(Netflix Streaming, November 2016) Bombastic director Michael Bay tackles real-life military drama in 13 Hours and the overall impression is a surprising “gee, how dull”. Executed as a paean to mercenaries in a bizarre display of patriotism for non-soldiers, this film purports to show what happened in Benghazi, further contributing to the “every American military disaster is a triumphant Hollywood movie in the making” subgenre. In theory, a strong visual director like Bay would be a great choice for presenting the battle of Benghazi in an engaging fashion. In execution, though, it takes a very long time for the movie to show any kind of visual flair, and those swooping drone shots of a battlefield aren’t used as often as they should. The geography of the events isn’t always clear despite efforts to make it so, while the largely undistinguishable bearded men acting as heroes seldom get a chance to express their individuality. It doesn’t help that the script often veers into cartoonish antagonism: Never mind the hordes of faceless foreign attackers—I’m more annoyed by the CIA chief barking at the protagonists like a character who will later repent for his shortsightedness. Working from a fact-based script seemingly hampers Bay, who can’t let loose with his usual brand of bigger-than-life explosions and braggadocio. I’m not a fan of 13 Hours, and I’m not a fan in a more dismissive way than for his awful Transformer movies—13 Hours don’t show enough ambition, enough distinctiveness, and enough moment-to-moment interest. It is, in other words, a dull movie and it’s been a long time since Bay did a dull movie. The contractors who fought in Benghazi would deserve better.
(Netflix Streaming, October 2015) My loathing at the robotic aesthetics and the awful scripts of the Transformers series is only matched by my curiosity at its visual effects and how low the series will sink. I knew I wouldn’t enjoy the experience, but I had to take at least a look. So it is that I purposefully made an effort to see Transformers: Age of Extinction in the worst possible conditions: on my phone’s tiny screen, wearing crappy headphones (usually only one earbud), watching a few minutes in bed as the last thing I did before going to sleep. Given that the film weighs in at 2h45, it took days –most of them ending with “Ah, I can’t be bothered any more… zzzz.” Unfortunately, my scheme may have backfired, because taking in such a big movie in bite-sized increments minimized the accumulation of stupidity and incoherence that could have been lethal had I seen the film in one big gulp. The small screen and tinny sound minimized the audio-visual aggression, making the experience ironically more pleasant. I can’t properly express how powerfully dumb the script actually is: I would describe the scene in which a twentysomething character patiently explains (card in hand) why it’s not illegal for him to date the 17-year-old daughter of the protagonist and you would not believe that such a scene made it in a two-hundred-million-dollar-plus movie. I’d describe the nonsense that passes for plot, the contortions the film takes in order to film in China (thus ensuring healthy Chinese box-office revenue) or the wretched dialogue and characterization given to the supposedly-heroic Autobots but it doesn’t really matter, doesn’t it? This is about action scenes, grand images, swooping cameras and state-of-the-art special effects. And, praise being given properly, everyone has to acknowledge that Michael Bay’s style remains just as effective: he presents Midwest America as if it was a heroic succession of golden corn fields, somehow manages to keep a film of that logistical magnitude under control and finds ways to maximize the dramatic potential of everything on the table. Too bad he can’t focus, simplify or sustain – but as I’ve said, watching ten-minute snippets for two weeks can lessen the pain. The point here isn’t to determine whether Transformers: Age of Extinction is a bad film or not (it most assuredly is), but how to make it feel less awful in order to watch it to the end. As much as it’s designed to be an all-out widescreen 3D assault on the senses, the way to rebel is to refuse it all the crutches it needs in order to reveal it for the hollow shell it is: small screen, bad sound, confused fatigue and short attention span it is. That’s called leveling down. I’m sure that a sequel will follow, although I rest assured that it’s still a nightmare a few years in the future.
(Video on-demand, September 2013) Anyone with an interest in director Michael Bay’s career was eagerly anticipating this film: While Bay usually works with stratospheric budgets, wall-to-wall explosions, wild chases and omnipresent special effects, how would he deliver a low-budgets crime drama? Fortunately, the result turns out to be interesting: Filmed with a relatively-paltry 22$M, Pain & Gain is a high-energy, low-morals crime thriller that harkens back to Bay’s Bad Boys films more than anything else. Set in Miami, the film ends up playing like of those Florida-noir comedy-crime novels, with stupid criminals, reprehensible victims, duped collaborators and misguided law-enforcement officials. Everyone is a bit crazy in Miami, and as our idiotic bodybuilding antiheroes get seduced into a life of crime, the plot gets loopier and loopier. Mark Wahlberg is effective as a hustler (over-)taken by a self-improvement mindset; meanwhile, Dwayne Johnson is also remarkable as a self-destructive ex-con periodically restrained by his faith. The film, however, really belongs to Bay, as he uses his usual glossy rapid-fire style to enliven an already-colorful story. Pain & Gain moves quickly, seldom bores (although it occasionally disgusts) and is frequently hilarious as well. There’s even a critique of the “American Dream” rhetoric if you look closely enough, which may be the deepest intellectual content in a Michael Bay film so far. It won’t take much to make viewers regret the fiercely amoral thrust of the story (Bay is more likely to celebrate excess than to reign in good taste, and the gory excesses of Pain & Gain are similar to those in Bad Boys II), something that may weaken the film’s crazy-Florida-noir appeal. While based on a true story, Pain & Gain takes a lot of liberties with the material… so don’t trust everything you see on-screen. Heck, Bay even gets to throw in a car chase and an explosion. The film is a bit long, which becomes a bit of a problem with Bay’s in-your face brashness: the second half isn’t quite as much fun as the first. Still, the result is interesting, making anyone welcome Bay’s efforts whenever he gets a break from his mega-budgeted special-effects epics.
(In theaters, June 2011) I never thought I’d be thankful for 3D reining in a director’s worst impulses, but looking at the dramatic increase in Transformers 3’s visual coherence over its predecessor, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Michael Bay has finally met a limiting factor he couldn’t blow up. Simply put, the visual salad of quick cuts and flashing color that undermined Transformers 2 simply doesn’t work in 3D, and Bay has adapted his style in consequence. Much like accessibility for disabled people ends up benefitting everyone, it turns out that Transformers 3D is a lot more accessible… even for 2D viewers. There are a few amazing long shots in the film (one of the best being a highway stunt in which a robot transforms around its human passenger), and everything feels far more controlled and enjoyable as a result. It helps that the plot is better than the preceding films, blending a healthy dose of conspiracy theory with multiple betrayals and catastrophic imagery. (There’s a particular chilling moment that makes no sense in the context of the series, but shows what the trilogy could have built toward had it been coherently conceived.) It’s easy to miss Megan Fox (her replacement is bland), to wish that Ken Jeong should have gotten a better role and to think that Shia LaBeouf is this close to developing a distinctive screen personality (albeit not a pleasant one), but various bit players such as John Turturro, John Malkovich and Frances McDormand do quite well with small roles. Transformers 3 is hardly perfect, mind you: The plot holes are still obnoxious, the robots still look like unconnected piles of hardware, the lack of attention to characters is still annoying and the dumb humour of the series is still intrusive, but the improvement is perceptible –even when it comes from the actors doing their best with the material they’ve got. At more than two and a half hours, Transformers 3 is overstuffed with barely relevant material: A good script re-write could have combined characters for greater impact, and cut 30-40 minutes without too much trouble. But part of the pleasure of the Transformers series is in finding out what kind of spectacular mayhem can be put on-screen with an ultra-big budget. (The remarkable pre-credit sequence alone is probably more expensive than most movies in the history of movies.) On this level, Transformers 3 certainly doesn’t disappoint, even for jaded action junkies. The last hour of the film pulls out all the stops in portraying inventive set-pieces in downtown Chicago, and some sequences (such as the glass skyscraper) are nothing short of awe-inspiring. It’s lavish summer entertainment with terrific audio/video production values, and for once there’s just enough interesting material in the script to keep us interested while Bay’s direction benefits from some much-needed restraint. While I’m not saying that the film will end up anywhere near this year’s end Top-ten lists, it’s such an improvement over the first two in the series that it feels like a success.
(In theaters, June 2009): The most remarkable thing about this film isn’t nearly as much the near-constant special effects, brute sonic force or always-moving camera: It’s the feeling that a tremendous amount of talent and energy has gone into making one of the loudest, fastest and dullest films of the year. In that, it’s not particularly different from the first film of the series: Michael Bay’s artistic choices (huh?) in portraying robots as an indistinct blur of loosely-coupled pieces still offends my own aesthetic preferences, while the attempts at injecting comedy in an SF/thriller framework feel almost as embarrassing as in the first film. The self-contradictory science-fiction elements (firmly stepped in mysticism) make absolutely no sense, while the steady accumulation of robot-on-robot fights quickly get tiresome, especially when they don’t allow any clean visuals. The film works slightly better when it becomes a military thriller: it’s a surprise to find that there hasn’t been a better recent glossy portrayal of the US military than in this pair of robot sci-fi fest. Still, it’s hard to be entirely displeased by a film that obviously cost so much: All the money is visible on-screen (although sound design often favors robot rumbling over intelligible dialogue), and it’s an education to see some of the insane shots that are now possible via special effects. Alas, it’s the accumulation of those shots that weaken them: There’s no other pacing that full-steam-ahead, which is good since the film becomes lousy whenever the characters speak to each other. But guess what? Once my ears have cleaned up and once I got used to a non-shaky vision again, I have to admit that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen isn’t quite as embarrassing as the first Transformers. (Well, at the exception of the racist “comedy” robot duo.) Small praise, but there you go. As of this writing, five days after release, the film is already the third-biggest grossing film of the year, and is set to overtake the top spot in the remaining days of its first week in theaters. Do you even think the bad reviews even slowed it down?
(On DVD, January 2010): Something strange happens when watching Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen at home while doing something else: It almost becomes enjoyable. Part of the answer is that you can pay attention to something else (say, a good book), while listening to the audio commentary and only looking at the screen for the good parts. The other part of the answer is that by being able to opt out of the movie frame, the pummeling effect of Bay’s increasingly nonsensical direction becomes less pronounced. Oh, it’s still not much of a film, but home viewing will allow you to focus on the good parts… and there are a few of those. Whenever Bay’s ADD lets up and he gets to avoid cutting for more than five seconds, the polish of his sequences is admirable. The sound design is incredible. The presentation of military hardware is terrific. Watching the tons of extras in the two-disc special edition (including a documentary that’s almost as long as the film itself) can even give you a renewed appreciation of the logistical challenges of big-budget moviemaking. The looks at editing and the special effects crunch are perhaps too revealing, while discussions of the film’s script-writing process are a reminder that even films with lousy plots have a lot more sophistication than we can take for granted. A lot of time is dedicated to Bay himself, which is appropriate given how charming the man can be –except when turning curiously defensive in discussing how reviews don’t really matter. Hmmm…
(Second viewing, On DVD, May 2002) There is something awe-inspiring in the grandiose panache with which this movie flaunts itself. Continuity mistakes, logical flaws and nonsensical developments are swatted aside like irrelevant trivialities, allowing director Michael Bay full power to show incredible images on-screen. The camera moves, sweeps, pans, captures perfect moments and doesn’t give a damn about the words or the continuity. The Rock is as close as anyone has ever come to the ultimate action movie. I still find parts of it silly beyond words—but soon after I’m silenced by the boffo action sequences and the slick polish of the whole production. I love the characters (Nicolas Cage, Sean Connery and Ed Harris are perfect), I love the direction, I love most of the one-liners and I love the explosions. Why should I complain about the rest? To see if you’re a real action-movie junkie, try watching only five minutes of the film. The first-generation DVD includes the film, and nothing else. But the movie is so good…
(In theaters, June 2001) When all will be said and done, the best two things about this Bruckheimer/Bay production will be A> The stunning centerpiece of the film, a 45-minutes-long re-creation of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and B> a renewed appreciation for the masterpiece that was Titanic. The main problem of Pearl Harbor is its structure; while we could have lived with the trite dialogue, it’s hard to remember fondly a film that makes you wait an hour for the big action scene, and afterward goes on for another hour. You begin at Pearl Harbor and you end at Midway; or you resolve all the stories during the attack, but you! do! not! do it like that. It doesn’t help that the leads are blander than bland (though Kate Beckinsale is cute, and her fellow nurses even cuter), the dialogue is atrocious (they could hear me roll my eyes across the theater) and that Michael Bay’s usually dynamic style here comes across as unbearably pretentious. (I laughed aloud at a revolving door shot that went on… and on… and on…) The result is a mish-mash of a film, a 45-minutes Home Theater showpiece mixed with an emotion-free romance that drags on for a full two hours. It’s just that once you’ve seen the explosions, you just won’t care about anything else. At least Titanic, for all its faults, felt like a genuine story that didn’t waste your time. Here, at least half the film is filler, including most of the celebrity cameos that could have been cut without a moment’s notice. (C’mon; did we really need the Voigt, Gooding or Aykroyd characters? No!) It’s hard to say if the film fails because it’s too ambitious or because morons wrote it. In any case, it’s a half-success at best.