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“The Tree of Life,” Reviewed

“The Tree of Life,” Reviewed (photo)

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Director Terrence Malick is a magician with a movie camera. But watching his new film, “The Tree of Life,” is like watching a magician perform one trick over and over again for 138 minutes. As amazing as that trick is, when it’s repeated endlessly, it loses some of its luster.

In “Tree of Life,” Malick produces images that are as stunning for their beauty as they are for their simplicity. One, in which an upside-down camera dances around the shadows of playing children, is absolutely astounding. Others look so good they literally made my jaw drop. But then the shots begin to pile up: more children playing, more images of the abstract luminescence of space, more hands delicately brushing across thistles (always with the thistles!). I kept waiting for something, anything, to break the monotony. It never did. Malick likes to shoot with magic hour light, so named because it’s rare and ephemeral. Not in “The Tree of Life,” where it’s always magic hour. Individually, these shots are incredible. But at a certain point, the perfection becomes almost suffocating.

Malick’s approach is both microcosmic and macrocosmic. Maybe that makes it simply cosmic, since the film’s scope includes scenes chronicling the birth of the universe itself, from the sparks that ignite suns to the evolution of creatures from globs of cells to thoughtful dinosaurs (yes, even the dinosaurs in a Malick film are thoughtful). Before and after his interstellar journey, Malick focuses in on an American family that is almost certainly based on his own childhood in small town Texas: a rebellious son named Jack (Hunter McCracken) and his strict but loving father (Brad Pitt) in Smithville in the 1950s.

There is no narrative per se, no story thrust upon Jack and his family. Artful, wordless scenes at the beginning of “Tree of Life” inform us that Jack’s brother will die years later as a teenager (much like Malick’s own brother did). And artful, wordless scenes that follow find Jack (and, perhaps, Malick himself) as an adult played by Sean Penn, wandering a modern landscape of cold glass and steel and business meetings, and slipping into a desert dreamscape. Penn fans looking for a performance on par with “Mystic River” or “Milk” should readjust their expectations; his role is small and his percentage of the film’s dialogue — which isn’t much to begin with — is even smaller. All the actors are fine, but none have much room to work with. They’re all just chess pieces for their director. They exist here not as people but as ideas of people, pretty but sort of empty.

“The Tree of Life”‘s greatest accomplishment is the way in which it transforms intensely personal childhood memories into these transcendent, fragmented moments of grace: the movie feels plucked, bit by beautiful bit, directly from Malick’s brain. But despite the resonance of individual chapters, the film never adds up, like a pile of Jenga pieces no one bothered to stack. Even though the film seems to exist inside the shared consciousness of its characters, we never get very deep inside any of their heads or their lives. For a movie with such audacious ambitions — to create a dialogue between the entire story of the universe and the entire story of one family; the sun versus the son, as it were — “The Tree of Life,” plods forward in a shockingly repetitive routine. Kids playing, father admonishing, mother (Jessica Chastain) watching silently and beautifully, idealized and unknowable. Over and over.

The visuals will stay with you for a long time, and Malick’s work is bold and risky in a way that not enough films are. Still, I hesitate to call it unconventional; as a Terrence Malick movie, it’s actually kind of conventional. With “Badlands, “The Thin Red Line” and the rest, Malick’s already proven he can make this sort of movie: striking, melancholy, gorgeous, and somewhat distant. I know I’m being greedy, and I’m in no position to tell an unquestioned master of cinema, what to do with his gifts. But isn’t it exciting when a magician does something new?

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.