June 16, 2009

In Defense of Michael Bay

You know, I've written about some controversial things over the years here at Macroscope.

Torture. Election fraud. Katrina. Iraq. Rwanda. "There is no Hell".

Why do I get the feeling that this one will generate the most hate mail?

I didn't realize that my first exposure to the film director Michael Bay was one of the coolest commercials I'd ever seen. It made such an impression on me that I didn't even realize just how old it was, and by that, I mean the original "Got Milk?" commercial:

Just beautiful, right? Simple, fun, and award-winning. And directed by Michael Bay.

Who knew, right? A far cry from what we assume about the director and his filmmaking preferences, right?

Now, the first time I could name Bay was after I and a bunch of brothers back at Princeton had formed a new organization, the Black Men Awareness Group, which was basically a safe haven on campus where we could voice our unique frustrations ("I have no mentors because the professors don't understand me or my culture", "I'm experiencing extreme culture shock in this Ivy covered tower from my predominantly black town/school", "the sisters on campus don't want me, but will crucify me if I so much as look at a white girl", "I barely have time to study & work through school while my roommate is so rich he's ineligible for financial aid", etc.).

So, one weekend, our little group therapy club decided to go out, 30 deep, to have a day just to hang out and feel good. Now, there isn't much to do in Princeton, NJ, and it's too much of a pain to organize 30 dudes to head up to NYC for a weekend, so we just did something silly: we went bowling (yeah, I know), and then we went to see this new movie that had just come out in theaters that weekend.

Yes, it was Bad Boys. And, yes, we all rolled out of that theater charged, pumped, excited, happy. It was like we were seeing some of our own up on screen. It was great.

And it was directed by Michael Bay.

While I was working in New York after college, I went with some of my AC co-workers & buddies to see Bay's next film, "The Rock".

Eh. Kind of fun, especially the Nic Cage/Sean Connery banter, but I didn't buy Ed Harris' character. Did I HATE it? Of course not. I didn't love it. It was pretty forgettable. No big deal.

A few years later, that same crew of mine did a triple-feature weekend. In one day, we saw "Lethal Weapon 4" (which kicked ass. Literally. Pleased to meet you, Jet Li.), "Toy Soldiers" (which, exactly as I predicted, absolutely sucked. Not my choice. My buddy had kids with him), and "Armageddon".

FUN FACT: for those of you who hate "Armageddon" but love, say, "Lost", "Alias", "Fringe", or the new "Star Trek", it was written by J.J. Abrams.

Now, a few weeks earlier, I'd seen "Deep Impact". This was during the time when the studios had a ton of dueling movies. "Deep Impact" had Morgan Freeman as the President of the United States, was directed by one of the regular directors for "ER" and was written by guys who'd done "Jacob's Ladder", "Ghost" and "The Player".

In short, from a dramatic and emotional perspective, it's a vastly superior piece of mature filmmaking in comparison to "Armageddon". "Armageddon" was a shameless summer crowd pleaser.

And, you know what? That's actually OK. My biggest problem with "Armageddon" was that, frankly, it gave me a headache.

Of course, that may have something to do with the fact that it was the 3rd action movie in a row I'd seen that day. Maybe.

The point is, when I look at "Armageddon" on TV now, it's perfectly fine. It's overdirected, but fine.

And that's probably my biggest problem with Bay: he clearly trusts the camera more than his actors to elicit an emotional response from the audience. Hence, the turning, spinning, sweeping, steadicam crane shots of people standing against a blue sky, instead of just holding the frame on the actor giving a performance.

Anyway, Armageddon's OK. Not great, but not horrible either.

Which brings us to "Pearl Harbor". And I'm pretty sure this is where I got on the "FUCK Michael Bay!" bandwagon. I was a film student when "Pearl Harbor" came out, and that was the first time I became acutely aware of the power of film marketing. Because I actually didn't want to see "Pearl Harbor". I knew I wouldn't like it. And, yet, there I was at the El Capitan theater on Hollywood Blvd. on opening day.

And it was exactly what I thought it would be.

Well, let's qualify that a bit:
The combat scenes, and especially the dog fight scenes are dynamite. But the story around it, of the love triangle, was just a complete joke. Not only was it a joke, but they spend all of this time building up the 2nd guy as a sympathetic love interest only to toss him aside in the end. Now, clearly, Randall Wallace (screenwriter) deserves some of the blame, but it's a partnership between the writer and the director.

It's clear that Bay loves the military, so he was a kid in a candy store in making this film (In fact, he's the PERFECT guy to do a real film adaptation of "G.I. Joe" instead of this "Iron Man" knock-off crap that's lumbering it's way to a theater near you this summer, but I digress.). But it's WAY too long, and it fills it's time with a lot of nonsensical fluff.

Pearl Harbor's a bad movie. A super expensive bad movie about a real life tragedy. They were trying to make a World War II version of "Titanic", but even "Titanic" is too long, and Ben Affleck is not Leonardo DeCaprio (who, in 1997, may as well have been the 6th Backstreet Boy in terms of his teen idol status) , and Kate Beckinsale (who I think is a great, fun actress) is definitely not Kate Winslet. It was poorly conceived from the start.

But I knew all of this. I knew it the minute I heard about it in detail, despite the pretty pictures. In the end, I only really have myself to blame.

"The Island", on the other hand, is another matter entirely. In my humble opinion, this is the best, most complete, most fun film Bay has ever made. Smart. Fun. Satisfying. Great cast (Ewan Macgregor, Scarlett Johanssen, Djimon Honsou, Sean Bean, Steve Buscemi). It's biggest problem, sadly, was it's title. It's the anti-Pearl Harbor: a great film with rotten marketing.

More importantly, when I heard that Speilberg specifically reached out to Bay to get him to direct this film, it told me that he sees more in this guy than most. Personally, I think Bay has the ability to do more complete films like "The Island", with the right script and the right producer.

"Transformers"? Hey, I was a fan as a kid. I even had the soundtrack for the animated movie they did back when I was in high school.

So much so that a kid on the intramural soccer team used to make fun of me by calling me "Optimus Prime". And, you know what? For the most part, I enjoyed it. I think it could benefit from more locked off camera shots. And there are some huge logic gaps. But I'll probably go see the sequel. No stress.

So, why this trip down Michael Bay memory lane? Because I simply don't understand the absolute hatred that people have for this guy. I mean, if he's a jerk on the set and you work in the business, I sort of understand. But, whatever - don't work with him.

I think to some people, he's the poster child for a certain kind of filmmaking - the summer blockbuster, critics-be-damned, budget busters. But, at the end of the day, I basically had a good time in most of his films. I rarely walked out feeling cheated or tricked (I'm looking at YOU, M. Night Shymalan!). The money that goes into his films could make 20 indie features, so I definitely can understand that sense of waste. Although, from a studio perspective, would those same 20 little movies have gotten the same rate of return on their investment as, say, Bad Boys II?

The dirty little secret in Hollywood is that popcorn pays for award season gold. Miramax couldn't afford to make "Shakespeare in Love" if it's sister company, Dimension, hadn't made a ton of money on "Scream". And a movie like "Transformers" probably paid for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button". So the Michael Bay's make the Slumdog Millionaire's possible.

What I really really don't get is the fanboy hatred.

Well, I suppose, if I think about it, it makes sense. It's not like Bay is Sam Raimi or Peter Jackson. He's clearly not one of us. He's a little too cool and too tanned and too tall and too permed, and how DARE a non-geek give Optimus Prime a mouth!

But, then again, Hater-Aid never makes sense.

And it's his obvious disdain for the original material that burns people when it comes to Transformers. But, you know what? The stuff DOESN'T age well. Most Saturday cartoons aimed at kids don't (with the rare exception of "Robotech"). I mean, have you tried watching "Challenge of the Superfriends" recently on Boom or Cartoon Network? It's painful!

I'm not saying that people shouldn't hate Bay. It's a free country. But I would say, take a step back and think about it. After all, the guy did help make Transformers cool again. That's got to count for something.

The sad thing is, when you look at his films, Bay is clearly a fan boy at heart. He should do himself a favor and come to Comic-Con. He'll probably get geek religion.