Paramount Pictures via Everett Collection
Every two or so years, when the sun is at its hottest and summer blockbuster season is reaching its peak, a long shadow is cast over the movie theaters of the world, bringing with it dread, despair, and a week-long migraine. It is time for another Transformers movie. The latest one, which arrives in theaters on Friday whether we like it or not, does away with the established story of Shia LaBeouf, his trusty car and the gorgeous girlfriend who isn’t given much to do, and instead places the fate of the world in the toned arms of Mark Wahlberg.
There aren’t many people who are expecting Transformers: Age of Extinction to be a great film. In fact, most fans and critics are expecting the film to be torn to shreds by the press, many of whom had the pleasure of doing the exact same thing to its predecessors. Though most of the world now regards Michael Bay as the architect of the downfall of modern cinema, it’s worth remembering that there was a time when he wasn’t the most reviled filmmaker in America. But if you follow the reviews for the first three Transformers films, you can almost pinpoint the exact point of no return.
Transformers It might be difficult to remember – three very long, very loud movies later – but the first installment in the Transformers series was actually relatively well-received. By that, of course, we mean that it received mixed reviews rather than outright scathing ones. Still, there were plenty of critics who were never a fan of the franchise, and made their disdain for Bay’s most famous works clear from the beginning.
Some were upset over what had become of such a beloved part of their childhood:
“Transformers is a terrible film. It’s not even bad in a campy, funny way that is enjoyable in the right mindset. It’s bad in a horrible way that makes you wish you’d spent your evening doing something other than ruining your childhood memories.” - Sean Gandert, Paste Magazine
Many found it difficult to follow the film, which was somehow simultaneously overly-complicated and full of holes:
“The story has something to do with Autobots and Decepticons battling to be the first to get to what amounts to a giant battery pack (a "cube of infinite power," someone calls it, I think) that's been held for decades by the U.S. military in — oh, never mind.” – Bob Mondello, NPR
Or, they just had trouble looking past one glaring fault:
“Even by Michael Bay standards, this movie is vapid.” – James Berardinelli, Reelview
Paramount Pictures via Everett Collection
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen Because audiences failed to heed these early warnings, the first film made enough money to warrant a sequel, two years later. A sequel which took all of the worst parts of the first Transformers film, made them louder, more obnoxious and four times as long, pumped them full of steroids and then strung them out to create a full movie. A sequel which will one day be remembered if not for its quality, than for the exuberance that critics showed in tearing it to shreds.
First, they ripped apart the script:
“Describing the plot of Revenge of the Fallen pretty much equates to making “boom, crash, kablooey” noises, but I’ll attempt to distill all the boring, non-explodey elements into this bite-sized paragraph.” – Simon Miraudo, Quick Flix
“Much of this film was put together during the Writer's Strike, and I'm guessing Michael Bay never once worried about it.” – Drew McWeeney, HitFix
Then, they tackled the exhausting experience that was sitting through Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen:
“It’s like standing in the middle of a dust storm and opening your eyes to let the grit pour in.” – Josh Tyler, CinemaBlend
“Trying to take in this movie is akin to shaking up a snowglobe and paying attention to glitter shard No. 432,581: When two similarly-colored CG robots are simultaneously morphing and punching each other in the head, it’s impossible to figure out where one ends and the other begins, resulting in a visual cacophony that goes hand-in-hand with the bowels-rattling bassline and the shrieking, incoherent dialogue.” – Alsonso Duralde, MSNBC
Some put the blame squarely on Bay’s shoulders:
“Sweet Jesus! Does Michael Bay not know how to make a movie?” – Michael Edwards, What Culture
But nobody summed up the contempt that critics held for this movie quite like the legendary Roger Ebert, who was primarily concerned with helping moviegoers save their money:
“If you want to save yourself the ticket price, go into the kitchen, cue up a male choir singing the music of hell, and get a kid to start banging pots and pans together. Then close your eyes and use your imagination.”
Transformers: Dark of the Moon Just when we thought that we were free, that there was no way for Bay to come back from the torrent of abuse that was levelled at him as a result of Transformers 2, along came Dark of the Moon, because this is Hollywood, and it doesn’t matter how terrible a film is as long as it makes boatloads of money. On the whole, though, critics seemed to like the third movie a lot better, and focused on the positives:
“With his third, and by all accounts final, try director Michael Bay has made what is probably his best Transformers film yet. Which means that it is merely mind-numbingly bad rather than eye-gougingly bad.” – Joshua Starnes, ComingSoon
“There is more of a plot this time. It is a plot that cannot be described in terms of structure, more in terms of duration. When it stops, it's over.” – Roger Ebert, RogerEbert.com
“It's better than 2009's horrendous Transformers 2, but almost anything is.” – Claudia Puig, USA Today
“At least McDreamy gets sucker punched. Simple pleasures.” – Kieth Uhlich, Time Out NY
But there were still some who couldn’t look past the marginal improvements that Bay and his team made in the third installment, and instead remained focused on all of its loud, headache-inducing faults:
“Transformers: Dark of the Moon, a work of ineffable soullessness and persistent moral idiocy, concludes with Chicago taking it in the shorts for 50-odd minutes, at the hands of the Decepticons in an alien takeover scored, partially, to an emo-ballad mourning the "cataclysm" of it all.” – Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune
“Transformers 3 is one of the stupidest movies I've seen since Transformers 2.” – Scott Weinberg, Twitch
And then there was one critic who managed to sum up the way that critics and moviegoers everywhere feel about Bay, his movies, and the Transformers franchise as a whole, in one pithy sentence. Never has something so scathing, so true, and so unbearably funny been said so succinctly.
“I am no expert in theology, but I'm pretty sure evil looks a lot like Transformers 3 – Will Leitch, Yahoo Movies
Well, on the bright side for Transformers: Age of Exctinction, it truly can only go up from here.
Among the surprises to be found in the Golden Globe nominations announced Thursday morning, the unexpected recognition for one film really stood out. That little movie would be Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, which picked up three nods: Best Actor in a Comedy, for Ewan McGregor; Best Actress in a Comedy, for Emily Blunt; and Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. That's pretty major recognition for a film that only made $9 million Stateside. So what exactly is Salmon Fishing in the Yemen? Directed by Lasse Hallström (The Cider House Rules, Chocolat), it's a gentle indie starring McGregor and Blunt as a fly-fishing expert and a PR representative, respectively, who undertake a goodwill project to improve relations between the U.K. and Yemen. That project is to invest in a vision held by one of Yemen's most progressive and forward-thinking rulers, Sheikh Muhammad (Amr Waked), to bring salmon fishing to his country — quite a challenge, since you need a temperate climate and, obviously, an abundant water supply for salmon to thrive. Yemen, mostly covered by a scorching desert, has neither. It's a delicate "against all odds" story about starry-eyed dreamers trying to make the impossible possible. In short, the very definition of a "feel good" movie.
But Salmon Fishing in the Yemen certainly hasn't been discussed as an awards season contender — until the three Globe nominations it received today, that is. So how did this underseen gem win over the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and get these accolades?
1. The Musical or Comedy Category Allows for Films Released Earlier in the Year To Be Acknowledged
By its very nature, the Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy category allows for more films to be represented among the Globe contenders than are usually being buzzed about during the awards season. For one, that's because the guilds and the Oscars rarely award comedies. As such, it's entirely possible for a film that gets a Best Musical or Comedy nod at the Golden Globes to fail to pick a single nomination at any other major awards gathering. Witness such strong former nominees like 50/50, Burn After Reading, and In Bruges, and also such Musical or Comedy nominees like The Tourist, Red, Burlesque, and Alice in Wonderland (all four of which came from that gem of a movie year 2010). For two, the very fact that this category exists means that the HFPA has to cast a wider net and look back at movies released earlier in the year. Salmon Fishing came out on March 9, making it pretty much a no-show for the Academy Awards season. But the Globes have recently nominated Midnight in Paris, Bridesmaids, (500) Days of Summer, and, sigh, The Hangover — the wolf pack bros even won the statuette — all of which were released in the first half of their respective years.
2. International Co-Productions Do Well
The Hollywood Foreign Press Association is just that: an association of foreign journalists who write for publications based in Europe, Asia, Australia, and Central and South America, yet cover Hollywood. Often, they like to recognize films that cross national boundaries, and those typically come in the form of transnational productions with financing from studios outside of America. We're not talking about the latest subtitled art house film, mind you. Michael Haneke's Amour was very much ghettoized in the Best Foreign Language Film category. We're talking about films like The Tourist and Midnight in Paris that were funded largely by non-American studios like GK Films or StudioCanal, but that are in every other respect pretty much indistinguishable from a typical Hollywood movie. Or an American-funded movie with a largely non-American cast like this year's nominee Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen represents a kind of transnational sweet spot here because it had American funding in part by Lionsgate, with the rest picked up by Britain's BBC Films, Kudos Films, and the U.K. Film Council. And it featured a totally non-American cast of Brits (McGregor, Blunt, and Kristin Scott Thomas), and Middle Eastern megastar Amr Waked.
3. It Has a Likable But Under-Lauded Cast
As far as Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt's nominations are concerned, we say, "About time!" It's hard to think of two more consistently solid, often brilliant, actors working in the industry. But for all their critical accolades, they've been pretty much overlooked whenever awards season comes around. The only major American award Blunt has received was a Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe for the BBC TV movie Gideon's Daughter in 2007. She also received Globe nods for The Devil Wears Prada (where she was arguably the best thing about that movie that wasn't named Meryl Streep) in 2007 and The Young Victoria in 2009, but the Academy has never taken notice of her work. Shockingly, this is only McGregor's second Globe nod (he's never been Oscar nominated, either) after his nomination for Moulin Rouge! in 2002. His great performances from Trainspotting to The Ghost Writer drew raves... and awards season yawns. Maybe the HFPA decided it was time to give these two a bit more recognition. Even Hollywood.com called their work in Salmon Fishing Oscar-bait earlier this year.
4. Golden Globe Winner Simon Beaufoy Wrote the Script
The Golden Globe and Oscar-winning scribe of Slumdog Millionaire was already an HFPA favorite. And, though he was working in far more subtle territory than 2008's bombastic Slumdog, he drops us into the bustling maelstrom of a modernizing Middle East much the same way he did with India, appealing once again to the HFPA's appreciation of a globalized cinema.
5. It’s a Light Comedy, But It Shows the Middle-East in a Way We Rarely See It.
Salmon Fishing is actually quite an important movie. After years of movies and TV shows — not to mention the news media — focusing on terrorism, warfare, dictatorships, poverty, misogyny when it comes to the Middle East, here's a film that offers a more balanced view. Yes, the region, and specifically Yemen, face tremendous challenges, but there are also many parts of the Middle East that are modern, tolerant melting pots populated by forward-thinking people who reject extremism. With the character of Sheikh Muhammad, Beaufoy and director Hallström, offer up an incredibly positive Arab character — something in short supply in our stereotype-glutted media landscape — and a vision of a nation trying to move beyond its violent history. It doesn't gloss over the very real challenges that Yemen faces, terrorism among them, but it also doesn't define this region by violence. In that regard, it's the anti-Zero Dark Thirty.
6. It’s a Damn Good Movie
McGregor and Blunt spark with screwball verve, Hallström luxuriates in beautiful landscapes, and Beaufoy offers up a quixotic quest about achieving beauty and contentment under impossible conditions. It's a cliché to say it, but Salmon Fishing in the Yemen really is one of the best "feel good" movies of the year. No wonder the Golden Globes acknowledged it.
Follow Christian Blauvelt on Twitter @Ctblauvelt
[Photo Credit: CBS Films]
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