Nine years ago today, I conducted an experiment in masochism. The particulars are explained well enough below, so I’ll not offer no additional retrospective preamble. Enjoy my pain.
In the summer of 1998, my partner-in-all-things and I were vacationing in Colorado. As we’re prone to do, we took some of our spare time to go and see a movie. Since we were in the mood for something fun and light–a junk food movie, if you will–we ventured to a nearby theater and saw Armageddon, Michael Bay’s third feature and his follow-up to the flawed-but-mindlessly-entertaining The Rock.
My old colleague in movie criticism once talked about the sensation of so loathing a movie while you watch it that if the director happened to be sitting next to you in the theater you would feel compelled to spin around and punch him (or her, but disproportionately him) square in the face. That’s exactly how I felt watching Armageddon. I despised it and despised Michael Bay for making it. As I finally, blessedly left the theater, I swore I would never again watch a Michael Bay movie. Ten years later, that pledge is retracted today in the most brutal fashion I can imagine.
Since Armageddon, Michael Bay has directed four features: Pearl Harbor, Bad Boys II, The Island, and Transformers. Today, I’m going to watch them all. In succession. And I’m bringing you all with me, live-blogging all the way.
I’m planning to post regularly as I go, definitely after each film with a few observations scattered throughout. Keep watching this space. Unless the general critical consensus about Bay’s artistry is off-base, today is going to get ugly.
9:39 a.m.: Ten minutes into Pearl Harbor and it’s already piled up a bunch of scenes that feel as phony as an Oscar with Josh Hartnett’s name engraved on it. Alec Baldwin has had one scene thus far and his acting is spectacularly, beautifully, deliciously awful. He’s in that breathy, quickly rhythmic mode that would eventually morph into the genuinely wonderful happy-self-parody that is Jack Donaghy.
10:24 a.m.: Bay just unspooled his first significant action set piece, a dog fight over the ocean. Considering one of my major complaints about Bay’s work is his tendency to cut his film up like confetti and reassemble it in a nonsensical manner (there are sequences in Armageddon that are practically subliminal in their capability to actually convey information), it actually held together fairly well. The subsequent boxing match that introduced Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s character was a horrid mess, though. The cloyingly portentous music score is so bad, I had to look up who was the perpetrator of it. Hans Zimmer. Of course.
11:01 a.m.: Colm Feore is playing Admiral Kimmel with such a mannered approach that it’s a little like he’s playing the military man as a transmogrified duck.
11:10 a.m.: Dan Aykroyd (as a member of military intelligence) is being saddled with all the most impossible lines, such as this moment, reading off a communique: “‘Broken relations — hostilities imminent.’ But where?” It should be no surprise that his acting acumen isn’t enough to pull those lines off with any authority.
11:25 a.m.: Most directors use slow motion to enhance their storytelling or to highlight certain important moments. Michael Bay uses it because he’s in love with his own image construction. Watching the empty spectacle of the actual attack on Pearl Harbor, which is somehow devoid of any sense of real urgency, is reminding me of how much I actually hate — genuinely hate — the way he puts together movies.
11:57 a.m.: This thing is so fuckin’ long (and pointlessly so) that I have to switch to a second DVD to see the end of it.
12:01 p.m.: Man, Michael Bay sure loves shooting the wheels of F.D.R.’s wheelchair. “I like sub commanders. They don’t have time for bullshit and neither do I.” This screenplay is astounding.
12:09 p.m.: “There’s only one more thing I can tell you — keep your goddamn hula shirts at home.” And so Alec Baldwin reenters the picture.
12:41 p.m.: Kate Beckinsale is getting passed around between the two leads like a bong in a Cheech and Chong movie.
12:43 p.m.: DONE. One down, three to go. (Three more? Ohmygod, what have I done?) Here’s a key problem with Michael Bay as a filmmaker, illustrated painfully by this film: he has no apparently ability to differentiate between the tone and construction of specific scenes. The love scenes, military planning scenes, debates inside the White House, quiet moments between characters — all are put together with the same bludgeoning, overly orchestrated approach that’s suited to the big action set pieces. It leads to such a monotony of style that even those action scenes start to feel drained and dull. And when half of the three hours — three hours that are ungodly in their endless feel — are turned over to grandiose, Titanic-styled romance, he fares even worse because he seems to have as clear of an understanding of human emotion as a Vulcan might. It’s also worth noting that I never thought I’d see a worse Alec Baldwin performance that the one he gives in The Juror. I laughed harder at him here than I do in the average episode of 30 Rock. And I think he’s pretty damned funny in the average episode of 30 Rock.
12:57 p.m.: “Ecstasy Lab — Amsterdam.” And so we begin Bad Boys II.
1:03 p.m.: So far, we’ve already got Henry Rollins as a narcotics officer and Will Smith and Martin Lawrence undercover at a Klan rally. Oh boy.
1:08 p.m.: There was just a “funny” exchange about Martin Lawrence getting shot in the ass. Yeah, it’s time for beer.
1:31 p.m.: Now this sequence is so typical of Michael Bay that I half expect his signature to get drawn electronically across the screen at the end. It’s a car chase that’s so frenetically edited, poorly staged and filled with shots that are so awkwardly framed that it’s borderline indecipherable. “That one almost puckered up my butthole,” Will Smith just announced. Who says we’re not in a golden age of screenwriting?
1:48 p.m.: These cops make Dirty Harry look like Leo Buscaglia.
1:56 p.m.: Bad Boys II has already had an embarrassing assemblage of horrid and exploitative depictions of women, and now it’s added an incredibly offensive scene that generates its humor by having a store full of people misinterpret a conversation between Will Smith and Martin Lawrence as a discussion of especially rough gay sex (this calls back to the part where Lawrence got shot in the ass). The structure of the joke was old and stale back when it was getting used on a Three’s Company episode some thirty years ago. That also seems about the era that the stereotypical gays who watch and comment on the conversation would be considered at all acceptable. Bay’s films have previously been bad, poorly put together, insipid — but I don’t recall them being hateful and derogatory. How about that? A new low!
2:20 p.m.: When a character from the opening sequence in brought back into the film, Bay felt compelled to insert a flashback explaining his identity. This despite the fact that completely clear exposition had already done that less than five minutes earlier.
2:37 p.m.: And here’s a lovely scene in which Lawrence and Smith viciously harass a fifteen-year-old boy who has shown up to take Lawrence’s daughter on a date, including Smith shoving a gun into the boy’s face. And punctuated by a another joke predicated on the horrors of homosexual intercourse. So charming.
3:21 p.m.: DONE. Two out of four complete. Only halfway. Unbelievable. Pearl Harbor at least provided some amusement in its pretentious ineptitude, but Bad Boys II is numbing in its generic bang and clatter. Most of the character moments or, god help me, comic relief inserted between the carefully calibrated explosions are mindless at best, reprehensible at worst. I saw the first Bad Boys upon its release and can remember nothing of it now. Hopefully, the defense mechanisms within my mind will promptly provide the same generous excavation with the sequel.
4:00 p.m.: After a brief break to walk the dogs and, yes, soothe my wounded brain with a brief dose of Arrested Development, I begin The Island.
4:14 p.m.: Ewan McGregor just threw a little tantrum talking to one of the staff members running his highly controlled society. To be fair, he’s right. White is impossible to keep clean. I’m hoping this movie winds up being nothing but a science fiction quest to get more bacon. Now that’s a promising premise.
4:30 p.m.: It’s nice to see that the ultra-futuristic holodeck styled gaming system that the residents of future city play comes complete with a gigantic, fully-recognizable X-Box logo.
4:52 p.m.: Uh oh. Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson just discovered the set for Coma 2: Futurecoma. That’s going to generate some concerns for them. Considering action sequences are supposed to be Bay’s expertise, he sure stages some boring chase scenes.
5:02 p.m.: Unless they offer some further clarification later, the explanation just offered for why the “products” played by McGregor, Johansson and others are brought to life instead of just stored away in the pods where they begin makes no sense at all. I’m not expecting this to have the verisimilitude of a documentary, but, Jesus, at least come up with a premise that can hold up to its own internal logic.
5:13 p.m.: Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson just walked by an abandoned motel with graffiti on it that says “LIFE SUCKS.” I would like to add “…especially if you decided to watch approximately two-thirds of Michael Bay’s directorial filmography in a single sitting.”
5:18 p.m.: Bay clearly finds the Three’s Company mix-up humor combined with gay panic jokes absolutely hysterical, because here it is again. Quite an enlightened guy, our director.
5:26 p.m.: “I know you’re new to this whole human experience thing, but there’s one universal truth: you never give a woman your credit card.” Ha ha! Seriously, does this guy think he’s making a movie in about 1960?
5:39 p.m.: You know what livens up a highway car chase? Dropping big, heavy things off a moving Mack truck. Bay apparently liked it so much when he did it in Bad Boys II that he brought the trick back in The Island. Does he have no shame? Or, is it that he has no recognition of his own redundancy?
6:18 p.m.: It’s especially painful when Bay starts to infuse some intellectual pondering into his work. The little dribs and drabs of existential debate and shadows of genuine instances of man’s inhumanity to man don’t sit very well next to the empty-headed science-y fiction that fills the rest of the film. There’s plainly nothing he’s ever done that earns him any moral standing to include Holocaust symbolism into his work.
6:28 p.m.: DONE. Three out of four complete. Part of why I could never be a studio head is my incapability to predict that this would be Bay’s least successful film at the box office. “Well, it’s awful,” I’d say, “But so are his other ones. This’ll be a blockbuster, too, I guess.” The premise is so generically sci-fi that the film holds no surprises whatsoever. You start to just feel bad for the actors, especially Johannson, whose sole approach she can take to the character is to look at the world, to borrow from Bill Hicks, like a dog that’s just been shown a card trick. Bay’s directing isn’t as much of a shattered mosaic as it’s been previously, but the action scenes are still as diffused as the yolk in a plate of scrambled eggs.
7:08 p.m.: Time for Transformers. Let’s finish this.
7:33 p.m.: Transforming robot cars can help you pick up girls. Whadya know?
7:37 p.m.: On the other hand, the car could use a little more creativity in picking songs to impress the girls. “Baby Come Back” when she’s walking away? Sheesh.
7:56 p.m.: That giant scorpion robot is sure tough. I’m running out of things to say about these ridiculous movies.
8:04 p.m.: I’ll give this to Shia LaBeouf: he’s the one person in this movie who’s delivering acting in reasonable accordance to a world in which malicious transforming robots suddenly showed up. Meaning, he’s totally freaked out. Of course, as I type this he’s switched over to being pretty comfortable with the robots, so maybe I made that observation too quickly.
8:37 p.m.: John Turturro shows up and decides he’s going to play his government agent character like Jesus Quintana without the accent. Of course, when a major gag involving your characters consists of getting pissed on (sorry, “lubricated”) by one of the Transformers, I suppose there’s no reason for subtlety.
9:09 p.m.: I suppose these battle sequences are impressive to somebody, but they just look like an indecipherable scrub-brush tangle of CGI to me. Michael Bay certainly makes long movies.
9:30 p.m.: DONE! Oh my god. To be fair, taking this material and making it into anything that reasonably approaches quality is inconceivable. Warring robots in space, fighting over a cube that holds the “All Spark”? A fleet of evil robots zipping around yelling “All hail Megatron”? If this is your raw material, creating a modern classic is beyond the capabilities of anyone’s moviemaking alchemy. Transformers is what it is and it’s difficult to conceive of anything more pointless than my complaints about it having an intellectual heft the equivalent of the storylines that ten-year-old jabberjaws came up in the backyard tractor tire sandbox when Hasbro spat out the original toys. This thing made enough people yell “awesome” in the theater that it was an overwhelming hit. I’m a-okay being on the outside looking in when it comes to the Transformers fan club. More than meets the eye? Not really.
THERE…I did it. I feel a little like someone installed a radio tuned between stations inside my skull, but I did it.
Now I think I should go read a book for awhile.