Tag Archives: true story

Movie Review: The Water Diviner (2014)


Russell Crowe fancies himself as the world’s greatest actor, so I was curious to see how he would fare in his directorial debut, The Water Diviner, about a grieving father’s quest to find his three missing sons in Turkey following the end of World War I.

The film is “inspired by a true story,” whatever that means, and while it is largely grounded in reality it has a somewhat “magical” feel, where audiences are supposed to be believe in miracles and that “everything happens for a reason”. I don’t want to say it is a bad film, because it’s not, though after hearing Crowe talk it up so much and describing how much effort and passion and experience he poured into the production, not to mention its win for Best Picture at the AACTA Awards (shared with Babadook), my immediate response after watching it was: “That’s it?”

It’s an Aussie production through-and-through, with a mostly Australian cast and crew that features one prominent recognisable foreign signee, the lovely Olga Kurylenko, as a widowed Turkish hotelier. Crowe apparently just wanted to focus on directing, but the film producers wouldn’t give the movie the green light without him in the starring role. Russell was said to have put the crew through a rigorous boot camp to prepare them physically and mentally for their roles, and raved on about how he felt he was the only person in the world who could do the film justice. Despite this being his first film as director, he believed he had more experience than most directors — including Ridley Scott — given his 30 years as an actor in the industry.

And yet, The Water Diviner, notwithstanding its touching premise, turned out to be not all that much better than a glorified TV movie. It is well-researched and provides the historical background from both sides — notwithstanding typical accusations of inaccuracies — and there are undeniably moving moments, dramatic scenes and nicely choreographed war sequences, though many of the positives are undone by a sappy tone and corny melodrama. The contrived romance between Crowe’s and Kurylenko’s characters, in particular, was completely unnecessary and took away the focus from the film’s heart, which is a father’s grief and the love for his sons.

Led by Crowe’s typical self-assuredness, the performances from the cast are decent. Jai Courtney, who seems to be everywhere these days, plays an ANZAC captain who has his doubts about the Aussie farmer’s quest. Jacqueline McKenzie has a small role as Crowe’s depressed wife, while Packed to the Rafters star Ryan Corr plays one of Crowe’s sons. Isabelle Lucas is for some strange reason in it, looking way too thin as a basically pointless side character.

Perhaps its the budget or time constraints, but The Water Diviner fails to deliver the sweeping epic it appears to have set out to be. Instead, it’s a solid and even occasionally good, but ultimately unspectacular film that likely won’t have producers rushing to ask Crowe to direct their future projects.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Unbroken (2014)


Angelina Jolie has been tipped as a filmmaker to watch for the future, so I was naturally drawn to her third and latest directorial effort, Unbroken, a biopic about the remarkable life of US Olympian and WWII prisoner of war Louis Zamperini.

To be frank, I was a little disappointed with Unbroken given its subject and celebrated director and screenwriting team (that includes one of my faves, the Coen Brothers). It’s solid, there is no denying that, though I don’t think the film did very much in elevating Zamperini’s inspirational life significantly above what one would have expected simply from reading a basic bio of his experiences. While it depicts Zamperini as an amazing individual, Unbroken fails to distinguish itself from all of the other POW stories.

Jolie begins with a typical in media res approach that introduced Zamperini as a member of a US bomber squad on a mission against the Japanese-occupied Island of Nauru in 1943. As expected, the film reverts to flashback mode shortly after, showing Zamperini’s childhood in California as a troubled kid. From there, Jolie adopts a surprisingly linear, conventional narrative, focusing on Zamperini’s Olympic career before moving onto his role in WWII.

Zamperini is indeed worthy of respect for his astounding resiliency and will to survive, but the film focuses too much on this one aspect of his personality. The narrative is pretty much just him overcoming one hardship after another. He’s like a human version of that annoying Chumbawamba song — he gets knocked down but he gets up again, and again and again and again. Jolie doesn’t do much to mix things up other than emphasise the sadistic nature of his Japanese captors (in particular a one-dimensional corporal known as “Bird” played by Japanese recording artist Miyavi) and play up Zamperini’s glorious moments of triumph.

The problem, I think, is that Jolie was too in awe of her subject, whom she has met and was still alive during filming. As a result, the film became essentially a work of hero worship that never really managed to explore his character like it should have. It’s strange, but even though it is a biopic I still don’t feel like I really got to know Zamperini as a person other than that he he managed to live through a lot of terrible things. I can only imagine how much edgier and how much more depth the film would have had had Jolie been able to maintain a bit of distance from her protagonist.

Failing to meet expectations aside, Unbroken is a well-intentioned effort and a very watchable film. Jolie’s direction is not flashy, though she infuses her images — some handsome, others bleak — with passion and control. Shades of Clint Eastwood, perhaps? And the story is undoubtedly inspirational because its true; the performance of Jack O’Connell as Zamperini is quite good, and the supporting cast featuring the likes of Domhnall Gleeson, Garrett Hedlund and Jai Courtney all fill out their respective roles impressively. The film has moments I really liked and found emotionally rewarding, but also others (including the final climax) that were heavy-handed and too obviously geared towards sentimentality. On the whole, I still think it’s a film worth watching because Zamperini’s story is such an extraordinary one, though it’s a shame Jolie could not have wielded her Malificent magic to turn it into something special.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Imitation Game (2014)

imitation game

You know what’s awesome? Watching a movie you expect to be very good, and then having those expectations shattered because it’s even better than you thought it would be. That’s essentially what happened when I watched The Imitation Game, the amazing true story about how British prodigy Alan Turing cracked the Nazi’s “unbreakable” Enigma code during the Second World War.

I had heard mostly rave reviews about the film, especially after it received eight nominations at next month’s Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Actor for Benedict Cumberbatch. Usually when a film is overhyped, the ensuing viewing experience will inevitably turn into (at least) a mild disappointment. Case in point: 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, another British flick that received overwhelming praise but put me into one of the best sleeps I’ve had in years.

And so I was shocked that discover that The Imitation Game is the real deal. The film had it all — a riveting “true story” premise, a fascinating central character, stylish execution, wonderful performances and plenty of excitement and thrills. And to top it off it wasn’t “too British” at all.

The story is clearly and cleverly told through three time periods — in 1951, when police start probing into Turing’s life after an alleged break-in at his house; in the early 1940s, when Turing is hired by the British government to crack the Enigma code used by Nazis to encrypt their messages; and during Turing’s school years, when we learn how his genius is also his curse. I was really impressed by how each time period served a distinct purpose, both in terms of plot and characterisation, and how everything would come together for viewers in the end like solving a giant puzzle, much like how Turing cracks the code in the film.

I had fears that the movie would be flat despite its premise because, let’s face it, watching people sit around trying to crack a code on screen could be kinda boring. This was one of the fatal flaws of one of Cumberbatch’s other “true story” films, 2013’s The Fifth Estate. Cumberbatch was great as Julian Assange, but none of the films’ digital wizardry could make typing on keyboards and online chats feel exciting.

The masterful script by Graham Moore and the crafty delivery by Norwegian director Morten Tyldum avoid such pitfalls by explaining just enough for audiences to understand the task at hand but without losing them through over-complicating things. They fill the movie with constant sources of tension, from Turing’s tenuous relationships with his colleagues and his superiors in the British government to the moral quandaries of war and hiding his deep dark secret. There’s even a Russian spy in there to keep things interesting, and it also helps that there is actually a big physical machine with gears and the whole shebang that churns through the code combinations as we wait with eager anticipation.

Cumberbatch deserves the acclaim for his portrayal of Turing, and I would not be at all upset if he takes home the Best Actor gong next month. Thanks to Cumberbatch’s performance, The Imitation Game is as much a biographical character study of Turing as it is a film about breaking a Nazi code. Not very many actors could have done what he did, and that’s to make audiences not just sympathise with the tragic character, but root for an arrogant, socially inept loner who challenged the Enigma code more for ego than to save lives. And yet Cumberbatch manages to win us over very early on with his charm and witty delivery.

Kiera Knightley, who earned a Best Supporting Actress nod as Turing’s colleague Joan Clarke, is also very good, as is the rest of a quality ensemble cast featuring the likes of Matthew Goode, Mark Strong and Tywin Lannister himself, Charles Dance.

I can’t think of anything negative to say about this movie. Award bait or not, The Imitation Game is an instant classic that tells an important story about a forgotten hero but doesn’t forget to educate us, excite us and captivate us along the way. Hands down one of the best movies of 2014.

5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Million Dollar Arm (2014)


As a fan of baseball, cricket, true stories and Hollywood movies, I was naturally attracted to Million Dollar Arm, the biographical sports drama about the discovery of Indian baseball pitchers Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel by sports agent JB Bernstein via a reality TV program.

The true story is out there for people who want to learn about their incredible journey, but for the sake of those interested in watching the movie I will keep spoilers — including whether they actually succeeded or not — far far away.

The film stars Mad Men’s Jon Hamm as Bernstein and comedian Aasif Mandvi as his business partner, with Life of Pi‘s Suraj Sharma playing Singh and Lake Bell playing Bernstein’s love interest. Alan Arkin co-stars as an ancient baseball scout, while Bill Paxton plays real-life pitching coach Tom House.

The premise is that Bernstein comes up with the idea of finding baseball pitchers in the world’s last untapped talent market — India — and convinces a financier to create a reality TV show that can help the winner rake in potential prize money of up to a million US dollars (hence the title). After a long and arduous search, he finds Singh and Patel, and brings them back to the States to train, with the aim of having them participate in a Major League tryout within a year.

What should be noted upfront is that Million Dollar Arm is a Disney production, meaning it’s very pleasant, family-friendly, safe and sappy, with some bits of light humour that won’t risk offending anyone. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but this is not where you will find gritty, hard-hitting drama that pushes the envelope. This is one true story that feels pretty made up.

In some ways, Million Dollar Arm is like a Disney version of Jerry Maguire, where a down-and-out sports agent tries to revive his career with a potential star(s), except he kind of loses his way along the journey and must find himself before it’s too late.

The entire ensemble cast is very good, though there is nothing particularly special about the script or the direction of Craig Gillespie (Aussie director of the 2011 remake of Fright Night), which treads on the safe side in delivering themes and an overall trajectory that will feel eerily familiar if you’ve ever seen any American sports movies.

I found it interesting that the film change the backgrounds of Singh and Patel to make them cricket players, when in real life they were javelin throwers. Perhaps it was a marketing decision to appeal to all the cricket fans in India. Those who want to know just how faithful the film is to real events can check out this very informative link.

Anyway, Million Dollar Arm is what it is — a Disney-fied inspirational true story with likable actors that will make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside.  Despite the overlong running time of 124 minutes, this is definitely a fastball right down the middle of the pitch for those don’t mind the family-friendly feel and the typical sports drama manipulation.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Captive (2014)

The Captive new poster

Atom Egoyan has made some terrific films about loss and grief throughout his career. His latest effort, The Captive, starring Ryan Reynolds, Mireille Enos, Rosario Dawson, Scott Speedman and Kevin Durand, has been panned by critics, earning just a 24% approval rate on Rotten Tomatoes. Sure, it’s not nearly as good as his earlier movies or recent abduction films like Prisoner, but I think everyone’s being way too harsh.

Ryan Reynolds plays a father whose daughter is kidnapped under his watch. With no witnesses, he is considered the prime suspect by police detectives (Dawson and Speedman), while his wife (Enos) quietly blames him for allowing the abduction to happen.

The story jumps back and forth between the time of the abduction and eight years later, when the daughter is still yet to be found and the lives of the parents are left in tatters. But new clues arise, and it appears their daughter might still be alive and living under the control of a child sex ring.

It’s nightmarish stuff, and the film is often difficult to watch as a result. As a parent myself, I can only imagine the pain and anguish from losing a child under such circumstances. I had never thought much of Ryan Reynolds as an actor, but he is very good here, especially as he has to deal with the suspicions of the police on top of his guilt.

It seems most people who did not enjoy the film had a problem with its preposterous plot. I admit that some of the things that occur in the film are a little fanciful, though thanks to the unsensationalized approach of Egoyan I did not have to suspend my disbelief. In fact, I don’t think anyone would have any qualms about the film’s realism if Egoyan slapped a true story tagline on it (and no, it is not a true story).

My major problem with the film was its unnecessary shift back and forth in time, which were occasionally confusing. Notwithstanding that, however, I think the captive is a flawed but solid thriller worth checking out.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Deliver Us From Evil (2014)


I had been really looking forward to Deliver Us From Evil, supposedly “inspired” by true events endured by a real NYPD sergeant by the name of Ralph Sarchie. With one of my favourite actors, Australia’s own Eric Bana in the leading role, I thought the film carried a lot of promise.

Sadly, despite Bana’s best efforts, Deliver Us From Evil disappoints on almost all levels. It starts off as an intriguing story about a cop struggling with his inner demons but soon becomes a far-fetched tale about “real” — and super powerful — demons possessing US war veterans.

The film does have its moments, with director Scott Derrickson (Sinister, The Exorcism of Emily Rose) pulling out his big bag of tricks to fuse a creepy atmosphere with traditional exorcism-related scares. It’s dark, moody and bloody, with an extended exorcism climax that works better than most similar efforts in recent years. Ultimately, however,  Deliver Us From Evil fails to “deliver” due to several fundamental problems.

I did a bit of post-viewing research to confirm what I already suspected — that the term “inspired” is applied so loosely that the film’s pants are in danger of dropping down to its ankles. None of the stuff that happens in the film are based on real events chronicled by Sarchie in his book. I have no idea why they went down this route — perhaps the book is not very exciting– but the plot is so ludicrous that it feels a lot more than a comic book adaptation than anything resembling reality. This is a real shame because I would have much rather preferred strong execution of a dull story than dull execution of a silly story.

Apart from the plot, Deliver Us From Evil is actually also a very unpleasant film to watch, and I mean that in a bad way for a horror movie. Having dark tones and “visual grit” is one thing, but this film goes a little overboard with it. Throw in the flashing lights that almost gave me an epileptic fit and all the rapid-fire cuts, I felt like I really needed to give my eyes a good rest after watching the film.

Eric Bana does the best he can as Sarchie, though the limits of the material make him just yet another troubled cop with a dark past. We’ve seen too many of these “losing my faith” redemption stories for Sarchie to come across as anything special. Edgar Ramirez, who plays an unorthodox chain-smoking Spanish priest, is not your typical exorcist. He’s interesting for a while, though not interesting enough to be a truly memorable character. Olivia Munn plays the wife, and it’s sad to see such a beautiful, talented woman like her being relegated to such a thankless role.

I genuinely wish I liked Deliver Us From Evil more. With the exception of a couple of bright spots, however, this is a film that belongs well hidden in the shadows.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Annabelle (2014)


In an era of crappy, derivative horror films, last year’s The Conjuring was a rare gem in the rough. Most people knew what they were in for — they just didn’t realize how effective it would be thanks to director James Wan’s big bag of tricks.

And so I was excited when I heard that they were going to make a prequel called Annabelle, named after the creepy doll seen briefly in The Conjuring. Haunted toys have been subjected to multiple film interpretations, and I was cautiously optimistic that the same crew from the conjuring would be able to deliver again.I was wrong.

Annabelle was nowhere  near as scary as the conjuring, nor was it anywhere close to being as well made. Instead of the definitive scary doll movie I had been hoping for, Annabelle ended up being yet another disappointment.

The film begins with a brief scene from the conjuring for taking us back to the 1970s, where we meet our lovely protagonists, pregnant young couple Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and John Form (Ward Horton). For some inexplicable reason, John decides to get Mia the Annabelle doll to go along with her creepy doll collection (I mean seriously, have you seen the bloody thing?), and soon after that, a deranged woman from a Satanic cult decides to pass her soul into the doll shortly before her death. If you think that sounds familiar, it’s because the exact same scenario happens in Child’s Play, the original Chucky classic.

From there, the progression is fairly predictable — we start off with little things which then escalate, prompting the couple to seek outside counsel, eventually leading to a climatic finish. If you’ve seen it once you’ve seen them all.

None of the predictability would have mattered if Annabelle was genuinely frightening. I admit, expectations were probably unreasonably high after I saw the trailer, which scared the crap out of me. Sadly, the trailer pretty much spoiled all the truly scary parts of the film, and what was left over turned out to be a bore. Despite a running time of just 98 minutes, Annabelle felt surprisingly slow. Unlike The Conjuring, which gave us a fine blend of atmosphere and “boo!” moments, Annabelle was dominated by cheap scares and obvious tactics.

It would be a lie to say the film wasn’t scary at all, but I guess that’s what happens when you follow up one of James Wan’s best efforts with a career cinematographer like John R Leonetti. To be fair, Annabelle does have some stylish scenes and is by far Leonetti’s best film, though this is not difficult feat considering his other directorial credits are Mortal Kombat: Annihilation and The Buttlerfly Effect 2.

One of the other major problems with Annabelle is the acting. It would be nasty to suggest that the doll was the least wooden performer in the cast, but going from established Conjuring veterans like Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston to the likes to Wallis and Horton is a jarring experience.

Having said all that, Annabelle probably isn’t as bad as I’ve made it out to be. It’s disappointing because of heightened expectations, though compared to the vast majority of other trash out there, the film is actually better than most. It’s a shame there couldn’t have been more creativity with the script and better acting, but if you haven’t seen the trailer there might be just enough scares to justify giving the film a try.

2.5 stars out of 5

PS: For those wondering, Annabelle is even less of a true story than The Conjuring. Check out the real doll. If you’ve done any reading about Ed and Lorraine Warren, the ghostbuster couple from The Conjuring, you’ll know it’s likely a whole bunch of BS. Check out this article for more details.


Movie Review: Dallas Buyers Club (2013)


Matthew McConaughey is still unbearably smug, but with the daring roles he’s been taking on lately even I have to admit that he’s growing on me.

Dallas Buyers Club was among the last of the Best Picture nominees I had yet to watch in preparation for the Oscars next week, and it’s also one of the ones I knew the least about. All I knew was that it starred McConaughey and Jared Leto, who lost a lot of weight and tried to look like a woman.

As it turned out, it’s another true story (making it 6 of the 9 nominees — the only non-true story ones are Gravity, Her and Nebraska), about a womanizing, drug-taking bigot rodeo by the name of Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) who discovers that he has AIDS and is told that he only a very short amount of time to live. At the time, the mid-1980s, AIDS was a relatively unknown disease largely associated with homosexual behaviour, which of course does not go down well with the homophobic Woodroof and his macho friends.

The core of the movie begins from the diagnosis, as Woodroof goes from trying to find useful drugs to prolong his life to selling unapproved AIDS drugs through the titular Dallas Buyers Club he ran with Rayon, a transgender HIV-positive woman played by an eerily recognisable Jared Leto. It is more or less a condemnation of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the ridiculous snail pace it approves drugs to combat life threatening illnesses. What is the point of being told that new drugs could save your life in a few years when you only have months to live?

McConaughey and Leto have been nominated for their respective roles and rightfully so, as it is their performances that drive the film’s engine. Both actors look like they lost a ton of weight for their roles and genuinely look like AIDS patients, which is impressive in itself, though it’s their back-and-forth chemistry that elevate Dallas Buyers Club into Oscar contention territory. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it is a buddy movie — it’s more about how imminent death sparks a bigoted, hedonistic man’s journey towards salvation — but the the dynamics of their contrasting personalities do provide the base for some entertaining interactions and conversations.

The supporting cast is solid too. Jennifer Garner, who rarely gets out these days from the prison of Ben Affleck, plays a doctor who sympathizes with their plight,  while Dennis O’Hare plays her antagonistic boss who believes he knows what is best for patients. Steve Zahn also has a minor role as a local cop torn between his duty to his job and to his friend Woodroof.

I found Dallas Buyers Club to be an unusual film. On the one hand I was impressed with the performances and how informative and insightful it was about the early days of the AIDS epidemic, but on the other I didn’t really enjoy it as much as the other Best Picture nominees this year despite its powerful subject matter. Part of the reason is because I had trouble connecting with both McConaughey and Leto’s characters. Leto has this one great emotional scene where he confronts his father, but McConaughey’s character is mostly self-serving and doesn’t show a lot of redeemable qualities until nearly the very the end. And unlike say a comedic farce like The Wolf of Wall Street, this was the kind of film where you really need to feel something for the protagonist early on for the film to work.

That said, I liked the lack of sentimentality in the direction of Jean Marc-Vallee (The Young Victoria) and can understand why the film has rated so well with critics. It’s a solid film from all angles and carries an inspiring message, but ultimately I wasn’t as moved by it as I thought I would be.

3.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Philomena (2013)


I watched best picture nominee Philomena to prepare myself for the Oscars in a week or so, not knowing what the film was about other than it starred Judi Dench and thinking that it was probably going to be a long, boring drama I’d have to force myself to sit through. Instead, I laughed and I cried and was deeply moved by this true story about a mother’s lifelong search for the son she was forced to give up half a century ago. And it’s only 95 minutes long!

Directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen, Tamara Drewe), Philomena tells the true story of an elderly woman, Philomena Lee (Dench) who seeks out a jaded former journalist who just lost his job as a government adviser, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), to help her track down her long lost son. Philomena had the child out of wedlock as a teenager and was sent to a convent by her father in disgrace before being forced to give up the child, who was believed to have been sent to the United States for adoption.

Far from boring, Philomena is essentially an investigative road trip movie as we follow Philomena and Sixsmith track down clues and follow leads in their efforts to track down the missing son. Apart from the intrigue of the amazing true story, the strength of the film lies in the two wonderfully developed main characters and the chemistry between them. Philomena is a determined, talkative woman who isn’t afraid to express her beliefs, while Sixsmith is characterised by his wry sense of humour and opinionated views. Together they make an odd couple who provide the audience with plenty of witty and amusing conversations.

And if you don’t know what happens at the end of their search then I would recommend avoiding all spoilers until you see the movie. I was impressed with the unexpected twists and turns in the storytelling, which, given that they really happened in real life, are both stunning and remarkable. I was particularly fascinated by the change in Sixsmith’s attitude as the adventure progressed, going from a position where he had little concern for the outcome other than how it would affect his article to becoming completely engrossed in the search, physically, mentally and emotionally.

Judi Dench received a best actress nomination for next month’s Oscars for her performance as Philomena, and rightly so. I was surprised that Coogan didn’t get a nod for his performance as Sixsmith, which was tonally perfect and balanced out Dench nicely, though he did get a nomination for co-adapting the screenplay. In fact, I was probably even more impressed with Coogan because my memory of him had been largely based on that crappy Jackie Chan movie Around the World in 80 Days.

Philomena is also an important film because it uncovers more atrocious — absolutely appalling — conduct on the part of the Catholic Church. I can’t say more without divulging spoilers so I’d recommend you check out the film, or if you don’t intend on doing so, to read the article that inspired it. I find it curious that some critics have slammed the movie for being yet another “anti-Catholic” film, but it’s not like the writers made all this shit up — it actually happened!

My only real complaint about Philomena is that the musical score occasionally stands out so much that it becomes obvious it’s trying to manipulate audiences into a stronger emotional response. It’s unnecessary because the story itself already packs a poignant punch, especially if you are a parent, like I am. I can’t even begin to imagine what the experience would be like for the real victims of the story. In the end, I don’t think Philomena would have been a best picture nominee back when they only had five slots, but in the age of nine nominees I think it’s reasonable that it has squeezed in. It’s a film that could have easily spiralled into a sappy melodrama, but thanks to the strong script and solid direction it has turned out to be quite an effective, satisfying drama.

4.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Pain & Gain (2013)


I had no idea Pain & Gain was a Michael Bay film until the credits started rolling at the end. I was surprised, because the film was, for the most part, perfectly adequate. Even fun.

Supposedly based on a true story from the 90s, Pain & Gain follows three dimwitted body builders — Marky Mark Wahlberg, The Rock and Anthony Mackie — who kidnap their dickwad of a wealthy client (Tony Shalhoub from Monk) and try to steal everything he owns. Naturally, being nitwits, their plan goes all kinds of wrong, especially as a private detective (Ed Harris) starts looking into the case. It’s a cautionary tale about how the American Dream can become the American Nightmare — if you are a moron.

It’s one of those “so crazy it’s gotta be true” stories. Being a rather violent kidnapping film, Bay could have tackled Pain & Gain as a really sharp dark comedy in the vein of say Fargo, though he decided to make a straight-up crime goofy comedy. The problem is that in taking this route, Bay had to make our protagonists likable — albeit immensely stupid — dudes, even though from their motivations and actions we can tell they are clearly some nasty people. Misguided and naive, perhaps, but still difficult to root for. Just because you find their stupidity amusing doesn’t mean you have to like them. Sure, their victim is a twat, but there’s only so much a director and good actors can do to make this trio affable. The rest is up to the audience’s disposition and tolerance.

Marky Mark, The Rock and Anthony Mackie are, under ordinary circumstances, a fun trio to be around. The Rock, in particular, stands out as a thick-headed and tick-bodied lost soul trying to balance his violent temper with his desire to please God. Marky Mark, on the other hand, shows a bit more of a mean streak as the ringleader, while Mackie kind of fades to the side a little more, getting overshadowed even by his own love interest, played by the always-brilliant Aussie gem Rebel Wilson. The other female role, a semi-retarded Russian bimbo (played by Bar Paly) is also a hoot, though neither female character does much to improve the perception of how Bay treats women in his movies. (Also gotta mention Ken Jeong, who does his best Ken Jeong impersonation in a small role as a motivation speaker.)

That said, for a Michael Bay film, Pain & Gain is actually pretty good. It’s fairly funny, especially in the first hour or so, and the satirical bite had a surprisingly strong edge to it. The mood was light despite the violence, though the further the film progressed the more serious — and less compelling — it got. At 129 minutes, it was also far too long, and my interest waned dramatically as the film stumbled to a predictable conclusion. However, on the whole, and by Michael Bay standards, I’d still call Pain & Gain a relative success.

3.5 stars out of 5