Thursday, July 14, 2016

Film School Rejects post: Why I Wrote a Book About The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay’s Films

Following my efforts to get more Amazon reviews for my book MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films, (which you can read about here) I was invited to write a column for Film School rejects about why I wrote the book in the first place.

The real genesis of the book came Summer 2014, when I saw a lot of people on Twitter talking about going to see the latest Transformers film despite being certain it was terrible. (That’s somewhat amusing when contrasted with the latest Ghostbusters conversation, where you can get into a fight with a Ghost-Bro who hasn’t seen the film and STILL is certain it’s terrible.) Unsurprisingly, these people walked out of the film with their assumptions confirmed and somewhat disingenuously acted shocked at how much they disliked it.

I won’t say I felt bad for Bay, but I briefly considered that perhaps his audience was seeing in his films what they wanted to see. So as an experiment, I resolved to view Transformers: Age of Extinction with not only an open mind, but one that gave him the same benefit of the doubt that Hitchcock and Scorsese are afforded when their films are dissected in film school. 

You can find the rest of "Why I Wrote A Book About The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films" here on Film School Rejects.

And don't forget that through Friday, the Kindle Edition of the book is only $2.99! And please leave a review if you've read it!

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

"They didn't make it for ME!" How the new Ghostbusters became the line in the sand for some fans

What an awful conversation there is surrounding the new Ghostbusters.

When it was announced that Paul Feig was directing a reboot of Ghostbusters starring Kristin Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones, I was prepared for the initial outcry. We go through this same crap with every reboot - the internet makes noise for two or three days, then everything dies down until a trailer comes out, at which point there's another two days of "Actually looks good!" and "How dare they?" From then on, the biggest splash is opening weekend, where the movie either dies quietly or gets everyone angry for 72 hours until they move onto the next thing.

We've gone through this so many times with reboots like Star Trek, A Nightmare on Elm Street, James Bond ("a blonde Bond?! How dare they?"), Friday the 13th, The Thing, and so on that the playbook is obvious. But for some reason, this time it's been a near-constant state of screaming and attacks on this film. Buzzfeed did an awesome job of compiling reactions that are definitely not sexist, no sir.

Seriously, go read that. Then check out this article that nicely breaks down the reaction to the first trailer, which eventually became the most-disliked trailer on YouTube. And then this week, when the first reviews came out and were trending positive on Rotten Tomatoes, fans organized to dump a massive number of one-out-of-ten rankings for the film on IMDb. (This being - mind you - before not many people have actually seen the film.)

But don't worry, all the guys who organized to give it a thumbs-down will tell you that gender has nothing to do with it. It just looks like a bad movie.

Uh-huh. Sure. Bad trailers ALWAYS inspire this passion. That's why the Ghostbusters trailer has a dislike count several orders of magnitude worse than such critical darlings as Fantastic 4 and The Ridiculous 6. That's why a reviewer from Cinemassacre announced two months ahead of time that he would NOT be viewing the film at all. For him, it's a mix of believing the original Ghostbusters is a pure classic and also encouraging a boycott of the film to punish Sony for defacing the original.

Really, dude? A guy whose job it is to review movies has already made his call based on the trailer. I think it's pretty pathetic when the average Joe acts like the trailer quality is an absolute barometer of the film, but a guy who gets paid to watch films should really know better. What would be so hard about waiting to see the film and THEN judging it based on its merits? All you accomplish with such an extreme position is show that you're incapable of coming to this with an open mind.

Here's what perplexes me in all of this - we're talking about Ghostbusters. GHOSTBUSTERS. How the hell did this become the geek line-in-the-sand? I grew up on the film too. I might have been about six when I saw it, and that was probably about the time that dueling Ghostbusters cartoons were out in the market. I taped the movie off of a TV viewing and watched it so many times I STILL expect Venkman's line upon bursting out of the Sedgwick Hotel ballroom to be "What a knockabout of pure fun THAT was!" (Instead of "We came, we saw, we kicked its ass!")

That's not all. I still have a bunch of the action figures, including an ECTO-1 and a Ghostbusters blaster toy. Hell, I saw Ghostbusters II at the age of nine and not only enjoyed it a lot, I still think it's a fun movie. And I bring up all of this to point out that it seems to me that I must have had largely the same childhoods as these man-babies who find this to be the greatest affront to their childhoods since Carrie Fisher dared to age. And I don't get the hate. On any level.

Some detractors bring up that "Sony's just remaking it to make money." Congrats. You've exposed that Hollywood is a capitalist industry. Can't imagine the look on your face when you learn that professional sports are also built around seeking profits.

"But the Sony hack shows--"

Seriously, go fuck yourself for digging into people's emails.

"But Feig didn't even want to do the film."

Do you know how long these movies take to make? Do you understand how much of your life you are devoting to a single project? Do you know how much blood and sweat is involved? It takes a very invested person to give over that much of their life to one project.

Look, I've worked for producers who at times, were playing the cynical money game. They got lucky with a film in one genre and they then tried to put together a sequel or similar project without really understanding what made the first one connect. Sometimes they got lucky, other times they made garbage. But in pretty much all of those cases, the director cared. The cast CARED.

Yes, there are instances of actors slumming it in a paycheck role, but right now Melissa McCarthy is HOT. She has other options and she chose this one. Kristin Wiig has other options. And even if they were in it for the paycheck, what difference does that make? Alec Guinness saw STAR WARS as just another job and he still was fantastic in it.

For the record, here's director Paul Feig on why he turned it down the first few times it was offered:

"I’d turned it down several times, because when the script was first brought to me, it was a sequel. And that’s just not as interesting as an origin story. Amy Pascal, who was then head of Sony Pictures, was the one who kept pushing: 'Why don’t any of you comedy guys want to touch this?' I was like, 'Because Ghostbusters is canon!' But I thought if I could cast all the funny women I know, it would be a nice way to avoid comparisons to the original iconic cast—so you’re not saying, 'Oh, is that character supposed to be Venkman?'"

There are dozens of other movies that have the same sort of factors that have supposedly made this one such a flashpoint for fandom. Hell, even the black stormtrooper controversy took only a weekend to die down. But we're now coming up on a year-plus of people being furious that this movie exists. It's very hard to pretend that sexism isn't the primary motivating factor.

But that leads me to my next question: what is it about Ghostbusters that makes it so offensive to have women in those roles? Why does this particular franchise push so many buttons when gender swapped? If we were talking about a female Spider-Man, or a female Batman, I'd kind of get it. I don't see Venkman, Stanz, Spengler and Zeddemore as being on the same iconic level, and for that matter, these are all new characters, not gender-swapped analogs like "Petra Venkman" and "Rayanne Stanz."

If people are mad that they're not getting a proper Ghostbusters III, they need to think about how depressing that movie would be. Harold Ramis is gone, so no Egon. Bill Murray has shown little interest in tapping into his Venkman side for over fifteen years now, and I kinda shudder to think how detached his performance would be now. Best to just let it go.

So I don't understand why a new film provokes reactions that their childhoods are being raped just as surely as Ray was in the first film. (Yes he was. Go watch the infamous "blow job ghost" scene again. There's no consent at any time.) Longtime fans still have their blurays and toys and childhood memories anyway. It's not like they're even necessarily the audience this film is aimed at.

Oh. That's it.

Can it really be that simple? Is all this rage just because a generation of overgrown kids merely doesn't want to share their toys?


That's totally it. Think of the arrogance it takes to call this a "cash grab." It presumes that this film is being made despite no artistic appeal at all... to them. It's a complete discounting of the interests of anyone who doesn't share their exact tastes. A fourteenth Marvel movie is celebrated as "what the fans want" but a third Ghostbusters is complete bullshit because "They didn't make this for meeeeeeeee."

"I don't love this, so its merits are completely invalid!"

And this is just the reaction to a remake 30 years after the fact in a franchise that had long since gone fallow. Imagine if a future Marvel movie followed suit with a recent comic storyline recast Iron Man as a black teenager? (And with Robert Downey Jr's ever-increasing paychecks, don't be surprised if he becomes too expensive for Marvel to carry.)

It's weird to be living in a time where so many geek properties I grew up with are getting A-list treatment, and yet, the people like me who grew up with them are proving to be the most unpleasant aspect of the deal. Maybe some of you saw the recent ugliness that ensued when a segment of DC movie fans very loudly attacked critics of Batman v. Superman for having a "bias" against the film. These were people - presumably a lot of them grown men - who could not process that ANYONE could find fault with this film unless they were paid off by Marvel or otherwise part of some conspiracy. For these fans, it wasn't enough that they loved the film, they had to discredit and attack any viewpoint that ran counter to theirs.

Drew McWeeny has an interesting piece on this angry segment of fandom, called "If Nerds Won The War for Pop Culture Why Are They So Angry All the Time?" It's worth a read, and I found myself nodding my head at a lot of it. It made me again aware of something I've been thinking for a while - though fandom communities used to be fun, lately I've felt more and more that this is a group I don't want to be in the company of.

I first got on the internet in the mid-nineties, via a school connection. Both then and a few years later, I almost immediately used the connection to get involved in fansites and Usenet groups devoted to subjects ranging from Billy Joel, to Star Wars, to DC Comics, to Star Trek, to even Homicide: Life on the Street. And the vast majority of those groups, even on Usenet, were made up of literate intelligent people whose perspectives on the media I liked often deepened my appreciation of the work.

Just as one example, in the rec.arts.comics.dc.universe Usenet group, I can only recall one consistently offensive person - an asshole named Omar who would fling vile insults at people just for having opinions he deemed stupid. It was my first encounter with an internet troll - someone who always seemed angry and was just there to lower to conversation to his level.

Today, Omar would be a moderate compared to the kind of bile-spewing assholes who populate fandom today. There's this perception that trolls have always been around, but I can assure you that they exist in greater numbers today. Twitter is a thousand times worse than Usenet was, and somehow it seems to be fostering this emotional stuntedness.

The new Ghostbusters is revealing this, but it's not about Ghostbusters, not really. It's about a certain emotionally-stunted and entitled demographic that's seeing that the world is no longer just their toybox. It's about the fear that for someone else to get something, they won't get something that THEY love.

That's no way to live. I'm not saying these angry fans should all reverse course and force themselves to love it. The problem is that they seem to have lost the capacity to just ignore it. And so I'm left to wonder if these temper-tantrums are merely the foreshocks of an even bigger earthquake that we'll all have to deal with one day.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Help me get 50 reviews of MICHAEL F-ING BAY during this week-long sale!

Tomorrow is Prime Day at Amazon Prime, where there apparently will be sales galore. This feels like the perfect time for me to launch something I've been thinking about for a while: a price cut on my book, MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films. This week - from now to Friday, you can get the Kindle version book (regularly $4.99) for a mere $2.99!

But that's not all. I'm asking those of you who have purchased the book before for the kindness of a favor. I recently learned that when a book crosses the 50-review threshold, that's the point where Amazon starts promoting it more aggressively through its algorithm. Currently, I have 9 reviews, which never bothered me because I see a number of professionally released products that don't have all that much more. However, if increased visibility is at stake, I would be eternally grateful if those of you who have bought the book (And I know that number is a LOT more than 50) would take a moment and leave a brief review here.

But just as an incentive, I will give away a FREE Kindle copy of MICHAEL F-ING BAY to the first 10 people to email me at and promise to leave a review this week. I might not be at my computer to send out those copies immediately, but rest assure that all of you will have them by end of day. Please only request this if you can read and review the book by the end of the week.

Amazon has a policy regarding these sorts of reviews, which I will reproduce as follows:

Paid Reviews – We do not permit reviews or votes on the helpfulness of reviews that are posted in exchange for compensation of any kind, including payment (whether in the form of money or gift certificates), bonus content, entry to a contest or sweepstakes, discounts on future purchases, extra product, or other gifts.

The sole exception to this rule is when a free or discounted copy of a physical product is provided to a customer up front. In this case, if you offer a free or discounted product in exchange for a review, you must clearly state that you welcome both positive and negative feedback. If you receive a free or discounted product in exchange for your review, you must clearly and conspicuously disclose that fact.

So have at it, read the book and leave an honest review, stating you got it for free as part of a weeklong promotion. (And if all ten of these people manage to get their reviews posed without incident before the end of the week, I might give away another ten, but let's see if there are any glitches in posting these reviews.)

Amazon also has a policy of removing reviews written by people who know the author personally, so I can't just appeal to friends and family. I don't know HOW Amazon can determine that such a relationship exists, but they apparently can. Hopefully that doesn't extend to those of you who only "know me" via following my blog for these years.

So to sum up:  My book is discounted 40% this week, it'd really help me out if you left a review, and perhaps more giveaways to come.

If you want a taste of the book, read the chapters on TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION and THE ROCK for free at their respective posts.

The original announcement of the book can be found here.
All related MICHAEL F-ING BAY posts can be found here.

Why not check out the appearances from my "media tour?"

My interview with Scott Myers on Go Into The Story:
Part 1 - Michael Bay's JUNO.
Part 2 - "Michael Bay is the Tyler Perry of China."

My interview with Amanda Pendolino.

My interview on the Broken Projector podcast:
You can find the episode embedded at Film School Rejects here.
Download the episode directly here.

My interview on the Draft Zero Podcast
Go to the episode's page here.
Download the episode in mp3 form here.

But what if you don't have a Kindle or a tablet with a Kindle app? Good news, you can still read MICHAEL F-ING BAY! Go here and download the Kindle reading app for your computer.

Here are the instructions for the Kindle for PC program.
Here's where you go for Kindle for Windows 8.
Here's the site for you Kindle for Mac people.

Link roundup:
Amazon Author Page here.
$2.99 Kindle version of the book here.
$10.99 Paperback edition here.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Nine months later, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah still struggles

In my line of work as a script reader, it would happen somewhat regularly that I'd be presented with a script that seemed to do everything right, but inspired zero enthusiasm. There's be a concept that you could see as a film, and a structure that ensured new twists and changes in direction every fifteen minutes, but in the end, the assessment of the script's prospects came out as "meh." Though those write-ups could be difficult to complete (it's much easier when a bad writer completely fucks up a character arc, or delivers an implausible story), it was even harder to express to the writer what they needed to improve.

That missing X-factor was often what we call "voice." The script was executing some of the right beats, but in an uninspired way, without any perspective or meaning behind them. Voice is one of those ephemeral concepts that's hard to break down into a concrete definition, but it boils down to how you tell the story and what is distinctive in the way you tell it as opposed to any other storyteller.

Trevor Noah has been at the helm of The Daily Show for over nine months now and he still hasn't found his voice. In fairness to Trevor, these things don't happen overnight and it was always going to be hard to follow the irreplaceable Jon Stewart. But after giving him a long wait-and-see period, I can't escape the sense that Trevor Noah runs the show like someone just keeping the chair warm for the next guy. He's like a VP serving out the previous Commander-in-Chief's term. He's Gerald Ford.

Don't try and tell me that I'm forgetting Jon Stewart wasn't brilliant out of the gate. I was there. I was there BEFORE Jon. I remember the summer of '96, watching MST3K reruns and Politically Incorrect on Comedy Central and seeing ads for this new political comedy show. The ads didn't show this Craig Kilborn guy, but the voice - both in its smarmy nature and general cadence - reminded me of Dennis Miller, then one of my favorite comedians. So I tuned in and became a regular viewer.

Kilborn's show was a slightly different beast. He had this faux-pomposity that seemed half-artifice, half-truth. (In other words, he probably WAS that big an asshole, but put a lot of work into making it seem like an act.) The show didn't touch politics, and its favorite targets tended to be celebrity, odd stories, and shining a light on local odd balls. The tone of these pieces would occasionally veer towards the meanspirited. It's one thing to show people voting for Trump to be complete morons, it's quite another to put a guy on TV and laugh at him because he's built a "UFO Welcome Center" in his backyard.

Jon took over in January of 1999, and even though some aspects of the show took time to evolve, the tone of Jon's humor was already different. Kilborn was sort of the smarmy asshole who could land a good punchline, but he always felt like the guy who'd hit you below the belt when your back was turned just to make everyone else laugh. His whole persona was based on ego. Jon was a different sort of class clown - he was the guy you liked. In the high school that is the comedy world, Kilborn would be the guy doing a joke about how ugly a teacher was or how much they smelled. Jon would be the guy with a cutting remark about how a teacher trading sexual favors for grades might not be the guy to deliver a lesson plan on ethics.

I'm not saying Jon never took some cheap shots, but the overall tone of his humor was kinder and more observational. Even in the summer of 1999, I took it as a compliment when someone I was working for told me they'd seen a bit of this show and "that Jon Stewart guy reminds me of you." I think I got what he meant - a "nice-looking" guy who was presentable in a suit and could pass as series even while wryly commenting on the world around him. And you could feel Jon's observational persona trickle down through the correspondents he hired, such as Steve Carrell and Mo Rocca. Carrell and Colbert (a late holdover from the Kilborn era) could especially master the faux-seriousness of news correspondants and exaggerate to just enough to puncture the self-seriousness behind it.

I want to show you the moment where you really felt like Jon was putting his stamp on the show, and it happened less than a year after Jon took over - December 6, 1999. The 2000 election campaign gave Stewart and his team the first chance they had to put political humor front and center. For those of you who came to TDS later, this will seem tame, but at the time, the idea that a comedy show would actually send correspondents on the campaign trail as credentialed press was unheard of. Jon and team found their way in, by not just doing jokes about the candidates, but by sending up the people covering this event. The correspondents (and by extension, the media) were the butt of the joke.

Then, about two months later, Bob Dole showed up as a political analyst for the show in the first of several pieces that election season. This was about as unlikely as Paul McCartney showing up as a guest VeeJay for a weeklong stint on TRL. Obviously, the show's approach to political humor evolved over the years, particular with a target like the Bush Administration. It took a while before they landed on their trademark move of showing what a politician said yesterday, then reaching back months or even years to reveal them taking a completely opposite position. (This tactic would later be applied to Fox News, when calling out correspondants for taking a stance that happened to support the Bush Administration, then arguing the complete opposite of that stance when the original argument would benefit the Obama Administration.)

That's how Jon Stewart became the most trusted man in news, fake or otherwise. By calling out politician through the use of their own words, he was a watchdog. He was the mouthpiece for people frustrated by the corruption of Bush and his ilk. It was a breath of fresh air to have someone say, "Yeah, I see this too! And we're not gonna let you weasels get away with this bullshit!" And because every stance Jon took was rooted in a sort of intellectual honesty, that integrity became a hallmark of the show. You felt his passion. You believed him when he agreed with you, and when you weren't as versed in what he had to say, he had a way of making you listen.

Back when Conan O'Brien was having The Tonight Show taken away from him, I recall one article discussing the sort of fan passion the late night hosts garnered. One quote stuck with me: "The 20-35 crowd loves Conan, but they'd take a bullet for Jon Stewart." Sounds about right.

That was a long preamble, but I wanted to pre-answer a likely rebuttal: I know Jon Stewart didn't arrive on The Daily Show as the exact same guy he was in 2008, or 2012, or whatever particular peak you want to pull from. I'm not saying Trevor Noah needs to be that guy. I just want to see some evidence he has a voice to bring to TDS. Jon knew how to use election scene to redefine the show. The show spoke for him. Trevor Noah still feels like a guy reading someone else's lines.

The edge has been dulled off of most of The Daily Show's jokes. Even with Trump, the show feels content to do mostly safe material about how he's a racist and an egotistical asshole. I'm sure Jon would have been weary of Trump by this point, but I also feel like he'd have dug deeper and found a different angle. Maybe he'd be pointing out how the media is complicit in normalizing these fascist views. It wouldn't be hard to make noise about how few in the mainstream press are bold enough to call out Trump for the monster he is, at the risk of looking "biased."

Trevor doesn't even have the excuse that his outsider's perspective makes it harder for him to make the same attacks, because Englishman-by-birth John Oliver has had little trouble taking on all manner of issues, including Trump, in some brilliantly produced editorial pieces. This one from a few months ago is just a brutal piece of production, the product of a lot of research and razor-sharp satire to make its points.

And maybe that's what's missing from The Daily Show - any sense of research or depth of knowledge on the subjects they're satirizing. We're back to Weekend Update levels when it comes to the level of understanding about this year's campaign (or any topic.) To be fair, it's Noah's right to make over the show however he pleases, but half-interested approach does them no favors when they're followed up by The Nightly Show, which demonstrates that Larry Wilmore HAS learned from the Jon Stewart playbook.

With the departure of Jessica Williams, The Daily Show is left with Jordan Klepper as the only correspondent who consistently knocks it out of the park and has a honed comic persona. There are a couple with potential, but when taking the wider view, I don't see how this team in total reflects any coherent voice on the part of Noah. It's not as if Stewart hit it out of the park on every correspondent hire either (Olivia Munn's tenure was a distinct low, and I had to look it up to remember Josh Gad had been a correspondent), but it's a problem to have a team that doesn't, well, feel like a team.

On Wilmore's side of things, just about every correspondent is firing on all cylinders and they all compliment Larry's voice. Jordan Carlos is probably my favorite. His bits as Hillary Clinton's campaign manager (skip to 6:35) have shown some teeth that are completely absent on TDS these days. Mike Yard and Holly Walker are right on his heels. Frankly, the weakest member of Wilmore's team would be - at worst - the second-strongest player on The Daily Show bench.

Noah needs to find what he's passionate about. Nothing he has done so far matches the anger we get in Wilmore's voice when after a joke about Bill Cosby, he says, "That's right motherfucker, I haven't forgotten about you!" Like Stewart, he's personalized much of what he's talking about. It's the same sort of difference between an anchorman who's a newsreader, and one who's a journalist.

To be sure, Larry's tenure has been some seven months longer than Trevor's, and there were a fair amount of bumps in the first year. The difference there was that you could feel Larry adapting and had a sense that someone was in the driver's seat. Larry knew what kind of show he wanted and it was just trial and error to figure out how to best refine that voice. On top of that, he had years as a TV writer and as a correspondent for The Daily Show to develop that persona. Stewart himself had a number of failed talk shows before manning the desk.

Trevor Noah's resume shows some hosting experience, but mostly of the gossip show and dating show variety. Perhaps he wasn't prepared for just how much dedication a show like The Daily Show takes. He's closing in on a year in that seat and the most detectable change he's made is not sitting at the desk for the first segment. Writers, if you're trying to understand what voice can bring to material, watch The Daily Show and see if you can perceive what's missing.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Michael Bay's The Rock turns 20 today - An excerpt from MICHAEL F-ING BAY

Today is a special day in the history of film because it is the 20th anniversary of the release of Michael Bay's The Rock, one of his best films to date. In commemoration of that occasion, I am reproducing the chapter dedicated to The Rock from my book, MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films.

The book is currently available on at a cost of $4.99 on Kindle or $10.99 in paperback. For more information about the book, you can check out this post.

The Rock (1996)

Release date: June 7, 1996 
Story by David Weisberg & Douglas S. Cook 
Screenplay by David Weisberg & Douglas S. Cook and Mark Rosner 
Produced by Don Simpson, Jerry Bruckheimer 
Budget: $75 million 
Domestic box office: $134 million 
Global box office: $335 million

Every iconic filmmaker has that movie that is not their first production, but the one that will dominate their filmography for the rest of their careers. For these truly brilliant directors, that masterpiece usually arrives within their first three films. Steven Spielberg had Jaws, George Lucas had Star Wars, Quentin Tarantino had Pulp Fiction, and David Fincher had Se7en. For Michael Bay, that movie is The Rock.

Whether or not The Rock is Bay’s absolute best film may be a matter of debate. It happens to be my personal favorite. When I want a film that will challenge me and make me think, I of course will reach for Transformers: Age of Extinction. As we have discussed, that film easily represents a creative pinnacle in Bay’s career. But when I’m in the mood for something with a less political bent and more rollicking good fun, I reach for The Rock.

Though Michael Bay is without peer, as I examine this film, I of course find myself paralleling him with Steven Soderbergh. Soderbergh burst onto the indie film scene in 1989 with Sex, Lies, and Videotape and spent over the next decade becoming known for unusual indie films outside the mainstream. It would not be until 2000’s Julia Roberts vehicle Erin Brockovich that Soderbergh would truly make a mainstream film with a major star. But even then, one could argue that its status as a true-life Oscar bait film salvaged Soderbergh’s reputation. No one would dare call it slumming to direct a film that won America’s Sweetheart her first Oscar.

This is why it was still jarring when Soderbergh dove headfirst into big-budget, star-driven, genre filmmaking with Ocean’s Eleven just a year later. With a cast that included superstars George Clooney and Brad Pitt, this remake of the 1960 Rat Pack film aspired to be nothing more than a fun romp. It was the pinnacle of studio filmmaking, elevated by the technical skill and keen directorial hand of the auteur. Ocean’s Eleven will probably never be named first when cinephiles are debating what his best film is, but that doesn’t take away from how perfectly structured, masterfully performed and expertly executed it is. It’s certainly among the best in its genre. What Ocean’s Eleven represents to Soderbergh, The Rock represents to Michael Bay. Yes, we know that deep down, Bay is capable of far more complicated work than this, but that doesn’t diminish the accomplishments of The Rock any more.

Many of Bay’s later productions saw him being brought on in the early stages, sometimes developing the screenplay from the ground up. That is not the case with The Rock, which began life as a screenplay from David Weisberg & Douglas F. Cook. It was originally bought by Disney for Caravan Pictures, but found its way to Simpson/Bruckheimer. They commissioned rewrites and by the time the script made it to screen, at least seven writers had their crack at it, including Mark Rosner and Aaron Sorkin. However, Bay’s closest collaborator was Jonathan Hensleigh, who was denied screen credit following a Writers Guild of America arbitration proceeding. (Bay would later write an open letter to the Guild in The Los Angeles Times decrying the verdict.)

Still, the point is that this was not a project initiated by Bay so much as it was reshaped by his influence. The result was a compelling thrill-ride that showed how good an action movie Bay could make even when coloring within the lines on a killer high-concept premise. The hook: tourists on Alcatraz Island have been taken by rogue Brigadier General Frank Hummel (Ed Harris), a decorated war hero with an entire group of U.S. Marines on his side. They threaten to deadly VX-Gas at San Francisco if their demands are not met - $100 million paid to the families of soldiers who were killed on secret missions, soldiers whose families never got compensation.

To get onto “the Rock,” the Pentagon and the FBI need to recruit the only man ever to successfully escape Alcatraz, John Mason. Mason – played by Sean Connery – is a British spy that they’ve been holding for the better part of 30 years. Mason and chemical weapons expert Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage) are sent to the island with a SEAL team in order to lead them through the same security measures and uncharted tunnels Mason himself used to escape back in 1963. Unfortunately, the entire SEAL team is killed upon arrival and it falls to the British spy and Goodspeed – who’s never been in the field before – to stop the missiles and end the hostage situation.

This is flat-out one of the best premises Bay has had to work with in his career. It’s such a good premise that it would have been easy to get lazy in the execution and simply coast on the hook. However, even as Bay amps up the scale of the action scenes, he introduces a lot of depth in places where we don’t expect it.

One of the most critical and subversive moves of the film is that it introduces the “villain” first. Hummel has some humanizing moments at a military funeral and then at his wife’s grave. It’s a very deliberate decision to not have his first scene be the more conventional entrance when he leads the team on a raid to steal chemical weapons, or later when the team seizes control of the island. A lesser film would see Hummel as a plot device, just an antagonistic force to motivate Mason and Goodspeed onto the island. Here, he’s allowed to be a human, complicated character. He’s possibly the most multi-dimensional of any of Bay’s antagonists.

Harris’s performance sells Hummel as a man who commands respect the instant he walks into a room. You believe this is a man who has made his bones in the military. There’s no effort at making him into a lunatic or a suave, wise-cracking madman, as so many action villains are. He’s there to do a job and he’s fully accepted the consequences of that task. Further cementing him as the anti-Hans Gruber is the moment just before taking hostages where he tells kids from a school group that they should find their teacher and get back to the mainland. He needs hostages, but he’s not putting kids in harm’s way needlessly.

It presents an interesting dilemma to the viewer. Is Hummel wrong? Do we even want to see him fail? Of course, the U.S. government cannot give in to terrorism, so Hummel and the military are on an unstoppable collision course. Even when Hummel’s men kill the SEAL team, it doesn’t tarnish our view of him. He first tries to get them to surrender and when a sudden crashing spooks Hummel’s men, they open fire and kill all the SEALs before the confusion is sorted out. It’s clear Hummel finds this regrettable, but from his perspective, these men were enemy combatants who made the confrontation necessary.

With all the possible motivations and villains Bay could have chosen, this was the one he was drawn to. This version of Hummel was the one who emerged after seven writers, many more drafts, and a lot of reshaping of the script over years. It’s no accident or whim that Hummel was developed like this. After later films like Pearl Harbor and Transformers, Bay got tagged as a very pro-military artist. While that’s not necessarily untrue, Bay’s willingness to criticize the military through the character of Hummel shows that he’s not the military hawk/stooge he’s often painted as. It’s rare to see this direct a criticism of the military, but one should remember this was made pre-9/11, in the peacetime days of the Clinton Administration. The attacks on the World Trade Center would change much of the culture, including Bay’s films.

It’s also possible to read into this film a criticism of America’s foreign policy. Though most of Hummel’s team is made up of soldiers he’s directly served under, some of them, like Tony Todd’s Captain Darrow, are new to his unit. Darrow and a few of his men take to their role as mercenaries perhaps too easily. They’re younger than Hummel and less disciplined than the career military man. While Hummel sees his actions as a regrettable necessity, Darrow and his men appear almost thrilled at the prospect of committing violence. Every step of the way, they are the unstable force pushing Hummel to commit more reckless and violent acts. It suddenly becomes clear why supervillains like Lex Luthor tend to employ henchmen who are merely benign idiots rather than trigger-happy head-cases.

This conflict comes to a head when Hummel cannot bring himself to execute a hostage and then ensures that a rocket he launched gets redirected out to sea before it detonates. Realizing he’s been beaten, the leader calls for an abort to the mission, but Darrow and two other men revolt when they realize this means they won’t be paid for their efforts. A Mexican standoff ensues and when the dust settles, Hummel is dead and it’s up to Mason and Goodspeed to find and stop the final rocket before the other men can launch it.

Is Bay making a statement about the military of old and the military of the present? The old guard joined up because they believed in honor and patriotism. Their values would not allow them to harm civilians. The military that Darrow represents is a blunt instrument, concerned only with their own self-interests. When those interests align with the military, things go well, but honor and pragmatism seem not to dictate the mission.

This challenging of a black-and-white past with a more complicated present is a theme continued via the character of James Mason. This British spy has been locked up since the Cold War because he stole some of J. Edgar Hoover’s most prized secrets. As one of the film’s more arch lines tells us, “This man knows our most intimate secrets from the last half century! The alien landing at Roswell, the truth behind the J.F.K. assassination. Mason's angry, he's lethal, he's a trained killer... and he is the only hope that we have got!”

It’s left to the viewer to weigh the morality there. Mason might have stolen secrets, but it was on behalf of a government that was not in conflict with the U.S. then. Further, we’re reminded that these secrets were cultivated by J. Edgar Hoover, who “kept secret files on prominent Americans and Europeans. De Gaulle, British members of Parliament, even the Prime Minister… this guy had dirt on everybody in the world.” That this isn’t a simple black-and-white matter feels very deliberate, as campy as it is to claim that aliens actually came to Earth and that there’s a JFK conspiracy that was known all along.

Remember, Mason escaped Alcatraz in 1963 and there was only one month and eight days left in that year after JFK was shot. The implication is that either Mason discovered the truth about the assassination very soon after it happened, was caught quickly and then escaped just as swiftly… or somehow, he uncovered the conspiracy before the assassination. In fact, that is the only scenario that’s possible because the prison itself was ordered closed on March 21, 1963. The script tap-dances around this, but the larger implication seems to be that the Kennedy Assassination was a government conspiracy that, at a minimum, Hoover knew about long before it took place.

And people think that Bay can’t be subtle when he wants to be.

One also cannot discount the obvious connections between Connery’s character and his iconic role as James Bond. It’s fairly easy to read Mason as a stand-in for James Bond himself. In his prime, he was skilled enough to escape difficult incarceration at least once, but likely more. (His Alcatraz escape happened in 1963, but his daughter was conceived in the mid-1970s. This suggests either he was on the run for a decade, or that he was recaptured soon after Alcatraz and then sprang himself again at a later date.)

On one hand, it’s an expression of incredible patriotism to depict that America was able to keep James Bond behind bars for most of the last 30 years. On the other hand, these are the men who stopped James Bond from preventing a Presidential assassination. The Rock takes place in an alternate reality where James Bond failed and the bad guys won. It’s a dark slap in the face to the escapist nature of the ‘60s spy films. That Bay buries all of this subtext inside of what appears to be a mere casting in-joke only underlines how much brilliance permeates this film.

The only explanation for how The Rock failed to achieve an Academy Award nomination in the face of such brilliance and political criticism that the Academy was unaccustomed to finding such depth in a simple action film. The five nominees that year were The English Patient, Fargo, Jerry Maguire, Secrets & Lies, and Shine. It was clearly a year where the Academy made a point of rejecting conventional Hollywood films, and only a bias against the genre, Bay and Simpson/Bruckheimer can be responsible for the omission here.

Fortunately critics were not so blind. Roger Ebert gave the film three and a half stars, saying, “Director Michael Bay (“Bad Boys”) orchestrates the elements into an efficient and exciting movie, with some big laughs, sensational special effects sequences, and sustained suspense.”

Ebert’s praise of Cage is not misplaced. The actor’s Stanley Goodspeed is a true anomaly in the Bay canon: a leading man who isn’t a man’s-man. The everyman is not a frequent visitor to Bay’s world, and more often than not, that type is treated as the comic relief. (Transformers’ Sam Witwicky might also be a notable exception.) Goodspeed is not a field agent, he’s a chemical expert with the FBI who happens to be in the right place to get caught up in the Mason situation. His knowledge of the chemical weapons means he’s drafted into the field, making him a true fish-out-of-water.

What works about this is that Goodspeed’s more nerdy qualities aren’t just there to make Mason look more masculine by contrast. Goodspeed is allowed to handle himself pretty well for a novice, where other films might have turned him into an annoying sidekick that the British spy was saddled with. This is a true two-hander, with both men earning each other’s respect. Two early interactions sell this. The first is Goodspeed’s interrogation of Mason, where he stammers nervously until eventually trying to put on a tough guy act. Mason’s bemusement at this unpolished agent actually helps humanize the prisoner a bit. As his gentlemanly tone starts to win over Goodspeed, it has the effect of disarming the audience as well. It’s a deft ballet that both characters emerge from more fully developed.

The second moment comes a bit later after Mason’s provoked a chase through San Francisco. He arranges a meeting with the daughter he’s never seen before. Goodspeed figures this out and calls in Mason’s location. As Mason concludes his chat with his daughter, several police cars pull up. The daughter recoils, assuming that her father broke out of jail and these men are here to take him back. Goodspeed allows Mason to preserve some dignity, saying that he’s with the government and “Your father is helping us to resolve a dangerous situation.” The audience thinks better of Goodspeed for doing Mason that kindness and Mason’s appreciation of the same also conveys that he recognizes the significance of this as well. With those moments out of the way, the stage is set for the film to become a true two-hander.

Cage is the perfect actor for Goodspeed, perfectly deploying his manic energy. He’s able to sell Goodspeed’s nervousness when he’s out of his element and then quickly shift to his authority when he’s on familiar terrain. To wit, there’s a scene where a still-twitching body unnerves him, but then a minute later, he has no problem snapping at Mason when he fears Mason’s ignorance of the chemical weapons might accidentally kill all of them. Cage’s performance allows Goodspeed to have some “action hero moments” without compromising his everyman qualities. Mason could not have stopped the bad guys by himself and the film is wise to make Goodspeed every bit as integral to the situation as the British spy is. Bay takes a “normal guy” and evolves the film to the point that he’s able to shoot him like a hero. It’s a welcome change from the then-current Schwarzenegger and Stallone action types who sprung to the screen as fully formed bad-asses, akin to Athena bursting forth from Zeus’s skull. When it comes to the characters in The Rock, Hummel has depth, Mason has charisma, but it’s Goodspeed who has the true character arc. A character like that is the key to an effective action film.

This would also seem to be the place to take stock of how the women fare in this Bay outing. This is a very testosterone-heavy film, with only two women of any real significance. One of these is Mason’s daughter, who only appears in one scene and is more significant for how she motivates Mason than for any agency of her own. The second is Goodspeed’s pregnant fiancĂ© Carla. She too has little significance beyond giving Stanley an emotional tie outside the mission. As played by Vanessa Marcil, she’s got a little spunk to her, even proposing to Stanley when she realizes she’s pregnant. However, she makes little impact on the plot. It is worth noting that neither of them yet conform to the prototypical “Bay-type” of woman. As attractive as both actresses are, they are dressed like regular women, not rock video extras. There’s no undue leering at their curves and neither one conveys the idea that they exist largely to be eye candy. Eventually, the supermodel-in-a-music-video female visualization will become a Bay staple, but not yet with this film.

This film was also the first true translation of Bay’s music-video aesthetic to feature film. The camera is frequently in motion from shot to shot even as the pacing of the shots is exceptionally fast. The “Trivia” section for this film on the Internet Movie Database claims that there are about 2900 shots in the two hour and six minute running time. The average shot length is 2.6 seconds and the median shot length is 2.5 seconds. I recall at the time, some viewers complained that the film itself seemed to have Attention Deficit Disorder, but it’s hard to deny that it doesn’t make for a powerful viewing experience.

With this film, Michael Bay changed the look and pacing of the action film forever. James Cameron had been the reigning god of action films up to this point, but going forward, Bay’s influence would become more apparent in the works of Brett Ratner, Peter Berg and Simon West.

In 2011, Variety senior film critic Peter Debruge said, “Michael Bay has recognized the energy of an action sequence can replace the logic of it… By getting in there and mixing up the angles, he creates the same sense of excitement and confusion through editing and camera placement that you would if you were actually in the fight.”

Perhaps intentionally invoking Bay’s history as a commercial director, Debruge put his finger on the method of the Bay aesthetic, “If you look at a Michael Bay movie, you’re watching 2 1/2 hours of money shots and quotable tag lines. Every shot is designed to send tingles up your spine. When I watch a Michael Bay feature, I feel like I’m watching a full-length trailer.” This sort of visual style is critical to decoding every Michael Bay film. It began in The Rock and continues throughout all of his other films, no matter the subject matter. The story and subject bend to Michael Bay, not the other way around. In many ways, he’s the purest embodiment of the auteur theory.

The commentary on The Rock offers further examples of Bay’s meticulousness and his understanding of his audience. In the second half-hour of the film, Mason makes an escape attempt and leads a massive car chase through the streets of San Francisco. It’s a good opportunity for Bay to blow up cars and even a trolley, though by the end of the sequence, Mason is back in the hands of the authorities. Explaining his motivation for this, Bay says:

“Actually, I had a fight about the car chase with one of the writers, because I felt his is a way for me to help, after all this complicated setup, to help suck the younger audience back into it… one of the writers said ‘I've never heard of a director talking about demographics.’” Bay says he gave him a simple answer “If you’re given 60 million dollars, you’d better fucking know who you’re selling this movie to, because it could be the last time they ever give you 60 million dollars again.”

An audience will forgive a lot if they are enjoying themselves. Bay understands this like no other. So much of his visual language is built around triggering certain emotional responses and touchstones. Other artists try to achieve this connection with their audience through a strict adherence to story logic and meticulous visual coherency. What Bay comprehends is that this inherent order is a lie. Film is a symphony of emotion, and if you as an artist know the right stimulus/response buttons to trigger, you can evoke that experience without being dependent on the old “rules.”

Certainly Bay makes movies he wants to see, but buried within that desire is a yearning to make movies that the audience will enjoy. Because of this, it’s tempting to affix him with the label of “Sell-Out,” but ultimately, his concern is with customer satisfaction. Elsewhere on the commentary, he talks about how he observes an audience during his test screenings: “When they start to fidget, when they start to look at their watch, you know you've got a problem with your film.”

Michael Bay’s films are designed for audiences. They are built for that theatre experience and his obsessive determination to get this right marks him as a true showman in this business. The Rock is a film that can please on superficial levels, but still carries enough weight to appeal to those viewers hoping to find something deeper. It is a banquet for all appetites, and Michael Bay is dedicated to ensuring everyone has all they can eat.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Puppet returns to YouTube on Future World!

As promised, my appearance on Future World's New In Box is here!

The hook of the show is that host Chris Waild asks people what childhood toy they always wanted but never got. With that list in hand, this taller (seriously guys, Chris is a giant), thinner Santa Claus takes to the internet and supplies the toy, which is then unboxed on video before its new owner.

When the invitation was extended to me to appear on New in Box, the obvious question was "What to ask for?" My instant impulse was "Castle Greyskull!" I owned a lot of He-Man action figures (and even a She-Ra, which I got no end of shit for when I was a kid), but never had the coveted playset. However, that thing is huge and I knew there was no way my wife would let me bring it in the house. Ditto for my second choice, the Ghostbusters Firehouse. This led me to the next most obvious toy: Optimus Prime.

None of you will believe this, but I swear I didn't think about the straight line from Optimus Prime to the Michael Bay Transformers films to my book about Michael Bay. For one thing, I had no idea that Chris was going to purchase my book and become perhaps its biggest fan. When you watch the video, I know it looks like this was a brilliantly Machiavellian scheme on my part to turn the whole thing into a commercial for MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films, but I wish I was that clever.

Nor did I expect Chris to give such a passionate plug. My assumption that the mention of the book would be limited to a passing mention in my introduction. The effusive praise for everything about the book? That's all Chris, and in fact, the uncut version of that was probably almost twice as long!

But he's a smart guy, so you should go here and buy my book. It's only $4.99 on Kindle!

I really, really enjoyed appearing on the show. Chris and his team were a delight and it was some of the most fun I've had shooting a video with the puppet. I even got a cool toy out of it!

Future World's YouTube Channel can be found here.
Future World's Twitter: @ftrwrld
All episodes of New in Box are collected in this playlist.

A tale of sexism and self-respect on a Hollywood job interview

This story's been on my mind these last few weeks. A few years have gone by since it happened, so I feel pretty secure in telling it with a few identifying details removed/obscured.

I was interviewing with two producers for the job of assisting both of them. On the face of it, it seemed like a good job. The production company was flush with cash, they had a couple high-profile projects on the horizon, and I knew someone who worked with one of the two. He'd given me the highest recommendation possible.

Some context for those not in the business - I did some calling around to people working at production companies and studios. Knowing the job description, which would be assisting TWO executives full-time, I tried to get back a reasonable estimate of what the job SHOULD be worth. The studio friends told me "Two execs? At that level? $70k." Those with production company experience quoted me a wide range, with $40k on the low end, and $60k on the high. (Those who lowballed it later acknowledged that they'd have raised their estimates if they knew it was for two execs.)

So I take a meeting with these guys and OH MY GOD there were moments I seriously thought I'd stepped into Entourage. One of the two was relatively professional and the other was a like a caricature of a Hollywood producer, and a caricature written by someone whose only experience in the biz was other caricatures on TV. The guy's a big talker with an overcompensating swagger and someone who you got the sense saw every conversation as a dick measuring contest.

But in the back of my mind I'm thinking "Worst case scenario: do a year here and having this place on your resume instantly makes you more desirable around town." So as the quasi-racist and definitely sexist statements pile up, I resolve to choke down my disgust and do my best not to wince. This becomes sorely tested when they come around to the subject of hiring some new support staff.

 "....and we're going to hire a receptionist."
- "A HOT receptionist!"
"Yeah, I've checked in with a couple of modeling agencies. We'll probably go that way."

This was soon followed up with a discussion of how they were dead set on hiring a guy for this assistant job "because you know how women are.... we want someone we can have fun with." Given what happened later, I kinda wish I'd just trashed the interview and said, "No. What do you mean? Tell me 'how women are.'" If nothing else it would make for a better story.

The casual sexism disturbed me at the time and it still bugs me now. The meeting had all the professional decorum of a locker room. I'd been out here for a number of years at the time and I'd never seen such blatant sleaziness during a job interview. Usually people at least TRY to put on their best face then.

Okay, there was one other weird interview I had within a year of moving to town. It was at a small production company, at a point where I had only two internships on my resume. I was meeting with the company principal about being his assistant. He glances at my resume, says "You interned for Jenny Smith?" (not her real name) "Yes," I brighten, taking his recognition for approval.

"JENNY SMITH IS A FUCKING CUNT!" And then he just lets the statement hang there. I have NO idea how to react to that. Laugh? Ignore it? Try to change the subject? I honestly can't remember what happened next. I think I merely looked shocked and after an eternal long silence, the assistant he brought in with him shifts the subject.

But back to the guys determined to hire a model. This line of discussion also lead to talk of how there'd be a lot of "dinner meetings" and some surprising interest in if I was married and for how long. I've been on plenty of interviews where family life comes up and this was different. I felt like I was being interrogated while Mr. Entourage squinted, cocked his head and ran my words through whatever Doucebag processor was also regulating his libido.

When I repeated the conversation verbatim to my wife, she drew the same conclusion I did: "It sounds like you're going to have to go to strip clubs with these guys."

Still, we agreed that if they were paying what it sounded like this job would be worth, and the opportunity to contribute was as great as they said, I'd be a fool to turn it down. (Sadly, there's so much sexism in this industry that if you discounted any job offered by a male pig, the pickings would be very slim. Not that I haven't worked for some great bosses in the past, but if you're around long enough here, you'll run against a lot of the bad eggs.)

Not long after that, I get the call. I passed the interview. Now I have to meet with their HR person. No disrespect to anyone who works in HR, but my experience is that these people have no soul. At the time of this interview, I hadn't yet had some of the more scarring run-ins, so I made the mistake of believing I was dealing with a human being.

I meet with the HR woman and after a few pleasantries, we get to the REAL meat of the meeting - salary range. I didn't go well. The woman interviewing me balked when I told her what a job assisting ONE high level exec at a studio was paying - and that I deserved AT LEAST that for two. Her answer? "If we were looking to pay that much, there are much more qualified people I'd be talking to than you."

Again, here's where Future Bitter would reach back into the past and tell himself, "This meeting just ended. Your relationship with this company just ended. Get up and walk out while you can take your self-respect with you." Alas, I sit there helpless as the offer goes from metaphorical insult to literal insult.

I ask what they DO think would be reasonable. Are you ready for this? "$32,000," she says. "Frick and Frack [not their real names] really like you and they really want to give you a chance even though your resume doesn't have all the experience they were looking for."

Again, this is the point where someone with self-respect would walk out. Instead, I continue to be polite as the woman says, "Let me go back to them and see if there's any room for more."

There is. And I know there is because Mr. Entourage spent half the interview boasting about all the money he was spending. Like, discretion is not in this guy's vocabulary.

A week later I get the call from HR. "Hi, I just wanted to see if you were interested in doing the job for the number we discussed."

"Honestly, for what they say the job is, that number is an insult. I can't do it for that little." The Mortal Combat graphic "FINISH HIM" keeps flashing before my eyes, but I remain almost unfailingly polite as I terminate the call.

And that was the point when I really came around to the notion that I didn't necessarily NEED an industry job if I already had a decent network and just needed something that paid the bills while I kept writing.

And the irony now strikes me that if I named who these guys were, there are plenty who'd think I was the unprofessional one for smearing them like that.