Updated through 6/30.
"No, I don't think Bay can direct actors," concedes Bilge Ebiri in an entry he posted yesterday entitled "In Defense of Michael Bay (Sort Of)." What's more, "No, I don't think he can tell a story with any kind of nuance. But on some distant planet in an alternate universe, Bay is the greatest director of straight-to-video junk ever, raising lowbrow, seemingly unredeemable, and utterly anonymous thrillers and other types of junk food to the status of art. In that world, film buffs pass his name around in hushed tones. He's a low-level genre striver, a guy more people should know about, the kind of filmmaker John Woo was once upon a time, back when we had to hunt down unsubtitled laserdiscs of his flicks in Chinatown…. We can often see glimpses of the director he can be: Bad Boys 2 is in some ways pure evil, but the sheer joy with which Bay stages its central, out-of-control car chase sequence is something to behold. Armageddon is in a similar category: The film is crippled by all sorts of flaws, but the macho bravado with which it throws everything at you is… is, well, something. Its awesome gratuitousness borders on the experimental. Though much of it makes me cringe, I could watch it over and over again (and, full disclosure, I have)."
For Variety, David S Cohen talks with a few critics who argue that, love him or hate him, Michael Bay is to be taken seriously. Among them, Scott Foundas: "He's an auteur through and through. You know within a few seconds of watching his movie that it's a Michael Bay movie and beyond that there's no question that he's influenced the visual language of the contemporary Hollywood blockbuster in a major way…. He is in a way the inheritor of the tradition of William Wyler and Cecil B DeMille. You don't have biblical epics or sword-and-sandal movies anymore. So in a way the superhero movies and the comicbook movies are the modern day equivalent to that. I think Bay is very much working in that church."
Justin Chang, whose book Filmcraft: Editing will be out at the end of the year, tells Cohen, "This left jab here has to connect with this blow there. There's a logic to it. I don't get that sense of logic from Bay's films. In terms of editing, he's not following that rule, that cleanliness and coherence that most editors value." Variety's Peter Debruge replies, "Michael Bay has recognized the energy of an action sequence can replace the logic of it. That can be done in a few ways. One is through sheer movement, the kinetics of the action sequence. Another is through cutting. I think what he does is a combination of the two."
"Michael Bay is a timely microcosm for exploring some of the themes of modern film discussion," suggests Travis McClain at IFC. "Ultimately, the director's task is to execute the production of a film. For my money, there may be no one in Hollywood in the same league as Michael Bay and my first piece of evidence is Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen." That would be #2, the Transformers movie that everyone reviles; even its makers admit it's a mess. McClain: "I'll readily concede that Revenge of the Fallen is flawed, but rather than crucify Bay for it, I would expect any 'serious' cinephile would stand in awe of the fact that he managed to meet Paramount's unreasonable deadline with a finished product. I suspect few of his peers could have succeeded with such an ambitious production schedule and so little time."
Well. At MSN Movies, Glenn Kenny wonders why we even bother: "As if Bay and company are entitled to something more than the zillions of dollars these films make, and the ubiquity of their characters as pop culture icons, profit-taking merchandise pieces, and convenience-store special-drink tie-ins. As if they are entitled as well to critical respect, which will, after all, arrive eventually, from the post-graduate academic realm that will someday devote reams of text to the Thousand Plateaus of the Anti-Epistemological Perplex of Optimus Prime, or some such."
Nevertheless, onward. Now that the third Transformers movie, Dark of the Moon, has been on IMAX screens for a few hours — in 3D, of course — here's a sampling of what the critics have to say about it.
AO Scott in the New York Times: "I can't decide if this movie is so spectacularly, breathtakingly dumb as to induce stupidity in anyone who watches, or so brutally brilliant that it disarms all reason. What's the difference?" At any rate, "Mr Bay's lax notions of coherence and plausibility — I'm sorry, I mean his utterly nonexistent notions of coherence and plausibility — are accompanied by a visual imagination that is at once crazily audacious and ruthlessly skillful. Live-action 3D has been, at least since Avatar, a briar patch for filmmakers and a headache for audiences. Dark of the Moon is one of the few recent 3D movies that justify the upcharge. Mr Bay clearly enjoys playing with the format, which is also to say that he takes it seriously. A lot of glass and metal comes flying at your head, and you feel surrounded, plunged into a universe governed by new and strange laws of physics. Nothing you see makes any sense at all, but the sensations are undeniable, and kind of fun in their vertiginous, supercaffeinated way."
Scott Weinberg at Twitch: "Transformers 3 is one of the stupidest movies I've seen since Transformers 2. And I don't mean the film fails because the concept is silly. Just this year I've supported movies about post-apocalyptic priests and semi-Norse superheroes, so clearly I have no problem with movies built on a foundation of narrative silliness. Transformers 3 is the kind of stupid that insists that you be stupid too."
Nick Hasted at the Arts Desk: "The secret back story of President Kennedy's inspirational speech announcing America's race to the Moon is shown in digitally retouched footage of JFK himself. His lines are 'improved' too, as he tells his staff: 'You need to move heaven and earth. We need to get to the Moon!' Who knows what future indignities lie in store for 20th-century icons who neglected to tie down their image rights? When Apollo 11's lunar module loses contact with a watching Earth on the Moon's dark side, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin race (as best they can on a Moon walk) to investigate the crashed ship. The real Aldrin turns up in present-day scenes, the only moments of this movie inspiring respect. 'It is code Pink, as in Floyd,' someone says of this hushed-up secret history. 'Why do you think we haven't been up there since 1972?' — the year before Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, suggesting labyrinthine, Floyd-involving conspiracy theories more interesting than the movie. It's the sort of loopy mythos-rebooting Alan Moore patented when applying his vast mind to apparently irredeemable comic books, but screenwriter Ehren Kruger can't run with these ideas any further."
Or can he? At Spout, Christopher Campbell sees a critique of President Obama, with "the Autobots the US Democratic Party, annoyed with him for giving in way too much to the Republican Decepticons for what he sees as a unifying good for us all. Little does he know that his chummy golf games and lack of real promised change is going to lead to human slave labor and a Windy City war zone (look what you've done to your hometown, POTUS!)."
Dan Kois reports on one audience's reaction for the Voice: "The destruction of Chicago — complete with the skulls of vaporized passers-by rattling down Michigan Avenue like so many soccer balls — received a good number of OH SHITs. But when Megatron walked right up to the Lincoln Memorial, pounded Abe to pieces, and plopped down on his chair? No one knew what to say."
This is "the Wagnerian fulfillment of the American summer-movie tradition," argues Salon's Andrew O'Hehir. "It's a great and terrible film, in identical proportions and in all possible meanings of those words…. [A]s a performance-art act of juvenile Id-fulfillment, it's magnificent."
More from Sean Burns (Philadelphia Weekly, D-), Jaime N Christley (Slant, 2.5/4), Richard Corliss (Time; "Bay is the soul of a new machine, the poet of post-human cinema, the CEO of Hollywood's military-entertainment complex"), David Edelstein (Vulture), Ambrose Heron, Kevin Jagernauth (Playlist), Ben Kenigsberg (Time Out Chicago), Craig Kennedy, Mark Kermode (video, 1'41"), Ray Pride (Newcity Film), Tasha Robinson (AV Club, C), James Rocchi (Bad Ass Digest), Marc Savlov (Austin Chronicle, 2.5/5), Betsy Sharkey (Los Angeles Times), Dana Stevens (Slate), Scott Tobias (NPR), Keith Uhlich (Time Out New York, 2/5), Adam Woodward (Little White Lies) and Stephanie Zacharek (Movieline, 7/10). Drew McWeeney talks with Bay for HitFix. The Playlist looks back on the oeuvre.
Updates, 6/30: For GQ, Sean Fennesey talks with "more than sixty of Bay's friends, relatives, actors, and collaborators" to put together a sort of oral history of "the most underappreciated man in show business."
Paul Constant in the Stranger: "Just when you're about to get up and search for food because the exposition has gotten too thick and dumb, Bay will slap you in the back of the head and shove a tense, conspiratorial scene in a bathroom stall down your face, or force you to wonder at the strange beauty of an exploded rocket at sunset. And he has a great sense for 3-D; Transformers joins Coraline, Avatar, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams as the fourth movie to understand that modern 3D techniques aren't useful for quick jumps, but rather for providing a depth of field, a sumptuousness that mere high-def cameras can't ever match. Goddamnit, it's a spectacle, and Bay is a genius of spectacle, so you might as well line up now, sucker."