Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Upstream Color

Shane Carruth made waves with his 2004 time travel puzzle movie Primer, which he made for about $7,000. It became an art-house hit and allowed him to fully leave behind his previous life as a software engineer. Unfortunately, he struggled through financing his next picture, called A Topiary, before eventually abandoning it to make 2013's Upstream Color. Upstream Color is a mesmerizing, hypnotic, nearly silent movie. I say it's silent simply because it relies very little on dialog, though there is plenty, and though the sound design is extraordinary and integral to the story in a way you pretty much never see. Also low budgeted (Carruth has refused to say, because he felt Primer got too much press for its budget and not for the movie itself, but I've seen estimates showing this one around $50,000), but still absolutely gorgeously made, it may be the best movie of the 2010's, but it works like a piece of music, so I'm not always quite sure why it's so brilliant, but I know it is.

It's told non-linearly and often abstractly, but the basic story of the movie is that of a woman, Kris (played by the intriguingly beautiful Amy Seimetz) who is drugged and kidnapped by a man (known in the credits as Thief) who through the drug is able to put her in a hypnosis-like state, eventually leading her to liquidate her bank account and all other money and give to him, before he disappears. Some others things happen that we see, but basically Kris suddenly wakes up in her SUV on the side of the highway, unaware of anything that has happened in the previous days. She returns to find her house littered with blood stains, things missing, food all over, and eventually no money in her bank accounts and fired from her job (go mysteriously missing for god knows how long and this is what would happen). Later, on a train, she meets a man, Jeff (Shane Carruth) whom she has an almost metaphysical connection to. They fall in love, and both start to unveil their secret pasts and what happened to them, with more in common than we would've anticipated.

The story is told without any rush, with beautiful, Malick-esque intermixing of natural and urban settings. Stolen moments helping to fill in the gaps of what would normally be a big Hollywood thriller of kidnapping and thievery. Carruth gives a nice leading man performance, but the star here is Amy Seimetz, whose work is truly extraordinary. She gives Kris a look haunted from her past, but also her brief smile lights up her face and lets us see that Kris really is in love with Jeff. They weren't drawn together because of their pasts, they were drawn together seemingly in spite of them. Of course, you can't talk about a Shane Carruth movie without mentioning just what he did in it. From interviews I've seen, it seems more about keeping budget down than it is him being a controlling artist, but still his credits on this movie are: Writer, Director, Producer, Star, Composer (of both music and sound), Editor, and Director of Photography as well as one of the camera operators. There's certainly no doubt as to whose vision this movie is.

I first saw this movie last year when it came on Netflix, but it has stuck in my memory since then, so I went back and watched it last night. It was far less confusing than the first time around. But even then, I didn't care that I was confused on a story level because Carruth had me mesmerized by every second and so it was more that I didn't know what to expect and wasn't always sure where we were headed. This time I knew, and so the atmosphere worked even better because I could give myself over to the movie and let it wash over me while also picking up on a ton of little things I'd missed the first time around. I "got it" the first time around, Carruth's movies don't beg re-watches because you don't understand every little thing, you don't need to. They beg rewatches because he respects the audiences intelligence and refuses to spoon feed us anything. I enjoy Upstream Color much more than I did Primer (which I also really liked) and will continue going back to it over and over again. And at just 96 minutes, Carruth doesn't overstay his welcome, he ends things perfectly and in a way that makes us want to enjoy the ride again and again.

We must hope that Carruth's next movie, tentatively titled The Modern Ocean, won't be 9 years between like last time. Carruth has gained big fans like filmmakers Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) and Steven Soderbergh, who has called Carruth "the illegitimate offspring of David Lynch and James Cameron." And has also said that if he ran a studio, he'd give guys like Carruth a decent budget and just let them go make whatever they want and sit back and be amazed at the result. Carruth has already been nominated for many awards (including 5 Independent Spirit awards for his 2 movies) so let's hope his next work of genius is as good as Upstream Color and comes much sooner.

To the Wonder

Terrence Malick's To the Wonder is a movie I admire probably more than I like. I did like it, a lot actually. But I also felt that it was messy and unfocused, overlong, and just generally not up to the standard he set in Days of Heaven or The New World. But, my home state has never been filmed so lovingly (it's rarely filmed at all, in fact) and Malick shows so many of the gorgeous moments in Oklahoma nature that I try to stop and appreciate in my day to day life. Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki use only natural light, which makes me start thinking that movie lighting is a waste of time since this is another of Malick's increasingly beautiful films.

This movie is like much of Malick's work, meandering and unconcerned with plot. But this one is made up almost entirely of what I call stolen moments. The dreamlike snatches of conversation or fights or even making love. Malick does these better than anyone, but it's difficult for these moments to sustain an entire runtime of a movie. There are some truly extraordinary things in this movie, but around the time I felt it should be wrapping up I looked at the clock and realized we were only an hour into the 113 minutes of the movie. Malick and Lubezki say that this was Malick's most experimental movie, being SO unconcerned with telling a story in the traditional sense. But I'm not sure it totally works.

Ben Affleck says more in the 4 minute behind the scenes featurette on the DVD than he does the entire movie. Thankfully, our "main" character (as much as the movie has one) is the ethereal almost impossible beauty of Olga Kurylenko as the woman Affleck meets in France and eventually takes back home to northeast Oklahoma. The rest of the cast includes Rachel McAdams, who Affleck was friends with in high school and who he takes up with when Kurylenko goes back to France. There's also Javier Bardem's priest character, acting as a guiding light in the community while undergoing a crisis of faith inside. We hear them all in voiceover much more than we hear them in conversation. Apparently Jessica Chastain, Rachel Weisz, Amanda Peet, Barry Pepper, Michael Shannon and Michael Sheen all shot footage as well but were ultimately cut out, in typical Malick fashion.

Again, like with 2011's The Tree of Life, it's easy to see Malick's autobiographical elements to what story there is. He met his second wife while in France, eventually taking her back to live in Texas and Oklahoma while they were married. However, since we don't know a ton about Malick himself, I'm not sure if Affleck's aloof staring into the distance performance is as autobiographical as the "plot" of meeting a French girl and bringing her back to the US.

It's a movie I would recommend seeing only if you're already a Malick fan, as this is his Malick-iest movie yet.