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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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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

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.

via GIPHY

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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