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Knight at the Movies: Pain & Gain; Renoir
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times

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I admit it: The main reason I wanted to see Pain & Gain, the latest movie from Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson, was to see these two renowned nipple ponies in their roles as bodybuilders. The chance to watch the former Marky Mark and The Rock—whose careers both got their initial blast-offs because of their spectacular physiques—strut around shirtless and in skimpy gym wear for nearly two hours proved irresistible. And with a nice helping of Anthony Mackie on the side to boot, here was a chance to see some beef and have my cake, too.

Pain & Gain, which certainly does offer heavy doses of male musculature, is also an often hilarious black comedy with a nicely embedded moral—not to mention displaying expert performances from said nipple ponies. Based on the jaw-dropping true story of a trio of deadly though unbelievably inept criminals from Miami who, in 1994, kidnapped a wealthy client and managed to abscond with the majority of his assets—at least for a while—the movie is perfect date fare. (Gay audiences should be warned, however, that there are a few homophobic slurs.)

Don't let the fact that Michael Bay directed—he of the soulless, ear-splitting blockbusters—scare you off. Bay has made a conscious effort to let his incredibly improbable true story and his incredibly buff actors do their stuff. The movie, which was scripted by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and is based on an in-depth piece of the same title by Pete Collins, has none of the eye-popping special effects (those hunks, aside) one would expect in a Michael Bay picture—nor does it need them.

Wahlberg plays Daniel Lugo, a personal trainer determined to achieve the American dream of endless riches, a mansion with an expanse of a yard big enough to demand a riding lawn mower to trim it, and all the attendant stuff (and luscious babes) to fulfill the typical consumer desire. But reality is setting in and, with a start, Daniel realizes one day that in five years he's still going to be a guy wearing sweatpants to work. He decides that one of his wealthy clients, an obnoxious braggart named Victor Kershaw (Tony Shaloub, in his best movie role in years), is the perfect target for a kidnapping.

Daniel enlists Paul Doyle (Johnson) to help him enact his scheme. Paul, one of the gym's newest employees, is a recent ex-con, a born again convert who has come to the gym seeking employment after rejecting the advances of a lustful priest. Dubious at first, he signs up after some physical convincing from a blonde stripper Daniel has hoodwinked into thinking he's going to put into the movies. Mackie plays Adrian, a steroid junkie who is also a trainer at the gym—and a dimwit who has fallen hard for a plump nurse (played in her usual out-of-it manner by Rebel Wilson).

"I watch a lot of movies, I know what I'm doing," Daniel insists to the others, and they go along with his plan to kidnap Victor and hold him hostage until he signs away everything he's got to the trio. Although there are several false starts, they finally capture their prey and hold him hostage at a dildo-manufacturing warehouse. Then the jaw-dropping stuff—all true—starts to pile up and the audience is treated to one unbelievable scene after another; the commingled dumb luck and chutzpah, not to mention the sheer stupidity on display in this twisted black comedy is a lot of fun to behold. Hell, there's even a moment when Wahlberg briefly reincarnates Marky Mark in his Calvin Kleins (albeit, wielding a chainsaw). Things get so crazy that at one point the movie flashes a sign on the screen that reads, "Yes, this is still a true story." To give away further plot points would be to spoil the pleasure of discovery that is, I think, an essential component to this wacky black comedy.

Wahlberg's Daniel—stupid, vain, yet gifted with an insane amount of optimism and confidence—is a sort of misplaced older brother to Dirk Diggler, the porn star character he played in Boogie Nights, his breakthrough role. Although Daniel doesn't have a smidgen of Dirk's innate sweetness, the actor can't help but bring his underlying charm to the part. The same is true for Johnson, whose Paul quickly falls off the wagon and becomes increasingly paranoid (and funnier) as his cocaine use increases. And Mackie, always winning, gets plenty of mileage out of his misguided character as well.

Pain & Gain harkens back to the Coen Brother's 2008 Burn After Reading, which also revolves around an idiot personal trainer (Brad Pitt) involved in extortion. Although that movie wasn't based on a true story and was altogether more "literate," it, too, took its inspiration from the foibles of the aggressively stupid, allowing audiences the chance to feel irresistibly superior. Pain & Gain offers moviegoers that same experience—and in our snarked-up culture that might just be more satisfying than the over-the-top explosions, meteorite showers, giant robots and toppled skyscrapers that Bay usually tosses at us.

Renoir—which opens at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema in Chicago this Friday—is, in many ways, the quintessential French film. Focusing on the last years of the great impressionist painter as France was embroiled in World War I in 1915, Gilles Bourdos' movie is a feast for the senses, an homage to a great artist and a sensual romantic drama.

When the aging Pierre-Auguste Renoir (which Michel Bouquet portrays with steely fortitude and surprising moments of longing)—determined to continue to paint no matter the cost to his fraying health—hires the lush beauty Andree (Christa Theret) as his new model, his household is in a bit of uproar.

At the first appearance of Andree, Renoir's all-female staff gives her the once-over, and finds the tart-tongued and rather brazen young woman distinctly wanting. But Renoir knows what he needs for inspiration and brooks no interference, and Andree's posing sessions (usually in the hills above country Renoir's home) become daily occurrences.

Although it's not quite correct to say that Andree bewitches the old man, his youngest son Coco, or even the man who eventually falls in love with her, Jean (Renoir's older son who's on leave due to a war injury), the ginger-haired beauty eventually shakes up the lives of all three. Her tartness masks vulnerability and a desire to become an artist herself (via the movies) and she views the handsome Jean (played by Vincent Rottiers) as the man to elevate her life beyond the provincial. Jean's complicated relationship with his father (something he shares with Coco) and his determination to return to the war after his leg injury heals are also explored as Andree's presence shakes up their lives.

The rich emotional exchanges in Renoir are interspersed with visually stunning montages—and one would expect nothing less in a bittersweet delight such as this.

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