“Pain & Gain” finds the moral darkness in bright Miami sunlight

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It’s nice to see Michael Bay take a break from the destruction of massive cities, unrelentingly dumb Shia LaBeouf catchphrases, racist stereotypes, dumb-shit “-‘Merica!” shouting jingoism, perception of women characters as either stern sticklers or blatant sex objects, and the sight of swinging robot testicles. Seriously, I wish I was making this shit up, but when’s the last time you popped Transformers 2 in your DVD player?

Pain & Gain represents his first film outside of that franchise since 2005, but let’s not pop champagne bottles yet — the dude’s prepping the fourth installment to drop in under a year. Indeed, after choreographing all of that madness for three blockbusters straight, it’s hard not to see the appeal Bay identified in making a $22-million, largely dialogue-driven film — as sharp a right turn as any major American directors have taken in a while.

Bay’s gamble pays off. Keeping many of his worst tendencies in firm check, while applying his famous taste for the loud and the overblown to a true story whose message ends up lampooning these exact qualities, Pain & Gain is both his most mature film yet, as well as his most genuinely subversive.

Rather than dumbly championing American excess as he seemed to do with his Transformers entries, Bay takes a sharply critical eye to it with Pain & Gain. Full disclosure: sharp here does not mean subtle. He still paints in sweepingly broad strokes with pointed, blunt revelations and dialogue. But hell, dude, if Bay can’t change himself as a filmmaker — and after 18 years and billion-dollar grosses, it’s not happening — then why not champion the occasion when he pushes himself?

Based on a series of Miami New Times articles, Pain & Gain chronicles the generally true exploits of Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) — a 1990s bodybuilder who is constantly looking to push himself, citing the pursuit of his personal “American Dream”. Given his ex-con status and the limited social mobility of 30-something gym workers, however, Lugo doesn’t have many options. His weight-room friends, too, are in something of a rut — Paul (Dwayne Johnson) is an ex-cokehead and present-Jesus freak, and Adrian’s (Anthony Mackie) incessant steroid use have crippled him sexually. To fix their problems, these three sharp intellects cook up the plot to kidnap widely-disliked entrepreneur Victor Kershaw and torture him until he signs over his assets. When they manage to pull the job off and attain the luxurious lifestyles they’ve always wanted, their worst, most savage tendencies begin to come out — especially when Victor’s money runs out and they need to pull off another scheme.

It’s here where the film really begins to fly off the rails — as these guys begin committing more and more despicable acts and shoveling more and more coke into their noses, Pain & Gain transforms into a totally frenetic blur often approaching near avant-garde levels of delirium. Cameras fly through walls, cuts become more rapid and just about every character loses their shit. It’s here where the film’s status as “A Michael Bay Film” begins to genuinely work in its favor — using his famous eye for excess to capture a genuine sense of paranoia, helplessness and moral apathy. Given that our sympathies don’t really lie with any of the three protagonists, it probably helps that the film is fiercely funny throughout, with Bay rolling back his normal slapstick shtick. Dwayne Johnson is a particular revelation, giving one of the nuttiest, wildest, most committed performances of 2013 to date — equal parts religious teddy bear, coked-out thief, homophobic hulk and lovable dimwit.

Mark Wahlberg is in fine form as well, taking a break from his recent B-thriller output to go as all-out/gonzo/apeshit as anything he’s done since ’97’s Boogie Nights, a similar (if far superior) condemnation of excess and greed. The supporting cast is equally game, with players like Ed Harris, Rebel Wilson and Tony Shalhoub lending gravitas and hilarity where necessary.

Pain & Gain was something of a flop upon release (after a writing hiatus, I draft this with two months of hindsight), and it’s not hard to see why. This is a film that seems to actively take pleasure in pummeling its audience, with main characters too deluded and too dumb to realize that the “American Dream” they’ve chased is now something closer to a nightmare. Pain & Gain is a fascinating work of self-criticism —  taking many qualities critics rail against Michael Bay’s mega-watt blockbusters for, and applying them in a context where they’re not only thoughtful, but necessary. A-

Danny Boyle’s “Trance” a totally progressive neo-noir

The way many film theorists would have it, the film-noir genre died alongside studios’ penchants for black-and-white film-stock and audiences’ penchants for studios. I, however, don’t see it in such a cut-and-dry way. Yeah, while the surge of personal, innovative filmmaking in the mid-’60s rendered the genre outdated for a while — with its dastardly plots, femme fatales and seedy motivations — it has often returned in totally original, unexpected packages. Danny Boyle’s new work, Trance, is an especially strong case for this: while anchored in a genre well-known for its generally disposable, emotionless nature, this is a film that manages to find a strong emotional core amidst innumerable plot twists, motivation reversals and an editing style more akin to banging, kinetic music videos than typical feature films. It’s a candy-colored feast of noise and fury, but not without reason and not without center.

See, the film follows James McAvoy as Simon, a fairly charming London art auctioneer who happens to be mired in massive amounts of gambling debt. To wipe these out, he collaborates with a group of art thieves — led by Franck, played by the dependably excellent Vincent Cassel — to heist a Goya painting at his own exhibition. When Simon tries to double-cross them by stashing the painting somewhere for himself, however, Franck reacts in a fury and strikes him across the head. The problem? When Simon wakes up, he swears that he has no recollection of where he hid it. Once methods of torture prove ineffective, the thieves turn to the only remaining possibility — hiring Elizabeth, a beautiful, headstrong hypnotist (Rosario Dawson) to crack inside Simon’s memories and pull out an answer.

Trance from here on enters trippily subjective territory, with dreams, hallucinations, reality, and implanted memories all becoming faint suggestions of one another. Characters we come to identify with reveal themselves as monsters, while villainous figures end up among the more sympathetic of the bunch. Credit it to Boyle for crafting a masterfully confusing little thriller, until the ending, which manages to wrap up all flailing loose ends while still feeling a bit underwhelming. It’s here where screenwriter John Hodges abandons his tight grasp of characters’ traits and limitations — insisting on a pretty standard shoot-em-up conclusion, which feels odd for a script that so proudly celebrates the ability of film to navigate the subjectivity of human memory. Think of it as a scrappier spiritual sibling to Inception — and while it never reaches that film’s big-budget, brain-blowing highs, Trance manages to find the solid emotional core that Chris Nolan’s 2010 masterwork never quite could.

Indeed, Rosario Dawson’s hypnotherapist proves to be the most complex, resonant character of them all. This shouldn’t be surprising, given that she’s surrounded by thieves and liars, but in interviews both Dawson and director Danny Boyle have indicated that Trance is, among other things, a response to the often subordinate role of women in the modern thriller. By making a woman the beating core of Trance (without spoiling too much, a massive plot twist sees Dawson’s character assert her independence), the film even further makes headway for its genre. Trance‘s script is admittedly that of an average B-movie thriller, but by shooting it through a colorful Euro-art-trash lens and infusing progressive ideas into the mix (both technical and social), Danny Boyle gives it meaning, life, and noise. Lots of noise. B+

“The Place Beyond the Pines” a densely structured tragedy with massive scope and near-Greek ambitions

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A shirtless, vividly tattooed man is seen from the neck below. He nervously flickers a butterfly knife, pacing about until his name is called. He tosses on a leather jacket, lights a cigarette and treks through a neon-colored night carnival. The credits roll. He continues to pace. The credits end. He enters a tent to rapturous applause, boards a motorcycle, enters a narrow spherical cage with two other men, and rides at top speed with them; looping in, out, and upside-down whilst managing not to strike and kill one another.

And so with this singular, unbroken four-minute shot, The Place Beyond the Pines manages to boldly declare itself as a different beast from anything else within theaters, perhaps even the American cinematic canon at large. Indeed, this is a film that explores the relationships between family, violence, prosperity and masculinity with such skill and such insight, that it’s not hearsay to see this as a twisted companion piece to, say, The Godfather: Part II. Coppola’s 1974 masterpiece is a film playing with many of the same issues that Pines soaks in, if on a wildly different scale. In fact, I’d argue what Pines does is bolder. Have your attention now, do I?

Our aforementioned motorcyclist is Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling), an aimless, seedy young drifter who has inked his body to such an extent that we question both the events of his past and any hope for the future. When his traveling carnival makes a stopover in Schenectady, he is approached by the similarly unambitious Romina — a part-time waitress and old flame — with the news that their last encounter left her a child. Now tasked with the burden of fatherhood, Luke argues that he deserves a place in the boy’s life, and perhaps even in Romina’s heart again, although she’s moved on with another man. To provide for his self-appointed ‘father’ role, Luke turns towards robbing local banks. To reveal more is to do a grave disservice to the narrative ingenuity of Place Beyond the Pines, but the film additionally telegraphs the arc of an ambitious young police officer, Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), who makes a vital, split-second decision in the line of duty whose impact is felt for the remaining 15 years over which this film takes place.

The scope of the film walks an impossible tightrope — sweeping across decades to emphasize its core themes and thesis of long-term consequences and psychological burdening, while intimately detailing both the lush upstate New York environment and the utterly damaged individuals that dwell within. It’s bold and big, but the thoroughly fleshed-out characters ensure it never veers into the territory of opaqueness or overt symbolism. Writer-director Derek Cienfrance is far too skilled for that — staging masterful chases when they arise, but keeping in constant check any flashier tendencies or heightened aesthetic tricks. Why would he need them when he has the dynamic performances of Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, both of whom expand on their past screen-personas in a genuinely interesting way? Cooper takes his likable confidence and drags it into slimy, manipulative territory. Gosling, on the other hand, who has embodied confident machismo expertly with films like Drive and Crazy, Stupid, Love, does something that he hasn’t quite explored yet. His Luke is mired deep in conceptions of his own masculinity, but when forced to take responsibility and provide for a makeshift family unit, ultimately spirals out of control and into tragedy. For this exact reason — his use of movie-star charisma to communicate genuine human desperation — it’s the most complex, satisfying role of his young career.

For 140 minutes, The Place Beyond the Pines demonstrates itself as a work of complete stylistic and thematic unity. It is at once a haunting morality tale, meditation on legacy and family, and utterly thrilling heist thriller — when it wants to be, that is. In the long-term, we have a bold new cinematic auteur in Derek Cienfrance. But for now? The best crime drama in years will do. A