Tuesday, 23 June 2009

...Where I Try To Defend Michael Bay, And Can't Even Convince Myself

Canyon once asked me if I defend Michael Bay just to be difficult and controversial, and I admitted that the most all-caps-boldiest exclamations that I trot out are just nonsense. If I were to rank directors in a huge list from good to bad (don't tempt me to do that. I probably would if prompted), he'd be nowhere near the top, but more importantly he'd be nowhere near the bottom either. He's lazily blamed for everything that is stupid and awful about spectacular Hollywood product, and for tainting the cultural well so much that the whole world suffers. The hatred aimed at him is startling. I halfheartedly defended him on the AV Club once, and was told by another commenter that I obviously knew nothing about cinema, and should keep my opinion about everything else to myself. I'll admit I'm no Bordwell or Thompson, but my opinion on Bay is a little more nuanced than, "Me like when hot broads dance and the house blow up".

Any filmmaker who becomes successful enough to achieve name recognition status is bound to attract critical dismissal, and that will intensify if the filmmaker has annoying quirks that are overused. For example, Paul Haggis' inability to keep subtext subtextual, instead making his characters voice motivation or revelation out loud, drives me up the wall. Even his rewrite work on Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace makes that mistake. Tarantino's magpie tendencies irk a lot of critics, especially when he steals from disreputable pop culture artifacts that they already dislike. Spielberg has had his knocks many times in the past. I can imagine he's never going to invite Henry Jaglom around for dinner, as the guy has been bitching about him being a poor filmmaker for decades now.

Bay is a different beast altogether. He's directing movies by a set of rules he has made up for himself, and that style bears only a passing resemblance to the work of others. As if brought up watching nothing but early Tony Scott movies, he seemingly has no idea of how the big picture will flow, choosing instead to focus on each individual shot, making them pop as much as he can. As a result, it's not just the whole movie that doesn't flow. Even relatively short scenes are haphazardly paced. This car chase from The Rock has great individual moments, but stops and starts with no understanding of how jarring that must be for the viewer.

I would never think to defend Bay as a man who makes great films in entirety. Even my favourite Bay movie, Armageddon, is full of embarrassing, and indefensible, flaws. Even so, he's no Robert Luketic, or Shawn Levy, or Jon Avnet, three directors right off the top of my head who have never been responsible for even a single memorable shot, let alone scene or film. Of course, he's also not James Cameron (I make this point because True Lies is on ITV2 right now, and, as shaky as that film is, the action scenes are almost perfection). I think Bay's movies are fascinating, and with regards to the criticism he draws, Drew McWeeny brilliantly (and, obviously, accidentally) summed up how I feel about him in a Tweet I just spotted.

[To another Twitterer] How can you rail against the excess? Bay is what we have PAID Hollywood to evolve into. We reward the escalation of the absurd, then cry about it when it reaches its logical conclusion.

In the interest of not misrepresenting McWeeny, I'll point out that he later adds that he doesn't think he's the best action director in Hollywood. Neither do I, but he is the most spectacular director in the whole world, a Cecil B. DeMille with subscriptions to Guns & Ammo and FHM. When Bay gets to do his thing right, you are getting to see something that no other filmmaker on Earth would or can do. He shoots fast and loose and spends his money on the outrageous stuff, and can conjure up images that sear themselves into your brain.

As McWeeny says, this is not the same as saying he's a good filmmaker. He's just a unique one, and I feel an obligation to articulate my conflicted feelings, especially considering almost all critics are dismissing his movies with such kneejerk vehemence that they're not even bothering to fact-check, which is often a sign that the reviewer considers the movie beneath contempt. I've reviewed films in an almost professional capacity before, and I've had press packs, so I know most of these errors can be avoided*. (Though being annoyed by overly complex plots that make little sense are another thing: see below for my own problems with T:ROTF.)

So I was desperate to see Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, mostly because I was hoping he would get right the things he got wrong in the first one. As those flaws were the usual things (pacing mistakes, clunky humour, Jazz being a terrible racial stereotype, etc.), I was basically hoping that this would be Bay's best movie, removing some of the clutter but keeping the crazy. That's the key: keeping the stuff that he does better than anyone. Even though I want other filmmakers to create coherent movies with a steady, escalating pace, I want Bay to do what Bay does best. The worst thing he could do would be to play into the hands of those critics who say his movies are all BOOM and no plot, racing from one scene to another without a pause, doing nothing more than amping up every moment with no concern for character development. Sadly, that's exactly what he has done with T:ROTF, and the result is a deeply frustrating experience.

For the first ninety minutes, I was absolutely amazed at what I was seeing. Even more so than the shocking and ramshackle Bad Boys II, Bay is throwing the kitchen sink at the audience (and then shooting it with a sabot round). The first scene in the movie features a tribe of Cro-Magnon fighting early Cybertronians, for crying out loud. Okay, so they look more like they should be hanging out with Zoolander than hunting bison, but still, kudos to the man. For the next section of the movie, the film throws so many peculiar and outrageous visuals and concepts, that I drove Canyon crazy with my various quiet exclamations of joy. By the time Megatron and Starscream hang out on one of the moons of Saturn (seriously), I was convinced that this was going to be my favourite movie of the summer.

And then it all goes horribly wrong. The moment that the action abruptly shifts to Egypt, the movie slams into neutral, with scene after scene falling flat. The novelty of the early scenes disappears, replaced by a tedious crawl across numerous deserts, seemingly to showcase the cars that have been mostly missing by this point. Several scenes could be excised completely, and should have. It was nice to see Deep Roy as the ha ha ha so tiny border guard, but the movie would have been so much better without it. This is not the first time he's made this mistake, but usually he doesn't put so many of these extraneous and excruciating scenes in the final hour.

In fact, the endless trek from Egypt to Jordan and back again (I think that was the route) seems to only be there because, for some baffling reason, Bay and the writers thought that having the characters just appear at the Pyramids for the big finish would somehow be unbelievable, so we have to see their full trip. Why is he getting squeamish about this now? I don't care how they get there, especially if the trip seems to have been filmed in real time. If I want a travelogue, I'll watch a Michael Palin show. This is a Bay movie. If you're going to use a "Space Bridge" to teleport the main characters to Egypt, then teleport them to the exact spot needed to maximise the action. And yet no. Because audiences have been clamouring to see National Lampoon's Egyptian Vacation.

The desert setting also steps on the toes of the earlier film. Transformers had a perfectly fine and short action scene set in a desert, as the survivors of the opening base attack fight against Scorponok. It was about five minutes long, had Tyrese bellowing "BRING THE RAIN!" into a walkie-talkie, and featured a bunch of exploding buildings. Those wide open spaces worked well for a mid-movie action scene, and made the final city scenes even more exciting, as we got to see a bunch of robots fighting in contrasted dark and cramped streets with no respite. That scene remains one of my all-time favourites.

The finale of Transformers 2 just looks like a bigger version of that desert scene, with little of the original's intensity, though it does have some fun stuff involving the Pyramids¹. Sam and Mikaela make their way very slowly through a village, with intercutting of Josh Duhamel looking frustrated. No one says BRING THE RAIN!, though it does crop up on a napkin or something earlier on. Everything seems to move at normal film speed, which is like half Bay-speed. At this point in the movie my ass was really hurting from sitting in the crappy Waterloo IMAX seats, and instead of being riveted I just kept fidgeting. Yes, I use my ass as a guide to how exciting a movie is.

More exasperating than the inappropriate locale, even though Bay's movies have not been known for their well sketched character arcs, the finale is littered with momentum-robbing scenes such as the whole "I love you" thing between Sam and Mikaela (really? This is a big deal?), Kevin Dunn telling his son to go and do the right thing (an emotional beat that makes no sense as Dunn, at the start of the film, couldn't care less about his son leaving), and Sam's "death", which reflects the big "death" midway through the movie (I won't spoil it). Why does Bay suddenly care about these things? I can barely remember The Island, and maybe there was an arc in that, but I don't even think there was one in Pearl Harbor, the most conventional movie he has made. I expect tonal errors from Bay, but this was worse than usual.

Only after leaving the cinema with a deflated heart (it sounds like a deadly condition, but the only symptom is whining on the internet) did I realise that there was a lot more wrong with the movie than just the broken finale. McWeeny recently hinted that the first sentence in his forthcoming HitFix Motion/Captured review would be, "I have never felt more like a third nipple than I did, as a screenwriter, while watching Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen." I can't wait to find out what he means by that, though I think it might have something to do with how the excessive plot -- and I do mean excessive -- is crammed into about three five minute-long scenes filled beyond breaking point with insane amounts of exposition, while huge stretches of the movie would probably, on paper, look like a list of fight scenes. It's that rare kind of movie that is simultaneously overcomplicated and embarrassingly simplistic.

Instead of just trying to come up with a simple way to orchestrate some robot fighting, we get tons of backstory. Cybertronians have visited Earth before, and one of them was going to destroy us in order to harvest energy, but a civil war broke out and then there were a bunch of Primes, and they are magic or something, and the All-Spark is in Sam's head, or it's something else, and there is a key, and a cipher, and a Matrix of Awesomeness, and an afterlife, and probably a bunch of elves, and... It's absurdly complicated stuff, with one very silly plot-thread (Megatron demanding the world hand over Sam so he can extract his brain, or something) that takes over the latter half of the movie. For every quirky moment and fun concept, there's ten stupid complications that mean nothing. By the time Jetfire turned up for his shot at the Exposition Of The Year award, I had completely lost the plot, not helped by my efforts to guess the identity of the British actor playing the elderly robot².

To me, these are big problems, even when taking Bay's singular style into account. However, it's becoming clear that the biggest problem people are going to have with the movie are Mudflap and Skids, the comedy relief duo who shuck and jive through much of the finale. Why am I using this outdated African-American phrase? It seems apt considering that these two robots are the most startling racial stereotypes I've seen on the big screen since Crash, only this time they're meant to be funny and not "educational".

While sitting in the cinema I had huge difficulty reconciling what I was seeing with what I thought Bay was trying to do (have a couple of affable idiots break up the tedium of the cross-country trek with their wacky exploits), and for a while after I wondered if they were meant to be a spoof of Will Smith and Martin Lawrence from Bad Boys (a Bad Boys II poster is on display in one character's room, and their banter is as forced as that between Smith and Lawrence). Now, with hindsight, that I realise that's even worse than just two racist caricatures. Is he personally attacking two people he has worked with before? And the guy doing the voices for them is white? We're talking about Jar-Jar Binks-esque wrongness on an epic scale.

The disconnect I suffered during the movie was similar to the shock I felt during Star Wars: The Clone Wars when Ziro the Hutt appeared, but my overall opinion of that character is astonishment that Lucas could have thought that was all right. With Mudflap and Skids, I was uncomfortable during the movie, and now I'm outright pissed off. It's made the dreadful caricaturing of Jazz in the first movie (a black Transformer that breakdances and then gets ignominiously killed in the final act) seem even more glaring. Bay deserves the shitstorm that's heading his way.

I mean, it's becoming fairly obvious that he has a real problem with women, so much so that you could almost forget it's happening until the camera shoots so far up plastic "hottie" Alice's skirt that it qualifies as a proctological exam. Megan Fox does little more than pout and get dragged around the desert by LaBeouf and Duhamel, not even getting a hero moment like she did in the first film³. Other than Fox and Isabel Lucas, the only other female characters with any dialogue are the holographic women on the transforming motorbikes (ZOMG is Bay saying women are bikes?), and Sam's mother, played by Julie White.

Being the only non-simpering non-hottie in the film, she has to do several unglamorous things, usually involving pratfalls. One scene with her getting high on hash brownies is particularly uncalled-for. Nevertheless, she deserves all the credit in the world for managing to make these stupid moments work. She might give the best performance in the film. Maybe, in future, Bay should consider giving more roles to women who have talents beyond looking orange and pouty.

So, it was a washout, right? Except that for a while, as I said earlier, the film flies. Even with the inclusion of the awful Alice subplot, and lots of shenanigans involving kitchenbots, there is a lot to enjoy. The new set-up for the Autobots, working in conjunction with the humans to fight rogue Decepticons, is hugely promising, and the opening in Shanghai is astonishing and ambitious. Even better, the forest fight between Optimus and three Decepticons is one of the film highlights of the year, especially as it is filmed in full IMAX.

Seeing Optimus to actual scale is something I won't forget any time soon. Much is made of Bay's direction of action, and how the rapidly moving camera and quick cuts serve to render all of his scenes incomprehensible, but there are many worse action directors out there. Considering how overwhelmed I was by the terrible action in Eagle Eye, or by the much better but still swooshy Star Trek (both of which I saw on IMAX), this didn't upset me at all. That was something I was not expecting.

There is even some evidence of playfulness from the notoriously grouchy man. Considering his parodic sense of patriotism, it amuses me greatly that he manages to destroy Paris again (the first time was at the end of Armageddon, a scene that got a cheer here in England each time I saw it on the big screen), and I can imagine all sorts of noses being put out of joint by his destruction of a library about an hour in. If you're responsible for some of the most successful movies of the past fifteen years, you can afford to poke fun at your image like that.

As I've said, I did like a lot of it. I saw one person lazily Tweeting this morning that they thought this was as bad as Batman and Robin. Don't believe it for a second: this has much much more to recommend it, even if just as an occasionally exhilarating aural and visual assault. Also great: Glenn Morshower returning, this time as General Morshower (seriously); Tony Todd doing some great voicework as The Fallen, a robot with a fantastic gangly design; trying to catch sight of the cast on poor Shia's hand in early scenes; terrific sound editing, far better than critics are saying; a greater sense of the robots as actual characters, especially Starscream and Megatron. Plus, even if the finale is not perfect, it does feature some mind-boggling moments. I'm really hoping that the previous Academy snub of the Transformers effects team is not repeated. They've topped themselves this time out, especially as they're operating in IMAX for some of the most complicated moments.

Even so, it's a movie that wouldn't let me like it as much as I wanted to. If I'm going to defend Bay in future, the guy has got to meet me halfway. The awful Ebonicbots and the Auton women have got to go. Right now, I'd rather he tried to make another movie in the more sober style of The Island than keep this lower-than-lowest common denominator stuff going. It's becoming hard work waiting for him to grow up, but then, if we lose the racism and misogyny (which I'm sure he doesn't see as such), will we lose the rest? And is "the rest" worth keeping if the man is going out of his way to perpetuate bullshit jock philosophy like this? All of a sudden those Bay films in my collection look a little less appealing. Let's hope his next movie is either an adaptation of The Beauty Myth or a remake of Amistad.

* In fact, one of the first movies I ever saw at a press screening was Bad Boys. Maybe that's why I'm forgiving of Bay's films.

¹ Full disclosure. As soon as I saw the first trailer with shots of the Pyramids, my heart sank. A project I have been working on for some time had a big finale in the shadow of the Pyramids, and so I guess I have to scrap all of that. A shame, as it would have been so awesome that brains would have melted while watching it, even though the project involved a C-list comic character that no one likes. Nevertheless, my disappointment with the finale was not rooted in this, as I got over that frustration a long time ago.

² Amazingly, it's Jon Turturro.

This means he spends a lot of his screentime arguing with himself.

³ Though, to be honest, LaBeouf gets little more to do other than run into danger and get blown up. Another flaw of the film: adding human characters and not really knowing what to do with them, which particularly irks when you like LaBeouf, as I do.

ETA: Here is McWeeny's review of T:ROTF. Of all the reviews I have read in the past few days, this might be the only one that actually addressed specifics of what the film is like. Trust someone as perceptive and fair as McWeeny to watch the movie and review what he is seeing instead of just scribbling "Michael Bay is a douchebag" in his Moleskine a thousand times.


NIKOL said...

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Admiral Neck said...

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