Tuesday, November 25, 2014

MICHAEL F-ING BAY made "/Film’s Ultimate 2014 Film Geek Holiday Gift Guide" List!

It's always cool to be recognized by a website you read regularly. For my money, /Film (or Slashfilm) is probably the best entertainment news aggregator out there. If you've been away from the internet for the entire day and you needs one site to catch you up on all the major film news (particularly of the geekier interests), /Film is the site you should hit.

This week they've complied their "Ultimate 2014 Film Geek Holiday Gift Guide." Right there among their book recommendations, alongside great books like Alien: The Archive, The James Bond Encyclopedia, The Back to the Future Almanac, and the book about the making of The Room, The Disaster Artist, we find my very own MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films!

/Film writer Peter Sciretta says, "Hey, I know everyone loves to hate Michael Bay but I really appreciate the filmmaker for a pure visceral level. And I love the fact that someone has written a book praising the 'unheralded genius of Michael Bay’s films.'”

The book makes a great stocking stuffer for the film buff in your life. The Michael Bay lover and Michael Bay hater in your family can love it equally. And it's only $4.99 in Kindle form! Also, if you buy it, you're giving me a little extra money to get something nice for my wife this holiday season. She has to put up with me all year, so think of it as a charitable donation to her, if you must.

Find the entire /Film list here.

Buy MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films on Amazon here!

Monday, November 24, 2014

MOCKINGJAY won't fill you up, but it's a good meal while it lasts.

If you thought the ending of last year's CATCHING FIRE was abrupt, be forewarned that its follow-up, MOCKINGJAY PART 1 comes to an end just as suddenly. This third HUNGER GAMES film is a bit like half of a meal that's is suddenly cleared from the table by the busboys mid-course.

But it's a good half of a meal.

We pick up right after we left off at the end of the prior film. Katniss's rebellion in the games has sparked an uprising. Katniss's home district, District 12, has been destroyed and the rebellion has set up shop underground in District 13. The district President, Coin (played by Julianne Moore) wants to use Katniss as a propaganda tool to keep hope alive in other districts long enough for them to move on the Capital and President Snow.

Snow has his own propaganda tool, Katniss's partner in the Games and her showmance lover, Peeta. His fame is quickly put to use at both discrediting the rebels and breaking their spirit. In a televised interview, he denounces the revolt and urges everyone to surrender. Most of District 13 immediately brands him a traitor, but Katniss is convinced he's being forced to say these things. She submits to her usual role as a PR tool after extracting a promise that the rebels will rescue Peeta as soon as the opportunity presents itself.

And that's really all that PART 1 deals with. It's a half-measure towards resolution as we see the immediate consequences of that set-up play out, but the big chess moves feel like they're being saved for next year's finale. This often makes for a movie that feels like just another episode in the middle of one TV season's long arc.

The more claustrophobic production design adds somewhat to that feeling. A great deal of the film takes place in the underground bunker that houses the last 10,000 or so survivors of District 12. It makes for a striking contrast with the aggressive opulence of the Capital or the wild beauty of the Games habitats in the first one, but it still calls to mind the sorts of "bottle shows" that a series will do when it needs to save money.

The TV series feeling also comes from the fact that this is a film that depends very much on our memories and emotional ties with the earlier films in the series. Details like Katniss's bond with Peeta, her simmering feelings for Gale and her complicated alliances with Plutarch and Haymitch all pretty much are taken for granted by the filmmakers.

Earlier this year I remarked how surprised I was that my previously-uninitiated wife was able to watch X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST and not be hindered by the backlog of continuity because of how well everyone was (re) introduced. I doubt that's a feat that could be repeated as effectively by MOCKINGJAY. This won't be a problem for most viewers, but it contributes to the feeling that this is less of its own movie.

The film's biggest asset is no shock, though. Jennifer Lawrence gives as much to her role as Katniss Everdeen as she has for any role that she's been nominated for. One advantage of the film's limited scope and slower pace is that it's able to really hone in on Katniss's emotional arc here. As I discussed in my CATCHING FIRE review, the great thing about Katniss is that she wasn't "born special," it's her actions that ended up defining her as the flashpoint for revolution. As she herself says, she didn't want any of this. This all started to keep her sister alive, and then later to keep Peeta alive.

The big reason that the HUNGER GAMES saga has remained so compelling is that it all hinged on Katniss's agency. She makes a choice and choices have consequences. That one moment in the first film where she volunteers as tribute is what brought all of this about. Katniss isn't a leader, or at least, she didn't set out to be one, but she inspired so many. She's never fully embraced her icon so much as she's allowed others to exploit it. The Katniss everyone wants to follow is a pure media creation, or at least a distortion of her.

With different writing, or possibly even a different actress, Katniss's continued rejection of her role in this might be read as whining. Lawrence plays it so raw and real throughout that you can't help but be moved by her fear and horror at all that has come from her few acts of defiance. We don't often get to see a hero spend as much of the film as clearly traumatized and shell-shocked as Katniss is here and it's an approach that makes the audience identify more emotionally with the story as well. Katniss's vulnerability is the film's greatest strength and it makes the moments where her resolve does emerge feel that much more emotional.

I've not read the books (no spoilers please) but this chapter made me feel certain that even if Snow is deposed, drawn and quartered, there is no happy ending in the offing. Katniss has lost so much that any victory is bound to feel Pyrrhic to her. I don't see the final chapter ending with an elated celebration like the Rebels and Ewoks partying after blowing up the Death Star.

Not that we wouldn't be tempted to cheer should Donald Sutherland's President Snow meet a particularly gruesome end. I don't want to give away some of the few real surprises in the film, but Snow stands reveals as pure malevolent evil by the end of this film. I'm not the biggest Donald Sutherland fan, and I think there's a good stretch of his 90s filmography where he was basically sleepwalking through sinisterly-twinged roles (Outbreak being a good example.) I saw some of that in the first two films but in this one... this one Snow is a guy who you want to see dead. You want every one of the main characters to line up and get a shot at bringing the hurt to this guy.

One of Snow's evil plans leads to the film's biggest shock (which I won't describe here.) It's a twist made more potent by the decision to only make brief shifts to show the Capital's perspective. We're confined to seeing mostly what Katniss sees, and the film uses our uncertainty about what Snow knows and doesn't know to great effect. Elements like that give the final act enough of a sting that this movie doesn't feel like a total exercise in table-setting for the final chapter next winter.

There's no denying that the film ends abruptly, too abruptly to allow the movie to get any sense of closure within this particular chapter. It's a bit like if Return of the Jedi was two films and the first of those ended with Luke leaving to surrender to Vader.

I really hope that we aren't going to start seeing more of this sort of approach in franchise storytelling. The further I get from Guardians of the Galaxy, the less I like the fact that Thanos was paraded in for a fan-service cameo that exists mostly to establish him as a force in later films. I think he might have carried more mystique as an off-screen presence ala the Emperor and Jabba the Hutt in the first Star Wars. If you saw GOTG, your biggest impression of supposedly the most fearsome bad guy in the universe was that he sits on a hovering stone throne all-day. We don't even check back in with him after his minions fail. Though at least Guardians was a pretty decent film. Amazing Spider-Man 2 showed this sort of sequel-seeding at its worst.

MOCKINGJAY shows another peril of franchise-storytelling - that feeding your audience half a meal may leave them hunger, and not always in the best way. There's a lot here that keeps the film alive, but repeat viewings might exacerbate that "mid-season episode" feeling and that could have an impact on the enthusiasm for the conclusion. If nothing else, I hope that other franchises take note of why this gambit is successful in some ways and realizes just how easily this could have been a major misstep

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Go Into The Story Interview, Part II - MICHAEL F-ING BAY is "the Tyler Perry of China"

Part I

My interrogation at the hands of Scott Myers continues over on Go Into The Story. Scott really hits me with the challenging questions related to my book MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films.

Jerry Lewis is maligned in the United States, but beloved in France. Given the ginormous success of Transformer movies in Asia, does that mean Michael Bay is the Jerry Lewis of China?

You know how every year, Tyler Perry makes a movie that opens huge? And then the next Monday, the trades fill up space with the standard article of, “Oh my god! Black people go to the movies too! Studios are now actively going to court this financial goldmine?” Then usually nothing changes. Studio films remain as un-diverse as ever until some six months later when the next Lee Daniels-directed or Oprah-produced film come out and everyone feigns shock over this “undiscovered” audience that no one realized was out there.

The genius of Tyler Perry is that he makes films for an under-served segment of the audience. A great many of these films may be critically dubious, but that doesn’t hurt him because people want to see representations of their experience on-screen. That’s why it confounds me from a business standpoint that we don’t market more to African-Americans and women, two of the most unrepresented demographics in studio filmmaking.

Bay’s a smart guy. He knew that if he set some of his last TRANSFORMERS film in China, it would do huge business there. And it did. So in conclusion, Michael Bay is not the Jerry Lewis of China, he’s the Tyler Perry of China.

Plus, I pitch the Michael Bay version of Boyhood, Scott asks me to give advice to the next generation of Transformers writers and demands I resolve the eternal question of "Michael Bay = Steven Spielberg minus what and plus what?"

All this and more in Part II.

Buy the book here.

Find my announcement of the book here.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Go into the Story interview about MICHAEL F-ING BAY, I pitch "Michael Bay's 'JUNO'"

Scott Myers is one of a kind in the screenwriting blogosphere. The man works tirelessly, putting up a half-dozen new posts a day covering everything from script analysis, spec dealmaking and famous lines of dialogue. If there's something you want to learn about screenwriting, there's a good bet you can find it on his site, Go Into The Story.

Scott's been a good friend to the blog and I always enjoy talking to him, but rarely have I enjoyed it as much as this interview he conducted with me about my book, MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films. Scott asked some of the tough questions I haven't gotten elsewhere, such as

And then there was this gem, for which I probably owe an apology to Diablo Cody:

Michael Bay does Juno. Go!

Michael Bay and Diablo Cody on the same film? I’d love to see the trailer for that if for no reason other than the fact that Diablo Cody has a name that was meant to be pronounced by a Don LaFontaine-like trailer narrator. Try it – it’s impossible not to make it sound kickass!

Okay, so the first thing to understand about how Bay develops is that he’ll often start with the action set-pieces first. There’s always action in a Bay film. Even the lower budgeted Pain & Gain has a couple footchase scenes and some explosions. And what do you know – Diablo’s one step ahead of the game with the high school track team’s running scenes. The slow-motion shots of the young men’s privates undulating with each stride also hits the Bay quota of male homoeroticism. So this part of the film is definitely the same – except there’ll be a lot more of it.

Also, Michael Cera’s part is now played by Jai Courtney.

For the rest of the pitch and part 1 of a wild interview, mosey on over to Go Into The Story.

Buy the book on Amazon here.

Read my announcement of the book here.

Monday, November 17, 2014

I talk MICHAEL F-ING BAY on the Broken Projector podcast

Continuing my press for MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films, I appeared last week on the excellent podcast Broken Projector. Host Scott Beegs of Film School Rejects was kind enough to ask some good questions about my book and Michael Bay's oeuvre in general.

On any given week, Broken Projector is a must-listen, but I especially hope you'll check out this week's show.

You can find the episode embedded at Film School Rejects here.

Download the episode directly here.

Buy MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films here.

Here's my post announcing MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films.

Jon Stewart's ROSEWATER deftly provokes thought without preaching or pandering

There's little debate that ROSEWATER's promotion has been aided in large part by the existing profile of its first-time writer-director Jon Stewart, moonlighting from his day job on The Daily Show. As I consider that, I can't help but ponder if the writing and directing might be getting even more praise if it was coming from a truly unknown quantity. With a cast full of relative unknowns, Stewart has crafted a film that leaves an impression on the viewer well after the final title card has run.

ROSEWATER is the story of how journalist Maziar Bahari was imprisoned by the Iranian government on suspicion of being a spy after appearing in a satirical segment of The Daily Show that covered the 2009 Iranian election. Bahari himself had returned to his home country of Iran to cover the elections for Newsweek. For a while, it appeared that encumbrance President and all-around oppressive madman Mahmoud Ahmadinejad might lose to Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who - perhaps not coincidentally - was favored by the west, as well. Ahmadinejad's election was believed by many to be the result of a rigged election, sparking protests.

When Bahari is first detained by the Iranian government, he assumes his coverage of those protests is what brought him there. It's an utter surprise when his interrogator confronts him with a Daily Show segment where correspondent Jason Jones pretends to be an American spy and interviews Bahari. Bahari's jailers absurdly believe this to be evidence that Bahari himself is a spy collaborating with American spies, despite Bahari's futile attempts to explain the satire behind The Daily Show piece. (This may come as a surprise, but Iranian officials are not known for their sense of humor.)

One scene hints at possibly an additional motivation, as another clip of Bahari's appearance on the show has him saying that "Iran and America aren't so different." The Iranian interrogator is incensed that one of his own people would equate their country to what the Iranian government likes to term "the Great Satan." Governments generally crave war more than their people do, and so a government like Iran, constantly fearful of American intervention that will upend their oppressive regime, needs its people to hate the West. The foundation of their rule is based on ensuring the people fanatically hate a democratic way of life.

For an Iranian to speak well of America is a vile a notion to the Iranian government as it would be for an American citizen to say "Y'know, that Hitler guy might have been on to something." Furthermore, for an Iranian-born individual to have such little fear of repercussion that he would say this openly on a TV broadcast likely only galls his jailers more. Revolutions happen when people no longer fear the consequences of speaking openly. And so what we come to see are jailers desperate to break Bahari.

It'll be interesting to see if ROSEWATER provokes any debates about torture similar to what Zero Dark Thirty incited a few years ago. The films depict markedly different versions of torture. Zero Dark Thirty's torture scenes were dehumanizing and viscerally degrading while most of the abuse depicted in ROSEWATER is of a more banal nature. During his 118-day imprisonment, Bahari spent a great deal of time in solitary confinement. While it's not the most cinematic of tortures, it definitely is a horrible thing to isolate a person from all other contact for extended periods. Though the film shows the occasional physical beating, it appears that the efforts to break Bahari were more psychological than physical.

The film strongly demonstrates something I've believed for a long time - that torture is an incredibly ineffective way of eliciting useful information. It holds its greatest power when it comes to punishing someone or forcing their compliance. Last year I wrote about some powerful moments in 12 Years a Slave that demonstrated just how quickly a person will break and stop fighting when they just want the physical pain to end. They'll say things they don't mean and believe things they didn't before just so they won't have to hurt any more.

You don't have to go far to find documentation that torture is incredibly ineffective and unreliable, to the point that anyone who argues it is a valuable tool for intelligence purposes is lying, either to themselves or to everyone else. ROSEWATER supports this in spades, for eventually, Bahari confesses to crimes he never committed. Why would someone do that? Because he's hoping his cooperation betters his situation, perhaps increasing the chance that he'll walk out of there and back home to his wife.  Torture makes people compliant, not truthful.

But as we've discussed, The intelligence gathering may only be one facet of Bahari's imprisonment and torture. If the goal is to punish the prisoner and gain power over him, then it becomes clear why his captors would so readily work to break Bahari's spirit. This is about power as much as it is about investigation. Bahari is taken from his home on incredibly flimsy pretense, denied any kind of due process and then is psychologically and physically abused all because state officials must demonstrate their might against an enemy they fear.

There's an analogy that's begging to be drawn there. It might surprise you that the film doesn't try to find a way to compare Bahari's imprisonment with any number of "suspected terrorists" who found themselves rounded up on thin pretenses by U.S. officials and tossed into the legal limbo of Guantanamo Bay. There, government officials enthusiastically had interrogators use dehumanizing interrogations that ultimately degraded this nation as much as they did the suspected terrorists. And eventually, given the nature of how torture works, it likely yielded as much bad information as good.

Stewart doesn't go near this territory, likely in part because it would widen the scope of the story beyond Bahari's experience. Even if there had been a way to deal with this notion more directly, it would have given the idiots at Fox News an easy talking point to attack the film with. Perhaps not every viewer will come away drawing the same comparisons as I did, but it is hard to watch this film and not be swayed on how torture is a tool that more effectively brings compliance and submission rather than credible information.

It's to Stewart's credit that he made a film capable of provoking these questions. Perhaps some viewers will come out of the film pondering what they would have done in Bahari's situation. How much would they give in just to retain a little bit of hope?

Among many powerful scenes is one that comes late in the film. (SPOILER ALERT. Don't say you weren't warned.) After Bahari's been imprisoned for quite some time, a guard mentions to him that Hilary Clinton has been talking about him. We are then treated to a rapid montage of news channels discussing the outrage over the detainment of a journalist. A great deal of this is due to an effort from Bahari's wife to keep the imprisonment in the public eye.

The Iranians are furious at the efforts of this woman, eventually sending Bahari's interrogator in to tell Bahari to "control his woman." The interrogator gives Bahari a phone and makes him call his wife to tell her to stop. It's the first time in months that Bahari's been able to speak to his pregnant wife and the emotion overwhelms them both. He whispers "I love you" and before he can even say anything about the media coverage, the interrogator takes back the phone. He verbally berates his prisoner, trying to intimidate him, but Bahari literally laughs in his captors face.

The Iranians tried to take his hope away, but in making him tell his wife to call off the dogs, they showed their hand. Bahari saw their fear, and in that moment, the power shifted. The interrogator showed he didn't have total control, for if he did, nothing Bahari's wife could do would be of any concern. He might still be a prisoner, but in that moment, the torturer restored one thing for him: hope.

There are so many strong films from this year that it's hard to call anything a sure thing. That said, it would not be surprising for ROSEWATER to nab a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, and I wouldn't entirely count out the fine work from Gael GarcĂ­a Bernal as Bahari. He gives such an empathetic performance that when one particular title card delivers the coda, it's impossible to not be moved.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Amanda Pendolino interviewed me about my Michael Bay book

I did an interview with Amanda Pendolino about my book MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films.  She asked a number of good questions about why I wrote the book, what my favorite Bay film is, and if there's any sort of sequel in the works.

What's your favorite Michael Bay movie? 

This is probably going to be clear to everyone who reads the book, but THE ROCK wins hands down. It's got one of the best premises that Bay's worked with, and probably his strongest cast. Sean Connery is basically doing a riff on James Bond, how do you not love that? Nicolas Cage is also the perfect counterpoint to Connery's character and there's a lot of smart writing in their dynamic. The dumb version of this would have been Connery as an unstoppable badass and Cage as the tag-along comic relief, but they're both fleshed out beyond that. It's also a stroke of genius that while Ed Harris is the antagonist, he's not a terrible person and you kind of feel sorry for the guy. There's a part of you that can really empathize with why he's taken these hostages and what he's after. It makes for a much richer story when characters aren't reduced to two-dimensions just to keep things easy on the audience. 

You can definitely make a case for some of Bay's films having deeper, more profound readings, but THE ROCK is the clear favorite.

Head over to Amanda's site for the rest of the interview.

As always, you can find the book on Amazon here.
For my blog post announcing the book, go here.