Monday, March 24, 2014


This movie is nowhere near as bad as it might have been, and is probably the best possible Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movie. --Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times 

Don't confuse the specter of your origin with your present worth, my son. -- Splinter, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II.

I don't think anyone will claim that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a great movie, but, given its context, it's actually a little bit remarkable and arguably underrated. 

The original black and white magazine-sized comic book was self-published by Eastman and Laird in 1984, a sort of parody of both the gritty Frank Miller fare that was on the rise at the time (See Ronin) and the more askew, quirky underground stuff (see Cerebus the Aardvark). Eastman and Laird's lark managed a balance between the two, and took off. The CBS cartoon appeared around 1988, a far cry tone-wise from the source material. These Turtles were more wise-cracking and pizza-snarfing; they did not, as Rosenbaum points out, kill anybody. Essentially, the cartoon was a launching pad for the Playmate Toy line, and if you grew up watching it, you're probably fond as hell of it. The darker comic continued independently of the cheesy phenomenon, expanding in its own mythology, but these two separate realities rarely overlapped.

1984 vs 1988

On account of the cartoon's ubiquity, it's easy and common to forget that 1990's Ninja Turtles is, essentially, a comic book movie--and a fairly good one at that. Tim Burton's Batman was released the summer of '89, drawing heavily from Frank Miller's recalibration of the hoary and previously campy character, and--after the triumph of 1978's Superman (which made you believe a man could fly) and its subsequent dwindling quality--Burton's Bat is considered one of the few functional comic book adaptations until Bryan Singer's 2000 adaptation X-Men ushered in this generation of comic book blockbusters that you're either revelling or barely tolerating now. In the shadow of the Turtle's cartoon's success, it's hard not to see the movie as connected to the Saturday morning shenanigans. Certainly that connection owes to the movie's box office triumph; at the time it was the highest grossing independent movie ever, hauling in almost $135 million. All that money was coming from kids obsessed with the cartoon and the toys, and the phenomenon was so big that it's difficult to separate the movie from it. But, once parsed, Turtles comes out as being mostly true to the look and feel of the original comic.

Released at the height of Turtle fever, it's odd that this is the movie that got made. 1991's sequel, The Secret of the Ooze, visually and tonally seem to be a product of a franchise. Consider the difference between the original Ghost Busters and it's 1989 sequel, and the tonal havoc wrecked by the success of the cartoon and toy line in between. In coming to terms with how incongruous this first Turtle's movie is, the best litmus may be the fact that Playmates declined to produce a line of tie-in toys, finding the adaptation to be too dark. The movie certainly features the cartoon's predilection for zanyness and surfer's one-liners--as well, it carries over the cartoon's mask colours, where the comic simply leaves everyone with red coverage--but it's also dark, grimy, and violent. It takes place in a grungy, crime-pocked pre-Giuliani New York City, where teens are recruited into an ancient ninja clan called The Foot (see Ronin's "The Hand") who are terrorizing the city by stealing all its stereo equipment; Raphael gets savagely beaten; Master Splinter is held hostage and similarly abused and bloodied; you can cut the sexual tension between April and Casey Jones with a katana; and there are a few instances of unfortunate, of-the-time casual homophobia--Casey doesn't like being called a "claustrophobic."

I don't mean to put too fine a point on the adultness of the movie. I only mean to stress that this is not an adaptation of the cartoon. If a movie had to be made that represented the franchise, Steve Barron's Ninja Turtles braids the threads together pretty tightly, supplying equal amounts of grit and gags.

But the Ninja Turtle franchise, now 30 years old, will probably always obfuscate any autonomous enjoyment of this first movie. Which is no great cinematic crime, necessarily. The real shame of the movie being overlooked is that the work of Jim Henson and his Creature Shop gets over-looked as well. Ninja Turtles was one of Henson's final movies, and unfortunately he didn't like it much, finding it--like Playmates--too dark and violent. The servo-filled Turtle heads are a standout example of how effective practical effects were becoming when computers curtailed that art.

Computer-Generated Ninja Turtles
The Turtle movies got progressively worse, collapsing into screen version of the Saturday morning pith--there were extensive toy lines for all of those. Maybe most confounding is the Pizza Hut-sponsored live musical show the Turtles staged in the wake of the movie's success. The Coming Out of Their Shells Tour has the Turtle's realize that, on Splinter's advice, "You can do more good with music than any pair of nunchucks" and that "Music can let you accomplish more than all the weapons in the world." This is the message they across the country, joined by balletic pizza delivery guys. Of course, Shredder and the Foot eventually crash the good times and the Turtles have to beat the hell out of them. The stage show is undoubtedly the nadir of the franchise, and it's hard to imagine even the most besotted little fans finding this of any worth.


But of course, when playing fast and loose with mutations, it's inevitable that you'll wind up with something hideous.

It's not without suspicion of kismet that I received, as I was working on this assessment, that I came in to work to find on my desk an advanced reading copy of "Raise Some Shell: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" by Broken Pencil fiction editor Richard Rosenbaum. The book (one of the first in ECW's "pop classics" series) tackles wonderfully and deftly the TMNT history, which I didn't even nick here. Whether you're a diehard or just a looky-loo, this small book is jam-packed and worth your while.

"The other thing that makes Ninja Turtles so amenable to adaptation," writes Rosenbaum, "is that adaptation itself--in the biological, dictionary-definition sense of an alteration in a living organism that allows it to become better suited to thrive in it's environment--is it's most basic and primary theme. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is about how to live in a world where you are something strange and new, something different and unprecedented. How to be a person--how to be a hero--when there's never been anything like you before... In this way, TMNT has mutability built into its very DNA, which gives the concept an amazing degree of flexibility when it comes to the stories it's capable of telling and the ways it can be stretched and altered without breaking."

By dint of it's varied source materials (the original comic being inspired by Miller and Sim, the cartoon being inspired by the comic, the movie being inspired by a mix of the whole lot it) any Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles incarnation will always be some sort of adaptation, and I maintain that the 1990 movie is one of the smoothest amalgams of all those sources.




It’s not an exaggeration to say that we were shocked by the number of people that we had to turn away at the last screening of Are You a Pilgrim. It was, after all, a film by an amateur director with no stars and no marketing budget.

It was, however, produced by award-wining documentary producer Alan Mendelsohn whom I had met at a wedding last summer. When he found out that I was a cinema owner, he asked if we would consider showing his latest project, a documentary made by a retired engineer, who in his seventies decided to make his life’s dream a reality and walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage walk. I asked him to send a DVD to see if it was indeed suitable.

A number of things surprised me. First of all, the fact that Gian Ceccato, who was in his seventies would carry all of the equipment needed to shoot the film for 800 kilometers. Many who have walked the trail have commented on how tough it was. Secondly, the production values are excellent; the music, editing, and camera work are inspiring. Thirdly, each and every walking pilgrim is articulate and warm when interviewed by the enthusiastic and friendly Mr. Ceccato. And lastly, the beauty of the Camino is truly something to yearn for.

Gian was transformed by his experience. He had been a happy, productive person with a wonderful family. But walking the Camino and recording his experience seems to have put an even bigger smile on his face and a more pronounced bounce in his step. His mission is to encourage you to do the Camino. Perhaps he also knew that Guelph is a special city full of many searchers!


Gian Ceccato will be in attendance for the 2pm screening on Saturday March 29. All seats $5. Advanced tickets are available in the Bookstore.

Monday, March 17, 2014


Of all operas, Carmen must rank as perhaps the most 'basic' in that it has all the elements needed to create the essential opera experience, with it's necessary excesses and hyperbolic framing of life lived on the edge, of passion driven to musical catharsis. It is 'the' tale of temptation, sexual lust, seduction, inevitable betrayal, and murderous denouement. It casts the the spectre of the destructive female libido, of the 'dangerous woman' so much feared by polite bourgeoisie moral social strictures. And of course the victim Don Jose in this case is an almost hapless male protagonist: certainly his basic potential for lusting after Carmen is his own, but it is stoked by this elemental femme fatale, who exploits his weakness, almost as an effort to prove to herself her ability to do so. This must have provoked some outrage.

Carmen seems almost like a force of nature, a serial femme fatale, that seems to go through successive men in her quest for fulfillment.

In 19th Century European culture, where there actually was a social milieu in high society that occasionally identified and tolerated such female adventurers, they could frequently wreck the lives of the men they were able to beguile: the courtesans, the libidinously oriented society debutantes, the ladies that wanted to test their own powers.

Here the social context has been stripped away and the story unfolds in the relatively exotic Spanish contemporary hinterland, without the restraints of any class society: a slice of supposedly raw, real-life. This reality-approach scenario is a parallel development with the growing Italian 'verismo' trend of showing real people in real situations.

The plot is almost brutally basic. Vamp seduces innocent, who leaves 'everything' behind to be with her, especially his purer-than-the-driven-snow girlfriend, a diametric contrast, to the vamp. The innocent is drawn into a life of crime until the vamp tires of him as soon as she sees a more exciting prospect. Jealousy drives Don Jose to stab Carmen so no one can have her.

The prosaic 'provincial Spanish' context, however, provides the mise-en-scene with amazing opportunities to create a dazzling scenic spectacle of colour and action, with the opening crowded with soldiers, urchins, cigarette girls, and urban festivities, and the unbearably tense final confrontation at the corrida, with Carmen and Don Jose alone but within eye and earshot of the crowds watching the bullfight.

Et voila, one of the most enduring operas ever to have hit the stage.

Even with this almost perfect operatic work there are, however, problems few notice or may want to be aware of.

Georges Bizet
Bizet, who might have been the most gifted of the 19thy Century's French opera composers, barely had time to finish Carmen before his early death. He set all the 'numbers', arias, choruses, orchestral segments, as we know them, but left all the briefer interactions, what we know as the recitatives, to be spoken in the style of the 'Comedie Francaise'. These recitatives were subsequently set by another hand to fit into an entirely sung context, so much of the dramatic interaction which we now experience as sung, was not set by Bizet at all. The opera seems so effective as it is, but we will never know how well Bizet might have provided something even more effective.

This is obviously a shortcoming that has not stood in the way of making Carmen into the 'basic' opera for most fans. The music is perhaps the best known opera music in existence since many of these most catchy tunes have gone into the popular mind 'at large'.

Carmen was the default opera in the much syndicated TV show Gilligan's Island, and it's writers tried to find creative ways of mentioning it or bringing it into the story somehow. It was one of the many obsessive little features that made me detest this show. With all it's popularity, it is difficult to keep Carmen away from being dismissed as cheap, but that is only an illusion. It is the opera with the most 'reality' in it.


Michael Doleschell keeps mostly to non-fiction, and is deeply devoted to music and culture and never tires of history, and is fascinated by science and the scientific method [as long as they are well explained]. He broadcasts a program of Classical Music for 3 hours every Saturday afternoon from noon till 3 on the U of G's Radio Station: CFRU.

Monday, March 10, 2014


The Guelph Movie Club selection for March is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Join us on March 27th at 7:00 p.m. (Note the change in time).

What will we watch in April? That’s up to you. If you’re new here, this is how it works:

1.      Each month, we watch a classic movie.
2.      Before that movie, you get a ballot and fill it with any five flicks you’d like to see on the big screen.
3.      We take those ballots and create a shortlist of five movies for your voting pleasure.
4.      You vote via this blog.
5.      The winning movie becomes the next movie club selection.

This is your time to shine. Cast you vote on the poll provided below.Note that you can only vote once. After that, the poll won't appear when you view this blog. Results will be revealed when we watch TMNT

'Til then, see you at the movies!



Monday, March 3, 2014


This year for the Toronto International Film Festival I was tasked with picking a film in a very specific time slot for five wildly different people. The only title which looked promising was The Great Beauty, but it was Italian and one of our group didn’t like subtitled movies. It was months away from winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Film.

Despite the required reading, I chose it and crossed my fingers. During the screening, which I found entrancing, beautiful, and strangely compelling, I couldn’t help sneak a peak at my movie mates. They all looked like they were basking in the glow of a great piece of art. That made me happy. We then spent our dinner in delirious conversation about The Great Beauty. How often does this happen?

This movie should really be called A Great Performance. In the very first scene you make eye contact with its star, Toni Servillo, and he will not let you escape for the entire story. He plays Jep, a lover of Rome and one of its aging cultural elites. He has just turned 65 and is ruminating about his life in all its myriad decadence. The younger Jep not only wanted to be the star of any party, but also wanted to be able to ruin one on a whim. The older and more nostalgic Jep is much more philosophical and confessional. You might not like him, but his insights into history, art, and even the human soul will tie you up.

The lyrical script, written by director Paolo Sorrentino, proves that there is a positive side to the word intellectual. This guy is a reader and we are all lucky for that. Sorrentino has been compared to Fellini, so if you crave more don’t miss our screening of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita on March 20 at 6:15. All Great Stuff!


Sunday, March 2, 2014

Teenage Mutant Movie Club

I saw Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for my ninth birthday. I remember it distinctly because I was nuts about the Ninja Turtles. Also, they almost didn’t let my mom into the theatre because they’d oversold the movie.

Movies are funny like that – triggering memories when we watch them. It’s something I love about Guelph Movie Club. It’s not just seeing an old movie that we love. It’s about taking us back in time and reminding why we loved a movie in the first place.

//End digression//

We’re showing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for Guelph Movie Club Episode 15 on March 27th at 7:00 p.m. (note the start time).

Before the movie starts, I’ll be announcing the winning movie for Episode 16, the April GMC. You'll have a chance to nominate movies for Episode 17, so start thinking about what movie you’d like to see back on the big screen.

Don’t forget to visit the Bookshelf Facebook and Twitter pages for voting and more details!

What it all comes down to, I suppose, is this: Cowabunga!

Till then, see you at the movies.

 - Danny W.