Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Hello, Michael Bay's Id Has A Few Things To Show You

(dir. Michael Bay, 2013)

Are you a woman? A thin framed dude? A poor person? A generally meek, timid, or downright cowardly individual? Congratulations. Michael Bay thinks you're gross.

Apologies, but it's true. He doesn't want anything to do with you. He thinks you're a waste of time, money, and attention. At this point in his career, it's no secret what draws his fancy. The bigger the better. The louder the better. The hotter the better.

No doubt he'd be a repulsive person to spend an evening with, ordering bottle service and casually sauntering near nubile ladies, expecting on general principle for their panties to liquify, like their contents are made from the T-1000. But we're not asking to hang out with him. We're just asking him to make movies for us. And thankfully, after a decade bound in the PG-13 trenches, he finally lets his horrible person flag fly high with "Pain & Gain."

As a gym manager tired of living amongst the losers, Mark Wahlberg hatches a half baked plan to kidnap and extort a wealthy, dickish client of his (Tony Shalhoub), with the aid of two similarly idiotic, muscular gentlemen (Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie). Expectedly, things do not go entirely according to plan, with Shalhoub tortured and left for dead but still alive, calling on the aid of a private investigator (Ed Harris) to nail these guys while they lavish in his riches. 

Jesus, lets say it: There ain't a trace of morality floundering in this movie. At no point does it slow down to ask, "Is this really OK?" At no point does it wink to the audience as if to indicate this is satire. At no point does Bay ever flatter us to feel we're better than these people either.

"Pain & Gain" is an exceedingly stupid movie about exceedingly stupid people that's also exceedingly entertaining, and while a more self-aware take would no doubt result in a different movie, I'm not sure it would result in a better one. This is a movie about sheer, unadulterated awfulness, the kind that leads mothers to hang their heads in shame, but Bay chooses to frame it as a celebration of that awfulness. Intellectualism holds no home here. Just aggressive roid rage gone amuck, made by and for people who aren't dissuaded by the end of "Scarface" from thinking that Tony Montana lived the dream.

Thing is, though, Bay is good at this. I mean really good at it - our reigning auteur of the bottom rung. I never require a movie to do anything specific. I only ask that it recognizes what it wants to be, then be that thing as good as it can be. "Pain & Gain" practically fetishizes stupidly, but it has the balls to pursue that route to the bitter end, never surrendering its amorality to a "Here's what we learned today" moment. 

Robbed of his usual budget (he shot on a fairly miniscule 26 million), but still with a keen awareness of what makes him hard, Bay feels right at home. He bathes the movie in his typical lush, oversaturated colors, opting to shoot his brawny leading men from low angles whenever possible, until they tower over the camera like the buildings they resemble. Slow motion shots of scantily clad women abound. There's only two explosions, but Dwayne Johnson does do a line of coke off a stripper.

Spry, morbidly comic, and even charming in its juvenile nihilism, "Pain & Gain" most certainly isn't a movie for everyone. Quite possibly it isn't the movie for you. You probably know whether it is or not. When I called the movie "exceedingly stupid" before, I wasn't lying. But maybe I'm not taking the right angle. Bay lives in a world where stupidity is so pervasive it's indistinguishable from anything else. The movie isn't stupid in comparison to the smart. It's stupid like that's the only option. All we can do is either say no or gleefully plunge in.

If you choose the latter, you probably won't feel proud of yourself. But that doesn't mean you should feel guilty either.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Roger Ebert, teacher

To say I love movies and to say I love Roger Ebert is redundant.

For myself and no doubt hoards of others, it's not that he was the most famous film critic alive. It's not that he was one of the most trustworthy. It's that he was film criticism. Like Richard Pryor was for comedy, Ebert transcended the very boundaries of his field, revitalizing it and recreating it, until his words were a brand unto itself. Reading a Roger Ebert review was like arguing with a close friend who didn't even know you but welcomed you just the same. They glowed with personality, sparked with wit, and often used the movie as a jumping off point to draw you into his own life, sharing an anecdote or political viewpoint or a philosophy. What's more, he did it without snobbery or elitism, recognizing that movies can be great as entertainment or as art. His pans were legendary (check out the scorched earth treatments of North and Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo). His praises were inspiring. Often times when I rewatch a great movie, it's because I want to see what Ebert saw.

Film criticism by nature is opinion writing. You watch something, then say what you think about it. What Ebert brought to the table, though, was his steadfast personal voice, a voice that never betrayed him long after cancer did and that will live on long after him. His reviews were uniquely, unmistakably his own. It's a style I shamelessly crib in my own reviews, hoping against hope to find one of my own. Critics sometimes try to hide behind the curtain, fruitlessly hoping to keep the movie the main focus, forgetting it's their views about the movie that really guide the article. Ebert never feared employing the dreaded "I" while never seeming vain about it. Intelligence seeped through his takes on even the fluffiest of movies, but not the intelligence of someone who knows he's smarter than you. Instead it was the intelligence of someone who assumed you're as smart as he was, who saw you as a peer, who was excited about the movies and wanted you to be excited about them too.

It's no hyperbole to say that film criticism, and how many Americans think about the movies, stands as Before Ebert and After Ebert.

That's why Roger Ebert was a great critic. But it's not why he meant so much to me and why his death feels so personally crushing. For that, lets go back to when I was 11 years old. My family and I just moved a few miles down the street into a new house we built next to my grandparents. Those first few days there, waiting for the new furniture to arrive, made us look like squatters to an outside eye. Empty rooms, no decorations, no furniture. No television yet either, which was a sin outweighed by few others. Sitting alone in the living room, against an orange husband pillow which I still have on my bed, I perused my parents' box of books for something to fill time, eventually landing on Roger Ebert's Video Companion. I read about new movies I heard of. I read about old movies I hadn't heard of. I read a piece about "Citizen Kane," which he said he hopes plays in heaven.

"Your emotions will never lie to you," as Ebert said. It doesn't matter how old you are. And even if his words and intellect far exceeded my own limited capacity, the passion did not. It stuck with me, and all I wanted to do was follow where he led. For years on, my mother bought me subsequent Video Companions, which I voraciously consumed before the age of Internet archives until the books' spines needed to be duct taped together. Discovering movies is not linear. There's no single tree trunk. There are branches which then branch off from each other. If you found Ebert's Great Movies piece on "Taxi Driver," that inspired you to see other Martin Scorsese movies. Then you watch movies from his contemporaries, like Francis Ford Coppola or Robert Altman. Then you find movies and directors that inspired those guys. Then you find contemporary works of the inspirations. So on and so forth. It never stopped growing and gushing, making all those visits to Blockbuster video with my mother during Friday night shopping count.

Such discoveries took me in thrilling new directions. They excited me. They were like my secret no one else held. But Roger Ebert's reviews remained the guide. He was my beacon. His light shined to a world vaster and greater than my town of 2,000 people and a handful of stoplights. He pointed me to Scorsese, to Herzog, to Altman, to Keaton, to Ozu. He pointed me as an awkward young boy with a few friends to these artworks that I could call my own, taking me to college, then now, then whatever comes next. Always guided by his insight into this world of laughter, fear, dreams, and sadness, where we can cry with joy, then with sorrow, then just because all these emotions are there.

I lost track in that last paragraph whether I'm still talking about movies or the actual world, but maybe that's the point.

And now it's all gone. No more Roger Ebert, but even worse, to paraphrase Billy Wilder speaking of Ernst Lubitsch's death, no more Roger Ebert reviews. I'll never wake up on Fridays to read Ebert's take on the new movies I cared about and the new movies I didn't, and that feels wrong. Not just sad. Not just upsetting. But fundamentally wrong. The way I experience movies is forever altered. No more of his opinions. No more incisive cutdowns of the bad movies, birthing from a place more of warm disappointment than anger. No more praise of the great ones that made them seem magical. I'm stuck figuring out what I think about a movie for myself from now on. We'll see if that flies.

I didn't know Roger Ebert. I never met him, although he did respond to an email I sent as a teenager, signing off, "Best, RE" and prompting a high of, "Holy shit, Roger Ebert talked to me!" for days. But save for my own parents and maybe one or two other people, no one else is more directly responsible for who I am today. As we stand together trapped in the undertow, doing our modest versions of God's work, work that started before us and continues after us, movies are the great collective documents of whoever we are. They reflect us. As Ebert wrote in the introduction to his book The Great Movies, "We live in a box of space and time. Movies are the windows in its walls. They allow us to enter each other's minds -- not simply in the sense of identifying with the characters, although that is an important part of it, but by seeing the world as another person sees it ... Of all the arts, movies are the most powerful aid to empathy, and good ones make us into better people." 

That's something I truly believe, and if all these movies helped shape how I think and how I act and flat-out the kind of human I am, that's only because he helped me understand them in the first place. All that probably sounds like lofty praise for a film critic. But that's because Roger Ebert was a hell of a lot more than a film critic.

Thank you, sir, for everything.