Friday, May 3, 2013

Iron Man 3

This film needs little introduction.

Marvel has been whistling a happy tune all the way to the bank now for the better part of five years; basically since the first Iron Man movie was a smash hit at the box office and opened the floodgates for the series leading up to The Avengers. The Iron Man series has been my favorite thus far, and that's largely due to Robert Downey Jr.'s perfect portrayal of the inimitable Tony Stark.

Iron Man 3 opens on a Tony Stark who is suffering from what appears to be some mild PTSD after the events of The Avengers. He can't sleep, he's beginning to experience panic attacks, he spends even more time than usual "tinkering," and his relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is visibly shaky. And right as Stark is battling his own personal crisis, the world once again falls victim to the chaos of another supervillain: The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). It's a familiar setup with familiar faces and familiar visual effects; so how does it stack up both as its own movie and part of a larger series?


Again, Downey's performance is perfection. In the same way Tony Stark "owns" the fact that he is Iron Man, so too does Robert Downey Jr. own the fact that he is Tony Stark. It's as if he doesn't even really act the part, because he is the part. His dialogue here is as caustic and humorous as it's ever been, and even amidst some of the more crippling crises in the film he brings the usual aplomb. All of the returning cast (Gwyneth Paltrow, Jon Favreau, Don Cheadle, the voice of Paul Bettany) does a marvelous job with their roles, as can be expected. Newcomers to the franchise include Guy Pearce as Aldrich Killian and, as mentioned before, Ben Kingsley. Both of them supply performances worthy of the franchise, and not in ways you might necessarily expect. Without giving anything away, there's a small twist in Iron Man 3 that requires both these actors to approach their characters differently before film's end - and they handle the transition flawlessly.

During a temporary setback in the course of the film's events, Stark finds himself stranded in a small town in Tennessee where he finds something of a sidekick in a kid named Harley (Ty Simpkins, of Insidious notoriety). The banter between these two provides some of the film's (maybe even the entire franchise's) most memorable moments, as Simpkins and Downey evince an easy chemistry.

What's an Iron Man film without lots of fun explosions and visual effects-laden action sequences, right? Iron Man 3 delivers the goods in that department with the usual craftsmanship we've come to expect from this genre. We've entered an era in visual effects where they're both so recurrent across genres and so well polished that we don't even really notice them any more. By that I mean I caught myself not even really inspecting the visual effects the way I often do because they fit right in with everything else going on in the film. Not a huge surprise there, to be honest, but still worth noting.

A number of subtle but appropriate references to the previous films (including The Avengers) help Iron Man 3 fit into the growing mythology of this series, but the film still has an identity independent of the other entries. That identity, however, still isn't quite what it once was...


Remember the rock-n-roll swagger of the first film? To me, that's what sets the Iron Man movies apart from the other Avengers flicks, and I was sad to see it largely cast aside. There's no AC/DC in the soundtrack, the iconic Black Sabbath ballad isn't musically mentioned, and Brian Tyler's soundtrack barely resembles the aggressive confidence of Ramin Djawadi's - and to a lesser extent, John Debney's. This isn't a true flaw, to be fair. But it was something that I missed not having this go 'round.

Another element that isn't an actual flaw but just something I was disappointed to experience was the tone of the film. The trailers and ad campaigns surrounding the release of Iron Man 3 have billed it - directly and indirectly - as a sort of "dark chapter" in the series. You've seen the commercials; Stark's home destroyed by helicopters, Stark - broken but undefeated - dragging his suit through a lonely snowfall, shots of Pepper Potts in seemingly impossible situations of danger, the works. I went into this expecting something like an Empire Strikes Back moment - where the plight of our heroes is more grim than ever before. But, for better or worse, that doesn't really describe the film at all. True, all of the events shown in the trailer happen in the film, but they're tied together by an almost comical whimsy. This isn't a bad thing, don't get me wrong; I laughed along with the rest of the theater time and time again because Iron Man 3 is probably the funniest of the trilogy. But I expected something a little more dark and gritty. Yes the Hollywood rhetoric surrounding those buzzwords has rendered them almost meaningless, but I was still a bit disappointed.


Don't let my personal disappointments with the film dissuade you, because Iron Man 3 is still a worthy installment to the franchise and a solid film in its own right. While I wish I could have had a different set of expectations going into it, I still enjoyed the hell out of this movie.

In a lot of ways it works better as a post-Avengers film than a true Iron Man sequel, which makes complete sense given the direction Marvel is going with their entire brand right now. All the right Marvel touches appear, including Stan Lee's cameo and a brief post-credits scene. But with that territory comes the loss of a few things that really endeared me to Iron Man as its own franchise when this whole thing began. They're minor complaints, I know, but ones I left the theater unable to shake.

Still, the heart of this franchise is Robert Downey, Jr.'s singular portrayal of the title character, and that heart is preserved true to form. During an interview on the Daily Show, Downey indicated that his initial contract for three films is up and he is currently renegotiating. Here's hoping the head honchos at Marvel know better than to let him slip away.

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.