About Grant

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New York, NY, United States
Film director and screenwriter. Cinephile since birth. Director of DREAMS OF THE WAYWARD (2013). Film Studies MA student at Columbia University.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Film Review: Le Havre (2011) directed by Aki Kaurismäki 2.5/5

  Le Havre, an odd film that has been gathering a lot of attention (too much, in my opinion), made its way through the Cannes circuit winning the Fipresci Prize yet losing in all 7 standard feature-film competition categories.  Considered Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki's most mainstream film, Le Havre fails to be a film greater than the location it takes its name from.
 Following an old shoe-shiner, Marcel Marx (André Wilms), lives an almost vagabond lifestyle traveling through Normandy trying to make enough money to sustain he and his wife, Arletty (Kati Outinen).  When he returns home one night to find his wife ill in the corner of their kitchen he rushes her to the hospital but knows that he must continue shoe-shining.
 Meanwhile, a cargo box is opened by French police in a port in Normandy revealing a dozen illegal African immigrants on route to London and a young boy runs out of the cargo.  Now pinned as an African terrorist by the French government (the funniest moment of the film), the boy remains in hiding until he meets the depressed yet kind Marcel Marx.  Marcel decides to help the boy get to London in a series of Good Samaritan like deeds.
 Though the film has a nice message (kindness, love etc..), the film is an absolute waste with a resolution far too predictable.  
 Traditionally, American films are not location specific (unless it's a Woody Allen film), but European filmmakers are notorious for making films dedicated to cities.  Many of these films are some of the greatest ever made, but this is not one of them.  The film is almost too focused upon music (whether playing on a radio, record player, or a live performance by a real band popular in Le Havre).  Rather than being artistic or profound, as in American director Wes Anderson's films, in Le Havre the music drags and causes uncomfortable moments of stillness that seem to ignore the true responses to music in the real world.
 Had the film continued down the path that the first five minutes lead the audience to believe the film would be about, the film would be close to perfect.  Sadly, Kaurismäki chose sentimentality over original writing... It's his loss.
My ranking 2.5/5 stars

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Film Review: "Shame" (2011) directed by Steve McQueen 5/5

British director Steve McQueen's sophomore film "Shame" is a film that would have been surrounded by controversy and perhaps never screened in theaters in the states had it been released more than a decade ago. Out of all the films that have been released this year, so far, this is the most powerful and distinguishing work in a societal context, in a standard film viewing context, and a cinema history context.
Bearing an NC-17 rating, this film has essentially covered advertising based off of the reputation... it's not a bad reputation though (as it was in the case of a hand-full of films released in the 90s marked with the same ratings "curse"), instead the director of "Shame" and Fox Searchlight Pictures have embraced the rating as a testament to how authentic and real the film is. Their perception of the rating in relation to "Shame" is spot on. Yes, the film is gratuitous in a sexual manner, but no, the film does not use sex as a gimmick or as something to be flaunted.
"Shame" follows Brandon (Michael Fassbender) who is a man who would like to have control of his life and be able to balance his priorities, but his very serious addiction to sex interferes with basic emotional connections and family interaction (as well as his career). The premise of a film circulating around a man addicted to sex seems almost laughable, but until seeing the movie does the true downward-spiral nature of this man's sexual appetite truly resonate. Glamorizing nothing, "Shame" shows sex merely as a function (a hurtle that many movie goers who don't plan to see "Shame" may have difficulty overcoming).
Full of emotion and subtle details, this film is about more than sex: "Shame" is about human interaction and addiction. Comparing this film to Darren Aronofsky's film "Requiem For A Dream" would almost be an insult as "Requiem For A Dream" (which is all about various forms of addiction) is over-dramatised and pushes audiences to feel emotions that are difficult to sympathize with (as is characteristic of many of Aronofsky's films). In contrast, "Shame" is a film that finds its emotions in the realms of the real world (and a world, perhaps, rarely seen by those who aren't sex addicts).
Artistically, "Shame" is a masterpiece with some of the most beautiful cinematography used to capture some of the most mundane actions and behavioristics. At times, entire scenes will be captured in a single take lasting five or more minutes (an incredible spectacle to experience on an aesthetic level, and on a performance level). Fassbender's acting is not only exceptional, but it comes from a highly natural and guttural place which makes the film tense and holds the film together in general. The music serves as a beautiful accent piece that never distracts from the content of the film (only a few compositions were original as majority of the soundtrack is classical). Tone is greatly enhanced in this film by the audio as often the sound is isolated to make the audience feel as alone and helpless as Fassbender.
The loss of innocence is at the heart of this film, and with that loss comes the lack of discernment and control which is exhibited throughout the film. "Shame" strikes a nerve that few films can tap, and that may be in part because of the "package" the film comes in (the NC-17 package, that is), but the film also stands on its own legs without gimmicks (and without the NC-17 rating being a gimmick in its own right). NC-17 will hopefully become more acceptable in response to this artistic work which should not be lost in the sea of banality as exhibited in cheap "unrated" comedies and out-of-control "horror" films which give NC-17 a bad name. "Shame" is at the pinnacle of artistry and realism, and hopefully the boldness of directors like McQueen will continue to be embraced.

My ranking: 5/5 stars (#1 film of 2011)

Film Review: "Poetry" (2010) directed by Lee Chang-Dong 5/5

Right from the beginning, this film wraps the viewer in beauty with conflict. Korean film director Lee Chang-Dong tells a beautiful story about an elderly woman who is beginning to suffer from Alzheimer's in his latest film "Poetry". Though aging, she is full of life and energy, and as words begin to escape her memory she decides to take a poetry class. Around the same time, the dead body of a middle school girl washes up in the river, and the story that connects these two distant lives feels real in this often cruel world that we share.
Very rarely do films capture age this accurately, and the result is a mesmerizing film with soul and passion.
The screenplay, written by the director, truly gives the lead actress the ability to flow into the role, and as a result, everything that she says and does feels true and honest. There are several moments of joy and happiness, and many moments of sorrow and loss, but thanks to great writing, the film feels balanced and whole.
Everything about this film, regardless of its South Korean setting, feels so tangible and relatable, and that's truly the mark of a great film.
"Poetry" doesn't answer everything, but it leaves a lasting impact and is an easy film to feel connected to as we all will eventually age. Truly a must-see.

My ranking: 5/5 stars

Film Review: "Drive" (2011) directed by Nicolas Winding Refn 4.5/5

In a sea of films with big explosions and miscast "superstar"-actors comes the film "Drive" which has neither big explosions nor miscast actors.
Directed by Danish film director Nicolas Winding Refn (winner of best director at Cannes), "Drive" is a suspenseful film about a man with no name, the driver (Ryan Gosling), who is working part-time as a stuntman and a mechanic. When he meets the woman living down the hall in his apartment (Carey Mulligan), everything changes for him in a series of fate and coincidence.
One of the best shot dramatic action films in recent memory, this film is more art-house than it is a film with violent moments. With a perfect pace and well balanced character development, there's something for everyone in this film (but it's a film that many may not enjoy).
I'm not a fan of gangster films, but this film is something else entirely while still containing elements and characters of the genre. The imagery is often dream-like and deeply meditative which balances well against some of the grittier content.
It should be noted that the standard American audience may not be used to violence as it is depicted in "Drive". Traditionally, films are often loaded with emotionless killings and big explosions, but each moment of violence in "Drive" is personal and highly realistic.
Dancing in the realm of such films as "Mean Streets" and "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly", "Drive" is an experience that is powerful and remarkable for its artistic edge and bold approach.

My ranking: 4.5/5 stars

Film Review: "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" (2011) directed by David Fincher 5/5

Though many have whined and boohooed over an "Americanized" version of "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" (a film which was previously made in Sweden, the nation in which the popular Stieg Larson series was born), it should be realized that this is not a cheap American adaptation, but rather an artistic adaptation of the book (as it should be). David Fincher, director of "The Game" and "The Social Network", took on the project and embraced the darkness and brutality of the story as he always does. With his guidance and critiquing eye, "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" has achieved its full-potential on the screen.
Daniel Craig's character, Blomkvist, has left to a secluded island in Sweden to escape the negative press he has received in the main-land, but while there he ends up investigating a violent series of events with the killer of women suspected to be in his midst. In need of an assistant, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) is assigned to help him identify the killer.
Rooney Mara is a spectacle in this thriller. Her appearance is dark yet highly seductive, and her atmosphere is chilling yet hopeless. A victim of heinous acts herself, it's riveting to watch her story collide with Blomkvist's, and their interaction on the screen is spot on. All of the gratuitous rape and violent scenes are completely necessary to bring the two stories together, and the scenes are certainly as intense as an R rating will allow. Lisbeth is a victim (and in many ways), and the graphic nature of the things that happen to her and others only propel the story forward.
As with all of Fincher's work, the film is gorgeous yet as haunting as the tone of the adaptation requires. Filmed in Sweden, this film still harkens to the land that the books were written in (even newspaper headlines etc are in Swedish).
Fincher's "..Dragon Tattoo" breathes desperation, and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' soundtrack takes the film to that level while maintaining the cyber-centered realm that Salander lives in.
This film is a smart thriller, and it lives above and beyond any previous visual adaptation of this tale. Definitely a must-see story of revenge, loss, and hatred; Fincher's adaptation is filled with beauty and vivid brutality and certainly the ultimate "feel bad movie of Christmas".

My ranking: 5/5 stars

Film Review: "The Artist" (2011) directed by Michel Hazanavicius 5/5

In the year 2011, who would've thought that one of the most talked about and well-recieved films of the year would be a black and white silent film filmed in the fashion of a true 1920s silent-era film?
Serving almost as a glorified tribute of sorts to talking pictures like "Singin' In The Rain" which deals with very similar topical matters (and even homaging to "Citizen Kane"), "The Artist" lives as a film relevant to the art of film and the history of cinema while embodying the silent film persona.
The film follows George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) who is perhaps one of the most famous silent-film actors in this fictional Hollywood setting. Conflict arises though when talking-pictures become the new thing in Hollywood.
Jean Dujardin is brilliant as George (he looks like a stereotypical silent movie star, and acts just like one in a silent film about silent films). Also notable is the well-trained dog in "The Artist" who is owned by George Valentin and stars with him in all of his silent films. The dog is almost like a person, and the silent-film format really enhances the dog's performance. The entire film is driven by great physical acting which holds much of the comedy (and film director Michel Hazanavicius' control and knowledge of silent films in relation to cinema as a whole makes this movie work as a miraculous capsule of a time long-gone). The music in the film is enchanting and highly emotional (which aids in relating to our unheard characters, but it doesn't take away from the experience).
Being set in the silent-era on silent-era movie sets, "The Artist" also seems to accurately depict the Hollywood environment and the art of watching and making films in the 1920s (everything from the orchestra being conducted in the theater as audiences watch the film, to on-the-spot casting opportunities).
The movie is essentially a rise-and-fall film (much like "Citizen Kane"), but it is a comedy in the same vein as "Singin' In The Rain". Families everywhere should race to the theater to see this film! It is a joyful comedy with the same taste and class as the classic filmmakers of the time (and a unique experience in our day and age).

My ranking: 5/5 stars

Film Review: "Melancholia" (2011) directed by Lars von Trier 3.5/5

 Beginning with a slow-motion montage depicting the final events of the film (and the conclusion of the existence of Earth), Melancholia can only be left to build up to those devastating moments from that time.
Danish director Lars von Trier has a knack for making audiences relate to characters in scripts that cross the line of believability freely and often. His films are difficult to categorize by genre due to their thematic diversities, Dogme 95 visual schemes, and overall artistic nature. Disappointingly, this film reads more straightforward than Lars von Trier's films typically do (and this may be a result of knowing how the film will end within the first moments of the movie). His films are known for having grand finales that leave viewers speechless, shocked, and in awe of the beauty of cinematic storytelling, but the ending to Melancholia feels far too gratifying as it is a fulfillment of a promise the audience was given from the start.
"Part 1" of this two part science fiction drama focuses upon Justine (Kirsten Dunst) on her wedding day. She seems happy and madly in love with her husband Michael, but the events that follow the introduction of the newly-weds feel too sudden and unexplained.
"Part 2", on the other hand, focuses upon Justine's sister, Clair (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) a few days after the wedding. Their connection on the screen is sensational and the intensified focus on the planet Melancholia only strengthens their half of the film.
Lars von Trier does a wonderful job at keeping the stellar events in the minds of the audience (even when it isn't the most important thing on the screen at that moment), but in the end, "Part1" of this beautifully shot artistic disaster-film is rather unsatisfying, and oddly unnerving. The lead character (Justine) defies everything that the audience and wedding attendants would like for her to do, and there is little explanation for her actions (or visible repercussions).
Why Kirsten Dunst won best actress at Cannes is a mystery, as it felt like a standard performance that doesn't begin to compare to Gainsbourg's performance (which Gainsbourg won best actress at Cannes in 2009 for Lars von Trier's previous film Antichrist). "Part 2" redeemed this film easily, but the ending doesn't leave near as much of a discussion as his films traditionally do.
As always, the cinematography in Melancholia is wonderful (as to be expected from a Lars von Trier film). With a moderately larger budget than usual, it is clear that the extra money went to the special effects (a newer field for von Trier's work). Beautiful space imagery and planetary photography enhances the entire believability of the film (which is important in this). The light from the planet Melancholia casting over the golfing grounds of John's mansion is breathtakingly real, and set against the backdrop of the soundtrack - featuring Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" - the imagery is remarkable.
Where Melancholia falls apart is within the script. Where clarification and visible character development was needed, it was consistently lacking in this film about a chronically depressed woman who seems to have no reason for her state of depression. There could be many explanations as to why Justine is depressed, but it is never answered within the context of the film. There are some wonderful side performances from the likes of the Lars von Trier regulars Udo Kier and Stellan Skarsgård (Skarsgård was also in David Fincher's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo), but there performances are both fleeting and at times unnecessary.
It should be noted that the references and allusions to Andrei Tarkovsky's films are still prevalent in Melancholia, as in Lars von Trier's previous film. Melancholia seems much more in line with Tarkovsky's final film The Sacrifice (1986) as it follows an old man on the first day of World War 3 who is given the chance to save all of humanity if he gives up everything that he has (including his beautiful mansion). Lars even includes an image from a book that Tarkovsky used nearly 40 years prior in his film Solaris (1972), and a reference to Andrei Rublev (1966) is included as well as a horse hauntingly rises to its feet.
Though Melancholia is weak for Lars von Trier, it is beautiful to know that even when a director as wonderful and unique as Lars is not at his best, his films are still better than any of the typical films being released by "Hollywood" now.

Melancholia IMDB

My ranking: 3.5/5 stars

Film Review: "War Horse" (2011) directed by Steven Spielberg 2/5

Steven Spielberg is a legendary director, a house-hold name, and a man respected for his contribution to the art of film through his often exciting and entertaining films. Having done war films before (and plenty of films with action), one would expect only the best from this accomplished "Saving Private Ryan" director (regardless of his less impressive past decade of filmmaking). "War Horse" has many great moments, and at times it is very exciting with justifiable emotional scenes, but a great majority of the film feels contrived and appears to be on a stage.
Based upon a bestselling children's book by Michael Morpurgo and then adapted to the theatrical stage, Spielberg's adaptation feels oddly un-Spielberg. The scenery for many of the early stable scenes looks as though it was just shipped from Hollywood and hadn't quite had time to be aged by a set decorator yet (and the lighting at times is horrifically bad with characters far too bright in the screen making everything look cheap). Most of these issues are found within the first twenty minutes, but once the horse is sent to war, the film picks up and becomes a great piece of film... until the horse ends up in German hands.
"War Horse" treats the audience as if we are all stupid as the German soldiers open their mouths revealing perfect English (even the film acknowledges this in a joke). If the horse is going to be passed throughout the various nations fighting WW1, then the unique languages that come from each side of the trenches should be expressed.
(In my opinion: It would have been far more impressive and special of an experience if the Germans had spoken German and not have been subtitled. The Horse is kind of the main character, and it would have been great fun to have experienced the film through the Horses ears.)
The whole movie is trying to please every demographic with giddy dialogue, desperately sad times, forced monologues, green pastures, silly animals, Biblical quotes, and a general lack of horses dying on camera. Why we never see horses die in combat is a mystery to me. If this film is about a horse, we should see other horses die to emphasize the great peril that our protagonist is facing (sure, the trench and battle scenes are spectacular, but we only see people die). Not until the end of a few battles do we see the horse carcasses.
The ending was certainly better than the beginning, but it was highly predictable. This is a movie that has something for every age, but that's where the movie falls apart.
Spielberg never should have directed this film. A WW1 film is something he should pursue, but a children's book adaptation comparable to a young girl's fascination with horses does not match the ingredients for a cohesive film. I'll stick with "Hook" for family-friendly Spielberg.

My ranking: 2/5 stars

Film Review: "Certified Copy" (2011) directed by Abbas Kiarostami 4/5

Directed by "controversial" Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, "Certified Copy" is a film about what is real and what is fake.
Juliette Binoche plays a woman only known as "she" (as revealed by the credits) who is moderately infatuated with a man named James Miller who has written a book titled "Certified Copy" which examines the importance of copies and forged artworks and how the fake artworks can bring viewers of art closer to the originals (even though it isn't real)... thus begins our film.
The unnamed main character (she), invites the author to see her personal antique collection, and from that point they spend the entire day together. Their day begins simply by talking about art as they drive through the streets of Italy, but when they stop at a coffee shop and the elderly lady serving the coffee mistakes them for being a married couple Juliette Binoche's character decides to play along. For the rest of the day, she and James spend the whole day pretending to be a married couple traveling through Italy for their 15th wedding anniversary.
The script of "Certified Copy" is not perfect, but it is the small coincidences and random background noises or images that really help the theme of this film breathe. Wedding bells are heard from chapels constantly, and newly weds still in suits and white dresses are seen in several scenes parading the streets and having their pictures taken. (Having the main character unnamed also implies a sense of submission to one' husband as found in wedding vows and the culture that the director is from.)
Where this film could have fallen apart, is just when the story picks up. At times, their pretending and references to events that both of them know never happened (example: their wedding day) cross a line of unbelievability as we, as an audience, have to cross the hurtle that both characters are choosing to pretend they are married without ever acknowledging that they are pretending.
That's where the theme of the film shines at its a best. It does't matter that they weren't really married, as it helped them see their own flaws and gain a greater understanding of love and marriage (just as a forged painting can give a viewer the same knowledge as the real painting).
This movie isn't for everyone, but it is a beautiful look at the occasionally ugly side of love and the things that love can make people do for others.

My ranking: 4/5 stars

Film Review: "Captain America: The First Avenger" (2011) directed by Joe Johnston 2.5/5

In the realm of superhero films, which seem to be an odd fad for people (like myself) who do not enjoy glittery vampires, this film makes a decent superhero movie.
I hate that most of my complaints about this movie concern the things that I had expected which were, tragically, missing. I had hoped that this would have Nazi killing on par with "Raiders of the Lost Ark" or even "Inglourious Basterds", but frankly, the Nazi killing was much more futuristic than anticipated.
Visually, there were a few great moments (VE Day looked amazing) and the first 30 minutes before Steve Rogers' transformation into Captain America looked spectacular! Beyond the first 30 minutes, character development dropped to the side, and the threat that Hugo Weaving's character proposed was never fully established. Hugo Weaving, a character actor best known as Agent Smith and Lord Elrond, plays one of his least intelligent rolls with a character that had wild untapped-potential.
The usage of montages were nearly abused as images of indiscernible explosions and a shield-wielding-Avenger only made me want to see more of the battle and less of the war-highlights.
Halfway through the film, Captain America forms a "rat-pack" of incredible survivors of a POW camp, but none of the characters that he selected seemed to play a role in the film (and were, once again, lacking development). So much time is dedicated to introducing these characters, yet we only see them in action as tiny side-bits in a montage of comic-styled explosions.
This movie had many great one-liners (specifically from Tommy Lee Jones), but an emotional connection beyond the first 45 minutes was impossible.
Compared to the other superhero movies that have been released, this film is the one to see this year, but sadly, cinematic perfection is not available.

My ranking: 2.5/5 stars

Film Review: "Midnight In Paris" (2011) directed by Woody Allen 5/5

Have you ever wanted to live in a different time period? I have, and so has Owen Wilson's character Gill in "Midnight In Paris". Woody Allen is known for writing films about nostalgia (and has often starred in the main rolls of his own films as the nostalgic character), but for his latest film he passes the acting torch to Owen Wilson who plays a toned down variation of the stereotypical Woody Allen protagonist.
Gill (Owen Wilson) is a struggling writer seeking inspiration while on a trip with his fiancé in Paris. When they stumble upon some old friends of his fiancé's, Gill (being a to-himself kind of guy) alienates himself from her and her friends by roaming the streets of Paris as he tries to think of new ideas for his book. What he finds in the late hours of Paris though, is much more than just inspiration.
This film is a blast from beginning to end, and could easily be enjoyed by anyone who is a fan of art, literature, music, or movies in general (particularly compared to some of Woody Allen's past films).
In Woody Allen's 42nd film, he pays tribute to the people of the early 1900s who inspire him most (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Picasso etc etc) in a very comical and hilarious fashion. Though, these characters are not just in the story for purposes of entertainment, as they help Gill become a greater person and gain a greater understanding of his own life.
This film has beautiful imagery that is not overpowering, and the editing was clever and helped reveal the characters and the story.
This movie is the ULTIMATE comedy of the summer! It's smart, but not overly sure of itself, it's fun yet still fragile (just like the director), and it's a pleasurable nostalgic walk through history that is never raunchy or foul.
Pure comedy with lots of originality in a summer that is besmirched by sequels and hangovers.

My ranking: 5/5 stars

Film Review: "Beginners" (2011) directed by Mike Mills 2/5

This is a movie with great potential, but a lack of substance. Directed by Mike Mills and starring an all-star cast, this film pins itself to be edgy yet nostalgic (a difficult combination to pull off from the start).
The main character, Oliver (Ewan McGregor), is at the start of a relationship while staring back to his childhood and the past few years in an effort to learn more about himself.
Certain character reactions in the relationship feel real, but their explanations for these reactions did not match what I visually believed they were thinking (which, realistically, it never should be explained at all).
"Beginners" is a very stylistic film which serves as a benefit and a disadvantage. There are several great "visual aids" on the screen to help translate inner thoughts, and I thought it was quite clever to give subtitles to the blank stare of Oliver's dog "Arthur".
These "visual aids" and stylistic happenings also happen too frequently, and the movie would have been much better if it had ended directly after one of them (rather than continuing for another 15 minutes).
Casting was pretty great, and the movie is almost worth watching for Arthur the dog and Christopher Plummer's character who has recently revealed to his son that he is gay (a very comical reveal), but there are enough characters who look miscast for their roles (specifically the oddly tall boyfriend to Plummer) that it is a difficult problem to overlook.
There was also no need for vandalism in the film (particularly the open acknowledgement that it was wrong). Though the things they spray-paint on the walls were quite ironic and humorous, that's all that it is. Nothing more. Nothing less. It was simply a meaningless distraction from the plot.
Though the movie has a fun "independent" soundtrack and appearance, the movie feels like it doesn't know what it is or which direction it really wants to go down.

My ranking: 2/5 stars

Film Review: "Martha Marcy May Marlene" (2011) directed by T. Sean Durkin 2.5/5

This film is filled with great performances and has a highly unique approach to the storytelling... but that's it.
From the beginning, it is clear that the first time director/writer T. Sean Durkin is attempting to get the audience as confused as the main character on whether she is in the present or in the horrifying sex cult she spent the past two years of her life in. The transitions, at times, are often seamless between the present and her horrific past on the farm owned by the cult leader, Patrick (John Hawkes), leaving the audience in a constant state of being initially unaware of where they are (sometimes this can go on for an entire scene) which is very impressive and exciting.
The structure makes for a very unique psychological thriller, but what's lacking is the character development. The cult is oddly believable and doesn't feel too contrived for the part of America they're in, but what the cult stands for is highly questionable which begins to make viewers even wonder why someone like Martha (the name confused protagonist) would even join. We know very little of her past except that she is supposedly highly irresponsible, but very little of that is seen.
To cap things off, the moment that you think you are about to discover something important that will explain everything that the plot is missing, the film ends. This ending is not an artful cut off like "No Country For Old Men", but instead it feels like the writer/director forgot to write the ending (or just got lazy).
The film is almost worth watching just for the structure of the narrative, but the story leaves much desired and has very little payoff.

My ranking: 2.5/5 stars

Film Review: "Super 8" (2011) directed by J.J. Abrams 4.5/5

If you have ever made a movie (some of us), thought about making a movie (most of us), or seen a movie (everyone), then you should see this film. Directed/written by JJ Abrams and produced by Steven Spielberg, this film is almost a dream-come-true for anyone who loved "Jaws" and "Close Encounters Of The Third Kind" (and any film that was released in the 1970s), or anyone who had a childhood.
With a fantastic cast of young kid-actors, this movie is an enjoyable film that is filled with adventure, suspense, joy/sorrow, and a few genuinely scary moments. The characters do not feel contrived, and have strong traits that allow for immediate connections with all of the wide cast!
Watching the movie, I truly felt that I was watching my own childhood (and that's the power of Spielberg).
The movie is believable, and feels familiar (in a nostalgic sense), but is certainly like nothing else.
I, personally, would love to see it again!

My ranking: 4.5/5 stars

Film Review: "The Tree of Life" (2011) directed by Terrence Malick 5/5

Reclusive director Terrence Malick will leave you speechless with his latest film (and arguably his greatest film). Winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes, "The Tree of Life" daringly spans thousands of years in an epic film about the human soul and the dichotomy between nature and grace.
To understand "The Tree of Life", it is helpful to understand the iconic master director behind the film. His debut film "Badlands" (1973) brought him on the map as a young auteur director with a visionary eye for beauty. His sophomore film "Days of Heaven" (1978) only confirmed his eye for beauty on film when it won the Oscar for best cinematography. After that historic film, Malick disappeared for twenty years until he resurfaced again with his third film "The Thin Red Line" (1998). Naturally, "The Thin Red Line" was not just the war film it appeared to be on the outside, but instead it was a spiritual journey through the heart of men during wartime and the ever-present force of nature which watches human inequity from afar, but is truly in the heart of all conflict. "The New World" (2005) culminates his work leading up to "The Tree of Life", and upon looking at his filmography, it becomes clear that his entire career as a filmmaker has lead up to this single film.
"The Tree of Life" combines every topic Malick has ever meditated upon, and he approaches the spirit with patience and his ever-present eye for natural beauty.
Similar to "The Thin Red Line" thematically, "The Tree of Life" thrives upon the divide between "the way of nature and the way of grace" as two characters personify both sides. The mother (Jessica Chastain) is a living embodiment of grace and love, while the father (Brad Pitt) is a personification of the way of nature as his character has faced failure and been hardened by the cruel world around him (this is also possibly his greatest acting performance ever). Set in the 1950s, the main character of the film is arguably Pitt and Chastain's eldest son, Jack (played by Sean Penn and Hunter McCracken) as he is beginning to enter his teen years and becomes aware of the differences between the people in the world around him.
When news comes forward that one of Pitt and Chastain's children has died, the film travels back through their lives as a young couple revealing their differences and overcoming grief in the process. With the film structured as a prayer, the film is elevated to a film-watching experience like nothing ever seen before.
Everything from God creating the universe, to abstract depictions of birth; the main characters blindly walk through life with faith that everything will work out.
Wrapped in beautiful dream-like cinematography, this film conveys childhood like no other film before it. Even though my parents weren't even alive in the 1950s, I still relate to everything seen in the film as childhood is depicted by the soul of children rather than the events in the lives of children.
The soundtrack in this film is a beautiful combination of classical compositions (which is very fitting to Brad Pitt's character, who is a failed musician), and though an original soundtrack would have been wonderful, the music in this film combined with the imagery is perpetually tear-worthy.
"The Tree of Life", for many, is a polarizing film, but it is impossible to argue that it is a masterpiece made by one of the greatest modern auteurs of our times. This is Terrence Malick's "The Mirror" (as made by Andrei Tarkovsky) and is clearly competing with Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (and is far superior than Kubrick's, in my opinion), but it is an experience all on its own.

My ranking: 5/5 stars

Film Review: "The Skin I Live In" (2011) directed by Pedro Almodóvar 5/5

Pedro Almodóvar started Antonio Banderas' career over twenty years ago, and this film features Banderas at his best. "The Skin I Live In" is a film about revenge, dedication, and passion as it follows the plastic surgeon Dr. Ledgard (Banderas) as he strives to create a stronger type of skin.
The visual scheme in this film is haunting, beautiful, and sometimes over the top, and only Almodóvar could blend all of these styles into a cohesive film. Some of the most striking imagery is between characters watching and interacting with other characters through surveillance screens (very similar to Almodóvar's previous film "Broken Embraces", but in this film it is taken to another level entirely).
After viewing the rather cryptic trailer for this film, I had no idea what to expect (but knew that I would see it simply upon knowing that Almodóvar had directed it). I was pleasantly surprised to find that the story before me on the silver screen was not only good drama or a great book-to-film adaptation, but that it was also (arguably) science fiction. With risky and ground-breaking scientific experimentation, "The Skin I Live In" fits into the science fiction genre while also crossing into noir-like territory. Being a thriller of sorts, "The Skin I Live In" features several twists and turns that are both shocking and incredibly relevant to the story.
As the cherry on top, the soundtrack for this film (composed by Alberto Iglesias) is amazing. With riveting and quick string movements, the intensity of the film is constantly building.
All of the performances in this film are magnificent (particularly from Banderas and Elena Anaya), and naturally this all goes back to the fantastic director Pedro Almodóvar. There is so much potential for audience-disbelief in this film, but the director drives this moderately absurd story with precision and artistry as every film should.

My ranking: 5/5 stars

Film Review: "J. Edgar" (2011) directed by Clint Eastwood 2/5

Clint Eastwood, an actor and director who has proven himself to be one of the best filmmakers of today, has had very few duds... but "J. Edgar" might be his most recent failure.

The directing is not particularly bad, and the acting is actually quite superb, but the film falls apart due to the most important element: the script. Written by Dustin Lance Black, Oscar winning screenwriter of "Milk", I had hoped for a film that would be as informative and full of life as his 2008 success. Instead, "J. Edgar" is a very poor snappy collection of flashbacks and highlights of the successes and struggles that Edgar Hoover faced while starting up the FBI.

"Milk", in comparison, has an established ending within the first few moments of the film. You know that Harvey Milk will die of an assassination, so you have a growing sense of tension as you await that horrific moment of martyrdom. In "J. Edgar", the film has no sense of direction at all. The film drags as it lacks a central plot/conflict to drive the film.

The movie spans over 50 years of time, but had the film focused only on the first 10 or 20 years of Edgar's time in the FBI, it would have been much more compelling.

There are great moments in this film, but each of these moments are brief and sporadic. "J. Edgar" focuses to often on the historical context and not enough on the actual person of Edgar Hoover.

With a man who had a secret so scandalous for the time (homosexuality), and yet wanted to appear so masculine and powerful, it is astonishing that Clint Eastwood allowed the script to stay the way it is.

This film reeks of untapped-potential, and though it features a marvelous cast, they and the director cannot save the film from it's horrific script.

My ranking: 2/5 stars