Reviews

Too Much Is Never Enough in 'Pain & Gain'

Michael Bay’s frenzied, kaleidoscopic, dumb-ass magnum opus arrives on Blu-ray just in time to flex menacingly at The Great Gatsby from across the DVD aisle. The American dream lives on.


Pain & Gain

Distributor: Paramount
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shalhoub, Ed Harris
Studio: Paramount
UK Release date: 2013-12-23
US Release date: 2013-08-27

“I believe in fitness,” announces Mark Wahlberg’s Daniel Lugo in the opening scene of Pain & Gain, in the midst of his downfall before the film flashes back to a few months earlier, in order to communicate the true context of his indignity. The syntactical likeness to The Godfather’s opening line works regardless of intent; this is a film about America, and Lugo’s eagerness to cram everything positive about the American dream -- self-reliance, success, limitless potential -- into the convenient metonymy of blasting his pecs ultimately keeps satisfaction at bay.

The delusion only works if it’s wrapped up in something intangible, unattainable. After tripling the customer base of Sun Gym and ending up top dog in the weight room, Lugo remains a poor hustler will a prison record. And they still call the biggest guy at the gym a rat.

The lurid, psychotic deluge of bad decisions that trigger one another keeps Pain & Gain’s plot spilling out like a sickening ride downhill in a car with the brakes gone, so difficult to believe are the exploits of Lugo and his partners in crime. The botched attempt at the perfect crime that ropes in the film’s antagonist, Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), in which Lugo and his cohorts Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) and Doorval (Anthony Mackie) kidnap Kershaw and force him to sign over all his assets, would have been enough to sustain a feature film on its own.

But too much is never enough, especially not in the world of characters who have replaced all positive values with “winning” and the smokiest, most primal notion of getting. In the third act, when Lugo’s ego truly seals his fate and that of his partners, and all pretense of trying to get away with it go out the window, a caption slams across the screen: “This is STILL a true story.”

The auteurist argument for Pain & Gain is an easy one, but it’s not particularly interesting. Recurring Bay themes pop up here and there, albeit mostly in the form of small penis jokes or homophobic non sequiturs. “Steroidal” actually does his direction justice, with relentless whip pans, dollies, and crane shots making up the elaborate mise-en-scène that simply can’t sit still, like a late scene where Lugo, waist-deep in a crime scene, rushes to do a set of bicep curls to calm himself down.

Pain & Gain doesn’t work as a sort of Rosetta Stone to Bay’s career, illuminating deeper concerns that were there all along. Rather, it illuminates that freed of the obligations to choreograph mass destruction and storyboard boxing matches between giant robots, Bay remains a gifted visual stylist, one who keeps the story of the Sun Gym gang pulsing along at a pace so manic, our instincts tell us that a violent crash waits just around the corner.

What’s the net gain of a film like this, at first glance a morass of ugly cynicism built around the conceit of mocking lunkheaded, reprehensible sociopaths by installing A-list actors for a dash of empathy? Their victim, Kershaw, reeks of prejudice and sleaze from his first scene in the gym, so the audience even lacks the basic satisfaction of rooting for a good guy. The lone positive character in the narrative is Ed Harris’s P.I., who functions purely as a plot device. Even after his first confrontation with Lugo, the crooks never act as though there’s a noose around their necks.

The train of horrifying mistakes chugs along, emitting billowing clouds of cocaine. Call it bad plotting, but the treatment of Detective DuBois feels totally in step with the universe that the Sun Gym gang inhabit. He’s there, but like a faint echo, or a ghost, imported from some other reality where morals exist -- and so does contentment.

Glimmers of Bay’s take on The Master emerge in scenes featuring Ken Jeong’s cameo as the infomercial-worthy motivational speaker Johnny Wu (“Believe you deserve it the universe will serve it!”), who serves as a clear inspiration to Lugo and fuels his desire to become a “winner”, whatever that means. The stars and stripes wave perpetually in the background, a cheap ironic device that posits the Sun Gym gang as products of a culture placing so much emphasis on illusory symbols that the symbols themselves and the ideals they represent can be twisted to mean just about anything.

Not a film for the squeamish, ethically or otherwise, Pain & Gain largely asks: Does a satire need to be smart, or even self-aware, in order to succeed? The Lugos of the world would likely get a kick out of this movie, mocking the mistakes of movie morons while thinking of ways they could pull off the same tricks without the crucial missteps. Where Bay succeeds, and wildly so, is in his realization of a uniquely ugly and repellent vision of his country, a coked-out fantasia with fever dreams brought on by heat stroke and blue balls. He’s made a picture as outrageously entertaining as it is deeply repulsive, an experience that thrills and titillates just as it paints the American flag onto the wall at the end of the tunnel, Wile E. Coyote style. God help us, Pain & Gain is one of the first great movies of 2013.

Perhaps recognizing that the Lugos of the world don’t listen to DVD commentaries, Paramount has released the Blu-ray of Pain & Gain with nary a bonus feature in sight, save the obligatory digital copy. Too bad; some of that stunt footage would be fascinating.

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Music

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)


In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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Film

'Foxtrot' Is a 'Catch-22' for Our Time

Giora Bejach in Fox Trot (2017 / IMDB)

Samuel Maoz's philosophical black comedy is a triptych of surrealism laced with insights about warfare and grief that are both timeless and timely.

There's no rule that filmmakers need to have served in the military to make movies about war. Some of the greatest war movies were by directors who never spent a minute in basic (Coppola, Malick). Still, a little knowledge of the terrain helps. A filmmaker who has spent time hugging a rifle on watch understands things the civilian never can, no matter how much research they might do. With a director like Samuel Maoz, who was a tank gunner in the Israeli army and has only made two movies in eight years, his experience is critical.

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