Category Archives: Dysfunctional Family

Movie Review: The Tree of Life

Unless you love, your life will flash by.

Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” is the most highly ambitious film to come out of this year, many past years, and many years in the future. It comes from what must have been years of obsessive thought about both life and film. Only someone this in love with the craft, and with nature, could make this film, and somehow make it masterful.

“The Tree of Life” begins in a small Texas town in the 1950s, in what must be loosely based off of Malick’s own upbringing. Brad Pitt plays the tough patriarch of a family of three boys. Pitt, who is never given a first name, continually fights his wife (Jessica Chastain) over the best way to raise their family.

Throughout the film, they explore loss of innocence and the possible meaning of life. Usually, trying to find the meaning of life is a cheap storytelling technique. But if you’re as good of a filmmaker as Malick is, the answer doesn’t come in one sentence. The film takes us from Texas to the cosmos to the creation of the life, and back again. Somewhere in between, an older version of one of the sons (Sean Penn), comes back to explore it all. The sum of “The Tree of Life” is nearly impossible to explain. After one viewing, any interpretation could be right.

Malick’s latest is a reminder of his films from the past: it takes its precious time, and it is very quiet. “The Tree of Life” is reminiscent of a brief time when films told entire stories through images. Malick’s story, which covers basically the entirety of existence in just two and a half hours, manages to be the cinematic sequel to “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Like “2001,” “The Tree of Life” is nothing short of a cinematic opera.

Malick, while echoing Kubrick, also does something that few filmmakers have done this well: capture the flawed beauty of nature. Light shining on a bed, tall grass being ruffled by human hands, and flies buzzing around a lake at dusk have never looked this stunning. He captures both the sights and sounds of the natural world to a perfectionist degree. This is naturalistic filmmaking at its finest. Through a camera lens, he encapsulates Thoreauvian philosophy.

As a critic, it is important to try and avoid overanalyzing. However, for a film like “The Tree of Life,” overanalyzing is crucial. Through his film, Malick is trying to find more than just the meaning of life, because life doesn’t have just one meaning. “The Tree of Life” is about what is out there, and what brings us all together.

Some might call Malick’s film a religious one. While religion seems to be a big factor, I would say that the film straddles the line between spirituality and atheism. It asks these essential questions: when it comes to dealing with the biggest questions in life, who (or what) do we turn to? Do we look to nature, the possibility of God, or our friends and family? No choice we make is a decent or right one, unless it is done out of some form of love.

“The Tree of Life” is not a film that offers easy answers. Within a half hour, many people in the audience had walked out, something I haven’t witnessed since “A Serious Man.” After “The Tree of Life” ended, one woman remarked that the film was reminiscent of a bunch of Windows screen savers. A friend of mine compared it to the greatest “South Park” episode ever.

While both of these interpretations are funny, they do not do Malick’s film justice. The cinematography is the result of years of careful work, not stealing. Meanwhile, overanalyzing is the act of finding meaning in the meaningless. Malick surely had some deeper purpose in trying to discover how life exists and thrives.

“The Tree of Life” is hard to be in love with the first time around, but I feel a need to recommend it. I can’t get over the brilliant way in which Malick speeds up, and then slows down, the story at just the right moments. Many films made nowadays try to think up and balance big ideas, but few are ever this meditative.

Movie Review: Blue Valentine

If there ever was such an honor, “Blue Valentine” would win the award for most depressing film of 2010. This honor is not meant to put down any of the achievements of the film, but rather a heads up that this is not a film about the world’s happiest marriage.

“Blue Valentine” has two settings and two time periods: rural Pennsylvania and New York City, past and present. In present day, married couple Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) are on the verge of a breakdown. Cindy no longer feels any affection for her husband, and Dean remains in an aloof, child-like state. The marriage between Dean and Cindy is the ultimate portrait of disappointment.
In flashbacks, the story behind Cindy and Dean’s love is revealed, as the audience slowly finds out that at one point, there really was love to be had in this marriage.
The story of a couple falling in love and becoming bored and suppressed with age is a story that has been portrayed on the silver screen over and over again. “Blue Valentine” does manage to be saved from being one big cliche. Unlike other films about broken marriages like “American Beauty,” “Blue Valentine” is as much about the joy of love as it is about the pain. Most films about marriage portray how a marriage can fall apart. Few also show how they are built.
The flashbacks in “Blue Valentine” are certainly the most effective part of the film. Not only do they build backstory, they also build emotion. The contrast between the clear, digitally shot present day and the shaky hand-held filming of the flashbacks show misery becoming clearer and clearer. The flashbacks are marked by youthful innocence, and the present day is marked by sad awareness in older age.
“Blue Valentine” would not be the same without its two outstanding lead performances. The two actors play the parts perfectly in both old age and youth. Despite his image, Gosling is not afraid to get dirty in order to play his role perfectly. Throughout the film, he looks less like Ryan Gosling and more like Nicolas Cage in “Raising Arizona.” With his scruffy looked and muffled voice, he is almost unrecognizable.
His female counterpart, Michelle Williams, gives one of the best female performances of the year. She seems to have a thing for playing alienated wives (see: “Brokeback Mountain”), yet here she does it better than she ever has. There is one scene where she pulls off a rare feat and manages to act with her eyes when the rest of her body isn’t shown. In those eyes we see so much sheltered pain getting ready to come out. In those eyes we see, there is no love for her husband to be found.
“Blue Valentine” can loosely be described as a he said-she said type of story. Here is where the film’s major problem lies: it tries to make us choose who to be sympathetic for. At first, it all seems to be the wife’s fault. Then, it suddenly all becomes the husband’s fault. In the end, it strangely doesn’t acknowledge the problems on both sides and it makes us feel inclined toward only one character. The film could have used a smoother transition, or maybe more of a reconciling.
What drove me to this film, and what might drive many more of you, is the controversy surrounding the film. “Blue Valentine” originally carried a deadly NC-17 rating. After protest, that rating was brought down to an R. The NC-17 came mainly from the sex scenes which are graphic, but not pornographic. They are used not to give the audience some unholy pleasure but rather to show the different stages and feelings of the marriage.
Perhaps its rating was also raised because the MPAA felt that younger viewers would be too disturbed by this film to want to see it anyway. What is to be afraid of? Reality? Anyone who is mature enough to want to buy a ticket for “Blue Valentine” is mature enough to view it.

TV Review: Modern Family

I’m so sorry. I feel like I’ve committed a crime.

For months now, I’ve been meaning to write about “Modern Family,” the best comedy currently playing on television. With the season finale fast approaching, some might think it’s too late. Me, I think it’s the perfect time. As the entire season has now unfolded, and the characters are totally developed, it’s time for me to convince you to watch “Modern Family.”
Like any good sitcom, “Modern Family” takes a tired subject (dysfunctional families) and breaths new life into it. In fact, it’s the best family-centered comedy on TV since the end of “Arrested Development.”
Like “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation,” and “Summer Heights High,” “Modern Family” is shot entirely in an interview mockumentary style. It focuses on three different but connected families. The main patriarch is scotch guzzling Jay (Ed O’Neill) who loves his family as much as he loves making racist comments. He’s recently married to young Colombian Gloria (Sofia Vergara) who has brought along with her 10-year-old son Manny (Rico Rodriguez), who acts about 40 years older than he actually is.
Then, there’s Jay’s daughter Claire (Julie Bowen), who is the definition of uptight yet caring mother. She’s married to Phil (Ty Burrell), who has the body of an adult, but the mind of a child. Together, they have three kids: a ditz (Sarah Hyland), a brain (Ariel Winter), and another ditz (Nolan Gould).
And finally, there’s Claire’s gay brother, Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson). His boyfriend is the flamboyant, yet always hilarious Cam (Eric Stonestreet), and the two recently adopted a Vietnamese baby.
This is the premise, boiled down. I could go in deeper and deeper but then I’d have no room to analyze. So what I will say is that from there, the show deals with the relations between each family, and how they cope with the idea of staying together when external factors serve to pull them apart.
Though, even that doesn’t do the show justice. Hopefully, this will: it’s sick, it’s twisted, and in that, it’s beyond hilarious. It has a degree of boldness that seems to be lacking from most network TV shows.
“Modern Family” has what every good comedy needs: great writing. What’s even greater is that the show never restricts itself to one brand of humor. Each character in some way embodies a different style of humor. Phil, who seems to always either be falling or being locked in port-o-potties embodies the show’s slapstick side. Claire and Mitchell embody the concept of the “straight-man.” Jay and Alex are examples of good old wit. And Haley is just an example of why stupidity can just be so funny.
It is a testament to the greatness of the writers that they can constantly balance slapstick and sophistication along with stupidity and wit and never lose balance. There are big visual punchlines involving fake mustaches and spicy food, along with brilliant, snappy one-liners.
“Modern Family” is an ensemble show so of course it would’ve suffered with poor actors. Fortunately, the acting is quite strong. If I would, I’d find praise for every single actor in the cast but instead, I’ll just point out the most notable ones. O’Neill’s entire character seems to be a reference to his role on “Married…With Children,” yet here he seems to have a little more of a heart.
Meanwhile, Burrell and Stonestreet play two characters that easily could’ve become caricatures. Yet, they find the right way to emphasize both their quirks and their humanity without losing sight of either. Then there’s Vergara who’s sassy attitude never gets old. She turns Gloria into something endearing and she is well on her way to becoming a big, new name in comedy.
At the end of the day, the best comedies are great not just in how they make you laugh, but in how they make you feel. Some might enjoy “Modern Family” by finding common ground with it. While its documentary style could’ve provided the viewer with an objective, mocking look at modern American family life, it instead totally invades the home and becomes a part of it.
In this respect, the audience is therefore forced to see both ridiculous actions, and the justifications for them. That could be poor intentions, or just plain misunderstandings. When quirks are emphasized, so are flaws, and when flaws are emphasized, characters escape becoming nothing more than cardboard cutouts. The show’s complex look at family matters evokes the tagline of “The Royal Tenenbaums”: “Family isn’t a word…It’s a sentence.”
There are a lot of good comedies on TV right now. “Modern Family,” in its very first season, manages to stand above them all because it manages to remain so consistently funny. Even in weaker episodes, there is always a laugh to be had. This is a great sign that the creators, the writers, and the cast know exactly what they’re doing, and exactly where this show is heading. With hit-and-never miss humor like this, “Modern Family” looks like it’ll be around for years and years to come.