The Tree of Life (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) and Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) received a phone call informing them that one of their three sons, Jack (Hunter McCracken), R.L. (Laramie Eppler), and Steve (Tye Sheridan), had died. We knew it wasn’t Jack because we came to meet him as an adult (Sean Penn), still struggling with the death of his brothers, the other passed away at the age of nineteen. The writer-director, Terrence Malick, spent the rest of the film painting us a picture of the boys’ childhood, torn between nature and grace which their father and mother embodied, respectively. To criticize this movie as having a weak plot is tantamount to saying that an abstract painting is bad because one does not approve of the artist’s use of color since it makes the painting look unrealistic. In a few instances, such as the case here, plot is negligible. Personally, it was about the images and how they were utilized to remind myself of my childhood. It was set in 1950s American suburbia; I was raised in the 1990s Philippine urban-suburban neighborhood. The two are separated by place and time but I saw myself in these kids. It reminded me of times when I ran around with my cousins playing kickball, egos bruised for every lost point; the joy of collecting caterpillars, grasshoppers, spiders, lizards, stray cats at a nearby ice plant, which children of the neighborhood likened to believe was abandoned so we could call it our own turf; the way mother would yell for me and brother, beckoning us to come in for dinner, chastising us when we were too grimy as we approached the table, and making us clean up a bit before experiencing the comfort of a warm home-cooked meal. It also reminded me of the things I didn’t have. Father was in America making a living for his family, so no one taught me how to put up my fist properly and fight. First fight at school gets bloody awful quick when you don’t know how to defend yourself. But sooner or later you learn to get tougher. You find ways as Jack did with his brother, not because he was bully or meaning to be unkind, but because he needed to find a sparring partner, someone who he believed was his equal. The most moving scene for me was when Jack, after shooting a rubber bullet at R.L.’s index finger, summoned the courage within himself to apologize to his brother without anyone telling him to do so. It was such a tender moment because apologizing and, more importantly, actually meaning it can be very difficult to do. I admired Malick’s use of contrast. He featured an extended sequence starting from The Big Bang up until the Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction. In one of the scenes, a carnivorous dinosaur spotted a fatally wounded dinosaur resting on the rocks. The healthy one approached the dying carefully, making sure that there was no immediate threat in the vicinity. Just when I thought it was going to go for the kill, I saw a human aspect in something so beastly: the healthy one covered the wounded’s face with its foot, hesitated against its nature, and walked away. The scene was loyal to the film’s theme: nature versus grace. “The Tree of Life” is a torrent of epic memories, bound to move those in touch with their wonderful, tragic, magical childhood. It’s one of those movies I won’t forget because, in a way, I’ve lived it.
★★ / ★★★★
Madeline (Jordan Ladd) and Michael (Stephen Park) had been trying to conceive but the baby didn’t make it full term twice. Madeline, who lived a strictly vegan diet, was pregnant for the third time and would like to try something different. Instead of going to a doctor (Malcolm Stewart), a friend of her controlling and judgmental mother-in-law (Gabrielle Rose), she insisted on going to a mid-wife (Samantha Ferris), Patricia, who also happened to be her friend back in the day. When the couple got in a car accident, the baby died in Madeline’s womb. However, Patricia decided that they weren’t going to induce delivery with respect to Madeline’s wishes. They were going to keep it inside Madeline for a couple of weeks until it came out of her naturally. It did and she somehow willed it to life. “Grace,” written and directed by Paul Solet, lacked two elements: common sense and characters we could root for. In Madeline’s desperation to have a baby, naming it Grace because she thought it was a miracle, she ignored all the creepy signs that there was something not quite right about her child. Babies are known to smell good but Grace smelled rotten. A bath couldn’t get rid of the stench. Flies gathered around her crib as if the baby was a corpse. When it did drink milk, it would vomit. The only thing it seemed to like drinking was human blood. Despite all the strange signs, Madeline wouldn’t see a doctor. Through her nipples, the monster she gave birth to eventually learned to suck her blood to the point where she became anemic. Even then she refused to see a doctor. She considered her obstinate nature as a sign of love. A normal person would considered it as a sign of stupidity. However, it was actually fun to see her go through great lengths to protect her dark secret. There was a balance between gore and suspense. The mother-in-law, a judge, wanted the baby for herself. She came up with ways for the law to consider Madeline as an unfit mother. It was only a matter of time until she found out about the blood-hungry baby. Ultimately, I considered “Grace” a missed opportunity. It had a fascinating bit about Madeline and Patricia being involved in a romantic relationship in the past. With a more focused script, Madeline’s increasingly desperate situation could have been a symbol of her fear of accepting her sexuality. When she made love with Michael, there was no passion. She just passively laid on the bed as he planted his seed. One could argue that she didn’t want a man, she wanted a baby. She used him as a tool. The baby did the same to her. “Grace” was disturbing but never exploitative. Although certainly not for everyone, no one can deny it had moments of creativity.
All the Real Girls (2003)
★★★ / ★★★★
This very earnest and honest love story between a virgin (Zooey Deschanel) and a womanizer (Paul Schneider) may have been difficult to swallow but it was rewarding. Written and directed by David Gordon Green, the style of storytelling of this film was at first distracting because it constantly made quick cuts from one scene to another. But as the picture went on, I realized it was effective because the characters had to quickly say what they wanted to say even if the words that came out of their mouths were not exactly the truth. The first scene was very cute so I was instantly hooked. The romance between Deschanel and Schneider reminded me of the chemistry of the lead characters in “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset.” That scene was funny, and best of all, it felt real–like a conversation that I might overhear while waiting at a bus stop. I also liked the supporting actors such as Shea Whigham as Deschane’s older brother who did not approve of the relationship and Patricia Clarkson as Schneider’s mother. Although Clarkson was not the focus on the movie, she made the most of the material she was given. That is, a mother who worked as a clown to provide his son and as a mother for was concerned and frustrated with where her son’s life was heading. She played her character with such grace because she balanced sadness and strength really well. Lastly, I enjoyed the picture’s autumnal feel and its use of symbolism. Its complexity might easily be overlooked because of its initial distracting style but once one really gets into its rhythm, it really is quite keen when it comes to what it means to fall in love and be loved. Just when I thought the picture was borderline turning into a syrupy romance, it changed gears and commented on the relief and pain that comes hand-in-hand with being honest with one’s self and wanting to change so bad to be accepted by someone. It also had a chance to tackle issues such as the breakdown of communication when distance is involved, the dynamics of friendship and what it means not only to love someone but also respect them. This is a smart sleeper film that doesn’t give us the easy and sugary answers we want to hear. But it is the kind of film that assures us that it’s alright to be confused and to question what and how we really feel toward someone important to us.