domingo, 20 de enero de 2013

Scene City #20: "Django Unchained" (Tarantino, 2012)

Quentin Tarantino is as famous for his films as for his real-life antics, product of an extravagant personality and an endless verbiage on movies. With “Inglorious Basterds” ,and now “Django Unchained”, he has found a way to bridge his mischievous and blood-soaked revenge fantasies with the atrocities found along on the outskirts of history (Django is set two years before the Civil War). 
Tarantino has never been a filmmaker known for his subtlety and with his most recent endeavor he forces an audience to truly experience slavery as an evil system of exploitation and psychological torture –as a means to return to a monarchy of sorts, as owners traded with lives whilst living in a world filled with luxuries. It’s fascinating, and painful, to witness a class structure within slaves (some men forced to be fighters –to the death– and women to be whores) while some even hated their own kind, choosing to serve their masters with utter and unflinching devotion (those were nicknamed “Uncle Toms”).
A few weeks ago I saw Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln”, which focuses on the creation of the 13th amendment. Spielberg’s movie centers on white politicians and officials on under-lit rooms and courthouses debating the issue, without showing its impact on the black community. In a way, Tarantino makes a better case of empathy by refusing to dial back on the horrors beyond the white man’s mindset. But further from issues of race and politics, Tarantino writes characters and not vacuous symbols of worship. “Django Unchained” contains wonderful performances that play like a riff on movie genres (the primary focus is the “Spaghetti” Western) and also on Tarantino’s own body of work –castings, dialogues and entire sequences echo other movies.
There are several intriguing relationships in the movie. The main one involves Dr. King Schultz (played by Christoph Waltz) and our renegade hero Django (Jamie Foxx). Dr. King used to be a dentist but lately focuses on a much more profitable business, bounty-hunting. He recruits Django because he can recognize the faces of the men he needs to kill while Django needs Schultz to help him rescue his wife Broomhilda. Waltz plays Schultz with cheeky gusto as if his job was merely an amusement and not a risky endeavor. He likes Django and develops a bond beyond the violence and hatred (its almost as if Col. Hans Landa grew a conscious and a heart). 
Another interesting relationship lies with Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio playing against type with villanious zeal) and Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), a plantation owner and his servant. There’s a bond of respect and even love as Stephen sees beyond the lies of Django and Schultz and advices Candie on their deceit. Jackson transforms a stereotype into a clever monster that seems to be two steps in front of everyone else. 
“Django Unchained” has the usual beats that make Tarantino’s movies almost addictive (including an awesome soundtrack) even if it runs a bit too long (his editor and long-time collaborator, Sally Menke, unfortunately died recently). Sometimes it feels overindulgent in its excesses but the reason people come back to his movies, time and again, is because his characters transcend their stories and almost become ready to inhabit our own blood-soaked fantasies. 

miércoles, 12 de diciembre de 2012

The Worst Movies of 2012

Every year brings hundreds of bad movies. I avoid most of them, but every once in a while I’m particularly curious as to why they’re considered failures as such. Some are so mediocre, merely existing as a sort of cash-grabber, that they don’t rise above cynical entertainments; others, transcend badness as to rise to a nirvana of “what-were-they-thinking” awfulness. 
Here’s my top 10 worst movies of 2012: 

#10: American Reunion
Some films want to cash-in from nostalgia (see “Indy 4”) but they at least have to justify their existence from beyond just bringing back beloved characters. “American Reunion” doesn’t offer a convincing argument for a reunion making the whole movie utterly pointless. Plus, their ages strips them from the absurd oversexed shenanigans that worked  before. It feels kinda creepy and it’s not funny anymore. 

#9: Lawless
This movie had every chance of being a good movie, hell even a great one. But a dopey script, a wasted cast (that includes a Tom Hardy that seems to bark half his lines and hardly give a shit) and an unsure direction turns it into a tedious and uninvolving slog. It’s as if everyone was merely invited to a depression-era themed party. A big disappointment. 

#8: Twixt
“Twixt” is baffling. It’s an attempt from Francis Ford Coppola to jump on the 3D bandwagon with a strange story of a writer investigating a murder on a small town. Dream sequences are adrift in a pointless storyline and the 3D scenes (that actually invite you, in-movie, to put your glasses on) are laughable and completely unnecessary. This is one of those “what-were-they-thinking” pictures. 

#7: To Rome With Love
“Midnight in Paris” was one of my favorite movies of last year but Allen’s “To Rome With Love” seems to find it hard to find a reason to exist beyond giving Allen and his cast a nice holiday in Italy. It’s a depressing and unfunny farce with obnoxious characters (several stories are presented, none are interesting). I respect Allen for writing and directing a movie every year, but this one should’ve stayed on his drawer. 

#6: The Bourne Legacy
I’m a fan of the Bourne trilogy. They’re exciting action movies with enough political intrigue to keep us entertained but what really made them work was the poignancy of Matt Damon’s character. “The Bourne Legacy” reminds us how Damon and director Paul Greengrass were essential to their success. This one lacks a heartbeat, introducing dumb characters, drawn-out and pointless scenes and barely any action. Another one of 2012’s big disappointments. 

#5: Battleship
“Battleship” is loud and dumb and long and ridiculous. It takes its inspiration from “Transformers” but failed to even generate interest within its core audience (which I assume are pubescent boys obsessed with robots, girls and explosions). Some scenes made me laugh but on the whole I must say I was depressed as to see what Hollywood does with a big budget. Yeah, the effects are good but where’s the script?

#4: The Moth Diaries
I expect the story of this movie to sit comfortably on the shelves of “teenage supernatural fiction” in countless bookstores. As men we could fantasize about the possibilities of a story about attractive girls in a boarding school but instead we get soap opera material that might appeal to the Twilight crowd. A shame, coming from Mary Harron. 

#3: Rec 3 Genesis
I love the first “Rec” movie, liked the second one and expected to enjoy this so-called prequel. But, we get the rug pulled under our noses since this bears no resemblance to the others in the series. It tries to be funny but it isn’t, it tries to be poignant but no character is fully developed. It stops trying to be scary. In other words, it’s a big slap in the face to Rec fans. Hopefully the next installment will fix the rancid taste left by this one. 

#2: Red Tails
George Lucas wanted to make this movie for a long time but he should’ve waited a lot longer. It’s a historical epic drama that looks and sounds like a videogame with a cast lacking conviction and a terrible direction. Swap any one of the planes for X-Wings and one could easily imagine it taking place in Naboo. As adventure films go, this is a really bad one. 

#1: Post Tenebras Lux
I’ve written a lot about this movie and if I have to say something positive about it it’s that it is never boring. It might be laughably misguided, thematically opaque and narcissistic to its core but it’s never dull. I’m afraid people pass anything as art these days, which is comforting for the lazy but not so comforting to the artists. This movie might make it to a museum one day where a bunch of people will contemplate it and find its emptiness deep and poignant. Maybe. 

miércoles, 7 de noviembre de 2012

Scene City #19: "Amour" (Haneke, 2012)

Most films about old age find tenderness by creating a sympathetic portrayal of death. "Amour" might be the first movie in shattering the naive paradigms of dealing with a person whose decease is slowly destroying every remain of her former life.
This is a cruel and humilliating experience and director Michael Haneke never lets us off the hook. He wants us to live every moment of sorrow and despair–– every nightmare, every sense of hopelessness. And by being this cruel he forces us to empatize with a man trapped in an impossible situation of heartbreak. 
Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, as Georges and Anne, give tremendous performances. We believe completely in their marriage and when she starts behaving erraticly we know for sure it is the beginning of the end in her life (Haneke's first scene involves the police finding her corpse lying in bed). The movie is set almost entirely in their apartment, a setting that becomes ever more claustrophobic as the situation turns for the worse. We see the decay in every painful detail as Georges forces himself to take care of his wife after he promised he wouldn't abandon her in a hospital or asylum. I understand this man and I even understand his daughter (played by the great Isabelle Huppert), who still clings to the hope of getting back the woman that no longer resembles her beloved mother and who doesn't agree with her father in keeping her in their home. She wants to help, to not only cope with her family's grief, but be a part of this difficult journey. She only makes it worse because she can't possibly understand this kind of pain. 
I'm not one of Haneke's regular fans. He usually makes films that are too cold and cerebral to generate much emotion but he is a unique voice in contemporary cinema. I still think, every now and then, about "Caché" and the mystery surrounding its static scenes (including the reveal at the end). And with "Amour" I find myself going back to this couple, this terrible moment in their lives and think that I've never seen grief portrayed this realistically. Haneke has made a visceral fiction that never rings false. He's so cold-blooded in his approach that we start wishing for some cliche, some violins or a simple reassurance of security as if any happy ending were possible. 
"Amour" is worth of every accolade it has garnered and I sincerely hope the Academy rewards Emmanuelle Riva's devastating performance (one that will not be topped be any actress this year) but frankly it is a work of such emotional endurance that I wouldn't want to experience it again. 

miércoles, 17 de octubre de 2012

Scene City #18: Killer Joe (Friedkin, 2011)

The Smiths embody the very definition of “trailer trash”. They are rednecks with ambitions of financial greatness who get caught up on the most idiotic criminal scheme this side of Jerry Lundegaard in “Fargo”. Once they decide to pursue this stupid plan they hire Joe Cooper, a detective with a side job, he murders people. 
Chris is the son with lots of debts, Dottie is his virginal sister and Ansel is the father who remarried and doesn’t seem to carry any kind of weight in his own household. Chris wants to collect the insurance by killing his mother, who apparently no one will miss. 
How this story plays out seems lifted directly from sleazy tabloids but “Killer Joe” isn’t a cheap stab at a redneck thriller. It’s a nightmarish and cold-blooded portrayal directed with brutal precision by William Friedkin and acted to perfection by its strong cast. 
It seems that 2012 has been a breakthrough year for Matthew McConaughey (he was also very good in “Bernie” and “Magic Mike”) but Joe Cooper is, by far, the best performance of his career. He projects a cool and detached menace and has some scenes of haunting power (including the infamous fried chicken scene). He is surrounded by other brave performances but the best might be by Gina Gershon as a cheating wife (who should, along with McConaughey, get Oscar nominations if the Academy took any chances with films like this).
A lot of people will hate this movie. It doesn’t take any punches and it’s unrelentless in its bleakness and brutality. It oozes atmosphere and terror within its morbid restrains. 
Whatever one feels about it, its hard to deny its powers and the commitment of its performers who create some of the most memorable characters I’ve seen in a while. This is one of the best movies of the year. 

lunes, 24 de septiembre de 2012

Scene City #17: Cosmopolis (Cronenberg, 2012)

I haven’t read Don DeLillo’s “Cosmopolis” but based on David Cronenberg’s adaptation I can understand those who have called it unfilmable. After all, it follows a yuppie on his quest for a haircut aboard a limousine and his multiple encounters with people who seem to speak in dark and obscure semi-philosophical tirades (the film features cameos from Juliette Binoche, Samantha Morton and Paul Giamatti, among others). Not much happens in the movie and the motivations get lost in a miasma of unpenetrable dialogues and slick visuals (this is apparently some futuristic landscape that doesn’t differ much from our own). 
Cronenberg is a fascinating director and I can see what attracted him to this material. There’s an underlying eroticism, sporadic violence, some awkward moments (as seen in the "prostate examination inside the limo" scene) and a bunch of characters who seem to wander aimlessly. So, why did I enjoy this movie?
First of all, it’s because of Robert Pattinson's performance. I confess myself one of those incredulous to Mr. Pattinson acting abilities after watching him in the “Twilight” series. He usually plays dark and brooding (an almost James Dean wannabe) but actually comes out more like awkward and constipated. Much like Edward, his character here is also a mysterious vacuum of emotions but Cronenberg takes advantage of his Twilight persona y creates a nuanced effect that compliments the story (what little there is of it), much like what PT Anderson did with Adam Sandler on “Punch-Drunk Love”. Pattinson is hypnotic and reveals layers previously unseen (there might be a future for him beyond teenage fodder). I also liked the cold and detached direction that doesn’t offer any kind of arch or even explanations (the movie might need multiple viewings to fully understand its purpose but few will venture to watch it more than once).
“Cosmopolis” isn’t for everyone; even for Cronenberg fans it remains somewhat impenetrable. But it’s an interesting work from a fascinating filmmaker and proof that Pattinson can really act. I might go watch it again one of these days. 

sábado, 25 de agosto de 2012

Scene City #16: The Bourne Legacy (Gilroy, 2012)

“The Bourne Legacy” is a baffling experience for fans of the Bourne trilogy since it feels like a poor man’s version of the real thing. Tony Gilroy, writer and director of the film, seems to misunderstand the appeal of the series and changes gears by transforming an action-packed premise into an unbelievable chore to sit through; a chore of 135 minutes long where there’s virtually only one action sequence and it arrives at the 100 minute mark. 
There was an emotional gravitas to the previous movies that made them compelling. We were discovering the conspiracy at the same time as Jason Bourne and once he, and the audience, knew the truth about his involvement in the shadow organization we became invested in his redemption. The movie wasn’t about government covert missions and assassins, it was about a man with great resources trying to uncover his past. And, it was an action movie through and through. 
This time, our protagonist is one Aaron Cross (played by Jeremy Renner), an agent who just needs his pills to survive. The training program supplies pills to all of its agents in order to give them superhuman skills or, just in case, to get rid of them. They apparently are injected with a virus with the pills acting as antidotes (it’s all murky and somewhat contrived). Cross never develops a personality or feels in command of the story as Gilroy gives equal importance to the role of a doctor played by Rachel Weisz. She is a target for assassination since she worked in the lab that treated the agents but is more annoying than useful and the movie dedicates way too many scenes to its flat and unconvincing characters. 
In an attempt to give continuity, Gilroy patches scenes of the last movie into the fabric of this one and gives glimpses of earlier characters (he also shamelessly creates a twist at the end that invalidates the closing scenes of the previous movie in case there’s a sequel). By stripping this flimsy link, the movie would have had nothing in common with its predecessors. 
“The Bourne Legacy” proves how vital were Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon to the series. The frenetic editing along with the incessant beat of its soundtrack brought urgency and momentum, thoroughly lacking here and since there’s no emotional investment whatsoever, it quickly becomes a bore. It is a waste of talent and an awkward sequel/reboot of sorts that doesn’t engage. This is one of summer’s most disappointing movies. 

domingo, 29 de julio de 2012

Scene City #15: The Dark Knight Rises (Nolan, 2012)

There are striking motifs in Christopher Nolan’s Batman series that demand thoughtful analysis and debate. After all, he’s basically creating a parable of a crumbling society whilst juggling with a mythology that sometimes flirts with camp and whimsy. Nolan’s “Batman Begins”, its first chapter, felt like a breath of fresh air after Joel Schumacher’s disastrous last installment (the infamous “Batman and Robin”). And while Schumacher went to the extreme of kitsch and goofy action, Nolan started from scratch taking the origin story and injecting it with deadly seriousness, giving gravitas and poignancy to Wayne’s transformation into the Caped Crusader. I thoroughly enjoyed Begins as an introduction to the dark and gritty crime fiction that the series, masquerading as a super hero movie, really was. 
“The Dark Knight” however, upped the ante and focused on madness through its antagonist. The joker, self proclaimed agent of chaos, is deliciously perverse and uninterested in money or power. His only goal is to poison the moral stance of Gotham’s citizens. In many ways he succeeds by transforming society’s one decent politician, through vengeance and hate, into a monster. Harvey Dent becomes the villainous Two-Face. 
There are four essential characters to the Dark Knight myth that have strong arcs in both films. One is Alfred, Wayne’s faithful butler and sometimes conscience. He reminds Wayne of his limits and even gives insight into the Joker when he only sees him as a petty criminal.  Then there’s Lucius Fox, hard working and honest, and a brilliant inventor (think about him as this series’s Q). James Gordon is the only link to the Police Department and one of the few fighting against corruption within the system. And then there’s Rachel Dawes, Wayne’s childhood friend and love interest. Rachel’s death becomes a catalyst for Dent’s transformation and for Batman becoming an outcast.
After years of speculation Nolan finally announced the third chapter, in between a barrage of crazy casting rumors that included Leonardo DiCaprio as the Riddler and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the Penguin. 
I confess a rooting excitement for “The Dark Knight Rises”, the so-called epic conclusion to the trilogy. Hype ran as high as it gets from moviegoers but fandom hit an all new time low with the death threats sent to the critics who weren’t impressed with the movie. I avoided spoilers and focused on the praise. Surely this movie had to be awesome. 
But after watching the film twice, I am a bit confused as for some of the decisions made by Nolan. It basically concludes the series by shaking the very foundations established by the first two. 
“The Dark Knight Rises” starts out 8 years after the death of Harvey Dent, whose downfall led to an act that has locked out most of Gotham’s criminals and established peacetime. Wayne has become a recluse, depressed on his failure to save Rachel and share a normal life with her without the burden of the mask. Meanwhile, a new villain arrives by the name of Bane, a bulky and powerful adversary with an intimidating breathing mask (that apparently releases a substance thats keeps him from feeling any pain). He is continuing the task of the League of Shadows and its founder Ra’s Al Ghul.
My problem with this premise is that Nolan takes leaps of faith with the established characters, sacrificing their importance in favor of introducing an array of new characters. Wayne walks around with a beard and a cane (with the speculation of a Howard Hughes-like behavior), Alfred senses a suicidal pattern but decides to tell him the truth about Rachel’s letter and leaves him. James Gordon remains in a hospital bed for a large chunk of the movie, after an encounter with Bane. And Fox isn’t as much an ally as a chaperone for Miranda Tate, the new director of the board for Wayne Enterprises.
Bane’s motivation remain a little shaky but lets just say he’s a torturer, with the intention of giving people control of their city for about 5 months before launching an atomic bomb on them. At the same time he destroys Batman’s body (including a shot of the iconic back breaker) and takes him to a prison on the other side of the world. 
One of the film’s flaws is with the visualization of the passage of time. Nolan doesn’t get a sense of dread within the months of anarchy y Wayne’s recovery feels oversimplified and contrived. Large plot holes overshadow the more interesting ideas and the film feels bloated. 
Among the new characters I liked was Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Blake, an honest cop who recognizes almost immediately Batman’s identity. Of course, he becomes one of the heroes of the movie and its clear from very early on who he is bound to become (hint: it starts with an R). 
I didn’t find Catwoman especially necessary although Anne Hathaway plays the part straight, respecting her story from the comics. I can’t say the same about Miranda Tate, whose gimmick adds surprise but also softens Bane’s ferocity and panache. 
At the end of the day, “The Dark Knight Rises” isn’t a bombastic failure but it is a disappointment that happens when expectations run so high. And while it may remain the lesser movie in the trilogy, it has some good moments (especially with its exciting climactic sequence).  It’s admirable what Nolan has created with his series, a three-act story that doesn’t strive for perpetuating sequel after sequel and remains the most powerful adaptation of the Caped Crusader to date. 

sábado, 16 de junio de 2012

Scene City #14: Prometheus (Scott, 2012)

Few films have garnered such hype as “Prometheus”, Ridley Scott’s first foray into the sci-fi genre after 30 years. Early teases indicated a movie in the same Alien universe albeit not precisely a prequel or sequel to the series. Expectations were even higher after the first teaser trailer echoed Scott’s original “Alien” and showed amazing sights among its freak show of horror type imagery.
Now that I’ve seen “Prometheus” I am fascinated by its implications, both as a result of the Alien link and the philosophical questions on the origin of life. Audiences expect answers but Scott answers questions with even deeper questions and, on retrospective, the movie is chockfull of apparent narrative plot holes, shaky motivations and bizarre notions that will frustrate casual viewers. And yet, “Prometheus” is such a masterful exercise in suspense and atmosphere that, for long stretches, it hardly matters that it doesn’t make a lick of sense. We hardly see movies on this scale both in concept and execution (and even less frequently during the summertime of dumb and crass blockbusters).
It is impossible to review “Prometheus” without digging deeply into spoiler territory. The film starts with a curious sequence showing a white tall humanoid getting exposed to a strange substance that alters his DNA. It isn’t clear whether he’s on Earth or another planer (many things remain unclear in this movie). We then join the Prometheus, an expedition ship that lands on a moon and carries a team that includes a couple of scientists, an android and the usual assortments of ready-to-die fodder. They are led by an executive of the Weyland Corporation (another link to Alien).
What they find on the moon and how it manages to get onboard will provide even more debate and frustration but the creep factor turns to eleven once we reach the cesarean section scene that offers one of the most memorable moments of the year. There’s yet another link to Alien at the end but how that particular creature developed out of the space jockey and the incubation of the other tentacle monster remains vague (a repeated motif that might or not be revealed in potential sequels).
Visually, “Prometheus” is an astonishing experience and the cast fills each role nicely (the obvious standout is Michael Fassbender as the android David, who may or not have a secret agenda of his own). Whether repeated viewings will be rewarding remains a mystery but as a spectacular tent-pole picture it remains colossally exciting. This is one of the most interesting movies of 2012.

sábado, 5 de mayo de 2012

Scene City #13: 21 Jump Street (Lord, Miller, 2012)

Some remember their high school years fondly; the friendships, the parties, the overall sense of teen hedonism and irresponsible mischief. I, however, am not too fond of it; as an ineffectual, anti social geek, my hours were spent usually in front of a screen (watching movies, TV shows or playing video games).
But the more I think about it the more I am convinced that it would, actually, be fun to go back to high school (with my adult sensibilities in high gear, of course). “21 Jump Street” presents us with the two classic stereotypes, the nerd and the jock, and does something interesting; it swaps roles on their adult life so the nerd gets to enjoy popularity while the jock gets to appreciate geekdom.
The movie is yet another big-screen adaptation of an old TV series (starring a young Johnny Depp apparently; I never saw it). The reason why many of these adaptations fail miserably is because they can’t distinguish the fine line between homage and parody (and that’s why camp can’t be reproduced, but merely mirrored or made fun of). “21 Jump Street”, however, works mainly because it is a very, very funny movie (something I did not expect based on its trailers). It plays like a usual Jonah Hill vehicle (think of “Superbad” meets cop-buddy bromance) but it gives the supporting cast laugh-out-loud moments that almost steal the show. Just wait until you see Ice Cube playing the archetypical angry black dude.
There’s some good acting in the film; the surprise being Channing Tatum, who’s usually as stiff and charismatic as a wood plank but here shows real comedic timing and good chemistry with Hill. I’m surprised at how much I enjoyed “21 Jump Street”. It’s a comedy filled with drugs, booze and dick jokes that’s actually really funny. In other words, it’s a riot.

jueves, 3 de mayo de 2012

Scene City #12: The Avengers (Whedon, 2012)

Since “The Avengers” is the culmination of a series that started with Marvel’s “Iron Man” followed by pictures devoted to The Hulk, Captain America and Thor (not to mention “Iron Man 2”), it’s only appropriated that I, first and foremost, confess myself a fan of the comic book mythology that spawned these films. I got to understand the superhero golden age through the pages of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and while they weren’t always quite the rousing success, they were certainly always fun. With this I don’t mean that I’m necessarily a fan of the movies; while the first “Iron Man” was a genuinely exciting adventure, its sequel felt like a quick cash-grab to get to “The Avengers”. “The Incredible Hulk” with its sort-of reboot/sequel mentality (mostly to counter the bad reception of Ang Lee’s version) was underwhelming although “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger” were mostly fun popcorn movies (I especially liked “Captain America” since there’s a special place in my heart for WWII adventures where Nazis are complete buffoons).
Everybody knew, however, that “The Avengers” would be the tricky one to get right. After all, this is the one where the characters find a common goal and try to defeat an Earth-menacing villain (the whole movie becomes, basically, a juggling act balancing the tones of very different characters). After all, if Tony Stark is somewhat cemented in the real world (albeit one of amazing technological breakthroughs), how does Thor fit in, with his demi-god presence and power? How could we accept a superman with a shield fighting next to a CGI bulking hulk? And how to explain the presence of Black Widow and Hawkeye, agents without any kind of superhuman skill? (Ok, I’ll grant that Hawkeye’s arrows are pretty powerful).
But “The Avengers” is a success and the praise has to go, mainly, to Joss Whedon. He is a man who has gathered a cult following with “Buffy The Vampire Slayer”, “Angel”, “Firefly” and “Dollhouse”, a storyteller who understands how to craft a good story seeped in genre clichés, by turning its head on the typical archetypes. Most of all, he knows how to introduce humor amidst the drama and that’s the key to this movie. In a basic level, the whole mythology is absurd (as most comic books are) but Whedon knows how to build a “pressure and release” balance between heavy exposition and humorous action. There are truly some laugh-out-loud moments in “The Avengers”.
Every actor has found a comfortable niche within their characters. Robert Downey Jr. is all wit and dead-pan humor, Chris Evans is earnest and a natural leader and Chris Hemsworth is noble and mighty. Mark Ruffallo gets Bruce Banner right and for the first time, the filmmakers get the Hulk right. His scenes are some of the best in the film, proving that the Hulk is and always should be, a supporting character. Tom Hiddleston is a convincing monster as Loki, who’s always on the verge of redemption but never quite gets there. There’s surprising depth too within the relationships of Hawkeye and Black Widow and cool moments for Agent Coulson and Nick Fury (although I never quite liked the casting of Samuel L. Jackson).
“The Avengers” is a perfect summer entertainment filled with cool one-liners and amazing special effects. It’s well worth the hype.

domingo, 8 de abril de 2012

Scene City #11: Shame (McQueen, 2011)

Morning. Brandon stares into space in his vast apartment in Manhattan. He masturbates in the shower, goes to work, masturbates in the bathroom, goes home, has sex with prostitutes and goes to sleep. Over and over, day in, day out. He is a soulless ghoul, the shell of a man with a disturbing addiction who shares no attachments and shows no feelings or remorse. His sexual life lacks any kind of pleasure and is as mechanical as it is shallow."Shame" observes him intently as we watch his soul being sucked into an endless void and it sure isn’t a pretty sight. Michael Fassbender and director Steve McQueen (who also collaborated in the powerful "Hunger") create a mesmerizing and hypnotic journey following Brandon and turning his life into a living hell.
One day he is visited by his sister Sissy (played by Carey Mulligan) who shares deep wounds and desperately wants to connect with his brother even though he feels threatened by her love, her caring and her insight into his damaged psyche. Sissy must know a lot about Brandon and their childhood must have been filled with traumas and repression but McQueen never gives us easy answers and avoids the motivations riddled with clichés of most dramas. This makes the movie a lot more powerful and provocative as we fill in the missing pieces.
"Shame" is not an easy movie to endure but it has brilliant performances and a depth hiding beneath its apparent empty core. For many, Brandon may resemble the prism of male fantasy in its fullest, filled with angst and repression and ultimately, shame.

lunes, 20 de febrero de 2012

Scene City #10: The Artist (Hazanavicius, 2011)

Silent films hold an eerie and indefinable power. I’ve recently watched “Metropolis” again and found it to be utterly hypnotic, casting a spell through the eyes of its performers. “The Artist” knows this and uses the faces of Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo to playfully recreate a silent film from the 20s while, at the same time, managing to subtly parody its own conventions. There’s a gasp once we hear sound in a dream sequence and I found myself watching with a cheerful grin during its final scene.

“The Artist” could be seen as a gimmick but there’s a good story behind its stylistic choices. We meet a star of the silent era about to enter his decline and the rise of a plucky actress on the birth of the “talkies” (the first talking pictures). Dujardin perfectly fits the role on what seems like a variation of the Douglas Fairbanks-type. He shows great screen presence (along with a fantastic smile) and seems already poised to win the Academy Award for best actor. And if he wins I hope he brings his four legged companion to the stage.

It seems astonishing to have “The Artist” in the same year as such callow entertainments like “Transformers” and “Twilight”. How many of today’s kids have seen a movie in black and white, let alone a silent one? But the film seems to already be a crowd pleaser and destined to be the big winner at the Oscars.

2011 was the year of nostalgia as Scorsese’s “Hugo” and Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” seemed to cherish the past (“Hugo” was not only a love letter to cinema but also a cry in favor of film preservation). “The Artist” doesn’t gloat in any kind of ambition; it’s a fun film, meant to inspire curiosity for silent film but mostly made for audiences to enjoy a feel-good story. This is one of the most entertaining and charming movies of the year.

lunes, 23 de enero de 2012

Scene City #9: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Fincher, 2011)

Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy is a sensation in the literary world, a smart and riveting series of thrillers featuring a fascinating female protagonist by the name of Lisbeth Salander. She is unlike any heroine in contemporary entertainment; with her piercings, tattoos and goth wear, she is a damaged creature living in isolation within a system of violence.

Larson’s books were adapted to Swedish films with Noomi Rapace playing Salander. Her performance was mesmerizing, going deep into her darkness and yet, creating empathy for the character. In “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” she meets Blomkvist, the disgraced editor of Millennium magazine who has been hired to solve the disappearance of a teenage girl almost 40 years ago. Their quest will involve a killer of women.

Of course, this seems prime material for David Fincher, who has done his share of movies about violent men but his take on this material seems somewhat redundant and overdone. He piles on the darkness with a claustrophobic feel and an invasive soundrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. This time Salander is played by Rooney Mara, creating a very different character from Rapace. Her Lisbeth is wounded and fragile, more victim than perpetrator and with a heavier emotional link to Blomkvist (played by Daniel Craig).

The movie starts with a brilliant title sequence that seems to conceptualize Salander’s inner violence (it also helps to have a rocking cover of “Immigrant Song” by Karen O and Reznor). But the energetic scene doesn’t reflect the rest of Fincher’s approach to the material. He keeps it surprisingly low key focusing on small and contained spaces and the dire and cold winter of Sweden. There are enough differences between the versions to avoid calling it a copycat (and some might argue that it’s a more complete adaptation from the novel). This version also changes the ending, and goes a bit heavy with its epilogue trying to tie everything neatly.

Fincher’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” isn’t one of his best efforts but it still shows great craftsmanship and as a thriller works very well. But, if one were to choose the better movie I’d go with the original (and its interesting sequels).

miércoles, 11 de enero de 2012

Scene City #8: Drive (Winding Refn, 2011)

“Drive” is a cool movie, plain and simple. It has an electrifying soundtrack (by composer Cliff Martinez and featuring the catchy song “A Real Hero”), great performances (the most notable by Albert Brooks, playing his first role as a villain) and a bolstering directing style from Nicolas Winding Refn (one of the most exciting of European filmmakers, see “Bronson” and “Valhalla Rising”). In “Drive” his camera focuses intently on Ryan Gosling, playing a man of few words and controlled emotions but who’s capable of inflicting terrible acts of violence.

The driver (he isn’t given a name) lives in a lonely apartment next to a woman (played by Carey Mulligan) whose husband is in prison. He befriends her and her son and soon enough is entangled in a plot to help her husband once he arrives. But the details are almost collateral pleasures next to the sheer act of watching a movie of such marvelous control of tone. Once it’s over we kind of forget of the conventional plot points and remember specific scenes, like the driver’s first date, the explosive violence on an elevator and a sequence where he wears a stunt mask to stalk a mobster. Those moments burn in the memory and make the film into a sort of urban dreamscape of daring imagination.

“Drive” is one of the best movies of the year. It’s exciting and original and drenched in atmosphere rewarding multiple viewings.

viernes, 2 de diciembre de 2011

Scene City #7: Warrior (O'Connor, 2011)

The story of the underdog is the most clichéd and predictable in the sports genre. Last year we got “The Fighter” in which Mark Wahlberg became a boxing champion whilst dealing with the drama of his family that included a controlling mother and a drug addict brother. The movie gave Oscars to both Melissa Leo and Christian Bale but beyond their performances it is predictable and monotonous in its portrayal of a family’s struggle. In many ways, “Warrior” is the movie “The Fighter” wanted to be, a rousing, powerful and moving drama that focuses on interesting characters and gains momentum in a series of well choreographed fights (so involving that members in the audience at my screening were cheering).

The film focuses on two brothers who went to take on very different lives. Tommy, played by Tom Hardy, became a marine after taking care of their mother (who ultimately died of cancer) and Brendan, played by Joel Edgerton, became a physics teacher after he married his high school sweetheart. Both became fighters from a very early age but Tommy was always the strongest one. Now they both enter a mixed martial arts tournament for a prize that might save Brendan’s family from losing their home and give a sense of closure to Tommy, who wants to give the money to the widow of his best friend.

Both Hardy and Edgerton are convincing in their roles and the script gives them moments of raw and intense emotion. Nick Nolte is also great as their alcoholic father (a role that maybe strikes too close to home for Nolte), living a life full of regrets.

I must confess I wasn’t very familiar with MMA fighting but after watching “Warrior” I found it to be ugly and brutal but cinematically very visceral and exciting. The tournament scenes bring energy and tension and the final confrontations packs an emotional wallop. “Warrior” is a movie that doesn’t avoid clichés but enhances them through character development turning it into a compelling drama.

viernes, 25 de noviembre de 2011

Scene City #6: The Skin I Live In (Almodovar, 2011)

Few filmmakers portray passions as vividly as Pedro Almodovar. With a lush and vibrant visual style and heavy and operatic themes running its narratives, his movies are dense and melodramatic while they juggle between a morbid fascination and heartfelt emotions. “The Skin I Live In” takes a detour into the queasy and perverse while still maintaining his usual motifs of lust and obsession. It performs a risky high-wire act in telling its revenge story (it’s wise to avoid spoilers beforehand, especially with a shocking revelation in its final act).

The film is fragmented in dissociative scenes of underlying resonance giving the audience pieces of information that seem to confuse early on but intrigue us throughout. Almodovar also does something quite interesting in revealing snippets of back story to the audience without sharing it between the characters.

Antonio Banderas plays a brilliant plastic surgeon who lives in a mansion whilst keeping a young woman who, for some unknown reason, remains his captive (she is played by the lovely Elena Anaya). As the film reveals flashbacks of characters we haven’t met yet we begin to find ourselves adrift en Almodovar’s messy narrative game but, in a strange way, hooked on the possibilities and outcomes of its diabolical predicaments.

“The Skin I Live In” is a fascinating experiment that holds an eerie power. It’s a film that’s rough around its edges, cool and glossy on the surface but raw and ugly on its center. It’s an uncomfortable and unforgettable psychological thriller that belongs in my top ten movies of 2011.

martes, 8 de noviembre de 2011

Scene City #5: Contagion (Soderbergh, 2011)

I can vividly remember the 2009 H1N1 pandemic that caused massive panic worldwide. In Mexico people walked out with disposable mouth covers, hand sanitizers were placed virtually everywhere and the overall fear was palpable. That particular virus strain caused the death of over 17,000 people (and billions of dollars in revenue for the pharmaceutical companies).
Movies about epidemics can be quite scary. I can remember watching “Outbreak” as a kid and being terrified every time I saw someone cough and in 2001, when Danny Boyle released the great “28 Days Later, its raged fueled inhabitants gave me nightmares for days. “Contagion” isn’t really a thriller but more of a clinical procedure documenting a possible worldwide pandemic scenario. It contains lots of scientific mumble-jumble and a large cast of recognizable actors playing doctors, scientists and politicians desperately trying to find a cure and avoid as much social panic as possible. This might sound like a tedious experience but Steven Soderbergh directs with style and keeps the story interesting even when characters randomly keep biting the dust. A problem with the movie is that even while the actors are convincing in their roles, some feel unnecessary and rather contrived. Take Jude Law’s character; he plays the kind of blogger who believes in conspiracy theories and bringing the truth to the people. All fair enough, but when the movie reveals him as a fraud and a manipulator, the movie leaves a frustrating void. There’s a sense that the movie would benefit without the character.
Still, “Contagion” is an entertaining movie that simply observes the workings behind a crisis. It is skillfully made even though it isn’t as memorable as it could have been.

miércoles, 2 de noviembre de 2011

Scene City #4: We Need To Talk About Kevin (Ramsay, 2011)

There’s no guide to parenthood. Eva wasn’t certain she wanted to be a parent but still did the best she could to give her son, who was problematic almost from birth, a fulfilling childhood. Kevin is every parent’s worst nightmare, a malicious and calculating little ingrate without pity or remorse. In many ways he is the representation of pure evil; an evil oblivious to everyone except Eva, who understands his darkness (his father, played by John C. Reilly, remained painfully naïve his whole life).

“We Need to Talk About Kevin” argues that malice is inbred and that violence inevitable. Eva lives a life of guilt and a constant harassment that follows her everywhere. The film cuts back and forth in time showing us a happy marriage, a frustrated period of motherhood and at 16 the culmination of a terrible act of violence that changes both the lives of Kevin and Eva.

Tilda Swinton is a great actress and here delivers a fantastic performance that is bound to get an Oscar nomination. The movie is a hard and uncomfortable watch with an emotional climax that leaves us in shock and disbelief. Eva and Kevin have a complicated relationship that is somehow tied within a pain they’ve shared their whole life (when Eva accidentally breaks her son’s arm in a dispute, he recalls it later as the most honest thing she ever did for him).

Is “We Need to Talk About Kevin” a horror story? In many ways it could be called that, as the film pulls us into the lives of a psychopath and his victims but it’s also a fascinating portrayal of a woman and her life of misery. It is, without a doubt, one of the more interesting works of 2011.

martes, 25 de octubre de 2011

Scene City #3: The Tree of Life (Malick, 2011)

Most movies are content with dealing with formal narratives while aspiring to tell a compelling story. They usually let their characters dictate the story’s themes but “The Tree of Life” lets its themes dictate the characters. Here we have a film that contemplates existence through the prism of an ordinary family life and pulls us in through the beauty of nature to contemplate our own.

Movies rarely get more ambitious than “The Tree of Life” and also, rarely more polarizing. The reactions from the audience at my screening were mostly of frustration and tedium and even though it won the coveted Palme D’Or at Cannes, the movie was met with both applause and boos in equal measure. I’m not a huge fan of Terrence Malick (I think “The Thin Red Line” is one of the most exhausting and dullest war movies ever made) but I admire the craft of his movies even though most of the time they feel like meandering philosophical statements. “The Tree of Life” starts with whispers and an amalgam of scenes from a family in the fifties, the cosmos and an extended sequence on the creation of life on our planet that includes dinosaurs (this sequence my baffle viewers who don’t see a connection with the rest of the story).

“The Tree of Life” is a beautiful and haunting work of art. Whether it works or not as art depends entirely on the viewer but there’s no denying that Malick pours himself into the picture and dares to take the audience on an astonishing journey, the journey of life itself. The actors embody perfectly their roles (except for Sean Penn who wanders aimlessly through the movie; Penn himself wasn’t satisfied with his role and the final product since he feels it fails to represent the beauty of the script). So divisive is the movie that even Penn fails to grasp Malick’s intentions but I was so moved by the family scenes that I started to wander into my own childhood and my love for my mother, father and brother (feelings evoked by empathy towards this memory, even though it’s quite different from mine).

It’s rare to find spirituality in a multiplex but “The Tree of Life” is a communion for the believers. It’s a soaring work that goes deep in its humanity and delivers a transcendental experience. It’s by far my favorite movie of 2011.

miércoles, 12 de octubre de 2011

Scene City #2: A Better Life (Weitz, 2011)

There are almost 50 million Latinos living in the United States (it is estimated that by 2050 they will represent 30% of the total population); many reside after crossing illegally and seeking jobs as gardeners, construction builders, kitchen staff members or even as maids for the rich. The issue of illegal immigration has become a hot topic in almost every election (especially in the state of California) but “A Better Life” isn’t trying to make any political statement in the matter. It wants us simply to empathize with a father desperately trying to raise his son and give some stability to their dire situation. The father, named Carlos Galindo, is played by Demian Bichir in a powerful and mature performance; there’s no denying that although there’s a sense of regret on taking his family across the border, he has always tried to give his son a good example in life (definitely tough for a teenager growing up in a rough neighborhood where the gang related violence has taken over).

“A Better Life” was directed by Chris Weitz and it proves how he is able to create intimacy and drama in a story that could’ve easily become a Hallmark movie filled with forced sentiment. Weitz made this film after “New Moon” (yet another terrible chapter in this atrocious series) and I hope he continues making this kind of cinema since big blockbusters don’t seem to suit him (he was also responsible for the economic fiasco of “The Golden Compass). The movie gets the Latino culture right and plunges us in authentic locations. It also introduces tension after Carlos’s truck gets stolen forcing him to do what he can to get it back. The final scenes in the movie are powerful and the speech Carlos delivers to his son is heartbreaking.

“A Better Life” isn’t preachy and avoids being corny thanks to its fantastic performance. It’s definitely a movie that might open the eyes of many people in the audience (especially American ones).

lunes, 10 de octubre de 2011

Scene City #1: Melancholia (Von Trier, 2011)

I try to watch every movie with an open mind but some movies trigger uneasy thoughts in my subconscious way before I even watch them; “Melancholia” is one of those instances when a director’s personality hovers so intently over his work that it’s impossible to review it objectively. I dislike Von Trier (and it doesn’t have anything to do with his silly antics at the Cannes Film Festival); its mostly because every one of his movies (at least the ones I’ve seen) feel like some sort of shared therapy session and we can almost pinpoint when his characters stop being themselves and become catalysts for Von Trier’s prejudices. It’s what I like to call “The Chaos Reigns Von Trier Rule of Thumb”.
“Melancholia” is about the end of the world. In Von Trier fashion, there’s a stylish prologue that confirms the doomed fate of its characters and the movie is divided into two chapters, the first one focusing on Justine (Kirsten Dunst’s character) and the second one on her sister Claire (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, who apparently didn’t mind working again with the director who made her appear in scenes of genitalia mutilation on his previous film). The first half of this movie takes place at Justine’s wedding party, with the usual assortment of character actors who make an impact even though we might, just as well, call their appearances mere cameos. I confess a certain fascination with these scenes even though Justine’s depression seems contrived at every turn. The second act turns Justine into a catatonic wreck, while subtly (or maybe not so subtly) suggesting some sort of clairvoyance psychic nonsense to her character.
Kirsten Dunst won the best actress award at Cannes and, to be fair, Dunst shows maturity in her role even though Von Trier doesn’t give her much to work with. The impending doom scenes drag down until we find ourselves just waiting for the damn planet to hit Earth already. Since the characters are miserable in virtually every scene, the end feels more like a relief to both its audience and its players. “Melancholia” is a movie designed to be discussed by those who really admire Von Trier’s body of work (and, astonishingly, he seems to gather a large following). For haters it offers no hope or redemption, no sense of purpose or reason; it’s conceptually within the boundaries of Von Trier’s continuous self exploration. In other words, it’s just another pretentious bore.

domingo, 4 de septiembre de 2011

Sin #97: Summertime 2011 Part II

The summer season of 2011 is finally over; let’s take a look at the remaining movies.

“Kung Fu Panda 2” is a sequel done right. Here’s a beautifully animated and exciting adventure that pleases both kids and their parents. It’s curious how Dreamworks showed a lot more heart in this story than Pixar did with “Cars 2”, which was a departure for a studio that usually deals with emotions much more sophisticated than we are accustomed to in animated features. “Cars 2” is a shallow and forgettable action romp, boasting some impressive visuals but lacking a lot in the narrative department. Still, it’s an entertaining movie but it’s also a disappointing one from a studio that’s made some of the best family films of all time.

Some might remember this summer for its sequels or superhero movies but I will remember it for “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”, easily the worst movie of the year and one of the most wretched so-called pieces of entertainments I’ve ever had to endure. To watch a movie this dumb, vulgar, senseless and mean and to watch it gross an enormous amount of cash at the box office is to witness a complete disregard for the value of cinema as an art form. And I know that we shouldn’t expect high art in a Hollywood blockbuster but at least we should expect an engaging storyline and characters we care for. “Transformers 3” is a 157 minute waste of time; utter garbage that cements Michael Bay as a showman for imbeciles and a freak impresario, eager to cash in from the puerile fantasies of the male adolescent.

The one bright spot about watching this movie is that it sets a standard so low that practically any movie looks good by comparison. That’s why I’m glad I saw Duncan Jones’s “Source Code” after Transformers. Here’s a smart sci-fi parable about a man reliving the same instant before a bomb explodes on a train. It is terrific entertainment and a nice tonic to the toxic waste of Bay’s spectacle.

One of the most eagerly awaited releases for the year was the final installment in the Harry Potter franchise (the most commercially lucrative series in movie history). After a chronically tedious start to the Deathly Hallows story, it basically redeems the weaker aspects and becomes one of the summer’s most exciting blockbusters. The film boasts terrific acting and special effects and a thrilling pace bringing the action back to Hogwarts and tying all the loose ends. For fans it’s an emotionally satisfying ending.

A couple of fantastic movies followed with “Captain America: The First Avenger” and “Super 8”. “Captain America” is a gloriously retro adventure in the style of those Saturday morning serials from the 30s and 40s promoting so-called American values (the movie makes fun of its cheeky propaganda aspects). Chris Evans proved to be a great casting choice for the titular hero making the film one of the best of the summer and Marvel’s best offering (on par with “X-Men: First Class”).

J.J. Abrams “Super 8” is also a retro piece of entertainment that takes us back to those 80s Amblin movies where a bunch of kids find themselves on an extraordinary adventure. There’s a lot of debt to Spielberg in “Super 8” but Abrams crafts his movie with style and a special gift for casting since all of the kids are terrific. I confess that the monster is the less appealing aspect of the film since the story with the kids is much more engrossing. The one superhero I missed in theaters was “Green Lantern” but since its reviews ranged from mediocre to terrible I don’t think I missed on much.

One of the biggest disappointments of the summer was “Aliens and Cowboys”, an ungainly mishmash of genres that’s so clumsily executed that it works neither as a western nor an alien invasion picture. The cast is completely wasted with the usual array of stereotypes and the aliens are so generic they lack any menace.

The best was saved for last, however, with “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, an impressive and surprisingly provocative work that goes beyond any of the Apes sequels and stands on its own as a fantastic summer entertainment. The CG in the movie is amazing and so convincing that it turns Ceasar, an animated ape, into a full living character that’s much more human than his real human counterparts.

Overall, the summer of 2011 provided a good time at the movies. There were some big surprises and some big disappointments but it was mostly a successful introduction to superheroes, reboots and sequels.

sábado, 25 de junio de 2011

Sin #96: De La Iglesia

A lot of people hate clowns. I tend to blame Stephen King’s “It” for the damage; its deranged clown played by Tim Curry caused endless nightmares for every kid that caught the miniseries on TV back in the 90s. I’ve often wondered what kind of people volunteer to become clowns. For every honest bloke wearing a wig and heavy makeup there must be a dozen of repressed man-childs on an everyday psychotic breakdown.

In “Balada Triste de Trompeta” (released in the US with the silly title of “The Last Circus”), a wickedly dark and audacious comedy of sorts, we meet a clown who’s been suffering since his early childhood (his dad, also a clown, was killed during the war in Spain). As a young man he becomes the “sad clown”, destined to never make anyone laugh. Not that there’s a lot of funny material in Alex de la Iglesia’s movie (except for incredulous laughter for its brutal and grotesque scenes).

Alex de la Iglesia is a director with a great sense of humor who almost always stamps his own brand of humor on each of his genre pictures. I remember one of his earlier comedies, the inventive “El Dia de la Bestia” about a priest trying to prevent the birth of the antichrist and therefore the end of days. It’s a funny movie that manages to be slightly blasphemous but terrifically entertaining (one of its stars is Santiago Segura, a comedian best known for his “Torrente” series). After “El Dia de la Bestia” I saw “El Crimen Ferpecto” (having missed Iglesia’s western spoof “800 Bullets”). The title is purposefully misspelled and its is a bit more grounded on reality than “Bestia” but, in a way, equally outlandish; it starts with a man desperately trying to become the general manager of a top retail store and ends as a grotesque battle between him and a very unattractive coworker who is obsessed with him. It ain’t exactly a love story.

“The Oxford Murders” is a strange departure for Iglesia. It’s his first English speaking feature, set in England and featuring Elijah Wood and the great John Hurt in a mystery thriller in the style of “The DaVinci Code”. Well, I hated “The DaVinci Code” and its sequel “Angels and Demons” (this one a little less I guess) mostly because those films are wall-to-wall with twists that cheat its narrative and make us care very little for any of their one-dimensional characters (Tom Hanks is especially dull as Robert Landon). “The Oxford Murders” is smarter, focusing on an intriguing premise and using a lot of mathematical and philosophical banter to solve its mystery and even though the ending is a little silly the movie remains intriguing and very entertaining.

“Balada Triste de Trompeta” remains Iglesia’s best movie because it transcends its genre and becomes a grotesque tragedy. It perfectly demonstrates Iglesia’s strange but compelling imagination and over-the-top sense of humor. He remains one of the most interesting directors in Spain.

jueves, 9 de junio de 2011

Sin #95: Summertime 2011 Part I

Every summer brings a series of blockbusters that hardly produce anything original in the movie landscape. The summer of 2011 breaks records for sequels and 3D offerings (not to mention superhero movies) demonstrating that Hollywood is eager to exploit franchises and ignore any shred of artistic qualities for its big productions. Even though that’s the case for most, there are still some good movies to be found.

Marvel opened up the season with “Thor”, which was a fun adaptation of the comic book about a Nordic god stripped down of his powers and cast off to Earth (while his mischievous younger brother takes control of the mythological kingdom). “Thor” is by no means a great movie, but it’s lightweight and entertaining, with a charismatic cast who actually bring some gravitas to their silly roles (Chris Hemsworth proved to be an inspired casting choice for the title character).

“Thor” was followed by “Fast Five”, which actually takes the tired franchise on a fresh new direction. Instead of focusing on street racing, the story now develops into a surprisingly entertaining heist movie filled with impossible action sequences and a breezy pace (not to mention the exotic location of Rio de Janeiro). “Fast Five” was a surprise and a decent reboot which benefited from a marketing campaign that exploited the clash of action icons Vin Diesel and The Rock.

Next was the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, “On Stranger Tides”, which might be one of the most unnecessary sequels in recent memory. While the first Pirates was a genuinely original piece of Hollywood entertainment, its sequels felt like bloated and meandering cash cows.

Still, they all carried Gore Verbinski’s quirky vision which made for some surreal and entertaining moments. This new movie, directed by Rob Marshall, is so stale that even Captain Jack Sparrow is clueless as to why he is present for most of the picture. The addition of new and uninteresting characters only makes the experience more frustrating. “On Stranger Tides” is so forgettable and banal, that even Johnny Depp feels like he’s phoning it in (even though he was once nominated for an Oscar for playing Sparrow).

One of the most disappointing summer movies is “The Hangover 2”, which saw the return of the wolf pack after their hilarious series of misfortunes in Las Vegas. The first Hangover was a very funny movie that kept us interested with its mystery format and delighted us with its outrageous characters (especially Zack Galifianakis’s Alan). The sequel doesn’t push the story as much as repeat the events in a different setting. There are some funny moments in “The Hangover 2” but none register as powerfully as in the original (a movie that makes me laugh out loud every time I watch it). Even though it’s an inferior sequel, I would still go see “The Hangover 3” just to enjoy the company of the guys.

The best movie so far was also a pleasant surprise. “X-Men: First Class” is a prequel that actually goes back to basics and delivers a compelling story. “First Class” is blessed with an excellent cast and smart enough to create believable relationships amidst the special effects. Director Matthew Vaughn mixes the real Cuban crisis with the mutant revolution and creates an intriguing fantasy that holds our attention even though we know what’s in store for the characters.

There are still many movies to be released this summer including JJ Abrams’s Spielberg-like “Super 8”, another two comic book adaptations with Captain America and The Green Lantern, and sequels to Kung Fu Panda, Cars and Transformers among others.

To be continued…