Film reviews: Pain & Gain | Upstream Colour

Michael Bay eschews character for carnage in a macabre true story that required a more considered approach

Pain and Gain movie

Pain & Gain (15)

Directed by: Michael Bay

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Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shalhoub

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It’s hard to think of a director who is simultaneously more suited and more inappropriate than Michael Bay to bring a movie like Pain & Gain to the big screen.

Inspired by a bizarre true-crime story from 1995 involving a gang of body builders who kidnap, torture and extort money from a wealthy businessman in a delusional quest to live out their idea of the American Dream, it’s a story that on one level appears tailor-made for his bombastic, vulgar, more-is-more filmmaking style. And yet the real life story, which took place in Miami and was chronicled by reporter Pete Collins and turned into a screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, almost feels like The Great Gatsby recast with vile morons, making it the ideal project to skewer everything Bay stands for as a filmmaker.

If viewing it in the latter light, Mark Wahlberg is certainly perfectly cast as muscle-bound, lug-headed protagonist Daniel Lugo. A personal trainer who attempts to become a self-made man via an unchecked belief in positive thinking, physical fitness and a God-given right to live life large, his outlook on the world has become so warped that it actually resembles his dreams of creating a reality for himself in which pumped-up action, ill-thought-out scams, fast cars and bikini-clad babes are the norm. Bay – who was just getting his start as a Hollywood director when this story was unfolding in real life – is, of course, preoccupied with making movies in which those elements have become the prime focus as he revels in orchestrating onscreen chaos.

Consequently, this could have made for a deliriously entertaining piece of meta-filmmaking, especially since the details of the real life case – in the way that Bay’s plots often do – beggar belief. As Daniel recruits fellow gym rats Paul (Dwayne Johnson) and Adrian (Anthony Mackie) to help him snatch local Florida businessman Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), their ill-thought-through plan results in torture, dismemberment, murder, drug addiction, fraud, deception and a police investigation almost as inept as their attempts to pull off major crime.

Unfortunately any hopes that Pain & Gain will be a sly critique of the pathological nature of American idiocy by Hollywood’s most high-profile, big screen proponent of it are diminished by Bay’s unwillingness to tread the fine line between satire and stupidity needed to make the film work properly. What he’s created instead is something that flits maddeningly between the two without really satisfying either impulse – a film that’s by turns too self-aware to be a dumb movie that’s accidentally clever, and not self-aware enough to be clever film pretending to be dumb.

This isn’t to say the Pain & Gain doesn’t have a few inspired moments: a title card reminding us that “this is still a true story” while a character attempts to barbecue some recently hacked-off limbs is funnier than one might imagine and Wahlberg’s delusional voice-over serves up some priceless throwaway lines that reinforce his character’s ignorance (at one point he remembers how the rich kids in his neighbourhood would go on holiday “to places like Paris and France”). For the most part, though, Bay seems content to revert to type, losing interest in the story’s genuine satirical potential and embracing instead its outlandish aspects as a way of delivering another load of overlong, overblown and over-stylized action carnage with impunity. The Transformers director may not be dealing with giant robots this time, but his hulking protagonists eventually serve a similarly mechanical function by destroying everything they touch and any character work Wahlberg and Johnson bring to their roles is eradicated by Bay as he ignores the bigger picture and resorts to battering us with ever more graphic examples of their toxic behaviour simply because he can.

In other words it’s all pain, very little gain and it’s hard not to come away from the film with the suspicion that Bay actually likes and identifies with these reprehensible characters precisely because they have no sense of self-control, something that Bay seemed to lose at some point after making The Rock. That film – his brash, high-concept summer blockbuster from 1996 – remains his most coherent and entertaining and it serves as a reminder that Bay wasn’t always a cinematic sadist.

As such, Pain & Gain feels like a missed opportunity for the director to, if not quite atone for, then at least comment on the way he’s debased blockbusters in the years since then by delivering explosion-filled action movies with a willful disregard for engaging stories. The only filmmaking muscles he’s really flexing here are the ones that demonstrate he’s a powerful director who is fully aware of his complicity in making things worse but is steadfast in his refusal to do anything about it. He’s more interested in pumping iron than irony.

Upstream Colour (15)

* * * * *

Directed by: Shane Carruth

Starring: Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig

Upstream Colour is the most singular film released so far this year. The second feature from Shane Carruth, the multi-tasking American filmmaker who caused a stir on the indie scene nine years ago with his time-travel-themed head-scratcher, Primer, it’s a similarly confounding work of brilliance.

It uses obfuscation as its primary narrative strategy to hide a sensuous, delicately constructed tale of robbery and revenge, one that explores big existential questions about what makes us the way we are within the framework of a story that incorporates hallucinogenic drugs, parasitic worms, ambient soundscapes, Henry David Thoreau’s classic Walden, and a farm full of pigs that seem to have some psychic connection to the victims of a strange series of identity thefts.

Carruth – who wrote, directed, shot, edited, produced and scored the film (and also takes one of the lead roles) – creates an elliptical mood from the off with a series of fluidly edited scenes that establish the existence of an organic larval narcotic that hijacks the cells of its users and appears to confer upon them strange consciousness-sharing powers that allow people to synchronize their bodies.

The drug is harnessed by a sinister man known only as “The Thief” who uses it to coax financial information from potential marks before robbing them blind and leaving them with no sense of what has happened. Carruth and Amy Seimetz play two such memory-ravaged victims, shells of their former selves inexplicably drawn to one another as they try to pick up the shattered pieces of their now destitute lives. Which is the point at which Upstream Colour gets really strange.

As Carruth introduces another odd figure known as “The Sampler”, a truly bizarre sequence of events follows in which pigs and humans become inextricably linked. With no clarifying exposition, Carruth has the confidence to let the film’s haunting imagery draw in the curious; their reward is a lush, deeply felt, very modern exploration of the need to find genuine connections in a cruel and (very) unusual world. But what he’s also done is make a film that cleverly and subtly mirrors his protagonists’ crises by forcing us to forget almost everything we know about film. It would be possible, for instance, to identify some of Carruth’s influences, but listing them doesn’t help get a handle on what the story is about or how it functions, something that makes this a true original.

The Way Way Back (12A)

* * *

Directed by: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash

Starring: Steve Carrell, Sam Rockwell, Toni Collette, Liam James, Allison Janney

Cut very much from the same cloth as Little Miss Sunshine and Adventureland, this coming-of-age story about a shy teenager whose life is changed over the course of a summer initially doesn’t so much feel universal as depressingly familiar. Stick with it, though, and what emerges is nicely crafted comedy/drama that is surprisingly astute in its ability to convey how mortifying it is to be 14 and unable properly to defend yourself.

That’s the problem affecting Duncan (Liam James), a teen who has been dragged on holiday by his divorced-but-devoted mother (Toni Collette) to her new partner Trent’s beach house. Trent, a modestly successful car salesman played with just the right level of bullying malevolence by Steve Carrell, has a tendency to humiliate Duncan, who in turn finds himself gravitating towards Owen (Sam Rockwell), the slacker manager of the local run-down waterpark who recognises in Duncan a kindred spirit and takes him under his wing. Writer/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash know that Rockwell is the film’s secret weapon (he’s so charming and funny it’s impossible not to fall for the film), but they layer in enough well-observed home truths to ensure it never feels like it’s coasting on the charisma of its cast.

The Moo Man

* * *

Directed by: Andy Heathcote, Heike Bachelier

The workings of a modern independent dairy farm prove surprisingly enthralling in this low-key documentary. Put that down to Stephen Hook, the Moo Man of the title, whose engaging presence as the stockman on a family farm that believes in providing a healthy environment for its cows, proves quietly inspiring. Struggling to stay afloat when the dairy industry runs at a loss so supermarkets can make a packet selling cheap milk, Hook provides us with an insight into the realities of the farming industry and the true cost of a pint of milk. The film follows him as he toils away. Frequently working 60 and 70-hour weeks, he’s still forced to rely on government subsidies to support his family, an indignity Hook rightly regards as unjust and which has prompted him to begin selling “raw” organic milk in farmers’ markets. But it’s the humane relationship he’s formed with his beloved herd that ultimately proves so moving and engaging.

One Direction: This is Us (PG)

* * *

Directed by: Morgan Spurlock

As someone who has sat through concert films featuring the Jonas Brothers, Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus and the cast of Glee, watching One Direction: This is Us is a breeze. That’s partly because this band of British and Irish X-Factor losers turned world-conquering pop sensations come across as a fairly likeable, down-to-Earth bunch of lads who have actual personalities rather than that type of nakedly aggressive ambition that makes so many of their American counterparts seem like fame-hungry automatons. But it’s also down to director Morgan Spurlock’s smart decision not to over-egg the Beatlemania comparisons. Instead he lets the hysteria speak for itself, as Twitter allows armies of “Directioners” to descend upon the group within minutes of being spotted out and about on days off from their intense touring schedule.

True, those who know Spurlock’s previous documentary work may rue the fact that he hasn’t used the opportunity to make a more subversive film about the corporate nature of a modern pop machine, but there are amusing moments nonetheless (Martin Scorsese in embarrassing dad mode as he takes his clearly mortified daughter backstage). Mostly, though, this is for the fans and to this end, it allows them to preserve the fantasy that the band still belongs to them.

Twitter: @aliharkness