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Michael Bay, Reconsidered 

The explosion-loving musclehead makes a personal movie, with explosions and muscles

click to enlarge "Dude, tough guys don't look at the explosion." Wahlberg and Johnson in Pain & Gain.

"Dude, tough guys don't look at the explosion." Wahlberg and Johnson in Pain & Gain.


PAIN & GAIN. It's all too easy to hate on Michael Bay. I know because I used to do it all the time. When Armageddon was storming the box office I reacted like it was a hate crime. For would-be cineastes his name is low-hanging fruit, shorthand for everything that's "wrong" with contemporary cinema. I still think Armageddon (and Pearl Harbor, and Transformers) has precious little to offer, but my rancor is subsiding.

Bay movies are big, dumb, candy-colored pastiches of hyper-kinetic violence and pseudo-sex like music videos stretched to feature length. What they lack in nuance and characterization they try to replace with crassly commercial exercises in style. But with rare exceptions, his movies become blockbuster hits because they can be tremendously entertaining.

I tend to distrust people who don't like Bad Boys (1995) or The Rock (1996), which I found memorably funny, action-packed and unremittingly fun to watch. And that's OK: There's no reason to feel guilty about the art you enjoy. Sure, if you only like Michael Bay movies you may want to branch out a little. But just because he makes hits and, admittedly, seems like kind of a tool when interviewed it seems misguided to write him off.

Pain & Gain contains many typical Bay flourishes: mid-90s Miami Beach, muscle-bound schemers, exotic cars, scantily clad ladies and disturbing violence depicted with glibness. Based on a true story, it centers on Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), a bodybuilder/trainer whose ambition and mendacity clearly outstretch his intelligence. Fed up with being broke, he enlists the aid of steroid-popper Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and a Bible-thumping, newly sober ex-con named Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson).

They devise a plan to abduct one of Lugo's wealthy, loathsome clients (Tony Shalhoub) and force him to sign over his assets. After some serious bumbling, the dum-dums actually manage to capture their mark. They hold him in a sex-toy warehouse, torture him and eventually succeed in their plan. But the whole thing weighs heavily on Doyle, who slips back into booze and cocaine abuse, and the loose ends of their plan start to unravel.

Up to this point, the movie is enjoyable as a straightforward dark comedy. But there's a turn, late in act two, that gives me pause. It becomes clear, thanks in part to Bay's over-the-top reminder that "This is still a true story," that Lugo, et al., are not only dumb and devious, but they're so fixated on their new lifestyle that it borders on psychopathic. Lugo's insecurity and arrogance are finally exposed, with deeply troubling results. Unfortunately, Bay's handling of the material doesn't change to suit its thematic darkening. As the world Lugo has built starts to collapse around him, the movie maintains a carefree, rollercoaster-ride tone. It's an odd disconnect.

Pain & Gain still entertains, and it's refreshing that Bay took on a true story with an uncharacteristically "small" budget ($25 million, or about one-tenth of a Transformer). His visual style is out in full regalia. The cast gives multi-layered, often hilarious performances. Everything comes together to produce a compelling popular entertainment. But it does leave lingering thoughts about what might have been. What if Bay had stepped out of his comfort zone even more and let the movie go as dark as the subject matter? Could he have pulled off a real Miami gothic, a South Beach noir? Does he have it in him? I suspect we'll never know; he's off to make the next however-many giant robot movies. But at least with this we get all his titillating trademarks, plus the suggestion of something more. R. 129m.

THE BIG WEDDING. To answer the burning question: Yeah, this is as insultingly pointless as the trailer would have you believe. And yes, I mean the trailer that's been pushed down our throats before every major release of the last several months.

Perhaps most distressingly, this movie would appear to be the result of one man's vision and not just the byproduct of studio meddling. Justin Zackham made his big break as the writer of The Bucket List (2007). Now, in his first wide-release outing as a director, he's "adapted" a French movie and tried to make an old-fashioned screwball wedding comedy.

The plot is predicated on grown-ups committing to idiotic lies while their adult children founder in the background. A rich sculptor (Robert DeNiro) and his ex-wife (Diane Keaton) pretend they're still married so their adopted son can avoid telling his Catholic birth mother about the divorce. And oh yeah, his fiancée's parents are horrible bigots, and her father is being indicted for stock fraud.

An awful lot of broad strokes, and that's only the bare bones of the narrative. There's a lot more in the background, but the movie handles it even more cursorily than I have here. Skip this one. R. 89m.

— John J. Bennett


IRON MAN 3. Make way! Here comes summer blockbuster season! Robert Downey Jr., that charming rogue, straps on the armor for a third time to face supervillain The Mandarin, played by the not-at-all Chinese Ben Kingsley. PG13. 130m.

MUD. I'm more excited about this one, a moody crime thriller set on the banks of the Mississippi from writer/director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter). Matthew McConaughey stars as Mud, a fugitive who enlists two teenage boys to help him evade bounty hunters and find his woman (Reese Witherspoon). PG13. 130m.

This week's Ocean Night, Thursday at the Arcata Theatre Lounge, features Chasing Ice, an award-winning documentary with stunning time-lapse footage of the Arctic's melting, crumbling glaciers. PG13. 75m. Doors at 6:30 p.m. If you happened to pick this paper up on Wednesday, May 1, you can catch Chasing Ice in HSU's Kate Buchanan room, with a talk on climate change led by scientist Dominick DellaSala. Reception at 4:30 p.m.; film at 5:30 p.m. On Sunday the ATL has Pixar's second feature, A Bug's Life (1998). G. 95m. 6 p.m. And next Wednesday's Sci-Fi Pint and Pizza Night will be stormed by King Dinosaur (1955). Quoth the ATL's website: "Finding nice things to say about King Dinosaur is about as easy as swallowing lighter fluid." Sounds fun! 6 p.m.


42. This Hollywood biopic about baseball color-barrier-breaker Jackie Robinson is so glossy it all but glosses over the issue of racism. PG13. 128m.

THE CROODS. A prehistoric family must look for a new cave in this likeable animated comedy featuring the voices of Nic Cage and Emma Stone. PG. 96m.

EVIL DEAD. This gory remake of the 1980s camp-horror classic about a group of young'uns, a cabin in the woods and a skin-bound book has less camp, more viscera. R. 91m.

G.I. JOE: RETALIATION. Bruce Willis, "The Rock" and Channing Tatum play guys with big muscles and guns. They shoot stuff. PG13. 99m.

JURASSIC PARK 3D. That 3D T-Rex made me spill my Diet Coke! PG13. 127m.

OBLIVION. Tom Cruise! Sci-fi! Mediocre! PG13. 126m.

OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN. Gerard Butler protects the president from evil Koreans. Yawn. R. 100m.

OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL. James Franco stars as the young wizard-to-be. PG. 130m.

THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES. Derek Cianfrance's multi-generational saga examines crime, fatherhood and personal responsibility. With Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes and Bradley Cooper. R. 140m.

SCARY MOVIE 5. What's scary is how many people pay money — genuine U.S. currency! to watch this stuff. PG13. 85m.

— Ryan Burns

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Pain & Gain and The Big Wedding are not showing in any theaters in the area.

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