Three movie directors with too much hype
I sometimes wonder how it is that certain movie directors earn enough cachet in Hollywood to become name brands. Sure, I can understand the idea of a “name brand” being applied to the likes of Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese or a dozen others — although it should be noted that Spielberg is more of a “brand” (because of his mainstream appeal) whereas Scorsese is more of a guy who is thought of as a famous and respected director rather than a “brand.”
Such directors who have “brand name” status often get their name put right into the marketing campaign, for example: “A Steven Spielberg film” or “Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York.” These are well-established directors who have earned the reputation and right to have their name prominently displayed along with the title.
But then there are directors-turned-brands that I just don’t at all understand. Or in some cases, I might understand it, but I don’t necessarily like it. Let’s take a look at the three that stand out in my mind.
Michael Bay started to become famous in the mid 1990s after the release of Bad Boys and The Rock. I’m pretty sure that by the time Armageddon came around — which, let’s face it, is what really solidified his reputation at the box office — Bay’s name was being said in the marketing campaign: “Armageddon. A Michael Bay film.”
Granted, Michael Bay might be the most deserving of recent directors to achieve this status. Because, for better or worse, when you see a Michael Bay movie, you KNOW it’s a Michael Bay movie. His style is unmistakable. Sometimes laughable, and sometimes annoying like a hammer to the head, maybe, but unmistakable nonetheless.
Bay arrived from uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s school of film, where the virtues are to be loud, flashy, superficial, and “polished” to an almost ridiculous excess. Bruckheimer has employed a host of directors in the 1990s and 2000s that all went to the same school — Tony Scott, Simon West, several others — but probably none have quite the same notoriety as Bay, who has surpassed even Bruckheimer in terms of his overwrought reputation.
Armageddon was borderline unwatchable because of the camera that never, ever stopped moving and the constant, constant edits (every 1 to 2 seconds), the way-overdone slow-motion, and the general need for every shot to look like it was trying to ooze cinematic polish. After a while, it becomes ridiculous. You aren’t watching a movie, you’re watching a trailer. Roger Ebert put it best when he called Armageddon “the first 150-minute trailer.” Yes, that’s it exactly.
With, The Island, Bay proved he could settle down. The first half of that movie was as restrained as anything from a reasonable director, although the second half was A MICHAEL BAY FILM, with cars flipping through the air and shit blowing up, etc., and a camera with a visual style that was unmistakably BAY.
Similarly, the entertaining Transformers was able to dial it down during its comedy scenes before turning into A MICHAEL BAY FILM in the last half-hour of more-than-meets-the-eye robo-mayhem.
Bay is probably one of the most successful directors currently working. But I bet it’s safe to say that most people regard him as an engine for loud, soulless summer fun. He’s hyped not because he’s a good director or because he has any taste, but because he’s the hired gun you call in to make over-the-top popcorn flicks with lots of action and special effects and no characters.
I’m not even going to mention Pearl Harbor — whoops, just did.
M. Night Shyamalan
M. Night Shyamalan is like the polar opposite of Michael Bay. Here’s a guy whose movies, in their film techniques, embody the very notion of less being more. The style worked well in The Sixth Sense, which had the storytelling and emotional content to go along with its last-scene twist, which was really quite brilliant in its understated way.
The problem with Shyamalan is that he obviously read too much of his own press after The Sixth Sense was the smash success that it was, and ever since then he’s become the proverbial Emperor With No Clothes. I believe that Shyamalan is a good director and that he means well; he has an uncanny way of creating slow dread with objects that creep into the camera frame. I also believe that he has allowed his arrogance to catch up with him. Aside from The Sixth Sense, all of his films up to and including Signs were merely average; I could respect them for their restraint and atmosphere but cannot recommend them for their storytelling, particularly not the way they ended so inadequately.
But with The Village, Shyamalan jumped the proverbial shark. Shortly before its release there was a completely vain Sci-Fi Channel mockumentary called “The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan,” which was an example of a director not merely toying with his audience, but toying with the behind-the-scenes footage for his audience. As for The Village itself — talk about a turgid experience. The “secret” to The Village constitutes one of the lamest (not to mention predictable) plots of the decade. The Village — and indeed much of Shyamalan storytelling — owes itself to low-rent “Twilight Zone” and deserves no more screen time. Instead we get a bloated, two-hour “period piece” called The Village.
And don’t get me started on Lady in the Water, perhaps the most pretentious vanity project I’ve ever seen. Shyamalan has been allowed to call all his movies “M. Night Shyamalan’s [whatever]” and, frankly, he hasn’t earned it. He’s a decent director who has only made one really memorable movie, in my opinion, because he is plagued by poor decision-making at the script level. He should take some advice and, well, start taking advice. Disney didn’t like his script for Lady in the Water (with good reason, in my opinion) and Shyamalan subsequently left the studio. He made the movie anyway, and it was a flop, which for some reason made me glad. I’m not sure why; maybe because it just struck me as being so misguided that I was rooting for common sense and against the brand recognition of a movie titled “M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water.”
Why did I even see Lady in the Water, you ask? Because my girlfriend made me. I hadn’t planned on it based on the reviews, and I had already learned my lesson from The Village.
Here’s the most inexplicable of directors whose names have somehow become brands. Brett Ratner, best known for directing the Rush Hour films, somehow obtained brand recognition after the first Rush Hour, which was the epitome of passable but utterly forgettable entertainment. How or why anyone thinks “Directed by Brett Ratner” should be said on any of those ads is completely beyond me, and yet, there you have it: “Rush Hour 3. Directed by Brett Ratner.” It just annoys me that the commercial voice-over guy goes out of his way at the end, every single time, to say, “Directed by Brett Ratner.” I want to respond back “WHO CARES.”
Ratner strikes me as the very definition of a hack. He makes movies, and there’s nothing whatsoever to suggest that the vision behind the film is his own. He’s a placeholder. Could be anybody. A franchise like Rush Hour sort of lends itself to that treatment. (Who cares who directs it? It’s Rush Hour, for crissakes.)
Some were incensed that Ratner was hired to direct X-Men 3. I didn’t much care, because the way I see it, Ratner is competent and can direct a movie, and hacks are well-suited for sequels where there’s already a firm template and tone.
And believe it or not, I have absolutely nothing against Ratner as a director.
But what I don’t understand is how “Directed by Brett Ratner” has become a catchphrase for any trailer for a film that he
made directed. Did somebody (perhaps Ratner himself) decide at some point that for any film he directed he WOULD be included in the marketing? How does such a decision get made? With a resume as short as Ratner’s (and there are many, many directors out there with far more credits and far less name-dropping in trailers) what kind of hubris does it take to decide that BRETT FREAKING RATNER is going to become a director whose name will become the signature for a film?
So there you have it. My top-three over-hyped directors. And all for different reasons.