The Director’s Chair – Michael Bay

For the first couple entries in this series, I spotlighted filmmakers who are universally praised as among the best to ever step behind the camera.  Now, let’s take a look at a filmmaker with a somewhat different reputation in Hollywood.  Director Michael Bay is, putting it lightly, a divisive filmmaker.  On the one hand, he’s prolific, efficient, and has a distinctive style that sets him apart in the field.  On the other hand, he’s also brash, a show-off, and indulgent to the point of inanity.  Oftentimes, he’s labeled as the poster child for what is wrong with Hollywood, with his movies often being panned by critics for the crime of being overstuffed with Bay’s own unrestrained style.  But, at the same time, Michael Bay can’t just be dismissed as just another bad director.  The truth is, he does have talent as a filmmaker; it’s just not always focused on the right things.  He does know how to create eye-catching images, utilize complex on set special effects to spectacular effect, and more remarkably he manages to keep his movies under budget and on schedule.  That last aspect is probably what has kept him in good standing within the industry, because they know that he can deliver a product without worry.  And his films for the most part continue to reach an audience, even if they do appeal to some of humanity’s lowest cultural aspects.  His indulgences prove to be a blessing and a curse, as they allow his films to stand out, but also spotlight his sometimes not too appealing personal tastes.  All of this makes him a fascinating individual overall, and as a filmmaker, it’s interesting in seeing how his career defines the distinctive line between those who are storytellers and those who just make movies.

Bay himself is an interesting case of how Hollywood grooms talent over time.  After earning his degree in film-making from Wesleyan University, Bay made a quick rise within the industry, cutting his teeth on commercials and music videos.  His “Got Milk?” ads in particular launched him to national attention, which eventually led him to being assigned to direct a Will Smith vehicle called Bad Boys (1994).  From their, he made a steady stream of blockbuster hits including The Rock (1996), Armageddon (1998), and the sequel Bad Boys II (2003).  He also was assigned by Disney to helm their Titanic (1997) copycat Pearl Harbor (2001), which itself was deemed an indulgent failure.  But, it wouldn’t be until he teamed up with producer Steven Spielberg that he would find the production that would ultimately define his career in a nutshell.  That project was Transformers (2007), a movie that showcases all the good and bad aspects of Michael Bay as a director.  It’s a well constructed, but emotionally hollow and obnoxiously indulgent film, that mirrors exactly the kind of person that we imagine Michael Bay to be, and sometimes are confirmed as much by his own actions.  Essentially, what we see in Michael Bay is someone that has been shaped by the industry, instead of himself shaping it.  He has become a workman who fulfills the obligations that are placed in front of him, but never once pushes to do anything beyond that.  And the sad truth is that because of this, he has limited himself as a storyteller.  One wonders what kind of filmmaker he might have been had he not skyrocketed so quickly, and had been trying to hone his skills for years in order to gain notoriety.  It might of meant he would have taken far more risks over the years, instead of just returning to that Transformers well again and again.   In this article, I’ll be looking at the different aspects that define Michael Bay the filmmaker, and see how they represent the good and the bad throughout his career.



If there is one thing defines Michael Bay as a director, it’s his very clear love for mayhem on screen.  Whether it is overblown pyrotechnics, or whiplash quick editing, or CGI enhanced screen filler, he definitely tries to fill every frame of his movie with activity.  This use of cinematic overkill has even been given it’s own term called “Bayhem,” owing it’s namesake to him specifically.  While Bayhem does illustrate the directors prowess on a technical level, it is often the thing that many people also hate about him as a filmmaker.  It may seem like so much activity on the screen helps to give the movie more epic weight, but oftentimes, it purely just numbs the audience down when it’s done way too much.  It’s cool seeing an explosion happen for the first time, but when it’s the ten one you’ve seen in a row in one action sequence, then it just doesn’t feel special anymore. Truth be told, nobody films an explosion better than Michael Bay.  Utilizing multiple camera set ups and a variety of tricks like slow motion, he can turn what was a quick explosion on the set and make it feel much bigger on screen.  Some spectacular instances of this include actual pyro blasts set off on real WWII era warships in Pearl Harbor, as well as the desert fight out in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009).  But, again, after you see one, you’ve seen them all, and too many in one film diminishes the returns over time.  The unfortunate result of Bay’s success, is that other filmmakers mistakenly believe that more “Bayhem” is exactly what their movies need too.  You see this in Transformer clones like Battleship (2012) and series reboots like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) and Power Rangers (2017).  The problem is that no amount of onscreen eye candy can fix a hollow story-line, and Bay’s problem is that he often puts visuals ahead of narrative.  It’s overall a mistaken belief that a static screen creates a boring scene, and that more thing going on within the frame will correct that.



Every filmmaker has certain motifs that they like to return to over and over again, and Bay has his own as well.  If there is something that you can easily spot consistently throughout his movies, it’s the use of American iconography.  Bay steeps his films in heavy patriotic fervor, so much so that his movies are often criticized as being too “flag-waving” and sometimes even propaganda.  It’s not a bad thing necessarily to showcase the country you’re from in the best possible light; that’s his prerogative as a filmmaker.  But, again, like his use of cinematic mayhem, too much use of it eventually makes it feel hollow by the end.  Bay’s films are often carry over the patriotism further than what’s in the movie.  The American flag has been used several time as a background for the advertising of his movies, including the less reverential Pain & Gain (2013).  The only other filmmaker who uses the flag as much is Oliver Stone, but his intentions with the American flag are often meant to be ironic.  Still, Bay makes American iconography stand out in his movies, not just with the red, white, and blue, but also with it’s landscapes and landmarks.  He even set a whole movie within a famous American landmark with the Alcatraz set The Rock.  Perhaps Pearl Harbor demonstrates his Americana motif more than any other film, as it portrays everything about the places and people of it’s setting in a larger than life way.  The movie also demonstrates the very cozy relationship that Bay has with the armed services of the United States.  In exchange for a positive portrayal of the American military apparatus, Bay gets special access to film his movies with authentic military equipment and on location on their bases as well.  Some would say that makes Bay a propagandist, but at the same time, Bay is not deceitful in this aspect either.  He respects military men and women and tries to give them as heroic a portrayal as he possibly can.  One can’t fault his attraction to this motif, just the effectiveness that he utilizes it.



If there is something that I can definitely praise Michael Bay for as a filmmaker, it’s his expert use of ‘magic hour” in his films, and his almost obsessive devotion to it.  For those who don’t know what “magic hour” is, it is the brief late afternoon span between say 5 and 7 pm when the lighting of the sun is just right to give a filmed image a distinctive, cinematic glow.  If a film is shot any earlier than than, like at “high noon” when the sun is at it’s brightest, everything will appear too washed out.  Michael Bay’s style has become unique in the industry because of how well he uses this “magic hour” to effect in his movies.  In fact, if you look at his entire filmography, you can easily see that the majority of his scenes are filmed in the “magic hour.”  Even morning scenes appear like they were shot in the late afternoon, just to give the movie the consistent look that Michael Bay desires.  And, for the most part, it works very well.  In the magic hour, Bay manages to balance light and dark in a more appealing way than it normally would if he shot the scene fully lit.  It also gives his movies a distinct feeling of atmosphere that also elevates the viewing experience.  In movies like Bad BoysThe Rock, and a few of the Transformers, he often uses “magic hour” as a way of conveying warm temperature, steaming up a scene to give his characters that extra element to work with.  It also gives Bay’s films an interesting hue of color that makes them feel distinct; not over-saturated with extreme high contrasted, but not washed out and pale either.  The only time I see the technique not used is in the night time scenes, which themselves are lit in a way that blends together with the “magic hour” moments.  So, despite Bay’s more unfortunate directorial choices, this is one that has actually benefited him as a filmmaker, and I hope that it’s a discipline that can extend to improve his other techniques.



One of the negative aspects of Michael Bay’s post-Transformers career trajectory is that it has made him far more reliant on CGI than he ever was before.  One wishes he would show more restraint and try more in camera effects like he had earlier in his career, because those scenes at least play to his strength as an expert in shooting pyrotechnics.  But, with Transformers, he began to look at CGI enhancement as a way of eliminating the middle man and giving his movies epic scale without ever having to set up the shot the normal way.  The unfortunate problem with this is that Michael Bay can’t compose a CGI template shot the same way that he can a practical effect.  He likes to move the camera around too much, and that impacts the way that we experience the CGI effect on screen.  Too often now we see his movies putting a lot of CGI activity on the screen without it ever leaving an impact on us.  The frantic camera movements combined with the overly animated effects also spotlight just how unreal the effects look as well.  You can tell that a lot of work went into creating the models of Optimus Prime and Bumblebee, but we are never able to get a satisfyingly close look to appreciate them.  And Bay’s continued insistence on using CGI more in his movies often has the end result of looking cool, but never actually feeling cool.  This problem stems as far back as Armageddon, which itself suffered from too high a reliance on CGI effects.  Oftentimes, you couldn’t tell what was going on in a scene, especially when the characters are on the asteroid itself, because Bay never stops to let us appreciate the work.  My guess is that Bay is continually fascinated by the limitless potential of computer enhanced imagery, but he’s never picked up on learning the subtle applications that can make it work better.  Like everything else in his movies, it’s more mayhem masquerading as art.



One other major complaint that Michael Bay has faced with every film is his serious lack of appealing characters.  In many ways, Bay likes to imagine every character in his films as an extension of himself.  They are often eccentric, cocky, have an air of superiority despite never earning it, a bit nerdy, and very self-involved.  Not all of Bay’s characters are unappealing though.  I found myself very much enjoying the quirkiness of Nicholas Cage’s Stanley Goodspeed and the cockiness of Sean Connery’s Mason in The Rock, and the trio of Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, and Anthony Mackie in Pain & Gain also proved to be a winning combination of Bay “bros.”  But, his style of characterizations only work when there is some other factor to balance them, like a more natural performance from a co-star or a supporting player.  But, when every character in the movie is cocky and brash, and very, very Bay-ish, then the movie suffers.  This is the big problem with the Transformers movies, because every character is an archetype, or even worse, a stereotype, which only makes them annoying and not redeeming.  The character of Sam Witwicky (played by Shia LaBeouf) may in fact be one of the least appealing characters ever committed to cinema, purely because both Bay and LaBeouf mistakenly thought that defining his character as this cocky, self-absorbed nerd would actually click with audiences.  It’s a bad sign when your main character is so unlikable that he’s completely written out of the series with no explanation.  Unfortunately, Witwicky is only one of a wide range of poor character choices on Bay’s part.  There has to be a balance of diverse personalities to make your cast of characters appeal to all audiences, but when you fall in love with only one type of personality (even worse, one that mirrors yourself) then you alienate large sections of your audience that are put off by that personality, and that’s an unfortunate defining aspect of Michael Bay’s films.

Michael Bay is certainly unique within the industry, which I guess is a triumph in of itself.  He manages to continually deliver large scale productions, but is often condemned for being too self-indulgent.  Nevertheless, one cannot take away the fact that he has skill as a filmmaker, at least when it comes to the production side.  For someone who creates these massive scale productions, it is pretty remarkable that he’s able to deliver them on time and under-budget nearly consistently.  One wonders if a messier, more craft obsessed approach might have made him a better storyteller.  His style is still distinct and surprisingly influential.  I’ve talked about the Bay affect on action films today, which has varying degrees of success.  Bay even has some surprising fans out there, including an arguably way better director like Edgar Wright, who cites Bad Boys II as one of his all-time favorite movies.  Wright even pays homage to the Michael Bay style with his spoof movie Hot Fuzz (2007).  I won’t lie; not everything that Michael Bay has made has been terrible.  I often find that he’s at his best when he’s working outside of his element.  One of his best films is the little seen and very underrated The Island (2005), which has Bay working with a complex sci-fi concept and centering it around characters played by Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson that are not cocky and are actually worth caring for.  I kind of think that Bay missed the opportunity to improve himself as a filmmaker by latching on too quickly to success.  If he had been brought through the ringer in order to make it into the industry, he might have turned into quite an accomplished storyteller given his skill with the camera.  Instead, he’s become a product of the industry, someone there to churn out new product without ever taking any risks.  That’s why he continually keeps making the same movies over an over again, because he doesn’t want to disrupt his flow of work.  But as we’ve seen, a detour into the unknown has benefited him before.  In the end, he is a divisive figure in the industry, because he is the very representation of the mundane in the Hollywood machine.

Cars 3 – Review

You know the saying of Newton’s Law that “everything that goes up must certainly come down.”  That applies almost without question to the world of cinema as well.  The Pixar Animation studio has enjoyed one of the strongest track records that Hollywood has ever seen.  Starting with the beloved Toy Story films of the late 90’s, and continuing through to the mid 2000’s, Pixar really looked like they could do no wrong.  Everything they touched seemed to turn to gold, no matter how peculiar the premise of each story was.  It’s really remarkable that they can take oddball concepts like a rat who wants to be a gourmet chef, or a senior citizen who makes his house fly with a million balloons, or a love story between two robots in a post-apocalyptic world and turn them into beloved animated classics.  But, somehow for over a decade, the Pixar brand was one that signified quality, and unparalleled success.  And then the market changed.  In a way, Pixar has become a victim of it’s own success, because with the run that they had for so long, the pressure likewise grew for clearing the bar that they set so high for themselves.  Not only that, but the studio was also received increased pressure from their parent company Disney to produce sequels to all their big hits, in order to keep those lucrative brands going for many more years.  Because of all that pressure, Pixar has made an effort to shift gears and devote their time and money to making future adventures with their most beloved characters.  That unfortunately has led to an era of inconsistency with Pixar’s output of films.  While they sometimes still manage to deliver sequels that everyone embraces (Toy Story 3 and Finding Dory), others are also met with a level of disappointment from fans (Monsters University).  Thus, we see Newton’s law play out, as the once infallible company is now suffering through a pitfall of lowered returns on their time and effort.

No where is that more evident than with the very divisive direction that they have taken with what is now the Cars franchise.  The first Cars was a generally well liked film from both fans of Pixar and the general audience.  Set within an alternate world where humanity is replaced with sentient vehicles, who exist in a parallel society like our own, the concept was a novel one for Pixar and it helped it to stand out.  While in no way one of their all time greats, it was still a beautifully constructed feature that represented the craftsmanship of the studio at it’s best.  But what is probably most surprising about Pixar is how well it performed as a brand.  Movie grosses aside, Cars surprisingly has become the most profitable film that Pixar has ever made when it comes to merchandising.  You’d be hard pressed to visit any Toys R’ Us or toy department in any store and mall across America and not find at least one product branded around this movie.  The characters of Lightning McQueen and Mater are seen everywhere, even when there is not a movie out to cross-promote with them.  It’s because of that highly profitable exposure that Disney has pressed Pixar even harder to churn out more movies in this franchise, whether they wanted to or not.  Because of this, we now have a trilogy of movies, created over an 11 year span which is just insane for the usually meticulous studio (keep in mind, 11 years is the same number of years in between Toy Story 2 and 3).  The downside of pushing out sequels this quickly (not to mention the existence of the Planes spin-offs) is that the lack of quality control, as Pixar isn’t allowed the time to carefully craft a story as they are fond of having usually.  So, what ended up happening was that the beloved first Cars was followed up with a very lackluster sequel in Cars 2 (2011), which became the first critically panned film in the studio’s long history.  Their perfect streak was over, and what went up now was preparing to come down.  Since then, Pixar has attempted to right the ship, acknowledging the failure of Cars 2, and this year, we see them returning to the franchise to in a way make amends.  The only question is, did it work?

For those who are looking for a follow-up to the plot of Cars 2, you won’t find it here.  Cars 3 is more in line with the continuity of the first Cars, and 2 almost seems to be deliberately forgotten altogether in this film.  We find Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) at the top of his game as a multi-race champion on the professional racing circuit; enjoying the spoils of celebrity status along the way.  While still making his home-base in the small town of Radiator Springs, where his best friend Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and his girlfriend Sally (Bonnie Hunt) show him love and support continuously, Lightning continues to travel the world, facing little challenges along the way.  That is until he’s beaten in a race by a flashy new rookie race car named Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), who’s been equipped with the latest technology that makes him almost impossible to catch up to on the track.  Feeling intimidated by this new arrival, Lightning pushes his body to the limit, which unfortunately causes him to crash during a race, breaking both his body and his spirit.  Seeing Jackson Storm sit on the throne that once used to be his causes Lightning to try to compete once again, but this time trained with the same high tech gadgetry that benefited Jackson.  His corporate sponsor Rusteze takes on new corporate management under a flashy, corporate car named Sterling (Nathan Fillion), who teams Lightning with a new trainer, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), who we learn is just as new to the world of racing as Lightning is to technology.  Over time, Lightning and Cruz form a bond as they both seek answers to the directions of their lives.  In a way, Lightning finds it as they take a pilgrimage to the stomping grounds of his old mentor, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman, voiced through archival audio), where they encounter Doc’s old trainer, Smokey (Chris Cooper), who helps the duo train the old fashioned way.  But, is it enough to beat Jackson, and is Lightning ready to continue the life he had before, or see a different way.

So, in many ways, this film is a return to basics for the Cars franchise.  It’s less of a mindless side story that Cars 2 turned out to be, and more of a continuation of themes that the original had begun, becoming far more of a character driven story centered around Lightning McQueen.  But, does that make it any better than Cars 2.  Well, yes and no.  There is a big issue that I had with watching Cars 3, and that is the sad reality that I just didn’t care what was going on in  the story.  For the first time ever watching a movie made by Pixar, I felt absolutely nothing upon seeing it.  That’s pretty much unheard of for this studio.  This is the company that specialized in being able to draw a variety of emotions from it’s audience.  People wept openly in screenings of Up (2009) that I went to, after witnessing that now legendary opening montage.  Not only that, but Pixar’s films are almost always laugh out loud funny and edge of your seats thrilling.  Cars 3 was about as uninspiring as I’ve ever seen a Pixar movie ever get.  It’s about as involving to me as any sub-par History or Travel Channel series that I’ll put on TV as background entertainment while I’m working or cleaning up my apartment.  It just lies there, filling time that I could have better spent somewhere else.  Despite this, though, it does nothing offensive either to garner any significant hatred either.  My disappointment with the movie really is just in lamenting how pointless it all is.  Keep in mind, I hated Cars 2 as well, and it might generally be a worse movie overall.  But, it still got a feeling out of me regardless, even if that feeling was pure distaste.  Cars 3 just feels like the first Pixar movie ever made to me that doesn’t feel like a movie at all.  It’s that tedious feeling that made me really feel in the end unsure about the future of Pixar as a brand.

First of all, I have to stress exactly why this movie is a failure, and that’s mainly due to the lazy execution of the story.  In a way, every Cars film has been derivative of some other film.  The first Cars was an exploration of the hot shot from the city learning the homespun values of the countryside motif that Hollywood has revisited many times over the years.  In particular, critics pointed to the Michael J. Fox film Doc Hollywood (1991) as a direct inspiration for the plot.  Cars 2 was a spoof of spy films from the 60’s, particularly with James Bond and Alfred Hitchcock’s “wrong man” thrillers, shifting focus away from Lightning McQueen and onto the sidekick Mater.  Cars 3 borrows it’s plot from a lot of comeback sports stories like the Rocky sequels.  Now being derivative is not a problem as long as you provide your own unique spin on it.  The first Cars did just that, making it feel fresh and not overly familiar.  Cars 2 was too dumb to ever work as a genre throwback, or a movie in general.  The extra insult of Cars 3 is that it take it’s tropes and just plays them out to the letter, diverting in no way in order to make it feel unique.  No matter what plot point the movie threw my way, I just knew how it was going to play out, because I’ve seen it all before.  The mentor/student relationship, the shenanigans that befall our hero through training, the inevitable final race showdown; it’s all too familiar.  There is even a moment where the character Cruz Ramirez reveals to Lightning her childhood dreams and how she had to abandon them, and I knew right away that this was an obvious set up for the finale.  And sure enough, the movie followed that playbook exactly.  Pixar is a studio that very often subverted expectations with it’s storytelling, or at least were able to hide the cliches well enough to make us not care about them.  Here, we can clearly see that this was a story that was not thought through with the same kind of care, and was purely slapped together to quickly role out into theaters, never once offering the audience a challenging and provocative experience.  Pixar’s storytelling was once the exception, and now, it’s fallen into mediocrity, feeling as generic as everything else that Pixar once stood proudly over.

In general, it’s the blandness that I disliked the most from this movie.  I want my Pixar movies to be something special, and this one was not in any way.  But, at the same time, it doesn’t insult the series itself like Cars 2 did.  I think still stands as Pixar’s worst film, just because of how purely it used every minute of it’s run time to be aggressively obnoxious.  It was loud, in-your-face, and thoroughly pointless.  It also made the huge mistake of relying too heavily on the talents of Larry the Cable Guy as the voice of Mater.  Mater is best used in small doses, and to it’s credit, Cars 3 does reel back the character significantly.  Mater only appears in a handful of moments, as does most of the supporting cast of the first movie.  It may not be such a big loss, but I do miss some of the character interactions that made the first Cars such an appealing narrative.  Lightning’s relationship with Sally is sadly minimized here, which was such a major part of the first film’s appeal, and that’s a waste of the talents of someone like Bonnie Hunt, who should be in this more.  The newer characters in general are a mixed bag.  I unfortunately didn’t care all that much about Cruz Ramirez.  She’s not an offensively misplaced character in this story, but her journey was so uninspiring and cliched that it just never endeared her character to me.  Jackson Storm is an even more uninteresting new player in this movie, and probably the blandest villain Pixar has ever made.  He never inspires menace or charisma; he’s just an empty shell.  Some of the secondary characters fare a little better.  I particularly liked Chris Cooper’s Smokey, who makes a great stand-in for the very much missed Doc Hudson.  There’s also a great bit with a maniacal school bus named Miss Fritter (voiced by Orange is the New Black’s Lea DeLaria) in what is probably the movie’s only stand-out scene, as Lightning and Cruz find themselves stuck in a demolition derby.  Good characters ultimately lift up lackluster material, and sadly there are just not enough of them for this movie.

One other positive that I will say for this movie is that while it doesn’t feature the usual finesse of story-telling that has defined other Pixar movies, it still manages to hold up in the visual department.  It may not be the most groundbreaking and visually resplendent Pixar movie to date, but Cars 3 still represents the fine craftsmanship that sets the studio apart.  The backgrounds in particular are really beautiful in this movie.  The filmmakers clearly know how to create a sense of atmosphere in these movies, and that becomes particularly impressive given how frequently this movie moves around in setting.  While the novelty of a car-based world has worn off from the first movie, I still like taking in the small little details that the movie puts into each of it’s environments to show the little car-based twists on familiar everyday objects.  When the movie allows itself to slow down and have us take in the scenery, it’s when the movie works at it’s best.  This includes beautiful recreations of places like a sunny day at a coastal beach, or a fog-filled day in the valleys of the Great Smokey Mountains.  You can tell that the movie benefits from the advances that Pixar has made over the years with movies like Brave (2012) and The Good Dinosaur (2015) in trying to accurately capture the feeling of experiencing the great outdoors. The first Cars was a step forward in that process, but Cars 3 looks more advanced, with regards to how the scenes are lit, exposed, and textured.  It is certainly a beautifully looking film; I just wish that this artistry was attached to a better story.  At least it shows that while their story-telling talent is suffering, it’s animation and environmental development departments are still firing on all cylinders and showing off what they can really do.

So, again, this movie does little to make me care any more for this franchise.  The damage done by Cars 2 was too severe, and Cars 3 does very little to make a u-turn for this series.  And honestly, is this really a series worth saving.  The first Cars worked fine on it’s own; it was a simple story about rediscovery set within a unique alternate world.  Unfortunately, the success of the merchandising around this film has caused Disney and Pixar to abandon their high standards in a pursuit to exploit this world for more money, and that makes every sequel and spin-off feel like a cynical cash grab.  And that’s something that I just don’t want to see a company like Pixar fall into.  They made it their mission to always put story first, and Cars 3  seems very much like the exact opposite of that.  They should’ve recognized long ago that they have explored all that they needed to explore with the first movie.  I’m not saying that sequels from Pixar are a bad thing; Finding Dory was quite good and Toy Story 3 is an outright masterpiece. But, when you go into a movie that bears the Pixar name, you should expect something that is going to movie you in some way, and Cars 3 never once did that for me.  I just sat in the theater feeling nothing, and that in itself made me feel upset in retrospect.  Is it possible that Pixar abandoned it’s high standards for a cynical cash grab.  Solid recent efforts like Inside Out and Finding Dory make me hopeful that this is just a speed bump in Pixar’s track record, just like Cars 2 was, and that they’ll be back strong with their next effort; the very promising Coco (2017) which comes out in November.    Until then, Cars 3 will unfortunately represent another down-point for the company.  I wish I never would have had to see the day when Pixar failed to illicit any emotion out of me, and now that it has passed, I hope that it never comes around again.  Everything that goes up inevitably comes down, but the best thing about gravity is that nothing is meant to stay down either.  Pixar has fallen, but it can easily come back up again.

Rating: 6/10

From Mockery to Moonlight – The Long Road for Queer Identity in Cinema

The month of June holds the now honored position of being devoted to celebrating Pride for all members of the LGBT community.  It’s a celebration that is largely about coming together as a united community, with both those who identify as gay or straight expressing support for one another, but it’s also about looking back and honoring the progress that it took to achieve not only an identity in modern society, but also a level of respect and recognition.  The sad reality is that for far too long, homosexuals were ostracized and marginalized by society, and were often actively suppressed by the powers that be; and still are in some parts of the world.  The largest part of the LGBT struggle is to find that fleeting level of acceptance, both on the personal level and on the societal level.  It has gotten better over the years for some, as most stigmas surrounding gay people have thankfully been disappearing and people are finding broader acceptance from friends, family, and society in general.  But there is still a lot more work to do before the gay community can finally gain full acceptance.  And a large reason why there is still a ways to go is because gay people are still struggling to find a level of dignity surrounding their representation in society.  A lot of gay people unfortunately still fall victim to certain degrees of misrepresentation, and remarkably it stems from a source that has also long been an ally of the gay community; Hollywood.  While movies, television, and other media has been helpful in changing peoples minds about the gay community, and the Hollywood industry has shown strong support to gay people through their charity and support, the industry is also still responsible for perpetuating damaging stereotypes and misconceptions as well.  So, while Pride Month is a source of celebration for many, it’s also a reflection over what still needs to be done, and an important aspect of this is finding more progressive ways to represent themselves in media in general.

A more dignified representation from Hollywood is certainly something that the gay community cares about, because so many within the community are avid fans of cinema themselves.  Even when there was still a stigma surrounding homosexuality in the culture at large, a lot of gay people did manage to find a sense of community around their love of cinema, and it was a unifying element that helped to connect one another around something positive in a time of overwhelming prejudice.  But, due to restricted cinematic representation for so many years, few if any queer role models emerged in order to make gay individuals feel included as a part of society at large.  For the longest time, gay men often found their role models in iconic Hollywood actresses like Elizabeth Taylor, Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, and in particular, Judy Garland, because they appealed so much to the community’s attraction to the glamorous, the extravagant, and also the camp in cinematic art.  But, the gay community’s attraction to this aspect of cinema was largely a result of the lack of any other representation for the longest time.  Lesbian and Trans people have had even less in the way of respectful representation or role models.  Because of social stigma, the only times Hollywood would touch upon the subject of homosexuality in movies or other media would often fall into the categories of exploitation or ridicule.  It actually is only a recent phenomenon that queer cinema has actually achieved a true mainstream acceptance in our culture.  Until now, the notion of queer cinema has either faced ridicule, misunderstanding, or just complete ignorance.  But, the question remains is how decades of misunderstanding affects queer film-making and representation going into the future, and how does the gay community resolve their changing identity in cinema after defining it for so many years on the fringes.

For the longest time, the biggest struggle for the gay community with regards to cinema was just achieving an actual identity in general.  Because homosexuality was a social taboo for so long, Hollywood either tip-toed around the existence of gay people in society, or just ignore it completely.  It’s not like there was no gay people around in the early days of cinema, but because the studios knew that they often had to market their movies to middle America and Bible Belt audiences who take a very hard-lined stance against homosexuality, there was a concerted effort at the time to exclude openly queer characters in their movies.  Sometimes a queer character might appear on screen, but it was often either to act as a foil for the hyper macho marquee star (the effeminate tailor from James Cagney’s Public Enemy), or there to act as a clown to humor the audience (the photographer from Ginger Rogers’ Lady in the Dark).  The hyper puritanical post-war years nearly wiped away any queer representation in cinema completely, as religious leaders became more involved in the control of content coming out of Hollywood.  The Hays code put strict restrictions on a variety of taboo subjects, but chief among them was any reference to alternative sexual identity of any kind in society.  Even sympathetic films aimed at normalizing queer characters in movies had to do so in a way where they couldn’t outright address the issue.  The 1956 film Tea and Sympathy, directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Deborah Kerr, attempted to touch on the issue, but it instead depicted it’s central character of Tom Lee (John Kerr) as “sensitive” and not gay.  Though things did loosen up during the end of the Hays code era and the beginning of the counterculture 60’s, the damage had already been done to the gay community, who for the most part, had largely disappeared from cinematic representation entirely.

The unfortunate result of any attempt at the time to reestablish a queer identity on the big screen was that it was often met with instant ridicule.  Because of little to no exposure for so many years.  Gays had become so marginalized that any exposure in society at all was a foreign concept to audiences unfamiliar to it.  When social taboos started to break down, gays were once again acknowledged on the big screen, but in a way that often pointed out how novel they were.  Oftentimes, it would manifest in some not so positive portrayals of gays meant to generate laughs from audiences (like the ballroom dance fight from Blazing Saddles) or generate unease from a deep dive into the seedier side of the community (the leather bar scene from Cruising).  The unfortunate result of these types of portrayals was that it perpetuated the idea of homosexuality as being not normal in society; that it was a bastion of the weird and the perverted in contemporary culture.  Though gay people benefited from actually being acknowledged again as real people once again in cinema, they unfortunately had to contend with this new identity as being seen as “the other” in society.  The sad reality is the misconception on Hollywood’s part in thinking that this was actually a progressive move on their part.  But what they saw as inclusionary, the gay community saw as exploitative.  Their culture was not one to be singled out for intrigue and mockery, but one that should be seen as legitimized as part of the normal human experience.  It was insulting to think that homosexuality was just something that people on the fringes of society indulged in.  When one of the few queer themed films made by Hollywood at the time ended up being the Redd Foxx film Norman…Is That You? (1976), where the comedian plays a father attempting to set his openly gay son (played by Michael Warren) right, then you can see why the gay community felt frustrated with the industry that they held close to their heart for so long.

Thankfully, at the same time, an underground independent queer cinema arose to fill the gap that Hollywood was leaving empty.  Filmmakers like Kenneth Anger and John Waters arose to create what we know now as early Queer Cinema, creating movies that finally not only touched upon issues pertaining to homosexuality, but openly celebrated it as well.  Not only that, but their movies also purposely pushed many buttons, establishing a new defiant identity for the gay community.  Their films came at a time when the Gay Rights movement began to gain exposure in American society, and their movies were perfect expressions of a class of people who were fed up with being ignored.  You can clearly see this in John Waters’ first couple features, Multiple Maniacs (1970) and Pink Flamingos (1972), both of which are visceral attacks on all social norms and a defiant defense of the weird and perverse to exist freely in society.  In his way, Waters made social progress by relentlessly assaulting the notion of normal, and questioning whether or not one thing is ever worthy of that mantle.  His movies also made the first real concerted effort in cinema to give identity to trans people as well, with drag queen Divine becoming a surprising breakout star from appearing in Waters films.  But, even still, Waters and others like him worked on the fringes of Hollywood, having to work independently in order to remain true to their visions.  But, through underground success, Queer cinema did get embraced and Hollywood did take notice.  Waters did bring his camp filled vision to the mainstream with Hollywood productions like Hairspray (1988) and Cry-Baby (1990), which somehow maintains the director’s style despite a toning down of his more vulgar indulgences.  It helped to convince Hollywood to take a chance on queer themes in the future, which thankfully pulled away from the depths of ridicule.  Unfortunately, Hollywood still had a way to go before it would fully understand how to speak to and accurately address the concerns of the gay community fully.

During the 80’s, the AIDS epidemic hit it’s high point, and that led to a crisis of identity for the gay community going forward.  Just beyond social acceptance, gay people now had to contend with the added stigma of living with a widespread disease that was unfairly blamed on them.  Again, the stigma of being social outcasts was laid upon the gay community, and the struggle to tell their story became even harder.  One common unfortunate result of the stigma placed on the gay community was that there was a growing disconnect with regards to the view of masculinity.  During the 80’s and parts of the 90’s, hyper masculine males were seen as the ideal in Hollywood, with the likes of Stallone and Schwarzenegger dominating the box office.  What this, pressure was put on actors to adhere to this ideal, whether they were straight or not.  It was not a new ideal, but one that hit an apex in the blockbuster era, and in this time, it put enormous pressure on Hollywood to keep the status quo going.  But, with the AIDS epidemic, you saw a crack in the macho image that Hollywood was perpetuating, when masculine actor Rock Hudson suddenly died from the disease, and it was discovered that he had indeed been a closeted homosexual this whole time.  This exposed Hollywood to a new awareness of how poorly they had been looking at the gay community, showing that they themselves had perpetuated the damaging stereotypes and misrepresented the community as a whole for far too long.  In time, they began to listen more to the complaints of gay audiences when they objected to how they were portrayed in the movies.  After complaints about the representation of a transsexual serial killer in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), director Jonathan Demme chose to make amends with his next feature Philadelphia (1993), a groundbreaking and sympathetic portrayal of a gay man living with AIDS, and fighting for his dignity after losing his job because of it.  It was a small gesture, but a move in the right direction, with Hollywood finally showing a true, un-filtered portrayal of real gay people in society.

The road to acceptance has been steadily getting better ever since, though not without some unfortunate roadblocks in the way.  You still get the occasional tired and cliched “gay panic” routines in some lazy comedy movies (particularly from Adam Sandler’s repulsive Happy Madison productions).  There’s also the occasional “coded queer” sidekick character that is mainly there for comedic effect in some movies.  I honestly don’t know if anybody finds them that funny anymore.  Truth be told, recent years have finally made it okay for gay characters to not only exist within a film, but to also to be considered as part of the normal fabric of society.  Regular occurring gay characters are nothing but a positive now in movies, and even better, are now expected.  There is still an issue, however, of Hollywood trying to understand the best way to address the troubled history of queer representation in cinema.  Sometimes it even manifests in too much acceptance.  There have been some Hollywood films that go too far the other way, and portray queer characters as these fragile little things that need their protection.  That is clearly not how gay people want to be treated in society.  Gay people want support and acceptance; not pity.  It’s an aspect of some so-called “progressive” films made within the system that I find troubling, culminating with Hollywood’s biggest attempt at Oscar-baiting the issue with Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005), a topic that I want to address separately in an article in the future.  Where Hollywood’s efforts are best served is in supporting not just a queer identity on the big screen, but also within the community at large.  Whenever a queer actor or actress wishes to live openly, support that, and don’t marginalize them by defining their careers by their sexuality.  Also, allow queer filmmakers to be as flexible as they want.  It’s a strong sign where gay filmmakers like Bryan Singer can work queer themes into unexpected areas like superhero movies (X-Men for instance) and have it feel natural.  Hollywood should know by now that society’s attitudes have changed, and part of that evolution is and has always been within their power.

What ultimately shows us today that things have changed for the better is how mainstream queer representation has finally become now in modern media.  No more are we seeing gays ostracized as something abnormal, but instead, just as common as every other grouping in society.  You sometimes lament how much of film history was wasted trying to ignore the existence of homosexuality in general, or trying to put it down as something out of the ordinary.  But, given how some parts of society are still actively trying to hurt the members of the gay community, it’s nice to see that they have a committed ally in Hollywood.  I think there is no better sign of progress than the unexpected triumph at this year’s Oscars for the film Moonlight (2016).  Though made by a heterosexual filmmaker, the film nevertheless represented the best mainstream portrayal of the internal struggle of identity that gay people face when growing up that we’ve seen from Hollywood to date.  It didn’t try to do make any other grand statement other than helping people understand the psyche of the every-man gay person in society, and how often the internal struggle manifests into negative actions due to having such a fractured and marginalized identity.  I think that the subtlety of it’s message helped to keep it underground for so long, and that’s why it’s win at the Oscars took so many by surprise; even to the presenters themselves.  Moonlight‘s win was so rewarding because it didn’t feel like an empty gesture on Hollywood’s part; it was genuinely earned, beating out the heavy favorite La La Land (2016) in the process.  Moonlight’s Best Picture win is the best sign yet of Hollywood finally showing full, dignified acceptance of queer cinema, but there’s still a lot more to do.   At least now, there are plenty of cinematic portrayals and role models to satisfy those who have struggled to become comfortable with their gay identity; including yours truly (sorry for burying that lead).  It’s been a long road to reach the end of this rainbow, but as we look back during this Pride Month, it’s clear to see that Hollywood has made considerable progress in giving their devoted queer fan-base the support and dignity that they deserve.

What the Hell Was That? – Catwoman (2004)

For the longest time, one of the toughest shells to crack in the film industry was finding that breakthrough superhero movie that centered on a female heroine.  The struggle to make it work shouldn’t have been that hard, considering the wealth of fantastic female characters in all sorts of media, but Hollywood itself has unnecessarily been hedging their bets a little too much over the years.  The problem has been rooted in the fact that the industry still holds on to the out-dated notion that male and female audiences value different things when it comes to cinema.  Sure, there are films that only cater to audiences of certain genders and are made specifically with the purpose of hitting those demographics.  But there is a sizable audience in between that can appreciate one or the other.  There are a lot of men who like romantic, feminine centered dramas or comedies, and there more than enough women who enjoy a good action film.  Comic books find that the same is true.  I know plenty of women who love comic books just as much as men do, and the comic book industry has it’s fair share of female artists and writers who are making an impact on their own.  It’s not a boys only world as much as Hollywood seems to think it is.  So, why has it taken this long for Hollywood to actually invest in a superhero movie with a woman at it’s center?  It largely comes down to not having enough faith in the audience, political timidity, and a lack of understanding about the comic book medium in general.  But, most of all, it’s a perspective that’s driven by money, and the mistaken belief that female superheroes are not marketable the same way that their male counterparts are.

That’s all about to change with the long awaited release of DC’s Wonder Woman.  Not only is the movie expected to have a strong opening weekend, but the film is also earning rave reviews; which given DC’s track record up to now, is really unexpected and pleasantly reassuring.  Finally, we have a movie centered around a female superhero that actually lives up to the potential of the character, and doesn’t feel like a cynical ploy by the studio to appeal to a target audience.  It’s an earnest adaptation of a long established superhero, treated with the same care and respect as would be devoted to her male peers.  And it’s long overdue.  The reason why I think that this new Wonder Woman movie is succeeding, more than anything, is because of the lack of cynicism.  You can look at the movie and see that it was made with the best of intentions by it’s filmmakers, and not as an obligation nor as a grand statement.  She gets her own story told the way that suits her character the best, and because she’s on an equal footing with Batman and Superman, her story gets the same treatment.  That’s something that even the recent Superman and Batman reboots haven’t been able to achieve, so it’s a real testament to the character and her fan-base that such a success could be possible.  But, Wonder Woman‘s road to reality has been a shaky one, and there have been a lot of other failed attempts to bring a feminine presence to the superhero genre.  Of all of them, none managed to mismanage a female heroine worse than 2004’s Catwoman, a mind-boggling misfire that not only ruined an iconic character, but also completely dismantled any progress towards successful female driven action films for some time, and is a prime example of the very cynical approach by Hollywood that Wonder Woman sought to avoid.

To call Catwoman a superhero movie is doing a disservice to the genre.  It bears no redeeming value as either a comic book adaptation nor as an action movie in general.  Even it’s roots in the source comics is non existent.  There’s no way you can look at it and see it as anything other than a cynical attempt to reach an audience that the studio clearly didn’t understand.  But, why did this movie become ever come into existence in the first place.  It was a long, windy road called “development hell” that led to a monstrosity like this.  After Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992) brought a revised version of the character to the big screen, people began to show interest in her appeal as a cinematic icon once again.  Though Batman Returns received a mixed reaction from audiences and critics alike, Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance as the feline villainess was highly praised.  So much goodwill came Catwoman’s way that talk immediately started of a spinoff movie centered around her.  Unfortunately, even after receiving the green-light from Warner Brothers, the project languished for years, with both Burton and Pfeiffer dropping out of involvement and several rewrites and revisions being made to various script drafts over the years,  Eventually, the project dropped into the lap of a French visual effects producer named simply Pitof, who managed to land then recent Oscar-winning actress Halle Berry into the title role.  So, a long gestating film project finally got off the ground, but as we would soon learn, it was a project that probably should’ve been scrapped long ago.  It released into theaters in the summer of 2004 to almost universal derision.  People across the board hated it; critics, comic book fans, casual fans, and especially female fans.  For many, this wasn’t just a misfire, but a betrayal; to both a beloved character and to their hope of a successful movie that centered around a female super hero.

First of all, I would just like to point out how badly this film fails as a movie in general.  It is an ugly movie to look at, and represents many of the unnecessary excess that usually defined films of that era.  In the late 90’s and early 2000’s, we saw a lot of fresh new filmmakers experimenting with some of the new technology that was being made available.  That’s why you would see a lot of Hollywood films in this transition period of time using excessive amounts of CGI to make what they perceived as “cooler” and more exciting action scenes.  Unfortunately, not everything can be The Matrix (1999), and what we saw from this era was a lot of unappetizing eye candy.  Catwoman was a perfect example of that, with action scenes brought to incomprehensibility thanks to poor direction and obviously artificial visual effects used as a way to patch up the shoddiness of it all.  The film is notorious for how bad the CGI looks in several scenes, to the point where it’s clear that the Catwoman on screen is just a digital model and not the actress herself.  Other movie at the time did a far better job of switching between real people and digital stand ins when called for in a effects driven scene (the Lord of the Rings movies for example), but there’s nothing seamless here.  The movie even makes the mistake of getting up and close to the digital models, showing how not real they really are.  In addition, director Pitof uses a distracting soft focus throughout the movie, making everything feel texture-less.  It’s garish and unflattering, especially on the actors faces, and makes just sitting through the movie a chore.  And, like a lot of other pot-Matrix movies, the movie makes you all to aware of it’s film-making style.  Not a single scene in this movie is framed naturally, with dutch angles, slow-motion photography, and extreme lighting ruling much of the cinematography here.  Thank God Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005), with it’s more restrained style, was right around the corner, or else we would be getting more super hero movies that looked like this.

The cast itself doesn’t fare much better.  Halle Berry in particular just feels lost in the role.  Truth be told, it’s not really her fault, because the movie never allows her to be more than just model around in costume and act like a cat.  And believe me, this movie is relentless with it’s cat puns and innuendos.  The way I see it, Halle Berry might have taken the role thinking that it would be an empowering character and dignified hero, but only realized too late that the film was sadly fetishizing the character as a way of making her more appealing.  As a result, you get a rather uninterested performance from Ms. Berry, who clearly is just waiting out the clock so that she could collect that paycheck and put this sad experience behind her.  But, sadly for her, audiences didn’t forget.  Her performance as Catwoman has unfortunately cast a dark shadow on her career, one that I think she still hasn’t moved beyond.  She rarely headlines feature films anymore, and if she does, it’s usually made outside of the Hollywood machine.  It’s hard to believe that one bad role can set back a career that harshly, but that seems to be the case with Halle Berry and Catwoman.  And it’s something that shouldn’t just be laid upon her shoulders alone.  The remaining cast, including a very forgettable male lead played by Benjamin Bratt, and an embarrassingly over the top Sharon Stone as the villain, are even worse in the movie.  At least when called to do ridiculous things like running catnip across her face and eating cat food out of the can, Berry still goes for it.  I’d say the terrible direction crosses over into the depictions of the characters, and makes them innately unlikable, even despite modest efforts from the actors.

But, the movie’s biggest fault comes in the cynical nature of it’s creation.  To talk about the toxic nature of the film’s central theme, we have to address the sometimes touchy subject of feminism.  Now, I am a male writer who can in no way claim to be an expert on the subject of feminist issues.  All I want to do is to observe how Hollywood touches upon feminism and, in many cases, fall way out of line on the subject.  Feminism may not always be a topic at hand when it comes to adapting movies from comic books, but it certainly becomes one when Hollywood attempts to appeal to a female demographic that takes the genre very seriously.  There is definitely a disconnect between Hollywood and female audiences as to what constitutes a feminist identity in both narrative and production.  What Hollywood might see as empowering, feminists might see as condescending and offensive.  That’s something that very much defined the awkward portrayal of Catwoman.  When the filmmakers redesigned the character, for example, they sexualized the character to an uncomfortable degree, making her have more in common with a whip cracking dominatrix than a crime fighting do-gooder.  Now, to be fair, Catwoman has always been a character that has used her sexuality to her advantage, but here the subtlety in her portrayal is entirely dropped .  What the filmmakers saw as a strong, independent female in charge of her sexuality, feminists saw as a cynical ploy to use the character as a object of desire for male audiences.   By putting so little emphasis on her story and identity beyond that, you just spotlight the sexual nature of the character and it diminishes her to merely a tool for arousal.  That’s why the movie failed to appeal to a female audience, because they could see right through the cynicism, and rightly observed this as just another example of Hollywood not understanding their issues.

But to make matters worse, the movie has the gall to declare itself as an empowering, feminist movie.  There is a moment in the film where Berry’s Catwoman seeks answers from a mysticism expert, played by Frances Conroy.  She asks her why a history of female heroes who have been granted powers from felines over the centuries has been largely ignored, and the expert merely blames that on “male academia.”  That’s right; this movie’s feminist statement basically boils down to “women are great, because men are dumb.”  This is a clear minimalization of feminist ideals and is an insult to their cause.  It’s something that I found annoying in the recent all female Ghostbusters (2016) reboot as well.  Just like in CatwomanGhostbusters’ idea of declaring power for women is to knock down all the male characters around them and make them look weak and petty.  Now, like I said, I’m no expert on feminism, but I can safely say that this is not what the movement is all about.  Feminism is not about declaring superiority for one’s gender; it’s about demanding equal rights and respect in a society that doesn’t value women enough, and seeing that all women should have an equal footing with their male peers in all fields.  Taking cheap shots at men only diminishes what feminists are trying to accomplish, and as a result, it just motivates the men who have been a target of their ridicule to lash out back at them.  That’s the reckless and idiotic form of feminism that both Catwoman and Ghostbusters proudly claim for themselves.  It’s probably not a coincidence that both were directed by men who proclaim that they understand the plight of women.  Suffice to say, their help has not made things any better.

That’s why this new take on Wonder Woman is such a breath of fresh air.  It makes a concerted effort to appeal to all audiences, while at the same time taking the portrayal of her seriously, both as a icon of the comic book medium and of feminism.  And it thankfully pulls the concept of a female driven superhero film out of the dark shadow cast by the failure of Catwoman.  It’s safe to say that Catwoman is an example of the worst things that a superhero can be; whether it be female centered or not.  It’s cynical, garish, and just unappealing in every way.  And even worse, it represents just how little faith Hollywood can sometimes have for it’s audience and how little they value the issues that matter to them.  For years, female comic book fans have been clamoring for an honest portrayal of a heroine that could hold their own in this male-dominated genre.  Up until now, they’ve only been able to remain satisfied with their Princess Leias, and their Ripleys, and their Furiosas, all of whom are great heroines on their own, but who could never be seen sharing the screen with the likes of Batman and Superman.  Catwoman only compounded the problem, making Hollywood think that female driven super hero films were bad for business for a long while.  But, as we’ve seen, it’s not the heroines themselves that make the movies fail, it’s the lackluster executions of their stories.  A Catwoman movie could have worked if she was treated with a little more respect and dignity.  We’re thankfully heading in that direction now, finally.  Wonder Woman shows that female super heroes can succeed at the box office and hold their own, and hopefully it opens the door for other feminine heroes just like her.  Even Catwoman managed to find a better life outside her own movie, when Christopher Nolan included her in The Dark Knight Rises (2012), as portrayed by Anne Hathaway, showing that the character is still a valued one.  The only good to come from 2004’s Catwoman is that it now serves as a cautionary tale of how not to make a female super hero movie, and let’s hope, for the sake of other female super heroes waiting in the wings, that they don’t fall into the same, toxic trap.