Thursday, May 2, 2013

Pain, Gain, and the Case for (and Against) Michael Bay

Pain and Gain took the #1 spot at the box office last weekend, and once again the relentless march of Michael Bay hatred (Bay-tred!) spread through the internet like a pretentious plague. Countless keyboard colonels took to their Rotten Tomatoes profiles and Facebook statuses and Twitter feeds to find ever-predictable ways to turn the title of the film into some snarky pun:

"Michael Bay = More pain than gain." Cried James Verniere, of the Boston Herald.

"Pain and Gain brings the pain, but it's difficult to see the gain." Opined Tom Long of the Detroit News.

But cynicism wasn't the only thing offered in response to Bay's latest film. Amidst the predictable displeasure, there was also a smattering of positive comments - not the least of which came from Richard Roeper:

"Kudos to Bay and his screenwriters for making sure we're laughing at (the characters), and not with them."

He went on to give the film a 'B,' and is among a relatively substantial group of critics - professional and otherwise - who weren't completely underwhelmed by the effort. In fact, it seems the response to Bay's film runs right down the middle with about half giving it a negative review and everyone else giving it the proverbial thumbs up.

Now, what I want to do with this post is both review Pain and Gain as well as address all the Bay-tred floating around these days. It's not that I think he's undeserving of much of the criticism leveled against him, because he is. But there's a lot more to him than the Transformers movies and, more importantly, there's a lot less to most of his detractors than they seem to realize. Plus, at the end of the day...

♫That’s what blogs are foooor!♫

First things first, let's do a quick roll call. If you are a professional film critic, studied film in college, and/or have seen a minimum of 5 non-English-language films in your life time - you are excused.

Everyone else, if you do not fall into one of the categories mentioned above and have contributed to Bay-tred, come on in. Take a seat, prop your feet up, and release your clammy grip on condescension long enough to appreciate a change of perspective because Pain and Gain is the perfect Michael Bay movie. What I mean by that is it's a film that brilliantly outlines exactly for what Bay should and shouldn't be vilified. It's perfect in places, and a total wreck in others - resulting in a film that's largely a mixed bag, just like its director. But Michael Bay isn't treated like a mixed bag, he's treated like, well...

Bay-bashers once again proving they apparently don't know what subtlety is either.

And attempting the same experiment on other film makers - even those with worse track records at the box office and in critic's corners - doesn't yield nearly as vitriolic a reaction. Take Tyler Perry for example...

Tyler Perry Island: Literally No One's Vacation Destination

He's more prolific than Bay and even has roughly the same average RT rating across his filmography (Perry's average, 31%; Bay's average 33%). But Perry doesn't make the same kinds of movies Michael Bay does about Roland Emmerich? The man behind box office-bomb-and-blockbuster-alike (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, Stargate, Godzilla) still fairs better than Bay; the worst Google auto-complete suggestion being " the worst director ever." Let's broaden the scope a bit and conduct the same experiment on the ever controversial and polarizing Quentin Tarantino. Opinions regarding his body of work (both for and against) are arguably just as vehement as those regarding Bay's, yet even Google's first four suggestions include both " a hack" and " a genius." And make no mistake; I don't mean to equate the content of Bay's work with Tarantino's; Sir Quentin is in a league all his own. What I'm trying to do is build a case for the fact that Bay's punishment does not match his crime and that Bay-tred is just another godawful trend.

Remember this movie?

Special thanks to Dwayne Johnson for making every conversation about this movie an Abbot and Costello routine

Almost every Bay-basher I have encountered seems to have forgotten it. And, upon its recollection - namely how absolutely badass it is - found their Bay-tred thwarted, by however small a margin. Apart from being just a fun film, The Rock features a laundry list of "good movie" qualities; a sympathetic and multi-dimensional villain, memorable characters with concrete motivations, an engaging plot, and Sean Connery. It's currently the only Michael Bay film to have a "Certified Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes (holding at 67%), so clearly this man is capable of making a film that's critically and commercially successful. That's got to count for something, right? Which brings me to my next point...

Rotten Tomatoes isn't a scientifically accurate endeavor by any means; but as an aggregate of professional and amateur opinions alike, it's a good way to generally judge a film's reception and in many cases - by extension - its quality. And after the initial flurry of reviews, that average becomes a fairly solid statistic - a few stray positive or negative reviews here and there don't impact its overall rating. Because in order to significantly change the rating of a film like, say, Transformers after its rating was thus solidified - it would take a great deal of extremely negative ratings to drag the average down. Well when it came out, the first Transformers film earned a rating of 65%; the second film initially achieved a 25% rating. In the years after their release, these two films saw a plummet - to 57% and 20%, respectively - that can really only be explained by users either going back and changing their existing rating or a whole new batch of fingers pounding out negative reviews ex post facto. (For the record, the third film's rating hasn't changed from the 36% it achieved during opening weekend).

So then we can surmise that Bay-tred has a retroactive effect, which is just patently unfair. Going back to further deride a work in the past based purely on your at-zero-and-falling opinion of the director in the present is both mean-spirited and illogical. If anything, usually the passage of time nets the opposite results; we tend to forget how bad things actually were as their memory fades a little. And what do we usually remember from the Transformers films? Mostly the explosions, the colossal spectacles of CGI, and Megan Fox objectified in every possible cinematic way.

PICTURED: Not the worst thing to happen to her career.

Far greater cinematic sin has been committed time and time again (I refer you to the previously mentioned ouevre of Monsieurs Perry and Emmerich) but without nearly the same level of backlash; their RT scores haven't budged at all in recent memory. Michael Bay has been maligned I tell ya!

Alright, getting back to Pain and Gain...

The film follows the mostly true story (a fact that's used almost as a bludgeoning tool during its 2-hour + run time) of Danny Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), a body builder and fitness freak in Miami during the 90s. He hatches a scheme with his cohorts (played by Anthony Mackie and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) to kidnap and extort money from Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a foul-mouthed and all-around scumbag gym client of Lugo's. The logic of the main characters and (partially, at least) the film is that Kershaw deserves what's coming to him because he's such a sleazy dude. One count of attempted murder, two counts of "accidental" manslaughter, assault, theft, swooping Dutch angles, and only two explosions later - the film reaches its conclusion with a lead character who essentially learns nothing from his crimes or the death penalty he received for them.

It seemed like a mostly pointless endeavor with no perspective or message to be gleaned, but then I took note of the song rolling over the credits: Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise." For those of you in the audience who have Weird Al's lyrics to "Amish Paradise" overriding any recollection of the original lyrics (and I am among you), there are a number of lines in that song that speak directly to the goings on of the film. Cruise through these lyrics for reference - and I freely admit I turned to Google to get them:

As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I take a look at my life and realize there's nothin' left
Cause I've been blasting and laughing so long,
That even my mama thinks that my mind is gone
But I ain't never crossed a man that didn't deserve it
Me be treated like a punk you know that's unheard of
You better watch how you're talking and where you're walking
Or you and your homies might be lined in chalk
I really hate to trip but I gotta loc
As they croak, I see myself in the pistol smoke, fool
I'm the kinda G the little homies wanna be like
On my knees in the night saying prayers in the streetlight

As mentioned before, a big part of the film's logic revolves around the idea that Lugo "never crossed a man that didn't deserve it" and when "treated like a punk" more than one person ends up "lined in chalk."

Look at the situation they got me facin'
I can't live a normal life, I was raised by the streets
So I gotta be down with the hood team
Too much television watching got me chasing dreams
I'm an educated fool with money on my mind
Got my 10 in my hand and a gleam in my eye
I'm a loc'd out gangsta set trippin' banger
And my homies is down so don't arouse my anger, fool
Death ain't nothing but a heartbeat away,
I'm living life, do or die, what can I say
I'm 23 now, but will I live to see 24
The way things are going I don't know

This verse almost reads like it was pulled from the script. A handful of times Lugo mentions how he saw something "in a movie" or "on tv" that gives him the motivation and instruction on how to proceed, and a minor subplot involves his idolization of a scam artist/motivational speaker (Ken Jeong) who teaches his followers to be "doers." Before the end of the film, "I'm a do'er!" is practically Lugo's mantra.


But the song has an almost evangelical edge, as the refrain "Tell me why are we so blind to see? That the ones we hurt are you and me..." reminds the listener that the idea of a "Gangsta's Paradise" isn't something being here glorified. Pain and Gain shares this in common with its de facto theme song, because despite the undeniable energy present in the film - the actions of the main characters aren't really glorified. If anything they're cast in an almost condescending satire; even the film's tagline "Their American dream is bigger than yours" echoes this self-deprecating sentiment. Ultimately both the song and the film are nihilistic endeavors, though Coolio's iconic ballad is clearly the greater of the two. Still, it was in this moment that I saw Bay tying everything together thematically. The movie is still a mess, but it's a mess that messes up less than many a mess can confess.

So how does all of this calculate into the Bay-tred discussion?

Well like it or not, Michael Bay is no idiot. Quite the contrary, he's completely self-aware. Rather famously he once quipped: "I make movies for teenage boys. Oh dear, what a crime." That's not Uwe Boll challenging his critics to a boxing match, or Tom Cruise overreacting to basically any attack on Scientology; that's Michael Bay's artistic integrity.

Yes, I said it. Michael Bay has a singular vision for each of his films that usually includes almost pornographic levels of explosions and visual effects, and he's unwilling to compromise that vision in order to please the hordes of bloggers and vloggers and loggers (I assume lumberjacks dislike him, I don't have any hard data on that) who continually rip on his movies. That's called artistic integrity; not sophisticated artistic integrity, but integrity nonetheless, and Pain and Gain is practically bursting at the seams with this middle-finger attitude.

I didn't think Pain and Gain was that great of a movie. It gets some things completely right: Bay is wise to treat the camera like the limitless tool it can be and slings handheld camerawork, steadicam moments, snorricam shots, Dutch angles, swooping passes, and every conceivable camera trick at the audience like promotional frisbees. It's also excessive in the right ways - humor here is not in subtlety or nuance of dialogue but in the sheer quantity of outrageous events and moments that continue to keep coming down the pike, one after another.

What it doesn't get right are things usually regarded as more character development, and the fact that the film gives you cause to sympathize with criminals responsible for some pretty heinous acts. Still, the movie itself has a presentation and style all its own and edges its way towards the grindhouse aesthetic with sufficient confidence. 

Pain and Gain is an intentionally thought-provoking film, though there's no denying it's still the poor man's Fargo.

And as for the man behind the film, it's high-time to give him his due. Being a bankable director in this day and age isn't half as easy most of the Macbook-and-beard-combo-at-Starbucks crowd would have you believe. Bay has carved a niche for himself as a blockbuster director with a singular, if predictable, vision. And just because that vision involves extravagant budgets and basically all the special effects doesn't make it illegitimate. What makes it illegitimate are things like paper-thin characters, egregious plot holes, and subpar writing. But if you're going to take his movies to task for these offenses you've got to do so everywhere you find them, and there's not always a big sign that says "Hey! This movie was made by someone you once heard was a hack! Sweeping generalizations within!"

So if you dislike Michael Bay's films, fine. As a general rule, I'm not crazy about them myself. But don't fuel the Bay-tred just because it makes you sound cynically intellectual or because that's what's popular. There are plenty of reasons to deride his movies; they're often racially insensitive, they relentlessly objectify women, and they're rarely - if ever - intellectually stimulating. But if finding fault with Michael Bay and his movies is just another way you pass the time, that's just plain-ol'-lame-ol'-Bay-tred.

Here, put yourself to this test:

1. If you're about to say something bad about Michael Bay but can't at least name a film by Federico Fellini, Frank Capra, Francois Truffaut, Andrei Tarkovsky, etc...that's Bay-tred.

2. If your blood is curdled by the fact that Transformers: Dark of the Moon is the 5th highest-grossing movie of all-time, but you haven't paid money to see an art house film within the past year...that's Bay-tred.

3. If you've ever said something mean about Michael Bay, but don't even know what he looks like...that's Bay-tred.

Here, I'll even give you a hand with that last one.

"...and tomorrow they're putting in something called HERO squad."

Michael Bay just wants to make movies that he thinks are fun. Those movies make a lot of money, so at the end of the day he's just livin' the dream. If you don't like it, go get your own.

And just say no to Bay-tred.

1 comment:

  1. I assume lumberjacks dislike Bay because of his rude attitude toward transvestites.