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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Pizza Power & Nunchaku Nostalgia: Revisiting The TMNT Part 2 - TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES II: THE SECRET OF THE OOZE (1991)

Following the spectacular success of the inaugural Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie the only thing that could have prevented a follow-up was the apocalypse. There was much more money to be mined from Turtlemania, by golly, and New Line Cinema and Golden Harvest were understandably eager to milk Eastman and Laird’s fantastical creations for all they were worth. Fast-tracked to open slightly less than a year after the first, the $25-million-budgeted second picture saw a major overhaul of the cast and behind-the-scenes crew – notably actors Elias Koteas, Judith Hoag and Corey Feldman, director Steve Barron, co-writer Bobby Herbeck and editor Sally Menke – and, in response to backlash over the violence and edginess of the original, was envisioned as a lighter, goofier adventure more reminiscent of the animated syndicated series. The censors and parents groups may not have won the battle of 1990, but they were certainly going to win the war. 

The resulting effort, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, was a respectable hit when it opened March 22, 1991, eventually bringing in $78-mill at the domestic box-office. While a noticeable decrease in ticket sales from the characters’ cinematic debut, it’s crucial to remember that these were still the days when the law of diminishing returns was a common reality for franchises, as audiences, and frequently creative ambition, dropped off with each successive instalment (that said, James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day would arrive just four months later and lay waste to summer movie competition; an omen of the blockbuster business model of future days to come). So, even if the telltale warning signs that Turtle Fever was beginning to break were obvious, the sheer volume of cash generated by tie-in merchandise and ancillary profits no doubt had the studio’s money men as giddy as the series’ enthusiastic young fans.

Picking up mere hours after the radical reptiles victoriously celebrated to the pulsing beat of Spunkadelic’s insanely infectious “9.95,” Secret of the Ooze sees Leonardo (Mark Caso, voice by Brian Tochi), Michelangelo (Michelan Sisti, voice by Robbie Rist), Donatello (Leif Tilden, voice by Adam Carl), Raphael (Kenn Scott, voice by Laurie Faso) and Splinter (Kevin Clash) without a home, seeking refuge in the comfortable domicile of their trusted TV news reporter friend, April O’Neil (Paige Turco). Tranquility doesn’t last long, however, as the Shredder (Francois Chau, voice by David McCharen) climbs out of the city garbage dump and sets about seeking vengeance. Reassembling the deadly Foot Clan, the vicious villain and his grunting sidekick Tatsu (Toshishiro Obata, voice by Michael McConnohie) fix their sights on TGRI, a local scientific corporation in the midst of a massive environmental clean-up effort, stealing a glowing canister of the same neon green goo that created our heroes 15 year prior. Soon, two more mutants - snapping turtle Tokka (Kurt Bryant, voice by Frank Welker) and wolf Rahzar (Mark Ginther, voice also by Frank Welker) - are tearing up the city and it’s up to the squabbling bro’s, alongside new friends Professor Jordan Perry (David Warner) and pizza delivery boy Keno (Ernie Reyes Jr.) to win the day. Again.

Compared to the Turtles’ genuinely engaging introductory chapter, which thrived on its basic comic-book storytelling, tight character dynamics, catchy best-selling soundtrack and bouncy energy, Secret of the Ooze is a pretty significant disappointment and, beyond the still effective Jim Henson Creature Shop work, doesn’t really hold up at all anymore. Exhibiting a crippling case of Sequelitis, shamelessly rehashing story beats (Raph storms off and is captured again!) and jokes (“I made another funny!”) to minimized effect, and slackly directed by Michael Pressman (the auteur behind The Bad News Bears In Breaking Training, making his return to the (sorta) big leagues after a near decade-long stint in TV), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II is a mostly empty experience, long on slapstick action and cornball jokes, yet short on thrills, visual oomph, imagination or narrative coherence. It’s the kind of opportunistic, poorly constructed “product” that the 1990 picture fought not to be, talking down to its kid target market – there are literally two scenes where the Turtles’ origin is recited – and offering absolutely nothing for their parents to engage with. Remember Casey Jones and April’s playful romantic back-and-forth sessions? Nothing like that here. The adult characters are pretty much MIA this time around, with the exception of Professor Perry, who isn’t so much a character as an exposition robot. Too bad the flirted-with-but-abandoned plot-twist that he had a Krang-like Utrom alien living in his abdomen never came to fruition. That would have at least made him interesting.

There’s no shortage of evidence proving that entertainment intended for children can be smart, innovative, dazzling and bold. Secret of the Ooze is none of those things. The comedic, weapon-free fight scenes – modelled on the Three Stooges, who are paid homage – slingshot between harmlessly watchable to awkwardly shoddy. It’s impossible to watch the woefully flat sequence in which the Turtles and the Foot play Keep-Away with a chemical canister in Perry’s office (a really cheap-looking set), surfing on chairs and engaging in acrobatic combat, and not feel a little sad for all involved. And what about that climactic mêlée in the oh-so-square sounding Dockshore Club? In any other movie, a scene where your main baddie gets blown out the window by a keytar would be jarring. Here, it seems like a logical progression.

A big part of the problem with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II is the utter lack of danger. Competent filmmakers can communicate stakes and the severity of an antagonist’s threat no matter the tone, genre or intended audience. Pressman ain’t the guy to try. Tokkah and Rahzar (who looks like the towering Muppet Sweetums) needn’t necessarily be made terrifying or hyper-aggressive to appear as formidable adversaries. Perhaps a touch of weird Universal Monsters otherness, or a display of destructive powers more impressive than a couple toppled telephone poles would have helped. Frankly, the creative team needed to justify the exclusion of beloved troublemakers Rocksteady and Bebop - who Eastman and Laird allegedly vetoed despite studio wishes – for these new heavies, and they sure don’t try very hard to do so. Yes, the well-known “Mama!” moment is cute and playfully undercuts the tension of the scene. Problem is, once that tension is dispelled it doesn’t ever return. Hence, their defeat in act three becomes a campy afterthought, not a true test of courage and ingenuity.

And the less said about Shredder 2.0, the better, as he’s become a neutered buffoon, weighed down by comically huge Dark Helmet-like headgear, totally robbed of menace and brutality. Even his ominous arrival in the first act is merely a blatant rip-off of the shot from Tim Burton’s Batman where Joker’s bleached hand emerges from the Gotham harbor. To be fair, though, it must be admitted that his eventual hulking Super Shredder form is suitably deadly. Now, if only something remotely cool had been done with it…

Most of the problems plaguing Secret of the Ooze can be traced to the screenplay, by returning scribe Todd W. Langen, which often makes no sense. We’re told it’s been 24 hours since the Shredder swan-dived into that fateful garbage truck, yet the Turtles behave like they’ve been going stir-crazy at April’s place for quite a while, and there are huge stacks of pizza boxes everywhere. Did they rescue Keno from thieves mere hours after barely surviving a grueling run-in with their arch-nemesis and his army of thugs?

Over on the bad guy side, Shredder, upon reemergence, shoots down the idea of rebuilding the Foot in favor of revenge (okay…), only to hold tryouts for new recruits a short while later (maybe Tatsu is really the brains behind this operation). He also determines April is the key and has embedded a particularly problematic character named Freddy (Mark Doerr) in her news crew. When did he do this exactly? During the first flick? How long has he been there?! April appears to know him fairly well, after all. Whatever becomes of this mysterious figure? He just disappears after giving April a stern message. Should we assume he was beaten up with the rest of his gang in the climax? Forget the secret of the ooze, tell us the secret of Freddy instead!

This shambling script-level incompetence carries over to the characters, as well. Previously, Raphael had an emotional journey, with a recognizable start and end. In Part II there are no character arcs to speak of! Ostensibly this is Donatello’s time to shine – he’s the one eager to explore their origin and plays a key role in the science stuff – though no attempt is made to develop his personality. Around the mid-point he expresses to Splinter his frustration that their birth was an accident. The wise rat sensei offers up a brief, tired fortune cookie saying and the scene ends, never to be referenced again. As for the other three, they now act out their single traits to occasionally annoying extremes (Leonardo is noticeably much whinier). As for Keno, he serves little function, outside of a sadly wasted subplot where he sneaks into the Foot’s base with Raphael, and then runs away. Reyes Jr. is a gifted martial artist and a lousy actor, popping in and out of the story to little fanfare when convenient, with minimal dialogue. Casey Jones, he is not. Even his exit is halfhearted, marked by Michelangelo quickly yelling “later, Keno dude!” over his shoulder while walking out the door to take on Shredder. Which, come to think of it, is still a more impressive send off than anything ol’ Professor Perry receives.

Movies like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Secret of the Ooze serve as a sobering reminder of how nostalgia can cloud the mind with delusion; blinding us to the obvious flaws of our personal childhood cinematic favorites. There’s some amusement to be had in once more seeing the Turtles being brought to life (and doing backflips!), or Splinter acting as a bow-and-arrow-wielding sniper, but these brief moments of amusement can’t mask what a rushed, hackneyed nothing Pressman and company churned out. Let’s remember: this is a picture that is remembered predominantly for a stilted performance of the terrible “Ninja Rap” by Vanilla Ice. It would have been far more appropriate, however, if the lyrics had instead just endlessly droned “No ninja, no ninja, no…!” 

Turtle-tastic Tidbits:

Bad-guys Beaten: 80

Most Tubular Takedown: Leonardo’s swords-in-the-ceiling kick is pretty great, but Donatello wins the movie with his sweet multi-kick/sommersault/head-kick combo during the Dockshore Club scuffle.

Pizzas Consumed: By the Turtles: 3. However, 19 slices are eaten by various New Yorkers during the opening credits.

Best duderific comic dialogue:

Donatello: “The perimeter's quiet.”

Leonardo: “Yeah, a little too quiet.”

*Donatello knocks out two Foot soldier guards*

Donatello: “Well, that was easy!”

Leonardo: “Yeah, a little too easy.”

Donatello: “Look! It's Raph!”

Michelangelo: “Yeah, a little too Raph.”

Direst duderific comic dialogue:

Donatello: “Hey, is this gonna work?”

Michelangelo: “Is, like, Schwarzenegger hard to spell?”

Sagest Splinter Wisdom: “Remember: the true ninja is a master of all things. A master of his environment. A master of himself.”

Most Menacing Villain Line: Shredder (to Tokkah and Rahzar): “Go ahead. Attack me if you will. When it is over, you will call me Master!”

Uncomfortable Adult Humor: Keno, shot down by a girl who tells him to “dream on, dweeb,” snarks back “Okay, and when I do I'll dream of someone a little thinner.” Keep it classy, kid.

Grade: 1.5 Cowabungas out of 5

Sunday, July 20, 2014

SUBSPACE TRANSMISSIONS Belts Out The Hits!

Riker trombone jokes were only the beginning! In this latest ambitious blast of sci-fi geek silliness hosts Cam Smith, Benjamin Yong and Tyler Orton sing the praises of Trek's most wonderful moments of impromptu musicianship, as well as play a solemn dirge for some truly wretched off-key caterwauling. When not reveling in the powerful dulcet tones of some of the franchise's biggest stars, they find time to discuss how one terrible light-hearted moment nearly sinks Insurrection, as well as engage in a passionate, fiery debate over a certain notoriously polarizing series theme song. We have faith... that everyone will really enjoy this one!

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Monday, July 14, 2014

Pizza Power & Nunchaku Nostalgia: Revisiting The TMNT Part 1 - TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES (1990)

When it high-kicked its way onto silver screens on May 30, 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was less a movie than a momentous event, the inevitable apex of a global craze that had been gathering steam for six years. Originally created by indie comic creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird in 1984 as an adult-oriented spoof of popular titles such as “New Mutants,” “Daredevil,” “Cerebrus” and Frank Miller’s “Ronin,” the colorful characters became an instant crossover phenomenon after fledgling Honk Kong toy company Playmates snagged toy rights and CBS began airing the syndicated animated TV series. In no time turtle fever was a very real condition infecting a generation of children, fuelled by an endless supply of action figures, video games, breakfast cereals, Mirage and Archie-produced comic books, etc., and the demand for a live action motion picture adaptation was positively frothing. The ensuing effort, a modest 13.5-million-budgeted venture between then-independent studio New Line Cinema (aka “The House that Freddy Krueger Built”) and Golden Harvest – the HK production company behind martial arts classics featuring Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, among others – was an instantly adored success story, grossing a tubular $135 million dollars at the domestic office and just over 200-mill worldwide. No matter which way you slice it, that was a lot of green in those days.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the movie proved less popular with critics and parents groups, who dismissed it as unimaginative crass commercialism, and railed against its dark tone and surprisingly edgy action. And they were not alone. Playmates, concerned by the public outcry and fearing controversy aimed in their direction, refused to manufacture toys based on these new cinematic versions of their top-selling moneymakers. Meanwhile, over in the UK, the censors (longtime adversaries of the TMNT cartoon) took scissors to the film, removing all signs of nunchuks and toning down the half-shelled combat. But, as so often proves the case, the negative press had very little effect (in the short term, that is…), and the target audience was free to revel in the flick’s 93 carefree minutes of wisecracking, sewer-surfing, Foot soldier-stomping fun over and over and over again.

The story of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, ingrained within the DNA of most children of the 1980s, is simplicity personified; New York has become plagued by a mysterious band of ninja thieves called the Foot Clan, who operate under the iron-clad rule of the fearsome Shredder (physical performance by James Saito, voice by David McCharen). After relentless reporter April O’Neil (Judith Hoag) exposes the group she becomes subject to intimidation and attacks, bringing a quartet of unlikely reptilian defenders into her life. Alas, these unlikely squabbling heroes, consisting of group leader Leonardo (David Forman, voice by Brian Tochi), party animal Michelangelo (Michelan Sisto, voice by Robbie Rist), science wiz Donatello (Leif Tilden, voice by Corey Feldman(!)) and surly loner Raphael (Josh Pais), are quickly targeted for elimination and run out of town by the vicious criminal empire, which kidnaps their dear rat sensei, Splinter (voiced by Kevin Clash). However, with the aid of hockey mask-wearing vigilante Casey Jones (Elias Koteas), and a troubled youth named Danny (Michael Turney), our weapon-wielding protagonists find the strength within themselves to win the day, save their master and celebrate in style with plenty of (Domino’s©) pizza.

Viewed 24 years after the hype has quieted, with a new Michael Bay-headed itineration waiting in the wings, it’s amusing how strangely innocent and harmless director Steve Barron’s original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles now seems. Contrasted against current kid-oriented action films, both good (Marvel’s output) and bad (Transformers, G.I. Joe), that bombard the senses with sequences of dizzying, wall-to-wall effects and cacophonic sound, the sight of Donatello acrobatically skateboarding down a darkly lit sewer pipe to a bouncy synth score, smacking attackers in the skull with his staff, seems positively quaint and old fashioned. We’ve come a long way, baby!

Although Tim Burton’s bank-breaking hit Batman, which arrived just one year earlier, was an obvious influence aesthetically, the film doesn’t strive to adopt that flawed milestone’s hyper-convoluted and occasionally muddled story structure – a sadly common trait in modern blockbuster scripts. Instead, it tells a remarkably economical, breezily energetic (the tight, punchy pace can be attributed to the invaluable cutting skills of Sally Menke, Tarantino’s late, great editor, making her Hollywood debut) and disarmingly sweet story of brotherly love, the bond between fathers and sons and the need for family, dressed up with roundhouse kicks and katana blades. It may not be high art, or stellar family entertainment exactly, nonetheless it remains undeniably charming, funny and often kinda exciting.

Coincidentally, it has also become something of a time capsule. Alongside the same year’s The Witches, this film was one of the final productions to be graced by the legendary Jim Henson, who succumbed to a bacterial infection just two weeks prior to release. His Creature Shop was responsible for bringing the titular anthropomorphized amphibians and Splinter to life, and it’s remarkable how life-like, endearing and expressive their efforts prove. Blending puppetry, bulky animatronics and actors in suits, the team managed the impossible by crafting fantastical creations that are convincingly credible both still and in motion, as evidenced throughout the clever fight sequences. There’s a tactile authenticity to them; they look and feel like (bizarre) denizens of our world, and, miracle of miracles, are never unpleasing to the eye or jarring. They are genuine works of movie magic, that – through no shortage of care, sweat and thought – are capable of impressive range (watch the sensitive reunion scene between Leonardo and a reawakened Raphael in a bathtub and try to disagree), and serve as a memorable final note for Henson’s astonishing career to go out on, just three short years before Jurassic Park would stomp into theatres and officially usher in the digital age.

The movie also marks the beginning of the end for cinema’s two-decade-long love/hate affair with New York City as a dangerous hub of urban decay. At the time of release, the metropolis was experiencing its highest violent crime rate – over two and half times the 2012 stats - in recorded history, largely due to a catastrophic crack epidemic, and that fear, griminess and pessimism colors much of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (never mind that it was mostly shot in North Carolina). Nowadays the film’s depictions of gloomy, foreboding subway stations, ugly crumbling buildings coated with graffiti and empty night streets dominated by roving youth gangs are wildly at odds with our impressions of the Big Apple. And though there are certainly plenty of artistic liberties being taken with this 1990 representation, it ultimately serves as an entertaining, evocative reminder of just how negatively the media and outside observers once perceived the pre-Giuliani cityscape.

While Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, thus far, seems mostly significant for signaling the end of noteworthy eras, it did help play a valuable role in setting a certain standard for future cinematic superhero tales. Despite Richard Donner’s sensational Superman in 1978 and Burton’s aforementioned Batman, the infant genre would take time to find its legs – until 1998’s Blade or 2000’s X-Men, depending on who you ask – and the picture deserves props for its low-key efficiency. Skillfully weaving its silly mythology and multiple outlandish personalities into a basic, easily accessible narrative, Barron and writers Todd W. Langen and Bobby Herbeck accomplish something of a wonder with minimal fuss. Well aware they were making a children’s flick, they admirably refuse to pander or water down the material’s overt weirdness; cleverly nailing all of the necessary details (compare the goofy, engaging exposition found in the April-narrated opening or Splinter’s old kung fu movie-toned stories to the countless frantic info-dump scenes found in current summer tentpoles) without forsaking their irreverent tone or stalling out. This is very silly stuff, and it’s nice to see it being respected, not condescended to like, say, 1987’s Masters of the Universe, which was “reimagined” as a derivative Star Wars riff. Sure, the film is naïve and a bit archaic when placed against today’s bumper crop of costumed crimefighter epics but it continues to be one of the few genre forebears still worthy of remembrance.

Of course, it’s also just a good, lively time at the movies. Nicely blending the gritty, pop-culture-skewering toughness of Eastman and Laird’s Mirage Comics adventures and the wackier Saturday morning cartoon into a consistent, unified whole, Barron and crew’s endeavor succeeds significantly on the strength of its personalities. Few would credit our butt-kicking brothers with having multi-dimensional personalities, however damned if the writers don’t milk their single notes, and intentionally dorky verbal sparring sessions, for everything they’re worth (with the possible exception of Donatello, who feels a little lost function-wise), never breaching into the realm of insufferableness. Raphael, all pent up discontent, attitude and frustration, remains the most compelling – who couldn’t, at some point in their younger years, relate to his impotent anger – and is the only turtle with a recognizable character arc, yet doesn’t stand in the way of everyone getting their own big moments to shine (gotta love Michelangelo’s show-stopping pre-clash nunchuk demonstration, or Leonardo leading a meditative fireside séance with Splinter’s Jedi force ghost).

The amiably vanilla Hoag, saddled with the thankless, albeit crucial, role of remaining a neutral presence and selling the illusion of her foam and latex costars, brings enough pep and warmth – sort of a Margot Kidder lite - to ground everything in (magical) reality. It’s too bad she didn’t stick around for the sequels, honestly. She’s especially engaging opposite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ secret Han Solo-ish weapon; rascally, rough-around-the-edges Elias Koteas as the cricket bat-swinging Casey. Fashioning an attention-grabbing performance from B-movie material, the character actor slyly runs away with every single one of his scenes (note his silently comedic shrug upon encountering a chained up Splinter) and leaves you wanting more. Though he wound up going the less conventional career route, with intense turns in pictures such as Cronenberg’s Crash, Malick’s The Thin Red Line and Egoyan’s Exotica, his star-quality charisma is impossible to deny here.

So what doesn’t work quite as well anymore? For starters, the threat of the Foot Clan now seems oddly inconsistent. Given their seemingly tightly-honed operation, and the ease with which they track down and nab Splinter, it’s a little dubious that it takes them so long to confront the turtles. And why doesn’t anyone try to pursue them once they escape to April’s cottage in the woods (do none of these delinquent kids drive? What about Tatsu? No Shreddermobile?!)? For all of the script’s strengths, occasionally the logic falters. Because he’s such a magnetic presence, it’s easy to forgive the lack of motivation behind Casey Jones joining the cause, although we probably shouldn’t. And, as enjoyable as the pop-culture references can be, there are some serious groaners on display. Arguably the worst offender is Raphael’s rooftop A Streetcar Named Desire Stanley Kowalski impression, which transpires during a key emotional point in the story, and just couldn’t fall flatter.

That said, quibbles aside, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles hasn’t lost its ability to trigger small bursts of adrenaline straight to the brain once the killer soundtrack kicks into gear and the fists start flying. Sincere in its cheerfully shallow aim to wow legions of kids with cornball humor, hyperactive hijinx and martial arts mayhem, director Barron and his team deliver enthusiastically and single-mindedly, injecting enough adult-friendly humor along the way to bridge the demographic gap. Almost two-and-a-half decades since making the leap to celluloid, these dudes continue to abide. Righteously.

Turtle-tastic Tidbits:

Bad-guys Beaten: 118

Most Tubular Takedown: Mikey and Donatello’s crowd-pleasing nunchuk demo/flying bo staff double hit combo.

Pizzas Consumed: 2. One delivered to their sewer home by a bewildered Domino’s © delivery man, and a second in the form of leftovers at April’s pad. A potential third is deemed inedible due to its liberal topping of “penicillin.”

Best duderific comic dialogue:

Donatello: "Good thing these guys aren't lumberjacks."

Michelangelo: "No joke. The only thing safe in the woods... would be the trees!"

Direst duderific comic dialogue:

Donatello: "Bossa Nova!"

Michaelangelo: "Dude, 'Bossa Nova?'"

Donatello: "Chevy Nova?"

Sagest Splinter Wisdom: “Possess the right thinking. Only then can one receive the gifts of strength, knowledge and peace.”

Most Menacing Villain Line: Shredder: “You fight well... in the old style. But you've caused me enough trouble. Now you face: the Shredder.”

Uncomfortable Adult Humor: Casey Jones reacting to being called claustrophobic by threatening “You want a fist in the mouth?! I’ve never even looked at another guy before!”

Grade: 4 Cowabungas Out of 5  

Sunday, July 13, 2014

SUBSPACE TRANSMISSIONS Gets Weird!

You wanna get nuts?! Let's get nuts! Join Cam Smith, Benjamin Yong and Tyler Orton in this brand new madcap, daffy installment in which they attempt to comprehend some of the craziest WTF creative decisions in the history of Star Trek. Wanna hear about puppet-wielding man-babies, or sinister circus clowns played by members of Spinal Tap? We gotcha covered! And, just to add to the fun, the trio analyze the bizarre love life of everyone's favorite Klingon security chief, as well as finally deal seriously with the ramifications of Ferengi cross-dressing. Pull up your space-bootstraps, cuz you're in for one mighty kooky ride!

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Monday, July 07, 2014

SUBSPACE TRANSMISSIONS Is Scared Out Of Its Wits!

Even hosts as tough as Cam Smith, Benjamin Yong and Tyler Orton get scared every now and again. In this chilling and spooktacular episode the trio recount their most unsettling Trek experiences, and revel in the horror of some of sci-fi's most revolting and disquieting television hours. Along the way, counselor-based desserts are discussed, as well as the awesome deadliness of DS9's most beloved Cardassian. And, as an added bonus, the discussion culminates in an extended discussion on the potential format of the franchise's next journey back to the small screen. Enjoy! If you dare...

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Sunday, June 29, 2014

SUBSPACE TRANSMISSIONS Goes To The Movies: Part I

In this very special Film Flashback bonus episode hosts Cam Smith and Tyler Orton, regrettably down one Benjamin Yong, take a long, in-depth look at 1979's polarizing Star Trek: The Motion Picture. What still works and what doesn't? Where does the film rank in the franchise's movie canon? And what scene does one host call out as being among his favorite love scenes of all time? All these questions are answered and so, so much more, in the first entry of this ongoing series of grade-A supplemental shows focusing on cinematic Trek.

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Thursday, June 26, 2014

SUBSPACE TRANSMISSIONS Goes On Shore Leave!

When you're a hard-working member of Starfleet sometimes you just gotta get away from it all. Fortunately, ever tireless hosts Cam Smith, Benjamin Yong and Tyler Orton don't believe in downtime and are ready at your service, this time calling out the finest and direst episodes involving leisure activities in the 23rd and 24th century. Wanna know how the trio feel about pleasure planets? This is the ticket, baby! They also chime in on the dubious appeal of Ten Forward and contemplate the alcohol level of synthale. Let the good times roll! 

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Film Review - TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION

The continued global success of Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise says many damning things about our culture, and its ever-lowering bar for what passes as adequate entertainment. However, what it really highlights is the lack of moral outrage in this generation of mothers and fathers. Back in 1990, when Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles stormed the silver screen, parents groups were up in arms over that hit movie’s realistic depictions of half-shelled ass-kicking. So effective were their ensuing protests and vocal disapproval that each consecutive sequel increasingly toned down the violence and brightened up the color palette in order to not scar the impressionable little ones. 

By comparison, the Transformers pictures are beginning to feel like an elaborate in-joke designed to test just how much sadism, cruelty and antisocial anger can be injected into one bloated toy commercial. Take Age of Extinction, the latest gasping junker to roll off the Hasbro/Paramount assembly line; the film opens with the fiery genocide of countless terrified dinosaurs before seguing into a sequence in which proud Autobot Ratchet is viciously torn limb from limb and impaled while pleading for his life, repeatedly wailing “I am your friend! I am you friend!” Sure, this sort of casually mean-spirited stuff is par for the course in this soul-blackening series – remember in 2009’s Revenge of the Fallen when heroic Optimus Prime screamed “Give me your face!” while savagely disfiguring his critically weakened foe? – but shouldn’t there at least be some serious debate about projecting this trash in front of the impressionable eyes of millions of kids? I know, I know, they’re just robots and it’s “fun.” Sigh. Okay, moving on…

Look, at this point, if you’ve seen one Transformers movie, you’ve seen ‘em all, and Age of Extinction isn’t much different from the rest of the bunch. Despite losing the entire previous cast, and adding a trio of mechanical dinos to the team, this latest addition pretty much mirrors the experience of sitting through the previous three. The action is still overwrought, numbing and relentless, the plot dumb and seemingly made up on the spot and the characters obnoxious and paper-thin. This won’t be the film to convert new fans or offend diehards. It does test endurance levels the most, though; at 165 minutes it’s by far the lengthiest pilgrimage into the distorted, product placement-obsessed (and possibly sociopathic) mind of director Michael Bay. Depending on your view, this will come as a dire warning or a hearty recommendation.

Following the aforementioned mass dino-butchering - which establishes that it was actually aliens that caused the famed mass extinction event and not asteroids or comets - this fourth chapter in the Transformers saga picks up with a rogue CIA death squad, overseen by Kelsey Grammer’s Harold Attinger, wiping out Autobots as penance for the destruction of Chicago in Dark of the Moon. Employing the gun-faced Decepticon Lockdown, the group are harvesting tech, weapons and precious “transformium” (an intentional one-upping of Avatar’s unobtainium?) from the bodies of deceased ‘bots, most notably the villainous Megatron, in order to strengthen American defenses against extraterrestrial attacks. Of course, it goes without saying that Lockdown has ulterior motives for enlisting in the cause, and they predominantly swirl around the vanished Autobot leader Optimus Prime.

Dormant and gathering dust for years in a dilapidated movie theater (never mind how he got in there), the gravel-voiced alpha-bot is discovered by financially-strapped Texas inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), and transported back to his homey farmhouse for tinkering. Unfortunately for Cade and his scantily-dressed teenage daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz), trouble comes-a-calling when the reactivation of Optimus draws swarms of murderous CIA goons out of the woodwork, forcing them to go on the run, accompanied by Tessa’s secret boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor) and a small handful of surviving Autobots. Relentlessly pursued, our squabbling heroes soon come into contact with Stanley Tucci’s flamboyant Joshua Joyce, a Steve Jobs-ian blowhard genius who is creating an army of man-made Transformers and winds up possessing an alien device that threatens to transform our precious planet into a big 'ol smoking crater.

As has traditionally been the case, the script, by indefensible returning writer Ehren Kruger, is merely a shambles crudely tying together pre-visualized action sequences. There’s little logic connecting each plot point – it’s not very clear, for example, what Wahlberg hopes to accomplish by crashing Tucci’s tech company – and more of a casual attitude of indifference towards pesky things like character arcs, motivation and consistency of personalities. Every so often, blatantly obvious storytelling patches (a bizarre cell phone discussion between Cade and Joyce reeks of desperate last minute tinkering) rear their heads, but most of the time Kruger and Bay are content to let the never-ending explosions and chaos further the narrative. Which, as far as this property goes, is just fine. The sound of concussive pyrotechnics is infinitely more pleasing to the ear than the wretched dialogue.

Curse his hacky sensibilities all you want, it’s impossible to ignore Michael Bay’s proficiency for setting up cool effects shots. Alas, he seems to be pretty checked out here – there’s nothing to top the climactic city-toppling battle in Dark of the Moon – and doesn’t imbue the movie with his usual level of memorable weirdness (no sulky Megatron wearing a cape or Robot Heaven this time around). While it’s impossible to argue that he fails to create plenty of cataclysmic eye-candy, exhilaration or energy are noticeably absent, leaving only serviceable dutifulness. Let’s put it this way; there’s more excitement and innovation in Captain America: Winter Soldier’s hostage-freeing opener than in the entirety of Age of Extinction. And that film didn’t have (much ballyhooed, yet lamely wasted) Dinobots!

Although the helmer can do action in his sleep, he can’t pull off self-aware meta humor on his best day. A scene where an elderly character scorns modern-day Hollywood for only cranking out remakes and sequels, before fawning nostalgically over a poster of Howard Hawks’ El Dorado – a loose redo of that cinematic master’s own 1959 classic western Rio Bravo – is pretty embarrassing. Is he trying to argue that things haven’t really changed at all? His intention isn’t quite clear, and only succeeds in emphasizing the gaping gulf in quality between Hawks’ retold tales and his own. Equally head-scratching is an icky scene wherein he acknowledges his own (boringly) repulsive misogyny by having Cade sternly criticize his daughter’s ultra-short cutoffs for being inappropriate while the camera performs a long, leering cinematic proctology exam. Admitting the problem is only step one, Mr. Bay. 

It must be a bit of a blessing and a curse to star in one of these vehicles. On one hand, you’ve got a guaranteed box office smash on your resume, while on the other there’s a darn good chance you’ll be delivering your very worst work. Such is the case with this cast, who often have to spit out their unspeakable lines at a staccato beat in order for it to complement the editing. Credit where it’s due, Shia LaBeouf had this dubious technique down cold. Wahlberg does not, and his inventor – an apparent graduate from the “Dr. Christmas Jones Institute of teh Science and Technologies” – is pretty much a blank, enlivened only by being flanked by pretty deadweights Reynor and Peltz. Not surprisingly, Tucci and Grammer are the only two who seem to be enjoying themselves, well aware that they might as well embrace the opportunity to go whole-hog camp. As the voice of Optimus, Peter Cullen adds a touch of class, despite spending most of his screentime threatening to kill everyone before delivering another patented film-closing nonsensical monologue (always my favorite part).

Predictably, the picture closes on an ominous cliffhanger ending paving the way for a fifth and (*gulp*) likely sixth Transformers adventure. It’s too late to pray for change; the worst blockbuster franchise going will continue to cough out new content so long as the bucks keep rolling in. Age of Extinction isn’t the nadir of the franchise, nor does it cast a single ray of hope that Bay and crew will course-correct and produce an installment that develops the intellectual property in an interesting or novel way. The robots may be in disguise, however the filmmakers' intentions couldn’t be any more naked. See you again in Summer 2016. Bring the kids.

1.5 out of 5