Sunday, June 2, 2013

Directors Retrospective: Michael Bay Part 1


Michael Bay is a…divisive artist, to say the least. This is merely my experience, but I can’t think of any other artist who so is so consistently financially successful and so consistently critically despised. Despite the critical hatred for his output, he is not only one of the most successful, but one of the most influential, modern directors. The way modern blockbusters are shot and edited, and especially the way they sound, have unquestionably been influenced by Bay. And not for the better.

Me, I despise him, but unlike his contemporaries in the so called ‘hack pack’ of directors that do exclusively terrible movie (which includes Brett Ratner and Tim Story) he has a distinctive and recognizable style. He’s a nearly unwatchably terrible director, but he’s endlessly fascinating. So naturally, I was interested enough to decide to do a director’s retrospective.

It was a decision I would come to regret.



Music Videos:

I don’t usually address a director’s pre-film work, and I’m gonna keep this short, but this is one of the first directors I’ve ever done a retrospective on who had an interesting pre-film career. Plus, he’s did videos for a couple of songs that everyone still knows, namely I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That) by Meatloaf and I Touch Myself by the Divinyls. And a couple songs for people like Vanilla Ice and Tina Turner, but I don’t care.

I’d be lying if I said I don’t love I’d Do Anything For Love. Its kind of a ridiculous and over the top song, and for once Bay’s sensibilities fit the song. The video is kind of insane, and it features a lot of his ticks (Helicopters at sunset notably and fast edits) but it fits with the tone of the song and it all works. Plus it’s got more likeable characters than most of his movies. He eventually did a sequel to the video, which is much more typical Michael Bay stuff and nowhere near as much fun.

As for I Touch Myself…meh? I dunno, I was never overly fond of this song and the video isn’t doing much to support it. It doesn’t even feature many of Michael Bay’s signature style, aside from cuts that last maybe 2 seconds and a camera that will not stop moving. And not that I’m expecting otherwise, but this might be the least explicit video possible for a song that’s about masturbation. Hell, I think I’d Do Anything For Love is more explicit, just for that random lesbian sex scene at the midpoint.

Anyway, Michael Bay was doing exceptionally well as a music video director, so actual films were naturally right around the corner.


Bad Boys

Annnnnnd we’re in the shit right out of the gate. Now don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a terrible action movie, and both Bay and lead Will Smith (to say nothing of Martin Lawrence) would end up doing much worse movies. But, that said, no amount justification can make this anything other than a bad film.

The plot is pretty boiler plate buddy-cop bullshit., something about missing drugs from a bust and internal affairs…maybe there was a time limit? I dunno, I wasn’t paying very close attention. But that doesn’t really matter, it’s all about the action. And the action is…actually pretty solid. It’s pretty typical Bay stuff, but it’s not too bad for it and it’s free of a lot of the more irritating aspects of Bay’s direction. Plus, as much as I despise Martin Lawrence, he and Will Smith have an easy going chemistry, that would serve them a lot better in the sequel. So why don’t I like it?

Well, I actually accidentally touched on it above; I don’t care. It’s all just so clichéd, predictable and ultimately boring that I just check out, and no amount of visual flair can drag me back in. For example, would you believe that one of the two leads is a bachelor and the other is a family man? You would? How about the fact that there is a hooker with a good heart? You’re not surprised? Well there you go. It’s not that a clichéd plot can’t work, it’s that there had to be more to it and this movie never graduates to that level. As a result, I’m not invested and the movie is boring.

But, no one listens to me or the critics, and despite middling critical reaction, Bad Boys was a MASSIVE hit, launching Will Smith’s career as an action star and Bay’s career as an action director.


The Rock

Okay, I’m not even gonna lie. I really like this movie. It’s a big dumb action movie, but I have been known to like those (I really liked Machete and I continue to own a copy of Air Force One on DVD) and this one kind of works. Maybe it’s the fact that I like Nicholas Cage (for reasons I’m not totally sure of, but I do like him). Maybe it’s Sean Connery, who is just plain awesome in this movie. Maybe it’s the fact that the action is well put together or maybe it’s the fact that the script doesn’t suck. I dunno I just like it.

What was odd, at the time, is the casting of Nicholas Cage. Jerry Bruckheimer seemed to think that Nicholas Cage, at the time best known for independent critical darling films, like Raising Arizona and Leaving Las Vegas, would be good in an action movie. And it worked, signaling a new (though perhaps not entirely positive) trajectory for his career. However in this, and in the equally awesome Con Air, it proved to be a good choice as even when he’s terrible he brings a unique energy to a production.

Aside from that, there’s not much to say. It’s as well directed and written as any Michael Bay film has ever been. Sean Connery is still legendarily cool (and this was basically his second to last good film role before Finding Forrester; his next film was The Avengers…the one where he’s in a bear suit…the one that’s complete shit. Which is odd, cause the show it’s based on is actually kind of awesome). It’s probably Michael Bay’s best overall film, and easily the one I like the most.

And I’m not alone; The Rock still has the best overall critical reception of any of Bay’s movies. It was also a big hit, cementing Bay as an A-List director and hit maker. So naturally, he and Bruckheimer were going to team up to make a movie again.


Armageddon:

I hate this movie. I really, really, really, reallllllllly do. I know I’m not alone in that opinion (far from it) but unlike some of Bays other hits, I really cannot figure out why this movie was a hit, or why anyone would want to see this. Aside from all of the other issues, it’s just plain fucking boring.

And no, I don’t mean it’s boring in the ‘well the characters don’t engage me so I don’t care’ way. I mean, it’s that too, but there’s more to it than that. See, unlike most of Bay’s films, which are so eager to get to the action that you can practically hear the movie salivating through the opening credits, Armageddon takes it’s sweet damn time about getting things going; It is over an hour into the movie before we get into space and once we get there it’s just painfully obvious how much of it is operating under Murphy’s Law.

This is one of those rare movies where not a single aspect of it works. I mean, the script is bad to the point of being physically painful, but that’s to be expected from a Bay film (and it was written, in part, by JJ Abrams…yeah, defend Into Darkness now). But the pacing is bizarre and the movie begins Bay’s problem of his films being bloated and overstuffed. This movie is 2 and a half hours long and while I’d normally be okay with that, it doesn’t do a single damned thing with it. There is literally nothing here that couldn’t be done in an hour and 45 minutes, and the movie feels slow and boring.

And then there’s the acting. Everyone always rags on Affleck, and not without reason (he’s…pretty awful in this) but I was surprised at how checked out Willis seemed to be. In fact, most of the cast is completely out or just regular awful (with the exception of Steve Buscemi, who’s character is a loathsome horrible human being on paper, but that Steve Manages to make work). And then there’s the complete lack of logic, supposedly to the point where NASA uses it in their training programs to have people spot mistakes. And then there’s the way it seems to think that drilling is a harder skill to pick up than being a fucking astronaut. And then there’s…

Fuck it, I don’t have space. There’s nothing good in this movie, let’s just put it that way. From the terrible screenplay, to the awful editing to the camera that just will not stop moving, it is all of Michael Bay’s worst instincts put into a single movie, and it would probably be the worst movie of his career if not for something that’s coming up later. But for some completely baffling reason, it was a massive hit, especially by the standards of 1998. As a result, Michael Bay had a ton of clout in the industry, to make the movies he wanted to make.

Lucky us.


Pearl Harbor

A lot of people point to this as Michael Bay’s worst film, because it’s shitting all over a real event where real people died, unlike the others which are at worst shitting all over nostalgic 80s cartoons designed to sell toys. I don’t disagree with that sentiment, and you’ll certainly never hear me say that this film is anything other than ridiculously terrible, so I can sympathize with it. The reason I can’t entirely get behind the idea that Pearl Harbor is his worst movie is because on a technical and screenwriting level, it’s nowhere near as bad as…some others. As I said, it’s an abysmal film, but stripped of the import of its subject, it’s pretty much just boring.

This is actually one of the two big question marks in the middle of Michael Bay’s career, as it seems more than a little out of place with the rest of his films (the other one is a little bit more of a question mark, but we’ll get to that later). It has very little of his trademarks and styles, other than his ‘America: Fuck Yeah!’ attitude, so I don’t know what drew him to the project. The production details on this are a little sparse so I can’t say anything with certainty, but I would not be at all surprised to find out the script was originally a much more faithful telling of the attack, which got edited into oblivion after Titanic hit, and people decided that romance flavored history was in.

Aside from Michael Bay’s weirdly flat and lifeless direction, which suggests a level of detachment that I don’t usually see from him, the big failing is on the screenplay and acting. Ben Affleck’s twin awful turns in this and Armageddon began an nearly decade long series of bad decisions (with the exception of Dogma) which wouldn’t turn itself around until Hollywoodland in 2006. Kate Beckinsale is not a very good actress to begin with, but she is good at certain things and romance is not one of them. And Hartnett…I’m sorry, he’s just kind of a shitty actor.

What’s weird to me about this movie is how few of the pieces fit together. The From Here to Eternity takeoff doesn’t really fit with the war aspect, the portrayal of the attack really doesn’t fit with how the rest of the movie portrays combat, and even parts of the attack don’t fit with each other; The sequence where whatshisname steps outside and starts firing his shotgun at the planes is bordering on hysterical in how stupid it is, and the Ben and Josh piloting sequence is realllllllly at odds with the attempted drama of the rest of the attack.

While the movie was a big hit, it wasn’t as big as Armageddon and while critical revulsion was again nearly universal, it was this time joined by audience distaste for the portrayal of the actual event. Bay, brought low but by no means humbled, was to return to the well for a sequel for his next movie. And we’ll discuss that, and the movies which came after, next time.

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