Sean K. Cureton

Archive for July, 2014|Monthly archive page

Punching Bag

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on July 13, 2014 at 1:08 pm

Theatrical Poster

Theatrical Poster

Pain & Gain (2013)
Directed by Michael Bay
Netflix Rating: Really Liked It

Michael Bay is a name that means something in Hollywood. Perhaps more than any other filmmaker currently working within the mainstream, Michael Bay is the most critically derided and personally hated, the target for many a vitriolic attack on his talents, or lack thereof, as a director. In an attempt to briefly summarize Bay’s established cultural cache, while admittedly, and not to mention shamefully, taking many a cheap and reductive pot shot at this less than venerable director, the following should serve as a preamble, meant to acquaint and ease readers into what will be my starting point of contention in my own review and analysis of why Bay’s last summer blockbuster, Pain &Gain, proved to be a surprisingly enjoyable indulgence.

Over the past 25 years, and almost single handedly, it would seem, Bay has been the brains, or lack thereof, behind every blockbuster behemoth, most notably writing and directing the ever pervasive and noxious Transformers franchise, which is currently assaulting audiences in the form of a fourth “installment” this summer. Over the years, critics have not been kind to Michael Bay, essentially using him as a rhetorical scapegoat and recreational punching bag whenever they feel the need to cite an example of a consistently bad filmmaker, which is exactly what I am doing right now. While films such as the Bad Boys franchise, or 1996’s absurdist fantasy The Rock, have been met with approval from the mainstream audiences that typically frequent screenings of Bay’s cinematic “visions,” Bay’s reputation among the more discerning moviegoer has always been tarnished by his penchant for over saturated colors, incomprehensible action sequences, loaded with enough special effects to send even the non-epileptic viewer into the throws of the most violent of seizures, and a latent misogyny that has lately become all too noticeable in his films, prompting frequent collaborator and actress Megan Fox to liken him to Adolf Hitler. Michael Bay, for all intents and purposes, personifies everything that is wrong with the Hollywood system, feeding the masses empty headed, explosion porn, replete with enough bright lights and brainless bimbos to keep the masses in a state of catatonic contentment, periodically checking the pulse of said masses each year with the release of yet another film sure to keep American moviegoers in thrall, and paying out the nose for yet another 3D massacre on the senses.

Understandably, when Michael Bay released Pain & Gain last summer, yet another bizarro, action thriller, about a trio of body building, steroid abusing, coke snorting, lunatic kidnappers, who singlehandedly fail to definitively kill the man that they are attempting to extort money from, all in the pursuit of the ever ephemeral American Dream, I found myself hard pressed to work up the energy to hand over my own hard earned cash to everyone’s favorite punching bag. The last film of Michael Bay’s that I had watched previous to Pain & Gain was the second in his Transformers franchise, and while I didn’t pay anything to see that particular film, the sheer memory of having watched and suffered through it still feels like payment enough. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, for my money, is by far the worst movie I have ever willingly spent 150 minutes of my life engaged with. Although I only vaguely remember the plot of Revenge, assuming there even is one, what I do know and remember viscerally, and to the detriment of my own sanity, is just how mind numbingly incoherent the entire experience was, insulting my own intelligence at every turn, while simultaneously placating my more subconscious and baser desires for mindless violence and misogynistic eroticism. In effect, I was both repulsed and seduced by Revenge’s theatrics, almost as if I had been drugged with Soma, the infamous mood stabilizer from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, complicit in something that I knew to be ethically dubious and morally insidious, and yet letting the thing happen all the same, more or less entertained by the ultimate catch all in anti-entertainment; simply put, Michael Bay is the Hitler of summer blockbusters, holding audiences hostage to what the vast majority of us think we want, despite our silently withheld better judgment.

And yet, for all that I hold against Michael Bay, last summer’s Pain & Gain came as a surprising change of pace, encapsulating all of Bay’s superficial aestheticism and bold badness as a director, while simultaneously offering one of the funniest satirical indictments of the very same violent homoeroticism of the sorts of characters Bay has been interested in from the very get go of his career. Centered loosely around a real life gang of extortionists and body builders led by Daniel Lugo, played to great comic effect by actor Mark Wahlberg, the film is essentially a comedy of errors masquerading as an over the top action blockbuster, a note for note counterpoint to Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, which saw a theatrical release only a few months after Pain &Gain. Like Scorsese’s Oscar nominated picture, Bay’s film is an amoral romp, full of bad behavior, sexual promiscuity and explicitness, and tasteless violence that is allowable within the confines of a film that takes a condemnatory and detached stance towards its central characters. In the same way that Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort is an erudite example of the fallibility of man’s hubris and baser lusts, Bay’s Lugo character stands in for the very same archetype, only with Wahlberg playing his Lugo as a farce. As far as I’m concerned, Pain & Gain could have played back to back with Scorsese, each film telling essentially the same story, and each director playing to their respective strong suits, Wolf a more dramatic and technically nuanced fable, and Bay going straight for the jugular, offering a much louder, cruder, and exploitative satire.

Michael Bay will never be Martin Scorsese, and if I might be so bold in saying so, I don’t think he wants to be, either. Currently, as of Sunday, July 13th, 2014, Pain & Gain has a 50% aggregate score on the popular film reviewing website “Rotten Tomatoes,” with The Wolf of Wall Street comparatively sitting smug with a 76%, granting it the license to bear the presumably coveted, albeit inane and meaningless, “Rotten Tomatoes” patented, “Certified Fresh” sticker. Pain & Gain, meanwhile, is afflicted with an attached image of a cartoon green splotch, signifying a comparatively rotten tomato, at least according to all of the professional and amateur critics that have filed a review for the film on the “Rotten Tomatoes” website, all of whom, as has already been established, are predisposed to turn their noses up at anything produced by the likes of Michael Bay. And yet, what is there to be gained in haranguing the quality of Michael Bay films at this point in Bay’s career as a filmmaker? Anything that can written about Michael Bay has already been said, and continuing to list his faults, short comings, and egregious assaults on the taste of American moviegoers is cheap, easy, and not entirely satisfying, even if it is temporarily entertaining to take a few quick jabs at the already well worn and broken in punching bag. Pain & Gain has already been largely forgotten by the type of audience that is currently flocking into theatres to see the fourth installment in Bay’s Transformers franchise, which is too bad, if not entirely predictable. There are better films out there to spend an evening watching, and Michael Bay certainly isn’t hurting at the box office, but if you want to be pleasantly surprised, put Pain & Gain in your Netflix Instant View queue. I’m still happy I did. Or is that the Soma talking?

Pain & Gain is availble on Netflix Instant View, and is My Movies on Netflix: Recommendation of the Week.