Late-Summer Lightning Round
Ninja Turtles, Clones, and Creepy Hands
Between the striking critical and commercial success of Oppenheimer and Barbie, the visually stylish Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse and Asteroid City, vibrant and lived-in indie features such as Past Lives and You Hurt My Feelings, and the general sense that audiences are finally tiring of sludgy, CGI sameness as represented by the failures of The Flash, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, and Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, it’s been a pretty good summer. So great that I haven’t had time to cover everything I’d like to. As such I’d just like to highlight three solid late-summer movies that deserve a little bit of love if you’ve got a couple hours to spare.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, like Barbie, is a two-hour toy commercial designed to hit the pleasure centers of a nostalgia-addled nation. Unlike Barbie, however, Mutant Mayhem has the decency to never insult the audience by pretending that it doubles as a critique of its advertisement-like nature. Importantly, it also understands exactly what it is and who it’s for: kids who want to see ninja turtle action with the occasional puke gag and adults who find the idea of Ice Cube delivering a sentient, steroidal housefly’s monologues amusing.
The setup will be familiar to anyone aware of any of the many iterations of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: a rat and four baby turtles are exposed to radioactive ooze in the sewers of Manhattan, mutating them into man-sized animals who learn martial arts and love pizza. Tired of living underground, the turtles yearn for the sweet air of freedom, which inevitably brings them into conflict with forces that yearn for their destruction. In this case, that destruction comes in the form of Superfly (Ice Cube), a mutant who has decided to mutate every animal on earth so as to eliminate humanity.
Produced and written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (among others), who paired previously on raunch-com high school classic Superbad (among others), Mutant Mayhem does a good job of capturing the eternal anxieties of adolescence: fear that the broader world will reject you; the desire to find kindred spirits who accept you for what you are; trying to avoid the wrath of your aging rodent father who has made a home for you and your mutant brothers in the sewers and believes mankind will destroy you if you ever make yourself seen in public. It’s lighthearted, funny, and vaguely absurdist: There’s a joke about an evil corporation “milking” the turtles of their radioactive essence so as to create more mutated monstrosities that winds up in such a literal-minded place I couldn’t help but guffaw at the screen.
Where Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem stands out is less on a scripting level—though, again, it’s pretty funny and moves along nicely—and more on a visual level. Alongside Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse and Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, Mutant Mayhem is a reminder that the long-running CGI aesthetic we’ve all grown accustomed to—that sort of smooth, elegant fluidity that defines so much of Pixar and DreamWorks—has more or less run its course. The animation in Mutant Mayhem has a sort of designed raggedness to it: dust cloud squiggles that call to mind Charlie Brown’s pal Pigpen exist alongside hyperkinetic action of the sort you might see in an anime feature. It’s polished and crude at the same time, giving the screen an almost tactile sensibility. Director Jeff Rowe and the animators at Mikros Animation deserve every accolade they have coming their way for the look and feel of this movie.
Talk to Me and its success at the box office—it grossed $10 million in its opening last weekend, instantly making it one of the 20 most successful movies ever released by studio A24—is a reminder that one surefire way to strike gold in horror is to have teenagers doing stupid things that invite supernatural doom.
Mia (Sophie Wilde) is a bit of a weirdo and a loner, though she can be forgiven for that given the fact that her mother, Rhea (Alexandria Steffensen), committed suicide not long ago. She ignores her father, choosing instead to spend time with surrogate family Jade (Alexandra Jensen) and Riley (Joe Bird), whose mother Sue (Miranda Otto) has taken a shine to Mia. Mia is fascinated by a viral video craze sweeping her Australian town: while gripping a ceramic hand, saying “talk to me,” and then inviting the invisible spirits summoned into their bodies, kids are getting possessed and doing weird stuff for the delight of their contemporaries.
The obvious metaphor here is drug addiction—during the possessions, those infested by the restless spirits see their pupils dilate to unnatural size and they lose control of their bodily functions; it’s all such a rush that they can’t wait to do it over and over and over again, seemingly oblivious to the dangers of letting limbo-trapped souls inhabit your body—though social media comes in for a fair critique as well. There is also a sense that we’re seeing a playing out of trauma, given Rhea’s suicide and its effects on her family; it’s almost hard to have a horror movie these days without trauma being referenced at some point.
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Talk to Me exudes creepiness in large part thanks to its makeup design; the ghosts that wander into the view of the game’s participants seem to be done with largely practical effects, lots of latex and gels and that sort of thing. I’d be curious to read up on how the directorial team of Michael and Danny Philippou managed a couple of the stunts, particularly one in the opening moments that prompted shocked gasps from the patrons in my theater.
What separates Talk to Me from some other entries in this genre is just how unrelentingly cruel it is; there’s a scene about two-thirds of the way through this movie that I won’t spoil except to say that it called to mind the children-in-peril sequences from Hereditary and this year’s Evil Dead Rise. The sequences are brutal; those of you with kids may prefer to skip this one altogether. But that brutality is effective in the same way that The Exorcist’s vulgarity was effective.
Talk to Me has a mild It Follows problem, in the sense that the rules of engagement with the spectral presence at the heart of the film are haphazardly defined and infrequently enforced. I can believe a ceramic hand opens a portal into limbo that allows contact with the damned, but only if that contact works in very precise ways each time. But I’ll forgive this venial mid-movie sin given Talk to Me’s corker of an ending. A great finale will make up for a lot of missteps earlier on.
They Cloned Tyrone is everything that’s good and bad about Netflix: It’s a weird little indie movie that’s going to wind up getting a much bigger audience than it otherwise might have thanks to the prominence of its placement on that service’s homepage but is probably 20 minutes too long and destined to be buried in the service’s back catalog—rather than living on as a cult classic until a niche Blu-ray distributor resurrects it for mass consumption.
Directed by Juel Taylor, who cowrote with Tony Rettenmaier, you’ll instantly get the tenor of They Cloned Tyrone via the set dressing. In the film’s very first shot, we open on an advertisement of a wide-eyed man gulping down “Somaah! Carbonated Beverage” and pull back to see folks acting foolishly outside of the convenience store on which the poster has been plastered. Combining Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Big Brother—given the locale and clientele, the model is conspicuously white—with the preferred narcotic of Brave New World into one handy image, this sort of subtle commentary on the nature of advertising and consumption persists throughout the picture. It’s there if you can pick up on it.
For instance, you might miss this on first viewing, but there’s a delicate hint at what the film is getting at when Fontaine (John Boyega), Slick Charles (Jamie Foxx), and Yo-Yo (Teyonah Parris) discover that fried chicken, hair-straightening products, urban churches, and hip hop are being used to control and modify the behavior of black residents. The three of them were merely trying to learn how it was that Fontaine survived being shot six times in a parking lot; instead, they uncovered a vast conspiracy involving mind control and, as the title suggests, cloning. It’s a conspiracy that the villainous enforcer played by Kiefer Sutherland will kill to protect. (Another subtle hint at what’s going on: Sutherland’s character is named Nixon.)
There’s something mildly amusing about the conceit of They Cloned Tyrone (or predecessors such as They Live!), namely that we’d need a vast, widespread conspiracy entrenched within our governmental and corporate bodies to seduce any given population into complacency. You can happily count on human nature to do the seduction: We love our simple pleasures and will happily be lulled by them, be they delicious fried food or the narcotized drip of streaming TV at war with sleep itself.
The lack of subtlety works in They Cloned Tyrone’s favor, just as it worked in the favor of They Live! or Pootie Tang or Sorry to Bother You: the over-the-top nature of it all keeps the picture from devolving into self-seriousness. It’s a message movie, yeah, but the movie itself is goofily endearing in a way that lessens the gravity and keeps us from getting weighed down. It helps that the performances are so good throughout; Jamie Foxx is perfect as pimp-past-his-prime Slick Charles. Alongside his recent supporting turn in the underseen God Is a Bullet, it’s a reminder that Foxx has an absolutely electric screen presence.