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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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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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