How does one calculate the success of a director? Though not mutually exclusive, critical acclaim and box office returns are usually the measuring sticks when it comes to Hollywood filmmaking.
One film director who has become known for financial triumphs, but who has become a bit of a pariah with critics, is Michael Bay. His movies typify giant Hollywood blockbusters, but in terms of artistry and substance, he’s been found more-than-slightly lacking in a myriad of reviews over the years.
We are well aware of how most critics feel about Bay, whose latest Pain & Gain arrives in theaters this week, as a filmmaker. But where does he stand with the theater-going public? His movies continue to make serious coin, so obviously he still has an audience, but we decided to poll both fans and detractors alike to better understand where Bay’s reputation stands.
There were those who were rather effusive with their love for Bay. “Michael is a genius,” says Chris Todd of Austin, Texas. “He has a understanding of visuals that few directors do, I really believe he's top tier on that regard.” Todd acknowledges that the location in which Bay’s films are seen makes a tremendous difference. “What makes him great is that he's one of the few guys left today who makes films for the big screen. He has no interest in the home experience really. It's all about the theater. And that's why his work loses a lot of power once it's viewed at home.”
His visual prowess also proved a major draw for fan Jenni Lee. “I love his panorama shots,” she says, “hands down the bomb scene from Pearl Harbor is one of the most gut wrenching scenes in history, not only because you know what happens when it hits, but because if the way it was shot. He also knows how to film explosions in an epic way.” Lee went on to note that his visuals prove to be the ultimate mitigating factor when considering his faults. “At the end of the day I will always go to a theater to see his movies and at least give it a shot because at a minimum I know I will at least get to see something that is visually stunning.”
However, even those who counted themselves Bay fans could not deny his shortcomings. Biostatistician Ryan Machtmes suggests that maximizing enjoyment of Bay’s work means clearly defining one’s expectations. “Truthfully, I watch his movies because they're just that: [movies],” he says. “No, I don't go to his movies expecting art, but sometimes a movie is just a movie, an escape into the fantastic and a way to just watch something and be entertained by it for purposes of relaxation and unplugging my otherwise always-on brain.”
Still others maintain that Bay’s appeal is a function of his time. “He came to power as the resurgence of the indie film crowd began to wane,” says fan Craig Dougherty. “After the minimalist early 90's that birthed [Steven] Soderbergh, [Kevin] Smith, [Richard] Linklater, and [Quentin] Tarantino, I think the general audience was itching to return to the big budget action genre.” Dougherty further argues that Bay doesn’t ever aim “to neglect emotion or substance, he [just] chooses to focus on delivering that message through high octane action rather than story and character development. He's the purest definition of a movie director currently working in Hollywood, and I can respect that moniker.”
But again, Bay has cultivated a legion of hecklers over the years who are just as vocal, if not moreso. “Michael Bay is the most frustrating filmmaker,” asserts Anthony Donovan Stokes, “because he has an endless amount of resources, and completely squanders them on aesthetics instead of actually storytelling.” Mikus Duncis adds, “he has a lot of untapped potential and indulges himself way too much.” Duncis also echoed oft-heard criticisms of both the length and poor comedy of Bay’s films. “His films are way too long and have an absurdly large amount of unfunny, offensive supporting characters and the story is always somehow muddled. If he could learn how to make a straight up 90-minute action films with a bare-bones minimal plot and no comic relief, I think he would be known for making great, fun and fast paced action.”
Some have argued that Bay’s offenses run even deeper, and that he is in fact a detriment to film. “I think Michael Bay's biggest crime as a filmmaker is that he perpetuates cynicism in numerous aspects of the movie-going experience,” contends Patrick Girts, “his films are very well made products, but they rarely respect the audiences watching them.” Most damning of all, Girts points out, is that “despite that lack of respect, [Bay’s movies] make money hand over fist. More studios are adopting this model, and quality storytelling pays the price.”
Surprisingly, no matter the side of the fence polled people happened to fall, many of them had ready-made associations locked and loaded.
“The man is like your cheesy bachelor uncle. He's loud, curses and drinks a lot, always has some new skeeze he calls a girlfriend with him, and is definitely not someone you want to hang out with long term, but he brings over all the cool fireworks on the 4th of July and let you have some of his beer one time so he's alright,” says Tony Rex Bowler, Houston.
“Michael Bay is like a student of the culinary arts,” says Jose Antonio Rivera of New York City. “He knows the ingredients, he knows the recipe, but when it comes to actually making the food, he pulls it out before it's fully cooked. He sprinkles his films with a dash of style to cover up the fact that it's undercooked and then proceeds to tell you how ‘good’ it is.”
Jordan Worth Cobb of Conway, Arkansas calls Bay “a painter,” but backhands him by suggesting that he “goes for what's easy and doesn't try.” Anthony Donovan Stokes, Manassas, Virginia is even less kind. “[Bay] is a ten-year-old boy in a fifty-year-old man’s body. A really dumb, impatient, perverted, hyperbolic, defensive 10 year old.”
Inversely, Ryan Timothy of Brace, Montreal compares Bay to his contemporaries and gives the Armageddondirector the advantage. “I know Zack Snyder has the image of a teenager with a camera, but Bay was, still and will probably always be that guy for me,’ Timothy says.
But for every fan, there’s a naysayer. “He seems to be a living example of what would happen if you gave a frat dude a very technical understanding of film and millions of dollars and told him to make a movie,” says Stephan Krosecz of Cypress, Texas. “The only difference is you'd find a lot more kegs of crappy beer, Gatorade, and Mountain Dew on set.”
It seems the relationship between Michael Bay and movie consumers is no less complicated now than it was when he first appeared on the scene in the mid-90s. Bay fan T.C. De Witt may have summed it up best when he said, “aficionados of film consider him a hack and a disease to the art of filmmaking, but he doesn't make art movies; he doesn't make intelligent movies. He makes the movies he loves with the stuff he loves. That passion, even if it's shallow to most, should be admired.” Further putting things in perspective, Angela Behm reminds us that “for all the hate [Bay] may garner, at least he's not Uwe Boll.”
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The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.
Salt the propulsive new thriller from Phillip Noyce (Clear and Present Danger Patriot Games) has been dubbed “Bourne with boobs ” but that label isn’t entirely accurate. In the role of Evelyn Salt a CIA staffer hunted by her own agency after a Russian defector fingers her in a plot to murder Russia’s president Angelina Jolie keeps her two most potent weapons holstered hidden under pantsuits and trenchcoats and the various other components of a super-spy wardrobe that proudly emphasizes function over flash.
But flash is one thing Salt never lacks for. Its breathless cat-and-mouse game hits full-throttle almost from the outset when a former KGB officer named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) stumbles into a CIA interrogation room and begins spilling details of a vast conspiracy. Back in the ‘70s hardline elements of the Soviet regime launched an ambitious new front in the Cold War flooding the western world with orphans trained to infiltrate the security complexes of their adopted homelands and wait patiently — decades if necessary — for the order to initiate a series of assassinations intended to trigger a devastating nuclear clash between the superpowers from which the treacherous Reds would emerge triumphant.
The Soviet Union may have long ago collapsed (or did it? Hmmm...) but its army of brainwashed killer orphan spies remains in place and if this crazy Orlov fellow is to be believed they stand poised to reignite the Cold War. It’s a preposterous — even idiotic — scheme but no more so than any of our government’s various harebrained proposals to kill Castro back in the ‘60s. As such the CIA treats it with grave seriousness even the part that that pegs Salt who just happens to be a Russian-born orphan herself as a key player in the conspiracy.
Salt bristles at the accusation but suspecting a set-up she opts to flee rather than face interrogation from her bosses Winter (Liev Schreiber) and Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor). A former field agent she’s been confined to a desk job since a clandestine operation in North Korea went south leaving her with a nasty shiner and a rather unremarkable German boyfriend (now her unremarkable German husband). She’s clearly kept up her training during while cubicle-bound however and in a blaze of resourceful thinking and devastating Parkour Fu she fends off a dozen or so agents of questionable competence and takes to the streets where she sets about to clear her name and unravel the Commie orphan conspiracy before the authorities can catch up with her. That is if she isn’t a part of the conspiracy.
The premise which aims to resurrect Cold War tensions and graft them onto a modern-day spy thriller is absurdly clever — and cleverly absurd. But Kurt Wimmer’s screenplay isn’t satisfied with the merely clever and absurd — it must be mind-blowing. Salt is one of those thrillers that ladles out its backstory slowly and in tiny portions every once in a while dropping a revelatory bombshell that effectively blows the lid off everything that happened beforehand. No one is who they seem and every action every gesture no matter how seemingly trivial is imbued with some kind of grand significance. The effect of piling on one insane twist after another has the effect of gradually diluting the narrative. When anything is possible nothing really matters.
But spy thrillers by definition trade in the preposterous and the principal function of the summer blockbuster is to entertain. In that regard Salt more than fulfills its charge. Noyce wisely keeps the story moving at pace that allows little time for asking uncomfortable questions or poking holes in the film’s frail plot. And he has an able partner in the infinitely versatile Jolie who having already exhibited formidable action-hero chops in Wanted and the Tomb Raider films proves remarkably adept at the spy game as well.
It’s well-known that Jolie wasn’t the first choice to star in Salt joining the project only after Tom Cruise dropped out citing the story’s growing similarities to the Mission: Impossible films. But she’s more than just a capable replacement; she’s a welcome upgrade over Cruise not least because she’s over a decade younger (and a few inches taller) than her predecessor. Should Brad Bird require a pinch-hitter for Ethan Hunt he knows where to look.