The ‘American dream’ survives an armed assault.May 13, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 33 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Wildly successful movie directors often bemoan their successes and say they long for a time when they will be able to just make smaller and more personal films. Then they don’t.
George Lucas said it for decades after Star Wars, and yet, despite the fact that he could have paid for smaller and more personal films with the loose change in his multi-zillionaire pockets, somehow he just never got around to it. Now that he has sold Star Wars and his whole business to Disney for a cool $4 billion, maybe Lucas will. I hope so—at least for the sake of camp, because who knows what inadvertent comedy might emerge from the mind of the writer-director responsible for the worst line of dialogue in motion picture history (“Hold me, Anakin, hold me like you did by the lake on Naboo”).
The latest example of the “I need to make my passion projects” trope is Michael Bay, the unimaginably successful director of the three Transformers movies. For the last of those he earned—are you sitting down?—$125 million. Bay is the kind of person who was able to say, without any sense of shame, that he was moved to make Pearl Harbor in 2001 after having a really cool dream in which he saw how to film a Japanese bomb blowing up the USS Arizona and killing 1,177 Americans. His dream became that movie’s “money shot,” and the moviegoing public found the feast of destruction Bay was serving up somewhat disquieting: Pearl Harbor was a box-office disappointment.
Bay’s new passion project is a $26 million movie called Pain & Gain, and it does not speak well of Bay that its repugnantly comic depiction of a group of idiot psychopaths who torture and kill people is so personal for him. This overheated, overdone, overstimulated, overdrawn, overlong piece of garbage is based on a completely crazy true story—so crazy that it needs no embellishment. And yet, Bay cannot resist jumping up and down, waving at us, making sure we know he’s there with the slow motion and the fast cars and the strip clubs and the flashbacks and flash-forwards. All of it revels in the psychopathy of its lead characters and excuses their evil on the grounds that they had been fooled into seeking a shortcut to wealth by the false promises of the “American dream.”
The story is this: In 1995, a Miami businessman named Marc Schiller was kidnapped by four men who knew each other from a muscle gym. For a month, they tortured him and got him to sign documents divesting him of his property and goods. Then they set him on fire and ran over him with a car, but failed to kill him. The hapless Miami police were skeptical of Schiller’s story; only a respected private eye named Ed DuBois realized Schiller was telling the truth. The gang moved on to kill others before it was finally rounded up.
The movie version tries to turn this grotesquerie into a comment on the “American dream.” The ringleader, Daniel Lugo, is played as a kind of unholy innocent by Mark Wahlberg; all he wants is success, and he fixes upon Schiller, here called Victor Kershaw. The depiction of Kershaw is the true outrage of Pain & Gain. Tony Shalhoub plays him as a greedy, grasping, vulgar New Yorker with a giant Jewish star dangling from his chest who has Shabbat dinner with his family. “You know who eats salad?” he says. “Poor people.”
That Bay is himself Jewish does not excuse the stark anti-Semitism of his portrait of Schiller/Kershaw. Quite the opposite.
Now, it is true that Schiller ended up going to prison for Medicare fraud, though the chief witness against him was one of his kidnappers. Even so, there is no question that he was tortured for 30 days, that Russian roulette was played at the side of his head, and that he had a car driven over his head. Whatever Schiller’s crimes might have been, Bay had no moral license to make it appear as though Schiller somehow deserved the unspeakable torments to which he was subjected. Indeed, no one seems to argue in real life that he was anything but a decent husband and father—and someone who cooperated with authorities for years without a thought to the jeopardy in which he might be putting himself.
In the words of Pete Collins, the Miami New Times reporter on whose series of articles the movie is based, “Not only had Schiller demonstrated extraordinary courage and endurance in surviving the Sun Gym gang’s torture and attempts to kill him, but he later proved to be indispensable in prosecuting the case against his captors.”
Familiar premise (art heist) meets tired device (amnesia).Apr 22, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 30 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Trance has to be judged one of the great disappointments in recent cinema, given that it is only the second movie Danny Boyle has made since Slumdog Millionaire. That Oscar-winning worldwide smash may have been the best film of the past decade.
4:49 PM, Apr 4, 2013 • By DANIEL HALPER
President Obama released the following statement on the passing of film critic Roger Ebert:
The busy life, and the busier television schedule, call for desperate measures.Mar 4, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 24 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Someone living in Barack Obama’s America, circa 2013, says these words to you: “I’m so behind.” In previous epochs—say, the Age of Lewinsky, or of disco—this might mean any number of things. A person might have failed to collate the year’s receipts for his accountant. Another might not have completed the longitudinal analysis necessary for her dissertation. A third might not have cleaned out the attic.
No longer. In Barack Obama’s America, those words refer to only one thing: the inability to keep up-to-date with a serialized television program.
There are bumps along the way, but Les Misérables is worth the trip.Jan 14, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 17 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Les Misérables grabs you by the lapels from the first moment and never lets you go. In this respect it is little different from the stage musical from which it derives—and not so different from the Victor Hugo novel from which the stage musical derives.
Brilliant cinema in the service of one-size-fits-all faith. Dec 24, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 15 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
"This story will make you believe in God,” says the title character in Life of Pi, the visually ravishing adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2001 bestseller. Apparently, Barack Obama himself thought the same thing of the novel: “an elegant proof of God,” the president called it in a note to Martel.
An impressive rendition of nothing at all. Oct 15, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 05 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
When a movie receives rave reviews from critics who say they need to see it again to understand it fully, you should treat such a recommendation as though you were Will Robinson from the old 1960s TV show Lost in Space hearing his friendly robot companion as it flails its accordion-like arms and shout
Philip Terzian, the non-moviegoerOct 15, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 05 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
I recall an interview with William Faulkner in which he said that he didn’t read books but read in books, the distinction being that he seldom consumed a volume from start to finish but preferred to stick his toes in here and there, read favorite chapters over and over, proceeding from finish to start if necessary.
Calculating the price of obsession. Oct 15, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 05 • By STEFAN BECK
"What really matters,” said Rob (John Cusack) in High Fidelity, “is what you like, not what you are like. Books, records, films—these things matter.”
Sometimes the trip back to the drawing board is worth the trouble.Sep 24, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 02 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
A new zombie movie called World War Z starring Brad Pitt and budgeted at $150 million won’t be coming to your local multiplex anytime soon, even though it was originally supposed to premiere this Christmas. Nor will the sequel to the G. I. Joe movie I’m sure you didn’t see, which cost $125 million and was due for release in June. And there’s a martial arts film with Keanu Reeves called 47 Ronin, which no sane person over the age of 9 would choose to see, originally set for theaters this year—and not in theaters this year.
Chu thumbs up!2:31 PM, May 18, 2012 • By DANIEL HALPER
Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Physics, takes to Facebook today to review the Avengers, a movie about a bunch of superheroes banding together to save the world, “which focuses on a new, limitless clean energy source called ‘The Tesseract,’” according to Chu.
1:32 PM, Aug 10, 2011 • By MICHAEL WARREN
Did the Obama administration compromise intelligence and sensitive military information by giving a Hollywood director high level access to details of the killing of Osama bin Laden? That’s what Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, wants to investigate.