DESPICABLE ME (2010)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Rude Humor and mild Action

Directed by: Pierre Coffin & Chris Renaud

Written by: Cinco Paul & Ken Daurio

Voices of: Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Russell Brand, Miranda Cosgrove, Diana Gaier, Elsie Fisher, Will Arnett, Kristen Wiig & Julie Andrews

DESPICABLE ME was released in 2010 to massive financial success, launched the popular yellow-pilled creatures known as Minions, and served as Illumination’s first feature film (the company has since become a major competitor for DreamWorks, Pixar, and Disney). Even though this film made a big impression on the animated film market and audiences, I find DESPICABLE ME to be bit overrated. It wasn’t even the best animated sensitive supervillain film of 2010. That distinction belongs to DreamWorks’ MEGAMIND. However, this film sports colorful animation, some clever jokes, and enough charm to overcome an overly familiar storyline and narrative faults.

Bald supervillain Gru (Steve Carell) has been depressed because another supervillain has recently taken the limelight away from bad guys everywhere by stealing Giza’s Great Pyramid. In order to reign supreme as the greatest supervillain of all-time, Gru decides to enact a plan to steal the moon. To do this, he’ll need to steal a shrink ray from rival villain Vector (Jason Segel) and adopt three orphaned girls Margo, Edith, and Agnes (Miranda Cosgrove, Diana Gaier, and Elise Fisher) to unwittingly assist him. As his plan moves forward, Gru begins to grow a soft spot for his three new daughters, much to the dismay of his mad scientist colleague Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand).

DESPICABLE ME walks the tightrope of trying to be colorful and innocent enough for young children, while also supplying enough dark humor and mature jokes for older viewers to enjoy. While it mostly maintains this balance, things occasionally slip too much into little kid territory. There are really fun jokes revolving around Gru living a totally inappropriate life for a family (including one hilarious bit involving a torture device) and his gradual acceptance of his new children is very cute to watch, but the overall story is too simple and not nearly as clever as it tries to be. The latter is especially epitomized by Jason Segel’s lackluster villain. This antagonist is just plain boring and a would-be conspiracy around him feels like a half-baked development in the proceedings.

Steve Carell’s voice is unrecognizable as Gru, aided by a strange accent. Meanwhile, Cosgrove, Gaier and Fisher are convincing as the three adopted daughters, with Fisher’s adorable Agnes guaranteed to melt even the hardest of hearts. These characters are further aided by vibrant animation that breathes life into a world of supervillainy with regulations. One big plot point revolves around Gru trying to secure a loan from an evil bank to finance his diabolical deeds. The film also succeeds in its yellow pill-shaped Minion moments. Some people may utterly despise the Minions with every fiber of their beings, but I’m in the group that loves these hilarious creations. The Minion scenes have just the right combination of potty humor, immature antics, and fish-out-of-water slapstick.

DESPICABLE ME’s plot may be a bit too basic and the overall film is overrated in the grand scheme of things (MEGAMIND is miles better and its second installment is a bit improvement too). Still, this is a fun piece of family entertainment that’s sure to keep younger viewers occupied, while supplying a decent supply of laughs for teenagers and packing in enough sentimentality for parents (especially seeing that the whole movie revolves around a new parent adjusting to having three new additions to his family and growing a heart). DESPICABLE ME is decent. Not great, not really good…but just decent.

Grade: B-

THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Rude Humor and some Action

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Directed by: Chris McKay

Written by: Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern & John Whittington

Voices of: Will Arnett, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes, Mariah Carey, Jenny Slate, Susan Bennett, Billy Dee Williams, Hector Elizondo, Conan O’Brien, Jason Mantzoukas, Doug Benson, Zoe Kravitz, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Adam DeVine, Eddie Izzard & Seth Green

The first of three new LEGO movies, THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE is a spin-off for the popular DC superhero from 2014’s surprisingly awesome THE LEGO MOVIE. Will Arnett has returned to reprise the vocal work for Lego Batman/Bruce Wayne and this film is set entirely within the Lego DC Universe. Filled to the brim with comic book references and call-backs to other movies, LEGO BATMAN never takes itself seriously at all and yet still manages to throw in a touching message about family and friends. Though not as great as its LEGO predecessor, THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE is the best DC Comics movie to hit nationwide theatrical release in years. This is a delight for parents, teenagers, and Batman fans who enjoy a good laugh.

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In Lego Gotham City, orphan-turned-superhero Batman (Will Arnett) enjoys wearing black, playing loud music and fighting crime. He’s always saving the day, but has never let anybody else into his life…other than faithful butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes). After Batman foils the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) yet again and hurts the evil clown’s feelings, the villain hatches an ingenious scheme for revenge. Meanwhile, Commissioner Gordon’s daughter Barbara (Rosario Dawson) has stepped into her dad’s shoes as chief of police and has enacted a new “it takes a village, not a Batman” approach to fighting crime. Also, Batman has taken young boywonder Robin under his reluctant parental wing. The real challenge Batman has to face though…is overcoming his fears about family.

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Will Arnett’s Batman was easily one of the funniest parts of THE LEGO MOVIE and he brings everything that fans loved about that character into a feature-length running time. Though this film has a handful of slow moments that drag, Arnett’s comedic timing and purposely brooding voice frequently rescue the story from being “too much of a good thing.” The rest of the voice cast is stellar as well, with Michael Cera delivering some of the biggest laughs as lively, no-pants-wearing Robin. Tons of Batman’s rogue gallery make appearances too, including a lot of C-grade baddies that provide giggles from their mere cameos. My two favorite side villains were Catwoman (who’s constantly saying “mew mew”) and Bane (who’s adopted the strange, but awesome-sounding voice from 2012’s THE DARK KNIGHT RISES). Zach Galifianakis also shines in the most sensitive portrayal of the Joker that you’ve ever seen, making for an evil supervillain that throws tantrums like a depressed ex-girlfriend.

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It should come as no surprise that THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE is chock-full of movie, TV and comic book references. There are so many jokes within the first five minutes that it seems impossible to catch them all in one viewing. From signs that cheering citizens are holding to bits of dialogue that directly tie into certain films to full-blown footage used from every big-screen Batman in history, there are tons of laughs and in-cannon material here to satisfy diehard Batman fans. The film also throws tons of references towards DC comics in general, featuring cameos from Justice League members and familiar places from Superman’s stories. Even still, the references don’t stop there because there are unexpected non-cannon characters that have a big part to play in the proceedings. I won’t go into detail, but I was grinning ear to ear for a majority of the action-packed climax.

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LEGO BATMAN MOVIE’s message isn’t exactly original, but seems perfectly suited to the nature of Batman’s character and how we’ve seen this character explored in past versions of the material. The film’s lively visuals explode off the screen, looking like stop-motion even though they are actually the result of highly-detailed computer animation. As clever, entertaining and downright fun as LEGO BATMAN is, the plot encounters a few dull stretches. These mainly come in the second act, where we need to see certain things develop. In writing my summary of this film’s story, it struck me that LEGO BATMAN juggles four different subplots and tries to bring them together as a cohesive whole. The script does a solid job of this for the most part, but occasionally meanders as it brings these storylines together. Still, the pay-off, countless references, sheer entertainment value, and never-ending sense of humor are all well-worth the price of admission.

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If you’re a fan of 2014’s THE LEGO MOVIE or any incarnation of Batman, then THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE is a must-see! I imagine that DC Comics fans will have a field day with the sheer amount of references, tie-ins, and clever writing; all while kids are having a blast watching Lego Batman run around on the screen. I saw LEGO BATMAN in a sold-out movie theater that was filled with families and an apparent birthday party going on the front two rows. At no point, during any minute of the running time, did a child begin crying or a bratty kid act out in any way. That’s almost unheard of, at least for me. Everybody was glued to the screen and that’s a major feat for any family film. Though the pacing isn’t perfect, but THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE is a ton of fun! Sometimes, that’s all you need!

Grade: B+

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: OUT OF THE SHADOWS (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action Violence

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Directed by: Dave Green

Written by: Joseph Appelbaum & Andre Nemec

(based on the TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES comics by Kevin Eastman & Peter Laird)

Starring: Megan Fox, Stephen Amell, Will Arnett, Brian Tee, Tyler Perry, Brittany Ishibashi, Laura Linney, Pete Ploszek, Alan Ritchson, Noel Fisher, Jeremy Howard, Tony Shalhoub, Gary Anthony Williams, Sheamus & Brad Garrett

Though it didn’t jive too well with hardcore fans and most movie critics, 2014’s TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES was a box office success. Of course, this meant an inevitable sequel was on the horizon. Two years later, we have TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: OUT OF THE SHADOWS, a follow-up that noticeably improves upon its bland predecessor and yet still falls victim to a couple of the reboot’s shortcomings. It should be noted that I’ve never been a big TMNT fan, so I’m not exactly a person to ask regarding if this film delivers for fans of the comics, cartoons, and franchise as a whole. Strictly taken as PG-13 family fun and a big dumb summer blockbuster, OUT OF THE SHADOWS is by-the-numbers entertainment driven on a handful of cool moments and lots of questionable writing.

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A year after the turtles saved New York from the evil Foot Clan, Shredder (Brian Tee) remains in police custody and cameraman Vern Fenwick (Will Arnett) has taken credit for the ninja turtles’ heroic deeds. The teenage turtles (composed of: leader Leonardo, aggressive Raphael, geeky Donatello, and fun-loving Michelangelo) live in the sewer and observe the world from the shadows (hiding in the Jumbotron at Knicks games, stealing pizza from delivery drivers, etc.). When Shredder breaks out of police custody, it appears that the four turtles have their work cut out for them. It’s going to be harder to take Shredder down this time around, because he’s being assisted by warthog Bebop (Gary Anthony Williams) and rhinoceros Rocksteady (Sheamus), and has also formed a world domination plot with tentacled alien Krang (Brad Garrett). To throw even more problems into the mix, Shredder has acquired a purple ooze that could possibly turn the teenage mutant ninja turtles into humans, which causes personal conflicts to emerge within the reptile team.

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OUT OF THE SHADOWS is the first TMNT movie to feature Rocksteady, Bebop, and Krang. Even though I vaguely knew of these villains, I was pretty excited to see them on the big screen. Shredder is actually made into a real bad guy this time around and doesn’t look like a giant silver Transformer, all while Rocksteady and Bebop inject a sense of humor into the movie. You’d think that a film revolving around giant pizza-eating turtles who practice martial arts wouldn’t take itself so seriously, but you’d be surprised. Rocksteady and Bebop alleviate the brooding self-serious tone by being two goofball henchmen. They’re silly cartoon characters brought to life through computer effects, one happens to be a pig and the other is a rhino. Don’t worry about their origin story because it is given, albeit in a half-assed way.

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As for Krang, I was mightily disappointed with his lack of screen time in this film. Even though the script sets him up as the main antagonist, Krang receives a total of two scenes (one of those being the finale). He only shows up to make a bad joke about his tentacle mucus to Shredder and eventually returns to fight the turtles. The final confrontation between the turtles and this gooey pink alien is fun to watch, but I wish this villain had more of a presence in the overall scheme of things. As a result, I cared more about Shredder, Rocksteady and Bebop than Krang…and this finale felt like an afterthought.

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The 2014 installment focused on a convoluted and silly origin story, but the turtles are actually far more developed in this 2016 sequel. In the reboot, their only discernible differences were different colored masks. This time around, they’re given distinctly noticeable personalities from the opening frames. I was able to understand their differences better and the personal conflicts between them actually made sense, even if the story was repeating similar scenes from the first film. Because this sequel focuses on the turtles, the human characters are shoved aside as walking plot devices.

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Megan Fox’s April looks sexy and gets info for the turtles, while never becoming the damsel-in-distress that she usually was in the cartoons. Will Arnett’s Vern is underused, but supplies one of the funniest scenes in the entire film. Tyler Perry isn’t bad as mad scientist Baxter Stockman and if they make a third installment, I’m positive that we’ll be seeing more of him. Stephen Arnell is boring and forgettable as masked vigilante Casey Jones. I guess this character is a huge fan favorite, but he seemed like a generic bland sidekick to me. Maybe, this movie just screwed up the character of Casey Jones? On a side note, Laura Linney seems noticeably embarrassed to be starring in this film.

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There’s not a moment in OUT OF THE SHADOWS where you can’t fully predict the entire movie from start to finish. The script hits a series of expected beats and follows a familiar road that’s been seen in plenty of other movies, just not ones featuring giant talking turtles. The narrative is brainless, but the set pieces and effects are entertaining. I really enjoyed this sequel’s CGI, which looked like a monumental improvement over the first movie’s effects. The action scenes are mostly fun, but also get bogged down in distracting shaky cam. As a film made for families and people who want to watch ninja reptiles, TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: OUT OF THE SHADOWS is throwaway entertainment. Kids will love it. Fans of the series are likely to catch details that casual viewers will miss. SHADOWS is a step above its mediocre predecessor entry and there’s something to be said for that.

Grade: C+

POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 26 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Graphic Nudity, Language throughout, Sexual Content and Drug Use

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Directed by: Akiva Schaffer & Jorma Taccone

Written by: Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer & Jorma Taccone

Starring: Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone, Sarah Silverman, Tim Meadows, Imogen Poots, Bill Hader, Joan Cusack, Maya Rudolph, Will Arnett, Mike Birbiglia, Martin Sheen, Snoop Dogg & Will Forte

The Lonely Island is a trio of comedians/writers who made it big on Saturday Night Live and have already visited the big screen with 2007’s so-stupid-it’s-funny HOT ROD. Though they’ve found success separately (on film) and together (in three albums), it’s been nearly a decade since The Lonely Island made their big screen debut…and now they’re back with this spot-on mockumentary! Placing its fingers firmly on the jugular of modern pop culture and the pop music industry, POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING is sure to please Lonely Island fans and people with a strange sense of humor (both usually fall under the same demographic).

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Meet Conner4real. Formerly a member of the musical trio known as the Style Boyz, Conner broke off into a worldwide solo sensation and gained an enormous fanbase with his first record. When his hotly anticipated second album ConnQuest receives negative reviews and dwindling sales, Conner resorts to desperate stage gimmicks and press antics to keep himself relevant. We watch as Conner’s career flies off the deep end and his pompous attitude begins to get the better of him. As you might imagine, it’s highly entertaining, surprisingly thirst-quenching, and very funny to behold.

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It should come as no surprise that POPSTAR is essentially spoofing Justin Bieber and I won’t deny that it’s well deserved. The title itself a is direct riff on the musical doc JUSTIN BIEBER: NEVER SAY NEVER and there are plenty of nods to stupid actions that the real-life spoiled star has committed throughout his career. However, Bieber isn’t the only target here, because POPSTAR takes on the pop music industry and petty celebrity culture as a whole. There’s a side character who’s essentially Kanye West, gags about three different reality shows clashing, and a gossip show called CMZ (wonder what that could possibly be making fun of). POPSTAR isn’t exactly subtle in its targets or jokes, because this spoof is devouring easy prey to begin with.

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These gags and characters are all executed by a massive cast of big faces, some of which were complete surprises (I won’t spoil those appearances). Besides The Lonely Island (as Conner4Real, his DJ, and his former bandmate), this film has a ton of colorful side characters played by the likes of Sarah Silverman, Tim Meadows, Bill Hader, Joan Cusack, Maya Rudolph, Will Arnett, Mike Birbiglia, and Will Forte. Celebrity cameos/interview segments feature Simon Cowell, RZA, 50 Cent, Pink, Ringo Starr and many more. There are simply too many to list and they’re all crammed into 86 minutes of fun. Seeing as this ensemble cast of comedic and musical talent is so large, certain roles outshine others. As funny as Bill Hader’s flatlining roadie and Joan Cusack’s cocaine-snorting mother are, their presence is limited to scenes that have already been given away in the marketing. Will Arnett is a huge highlight as the obnoxious CMZ host, so be sure to stay through the credits for an extra scene of him.

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The Lonely Island are a musical group and comedic troupe, so they’ve put together a mighty hilarious soundtrack for POPSTAR. With songs about the Mona Lisa being overrated, an obnoxious number about being humble, and songs that tackle social issues in terribly misguided ways, POPSTAR’s songs are horribly offensive, absolutely hilarious and genuinely well put together. One particular music video had me close to crying from laughing so hard. It’s safe to say that The Lonely Island knew precisely what they were doing when they got behind the camera and in front of it for this feature.

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The documentary-style storytelling greatly benefits POPSTAR as a whole. The film cuts together interviews, Snapchat/Youtube videos, news reports, footage from Conner’s concerts, and his day-to-day life. This results in a structure that’s legitimately interesting to watch, even when the material veers into predictable and sentimental territory towards the ending. In a decade or so, POPSTAR might be looked back on as a painfully funny reminder to how ludicrous both the pop culture and pop music scene were in the 2010’s.

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POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING is a silly, highly entertaining ride that had me giggling like an idiot from beginning to end. The film can be a tad too predictable at times and nearly overstays it’s under 90-minute running time, but I had a blast watching this film and imagine that fans of silly comedy will likely have a similar experience. The soundtrack is great. The laughs range from small visual gags to over-the-top set pieces. The mockumentary style lends itself perfectly to the material. POPSTAR is to music documentaries what 2007’s WALK HARD was to dramatic music biopics!

Grade: B+

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 41 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action Violence

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Directed by: Jonathan Liebesman

Written by: Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec & Evan Daugherty

(based on the TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES comics by Peter Laird & Kevin Eastman)

Starring: Megan Fox, Will Arnett, William Fichtner, Alan Ritchson, Noel Fisher, Johnny Knoxville, Jeremy Howard, Tony Shalhoub, Tohoru Masamune & Whoopi Goldberg

When a trailer for this TMNT reboot arrived, shit hit the fan from everybody who grew up with the original giant talking turtle cartoon. I was never a fan of the TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES and as a result, I don’t have the nostalgic factor for them that most do. I still didn’t think that this glossy reboot looked good enough to see on the big-screen back in August and most people (fans and non-fans) were anticipating TMNT to tank at the box office. In a surprising turn of events, the film wound up grossing almost half a billion worldwide and is currently spawning a sequel (due in August 2016). Seeing as I’m indifferent to the franchise and going into this as my first full TURTLES movie, I was hoping for something fun at the very least. The new TMNT may have been a box office success, but is far from a success in quality.

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, Leonardo (voice: Johnny Knoxville), 2014. ph: ILM/©Paramount

The place is New York. Crime is at an all-time high due to the sinister Foot Clan wreaking havoc on innocent citizens. April O’Neal is a reporter investigating Foot Clan activities in order to score a bigger story than the fluff that she’s usually saddled with. After a damsel in distress encounter, April stumbles across four unlikely vigilantes. They’re turtles, who also happen to also be mutants, ninjas and teenagers. However, knowledge of the turtles’ existence has caused the leader of the Foot Clan, Shredder, to enact a deadly plan that could mean the destruction of the entire city. It’s up to April, her cameraman sidekick, four ninja turtles, and Master Splinter, a karate-trained sewer rat and the turtles’ father, to save the day!

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, from left: William Fichtner, Megan Fox, 2014. ph: David

Michael Bay has a producer credit on TMNT, but didn’t direct it. He may as well have. The frantically edited action, by-the-numbers storyline, and bombastic overuse of certain techniques suggests that Bay had more than just a producer’s role in the making of this movie. The action is almost dizzying at times because it can’t focus on one single shot for more than 10 seconds. You’ve likely seen this plot play out many times before and not necessarily in films that feature giant talking turtles. What’s more laughable is the use of clichés and plot revelations that aren’t given enough time to sink in before the movie rushes on with its formulaic story. No character development is given, so there’s no reason to feel anything for anyone (though some performers are better than others). Then there’s the trademark lens flares, explosions and pointless slow-motion that seems as if either Michael Bay was backseat directing on the set or that Jonathan Liebesman was trying to emulate Bay.

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, from left: Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo, Donatello, on set, 2014.

Clearly, a wrong choice was made in casting Megan Fox as a leading lady. She’s already notorious for her lack of believable emotions, but she’s just plain bland as April. We’re thrown into April with no knowledge of who she is other than that she wants to be a successful reporter and we don’t receive any discernable character traits for the rest of the film either. Whoopi Goldberg also shows up for some strange reason and gets about 5 minutes of screen time as April’s boss. Will Arnett is actually the only decent comic relief in the film. Arnett isn’t as funny as he usually is, but there’s a likability to him. William Fichtner usually delivers in every role he takes on, the same can be said for his part as a shady businessman in this film. The villain of Shredder felt like he was a blend of two very different movies, which adds to the jumbled tone of this entire film. Though Shredder’s battle suit resembles a smaller Transformer, he’s plays up his brief non-armor moments as a serious terrorist.

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, from left: Splinter, Shredder, 2014. ph: ILM/©Paramount

I can say that the movie is vibrant and colorful in spite of overused style choices and bad scripting/acting. The designs on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles themselves look like complete crap though. These monstrosities look more like Shrek than giant turtles. Out of the title characters themselves, I preferred Raphael (the hot-tempered fighter) and Donatello (the bland leader) to Michelangelo (an annoying pop-culture spewing CGI abomination that’s close to Jar-Jar Binks level awful) and Donatello (a nerd stereotype stuck in a turtle’s body). Master Splinter is also equally as hideous and annoying. It certainly doesn’t help matters that the turtles feel like side characters throughout most of their own film as the main focus is misguidedly centered on Megan Fox’s April.

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, from left: Raphael, Leonardo, 2014. Ph: Industrial Light &

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES accomplishes what it set out to do by selling toys to kids and entertaining them. That was its ultimate purpose, but good family entertainment should be enjoyed by both children and adults on a different (though, sometimes the same) level. I was never expecting TMNT to be particularly good, but I was hoping it might be halfway decent. I don’t have the nostalgia for the franchise that most do, so I can’t rightfully say if it rapes a childhood favorite. I can suggest that it’s a complete waste of time for anyone above the age of 10. This is a TRANSFORMERS movie that happens to have turtles instead of robots.

Grade: C-

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