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UPSTREAM COLOR is already baffling the hell out of the world and will
especially draw disapproval on IMDb.
The plot is not delivered in a way that is traditionally comprehensible, only to those paying close attention to the themes that unite it all. If you're already rolling your eyes THIS MOVIE IS NOT FOR YOU.
If however you have experienced or would like to experience films where you have to dedicate your ability to assess and determine the underlying idea that is linking a series of enigmatic actions and subtle scenes, UPSTREAM COLOR will intrigue and probably charm you. It very much plays to the TREE OF LIFE crowd.
For me, it's undoubtedly a massive artistic accomplishment. Hugely evocative and if you unearth those ideas, the ability to have human connection, abuse, hope and language among them, you'll have no problem following along and the ending will be very satisfying.
If you want to say "you're not supposed to understand it, just feel it" that's fine. I think that if you stop and ask yourself what idea is driving moments, you can follow along just fine. The story is in the themes. Details are abstract to drive home this point.
I took off two stars because I found the serious tone and sombre score to be so focused and constant, the atmospherics became a little more monotonous than I think was intended. The briefest of levity here and there might have offset the heaviness.
If you're still reading, check it out.
Greetings again from the darkness. This is no typical movie, so these
will not be typical comments. In 2004, Shane Carruth became something
of a cult hero with the Sundance Festival crowd when his debut film
PRIMER won a Grand Jury Award. Nine years later, we get his follow-up
... the ultimate artsy, indie film for those who thrive on analysis and
prefer to avoid a story ending wrapped up with a neat bow.
These comments will not give you much, but I can tell you the screening had many viewers who left frustrated and confused. The fragmented narrative can be a bit disorienting and it avoids the usual staple of a resolution at the end. The audience knows more than the characters, yet the audience is baffled while the characters just continue on.
The first segment of the film is when it's at its most traditional. We see Thief (Thiago Martins) perform some type of worm/parasite procedure that slowly brainwashes Kris (Amy Seimetz) or leads to mind control or loss of personality ... just depends how you prefer to describe it. We then see The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) help her overcome thanks to a blood transfusion on his pig farm. Yes, really. Finally, Kris bonds with Jeff (Shane Carruth) as they seek to reassemble their lives and re-discover themselves. Watching them bicker over who belongs to what memory is frightening and fascinating. It makes you question the definition of personal identity, and what if we lost that (or it was stolen).
Nature plays a huge role here, along with the connection to Thoreau's Walden. Many will use the term pretentious. Some will call it boring. Still others will be drawn in by the imagery and sound (or sometimes lack thereof). Shane Carruth does not fit Hollywood and neither do his films. He is a writer, producer, director, co-editor, cinematographer, and actor. He clearly has a love of the material and his choice of Amy Seimetz really makes the film work. She is outstanding (and also a filmmaker). The tired phrase "it's not for everyone" certainly applies here, but if you are a Terrence Malick fan or just enjoy being challenged by somewhat abstract themes, this one is worth a look.
I knew this film was going to be weird. Shane Carruth's debut film -
Primer - was an oddity as it was, lacking in straightforward answers or
explanations, but presenting a very intriguing and sturdy piece of hard
science fiction. Be warned that Upstream Color is also something that
lacks a straightforward explanation. In fact, Primer was something
rather cold, with its strong basis in the scientific method; UC is far
warmer and artistic, but is also more abstract.
The film may come off as slow and dull to certain viewers, especially if you're expecting a strong narrative structure or plot. I'm usually adverse to movies that have no real plot or conflict, but with this film, it's the experience that matters. Watching this film is a strangely mesmerizing, lucid, and smooth experience, given the exquisite imagery, nuanced performances, and quality music score. The film's first fifteen minutes are probably the most straightforward, most interesting, and most disturbing aspect of the whole thing, and it serves as an important fulcrum point. This much I understand: the film starts off with the freaky notion that there's a man injecting grubs into people, which makes them susceptible to mind control. From then on, the film tracks two such victims who inevitably come together and discover the secrets of their latent trauma.
What makes the film so weird, so cerebral, and potentially frustrating, is that things happen, and characters will say things that won't make total sense. And most scenes are intercut with such footage as a farmer tending to pigs, and flowers growing in the wilderness. The movie draws stark parallels between such images, to unearth some rich thematic territory. Could such scenes reflect on life and death? Is it all about nature? Is it about love? Is it the human condition overall? The film never really tell you outright, and it gets very surreal when scenes overlap. If you struggle to find logic behind this story, you might write it off as messy. If you take in the experience and open your mind to interpreting the film, it'll keep your brain going and haunt you indefinitely. It's an experience comparable to such films as Mulholland Drive.
This film is very stylish, with some beautiful photography and ingenious editing. All actors put on decent performances, and they show a good blend of nuance and emotion. Writing is pretty weird, given the amount of strange and unusual dialogue. This production uses excellent sets, props, and costumes. The music score is very exquisite.
While Primer was a film that appeals on an intellectual level, Upstream Color appeals best to the artistic side of the brain. If you're susceptible to strange, abstract films that require lots of brainpower to interpret and understand, then this one is a perfect puzzlebox for you. Casual audiences might want to approach this with caution.
5/5 (Experience: Very Good | Content: Very Good | Film: Perfect)
Where to begin? Well, it's very possible that Upstream Colour has a
very interesting premise. I can't really confirm this though because
quite frankly this is one incomprehensible movie. It starts out fairly
intriguing to be fair, with a woman abducted by a man who implants a
modified maggot into her. This leaves her in some way under his control
and he proceeds to get her to give all of her money to him. Another man
pitches up and transfers her internal maggot into a pig. It appears
that he has a group of pigs that are all connected to different people
who have suffered a similar fate. Anyway, the girl has no memory of her
ordeal and soon she meets a man who it turns out was also a victim of
the same ordeal. It's at this point that the film goes rapidly
Upstream Colour is one of those movies where things are certainly not spelled out to the audience. This in itself is not a criticism; it's often laudable in actual fact. But equally this in and of itself is does not necessarily mean a film should be praised. This movie lost me mainly because of the alienating presentation, it was impossible to empathise with the characters and the constant ambient soundtrack humming in the background only added to the detachment. The tone of the movie is more or less a flat line beyond the interesting opening the story hums along in a one pitch manner. The dialogue scenes between the two central protagonists are very unengaging, bordering on tedious. Visually there were things of interest and its ambiguity was compelling to an extent but overall this one left me very cold.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I HATED this movie, and so I'm going to give as much information about it as I can, in the hopes of saving spectators the loss of approximately 2 valuable hours of life.
While it pains me to admit it, Upstream Color was actually the film I was most excited to see going into the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. IMO, Shane Carruth's first film, Primer, was perhaps the best on-screen description of time travel ever made. I assumed Primer's success would have paved the way for Carruth to have more resources at his disposal, and with nearly a decade's lapse since Primer's release--he additionally has had plenty of time to craft a masterpiece. Instead, he made Upstream Color, a nearly silent film, with a plot so poorly constructed, even the writer/director himself was at a loss to explain it during a protracted, post-viewing Q&A session.
The film is divided into 3 sections. The first 1/3rd is the only part that is even remotely entertaining, with the subsequent parts feeling less like a planned movie, and more like a video project thrown together by a baret-wearing film student the night before it was due for class. The first section depicts a group of teenage boys who seem to be experimenting with a drug that is taken by swallowing a worm--similar to a tequila worm. After downing the worm, the boys engage in behavior that seems akin to a gang initiation, but with a somewhat supernatural element to it. The boys begin to perform martial arts moves while blind folded, and do so in perfect unison. This was short, interesting, and intriguing start to the story. Sadly, it is neither developed or explained in the rest of the film. After this pointless display, the story shifts to a woman named Kris, who is abducted and drugged with what seems to be the same worm-based drug from the gang kids. Only, her worm doesn't give her kung fu skills or telekinesis. Instead, she becomes completely brain washed by the guy who drugged her. The abductor proceeds to manipulate her into "giving" him all of her material wealth, and then he releases her after she's penniless. This marks the end of the first 1/3rd of the film, and the virtually the last time anything interesting happens.
In the second-third of the movie, we find Kris a shell of the person she was at the beginning, and she falls in love with a guy named Jeff. There seems to be virtually no chemistry between the two, and the only thing that seems to unite them is their weirdness from having been drugged with the worms. This marks the end of any notion a plot for the rest of the movie. For the remainder of the 2nd stanza and the entirety of the 3rd Act, there is virtually no dialogue (none at all for the last 30 minutes of the movie), and nothing but disconnected shots of people and animals (mostly pigs). There is a strange pig farmer, referred to in the credits as The Sampler, who seems to be the source of the worm drug, as well as a collector or random sounds. He never utters a word, and seems to be invisible to everyone but Kris, who shots him at the end, although it's unclear why.
Carruth said in the Q&A that he included countless shots of hands gliding past physical objects without touching them to simulate that to his characters, the substance of the world was just out of reach. He might as well has attached a prosthetic hand to the side of this movie, and shot it gliding past entertainment, but that was just out of reach too.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It's hilarious reading some of the comments for this movie, people give
it ten stars but at the same time (if you read their comments) you can
see they haven't got any more of an idea what the film is about than
those who said it was rubbish and gave it just two. It seems then that
some like to lie their way into making you believe they understood
something you didn't. Pretentious? Most definitely.
The film is just a collection of random scenes then. And you will find your brain struggling to find something that connects them all. A few times I thought I might be getting there, but just when you think the door of perception is opening.... Slam, it shuts in your face again.
The film begins with a guy collecting maggots from the base of a plant, and scraping off some blue powder from it's leaves. The collected maggot(s) are then fed to a woman who's left a club and the effect is she's hypnotized into withdrawing sums of money collected from the equity on her house. Once out of her trance she tries to remove her inner maggots (which now seem to have magically changed species into tapeworms) and are seen crawling under her skin. She gets a knife and tries half-heartedly to cut them out to no avail. She then goes to some pig farmer who appears to remove them but afterwards shes not the same person she was before, becoming vacant and kind of disturbed and depressed.
Later on, we see her on a train where she meets some other weird soul and they strike up a relationship. From here it all gets a bit wishy washy with apparently pointless dialogue and no real direct thread of a story. At one point the girl thinks she's pregnant and goes to a hospital where they tell her shes been operated on at some stage, even though she herself disagrees (a reference to the pig farmers removal of her maggot/tapeworms), but then she's told shes had cancer but it's all gone now.
Later there are scenes of some people collecting blue flowers growing near a river where the farmer from earlier had been throwing piglets in a sack to their death. We are shown the dead piglets rotting in the river, and the ooze that comes out seems to rise up through the roots of riverside plants being fed on by maggots. Was this a connection then? Dead pig juice being picked up by maggots in plants which were given to the woman which hypnotized her? Your guess is as good as mine.
Eventually the couple are lead via sounds (the pig farmer liked to record sounds on some equipment he had) to the farmer where the woman shoots him and a bunch of other people turn up (which we are shown on what looks like some medical kind of records) and they take over his farm. There's a cut then to the flower collectors from earlier who can no longer find the blue flowers they wanted (only white) which seemed to indicate that whatever was making these blue flowers is now gone (no more dead pigs in the river maybe?). And that's about it.
Basically, the film is pig swill. It looks great, cinematically, and I think I've probably put up the best explanation yet here of what the film is actually "about" - even though that seems to be nothing at all. I think it was Alfred Hitchcock who said something like: An audience not understanding, is an audience not emoting - and that's exactly what happens in this pile of pig poo. My advice then is don't waste your time on it, or if you do, don't pretend you got it. I don't believe you.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The last paragraph will contain mild spoilers; this is a film you don't
want to know anything about before going in so I still recommend
skipping it. But I offer it as a jumping point into understanding this
film, as I'm sure many will be upset and wonder about that.
I attended the world premiere of Upstream Color at Sundance 2013 along with a Q&A from writer, director, actor etc. Shane Currath. I am a big fan of Primer and I also appreciate esoteric/enigmatic and visual works. Upstream Color definitely can be described with those words. I think Primer is complex and intelligent/intellectual yet can be enjoyed by a broad audience. Upstream Color is easy to understand on a literal, plot level but the themes and allegory are a little harder to understand (I don't claim to fully understand it yet). Needless to say, it's not one that the majority of movie-goers will appreciate.
Aesthetically, it is a beautiful film full of poetic-imagery. It is very visual not unlike the work of Terrence Malick. Our protagonists are exceptionally acted, especially Amy Seimetz as Kris, she is captivating as is the film itself. I'm not going to talk about the plot but keep in mind that it is an allegory. I can't say whether or not I 'enjoyed' this film, but while watching it, it had my fullest attention and it has consumed my thoughts since trying to make sense of it. I wonder if it could have been more effective if it had been clearer. To the movies credit, the last third has no dialogue but none is needed, the film has established an emotional and visual language that the audience fully understands and embraces. This film could be genius; it could just be a lot of pomp with a compelling façade. The film had some real moments of emotional resonance yet at the end I felt hollow and unsatisfied. I probably will revisit this film to understand it and my response better.
The Q&A was interesting, Shane Currath didn't inspire confidence that he had a singular vision and intent for this film (from his answers it sounded like he had some loose ideas and put it on screen). The film prominently features Walden, I thought it may tie in thematically but he stated that when he read Walden it seemed like something you would make someone read as torture and in the film, it is used loosely as such. It may be ironic or purposeful that this film may be a Walden-esque torture as well for some in its transcendental/opaque nature. He also stated that this movie is about tearing people down and their having to build their own narratives. They also may not understand that there are outside forces affecting them, yet they can feel it on some level. That's probably the most-helpful advice in understanding the film.
(mild thematic and plot detail spoilers follow): Keeping those last two statements in mind, at one point 'The Thief' tries to sell drugs to individuals with a worm inside of it that hypnotizes them, let's take that both literally and figuratively as in he is a drug dealer who is trying to get people addicted to drugs which control them and make them do mindless things whilst high and financially bankrupt them. The worm can be viewed as the addiction itself. These people then hit rock-bottom and once they recover they aren't the same people anymore. There were external forces working on them that they weren't/aren't aware of but now they have to build a personal narrative of how to deal with the consequences of their addiction. The part I haven't figured out yet is The Sampler and the pigs but I'm sure the answer is there somewhere, hopefully the previous interpretation I gave is somewhat accurate and helpful.
Upstream Color begins as a puzzling but reasonably coherent movie; much
of the beginning is a disturbing and unpleasant but somewhat
interesting sequence in which a woman is kidnapped and kind of
hypnotized. While some of it doesn't make much sense, I could think of
explanations for why things happen they way they do, and the odd,
distanced, no-affect acting is appropriate to what is going on.
Unfortunately distanced characters and no-affect speaking are the rule even after that scene, and puzzling goes to flat out senseless as the movie progresses.
The movie is very much a pretentious art film in which the viewer is supposed to do the work of filling in the gaps of the movie. It is full of strange transitions, inter-cutting between scenes that seem to have nothing to do with one another or between different versions of the same thing. The movie is for people who feel things like story and character development are simple catering to the masses. It is the sort of movie that, if you hate it, you think the people who like it may just be pretending to like it to seem cool, because it is so hard to imagine anyone could genuinely enjoy this. It is a movie that resolutely makes less and less sense as it goes along, so while early on I still thought the elements might somehow be at least vaguely tied together, by the end it appeared that the director himself probably didn't even know how it all connected.
This is not to say there are no interesting ideas in the film, because there are a couple. In fact, you could take parts of this movie and make something vaguely interesting out of them. But this movie fails to use its ideas to good effect. It also never connects you to its characters, leaving you alienated and alone in a confused landscape.
While the movie looks like a puzzle to be solved, I think it is like the famous riddle from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, "Why is a raven like a writing desk," in which when she admits she cannot solve it she is told there is no answer. There is no answer to this movie either, although someone may eventually cobble one together, in the same way that, years later, someone answered the Raven riddle (because Poe wrote on both).
The frustrating thing is, I can't stop mulling over what it means, and yes, I am thinking of connections and possibilities. But these connections do not themselves connect. You can make some of this make sense, at least in terms of allegory, but there are always loose ends, like leftover screws in Ikea furniture. And while fans of this movie will watch it over and over, looking for clues, I would never put myself through this again, because the movie is quite boring and just plain tiring to sit through.
In looking at reviews, trying to figure out why critics love this movie, I found comments that it was brilliantly and beautifully filmed. I don't understand that reaction. From the first moment I thought it was a flat- looking, low budget movie. Competently filmed within its limitations, certainly, but that's about it.
I have a friend who will only watch indie films, and after she rejected my first three choices, we settled on this. She soon apologized for rejecting my choices (she kept complaining and apologizing, in fact, until someone in the theater told her to shut up) and promised that next time I could choose the movie.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
A question that is likely to plague many that have the pleasure of
viewing Upstream Color is regarding what defines "a film," or, more
specifically, a worthwhile film. In my view (and many will and are free
to disagree), one of the most exciting and interesting characteristics
of film is the ability to take an abstract concept or complex social
force we all encounter and manifest it into a narrative via a character
or concrete mechanism for the protagonist to interact with or confront.
Furthermore, film, as an audiovisual medium, can be best used to
express ideas or develops through carefully considered combinations of
images and sounds. Expositional dialogue is present in so many movies
that it is refreshing to come across that rare filmmaker who dares to
take a more symbolic or lyrical approach. Should aforementioned images
and sounds be beautifully captured, as they are here, all for the
I actually view Upstream Color to be both substantially superior to and less confusing than Primer, his debut. So what is Shane Carruth going on about? Primarily, our conception of identity and forces that perhaps we are unable to perceive - much less understand - that mold this identity. It is obvious to even the most casual observer that our lives are overwhelmingly influenced things outside of our control. The plot we see, then, might be viewed as simply an innovative way to introduce these ideas into a film. Kris (Amy Seimetz) is accosted by a man who forces her to ingest a parasitic maggot that allows him to easily hypnotize and control her, with the ultimate goal being to steal everything she has. Once he's achieved this goal, he exits abruptly, leaving behind a ruined life. At this point, a mysterious figure surgically transfers the parasites from Kris to a pig, for motives more complex. No longer physically infected but still influenced by forces she doesn't understand, Kris encounters Jeff, a man similarly broken, and together they struggle to reassemble their lives and make some sense of what has happened to them.
In many ways, Henry David Thoreau's "Walden" may be the key. First, the Thief has Kris copy Thoreau's work as he prepares to wrench away all her material possession, an act which, despite its obvious malevolence, allows Kris to have a spiritual journey of sorts, to build her life up from the ground floor and truly seize life, as Thoreau sought to do in "Walden". As we see Kris reciting lines from "Walden" while retrieving stones from the bottom of a pool, she is expressing not only that she is beginning to remember some of what happened to her, but also that she is becoming aware that her life is not her own and that she must take action to secure her agency, which one could argue is the core thesis of Thoreau's novel. Finally, referencing "Walden" as an analogous narrative demonstrates that the Thief, Sampler and Orchid gatherers as a cycle represent Carruth taking advantage of that most elegant possibility offered by film to heighten and personify all of the inexplicable things that shape our lives. To make any of these figures entirely comprehensible (i.e. scientifically) would defeat the point, and ultimately make for a less intriguing narrative.
The title, then, is quite fitting. Most structurally, it refers to the blue chemical that flows downstream to affect the development of the orchids. Yet, in a metaphysical sense, it refers to the indistinguishable waves vastly divergent from actions taken far outside our perception, their ripples influencing the trajectory of our lives. As suggested by the trailer of the film, we may be able to force the shape of our story, but the color, the details that may define its richness are decided long before we have any say. Likewise, the oblivious and likely mostly benevolent florists, the morally grey or sometimes compromised Sampler and the explicitly exploitative and unethical Thief exist in a cycle, entirely dependent on each other with varying degrees of awareness, true of the power structures that we interact with ubiquitously.
Of course, it would be a mistake to trivialize the importance of romance in this film. In fact, much of the romantic development serves for a crucial springboard into the more ontological issues, and vice versa. What Kris gets from her time with Jeff beyond just companionship in an otherwise bleak existence, is some sense of self-worth, some understanding that fractured she may even be able to be loved to an extent previously unknown. Along the way, we see refreshing glimpses of the insecurities and questions of trust associated with opening your life up to another person. Carruth's framework for the issues that plague these characters allow the realization of such tender truths that the endurance of the film in the hearts of the willing viewer is practically ensured.
Despite the centrality of the romance, this is Kris' story and Seimetz's expression of the character's emotional trajectory is riveting. Carruth is great as the essential but reserved supporting character of Jeff, and succeeds in that his presence never detracts from the immersion. In a leading role, blemishes may have appeared, but there are none here. The score, sometimes reminiscent of Cliff Martinez's score for Soderbergh's Solaris, is universally captivating and worth listening to independently. The soundscape and visual cues serve to demonstrate how the characters most directly perceive a world controlled informed by powers they have no way of rationalizing or verbally expressing, and are always hypnotically rendered. The editing (done in collaboration with David Lowery, himself burgeoning with talent) facilitates a powerful emotional relevance and further aids in suggestion of thematic connections.
Destined to be lauded as a masterpiece by some and condemned as pretentious by others, Upstream Color is at the very least an ambitious sophomore effort from writer/ director/ producer/ editor/ actor/ composer/ distributor/ cinematographer Shane Carruth. I hope to unravel more of its carefully constructed mysteries in much-anticipated future viewings.
After this movie ended, I was dumbstruck. I sat looking at the end
credits, searching through what I had just watched, remembering the
film vividly, and yet having it still be a blur.
Upstream Color is not a literal movie. The plot is never explained directly to the viewer, and the actions taken by the characters are unclear in reason and motivation. The most obvious things I could say about the movie are that it is filmed very well, and it has a nice musical score.
But the movie is not about literal plot. It's not about literal characters. It's about feelings and thoughts. It's a movie about broken people trying to fix themselves. There are things everybody in the movie will understand, and there are things nobody will.
It's a lot like music. When you put on music, you know the mood, and you know the melody, and you know the tempo and the harmony, and it can be a beautiful experience, even though you have no idea what the lyrics mean. And upstream color is a lovely, almost meditative movie about the lives of everyone being interconnected, and about how when people form companionship they start to become one, and yet someone else may say totally opposite things than I'm saying, and they wouldn't be wrong.
It's not a movie for people that think a film must have a literal story. It's not a movie for people who won't watch an hour and a half of meditation. It's not for people who see movies to see stories. And there is no shame in disliking this movie. But if you can appreciate an abstract story and can sit through an hour and a half of meditation, this is the movie for you.
Stanley Kubrick said in his later years: "A film is - or should be - more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what's behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later." If Stanley Kubrick were alive today, I think he would have liked this movie a lot.
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