such as Hurricane Sandy or a less reported typhoon in Southeast Asia that was the largest ever recorded. He finds tribes on small island nations who have open discussions about climate change and refuse to throw blame in any one direction but instead desperately wish to be part of the solution. He travels to the Amazonian rainforests and spends more time marveling at the oversized, unfamiliar creatures he spots among the jungle fauna than he does discussing the devastating impact of local oil spills and deforestation. His travels to Beijing to examine the potentially deadly smog problem that is shocking to say the least, but his being spied on and surveyed by Chinese police is far more dramatic.
Fox is regaining his strength, a sense of purpose, and a renewed faith in humanity through his travels to every region on the planet, and How to Let Go… transforms into a film about seeking out true believers in turning things around with the environment in a world filled with people who simply don’t give a shit. It’s a film that demands you find a silver lining on a global scale, and while it may sound like a bunch of delusional, wide-eyed optimism gone horribly wrong, Fox keeps his enthusiasm grounded, fully admitting that none of the people or groups that he meets will solve any problems by themselves. It’s a fascinating and highly personal type of activist filmmaking that drew me in and kept me interested. And it might have even given me hope about the environment, which is in rare supply these days. The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.