Monthly Archives: April 2013

Now Playing: Upstream Color

Upstream Color
dir: Shane Carruth (USA, 2013)
Rating: 8.9

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Now playing at the Music Box Theatre is Upstream Color, the second feature film from the enormously talented multi-hyphenate Shane Carruth (writer-director-actor-composer-editor, etc.), and a masterpiece that I urge everyone to see on the big screen as soon as possible. Primer, Carruth’s inventive, complex, mind-bending low-fi/sci-fi debut from 2004, has garnered a huge cult following over the past decade and is widely referred to as the most “realistic” time-travel movie ever made. But I think Upstream Color, the long-awaited follow-up (which Carruth self-financed and is now audaciously self-distributing), is even better. It is just as bold in terms of ideas and narrative structure as Primer but it is also far more accomplished cinematically — fragmented close-ups, a super-shallow depth-of-field, zig-zagging editing rhythms and a use of heightened natural sounds all combine into an intoxicating stew where other masters of image and sound as diverse as Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Bresson, Alain Resnais, Andrei Tarkovsky, David Cronenberg, David Lynch and Terrence Malick are all valid reference points. I was originally scheduled to interview Carruth by phone yesterday but this was canceled at the last minute when his L.A. press junket ran behind schedule. So I’ve taken my notes and interview questions and converted them into this review.

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The plot of Upstream Color concerns a woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz), who works in digital animation, being kidnapped and drugged by a con-artist (Thiago Martins) who forces her to ingest a parasitic worm through a gas-mask-like apparatus. This allows the “Thief” — as the character is referred to in the credits — to use mind control to deplete both Kris’ bank account and her identity. Sometime later, she meets and embarks on a romance with Jeff (Carruth), a disgraced former financial broker who may have been subject to a similarly traumatic experience. Meanwhile, Kris also meets a pig farmer/sound recordist (Andrew Sensenig) — referred to in the credits as “The Sampler” — who performs surgery on her to remove the worm, which he then implants into one of his own pigs. As Kris and Jeff’s relationship evolves across a chronologically scrambled timeline, they discover that they have shared (false?) memories of the same childhood experiences and that they are just two of many damaged souls whose lives have been manipulated by the Thief and/or the Sampler. But Upstream Color is ultimately not a story-driven movie. It is a remarkably singular and wholly entrancing sensory experience in which the narrative elements serve as a starting point for Carruth to explore themes of love, loss, identity, consciousness and rebirth. I have no reservations about calling it American filmmaking at its most original and ambitious; or, to put it another way, this is the movie that I wanted The Tree of Life to be.

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I recently came across an interview with Stanley Kubrick (to whom Carruth has been favorably compared by more than a few critics), in which he said that he was never sure if story was the most important thing in a movie or if story was what allowed him to do all of the other things he really wanted to do. Carruth’s sympathies would seem to fall squarely on the latter end of Kubrick’s equation, as his exploitation of genre elements functions primarily as a fascinating pretext for him to explore various themes and ideas. Primer may outwardly appear to be a science-fiction head-scratcher but it is really more “about” the themes of ethics, friendship and betrayal that could ultimately be explored in any genre. My perspective on Upstream Color is that it starts off as an intellectual horror movie and then slowly and surprisingly transitions into a touching love story (though I fully admit that this perception might change upon further viewings). The opening of the film and all of the scenes with the Thief controlling Kris are disturbing to me personally because I don’t think there’s anything more terrifying than the idea of losing control of one’s own mind. But, after Kris meets Jeff, a kind of rebirth occurs for both characters, which leads to an ending that I feel is almost transcendental in its sense of uplift. Upstream Color is ultimately a much more emotional film than Primer (and may therefore be more accessible to general audiences), in large part because of the phenomenal, highly emotional lead performance of Amy Seimetz, for which Carruth’s debut has no equivalent.

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Upstream Color‘s most puzzling aspect, and the one most likely to send casual viewers heading for the exits mid-screening, is the subplot involving the Sampler. At first, I viewed this character as a kind of benevolent doppelganger to the Thief on the basis that he had removed the worm from Kris’ body. But the more scenes we see taking place on the farm, the more it seems like the Sampler is also controlling Kris’ and Jeff’s actions through the pigs — voodoo-doll style — since the animals have been implanted with parasites that were once inside of their human counterparts. The Sampler’s ambiguous, God-like status is increased by the fact that he is an artist — not only because he’s a musician and sound recordist but also because he’s a kind of puppetmaster to the main characters. (Is he meant to represent a film director?) In one of the film’s most enigmatic yet beautiful sequences, the Sampler throws a burlap sack full of dead piglets into a river. Their bodies decompose, eventually causing the color of the orchids on the riverbank nearby to change from white to blue. This scene is where the title of the movie comes from and may have in turn been inspired by a lyric from a White Stripes song (“You took a white orchid and turned it blue”). But the idea of rebirth is prominent in the film figuratively as well: Jeff and Kris forge a new collective identity, indeed become new people, when they become a couple and get married. As a happily married man of five years, I can relate.

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The idea of giving birth to a new identity is also reflected in the film’s many references to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, the ultimate declaration of independence. Whether or not Carruth consciously thinks of his own fiercely independent status as an artist as something that links him to Thoreau, Upstream Color is a film I definitely plan on showing towards the end of future Film History classes as an example of a true independent movie production. A lot of young people today think of independent films only as Hollywood calling cards and don’t understand why someone would consciously choose to make a movie outside of the studio system, especially if that person had the chance to work for a studio and make a lot of money as a director-for-hire (an option Carruth has resisted). Upstream Color is a film that maximizes its independent status by expressing things in a way that could never in a million years be expressed in a Hollywood studio film. Carruth clearly views the act of independent filmmaking as taking the political stance that it is, which is reflected in his decision to not only make but distribute his movie himself. This gives him final say over every aspect of how Upstream Color is advertised and disseminated and points the way towards a new business model in which the studio hierarchy may be less relevant in the future. Even though I’ve already seen a screener of it for free, I’ll be going to the Music Box to see Upstream Color again on Sunday. This is partly because I feel it demands a second viewing but also because, in our corporate climate, where one casts a “vote” with every consumer dollar spent, I’d like to use my money to say “More like this, please.”

You can view the trailer for Upstream Color on YouTube below:


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Breathless (Godard)
2. Tristana (Bunuel)
3. A Short Film About Love (Kieslowski)
4. Vertigo (Hitchcock)
5. The Zebra (Leon)
6. The Towrope (Vega)
7. Singin’ in the Rain (Donen/Kelly)
8. Wanda (Loden)
9. Breathless (Godard)
10. Some Like It Hot (Wilder)


2013 Chicago Latino Film Festival Preview Pt. 1

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The long-running Chicago Latino Film Festival, which I have regrettably never attended in the past, has returned this year for an impressively ambitious 29th edition. If the movies on offer are anything to go by, CLFF has clearly established itself as an important local institution, one that offers Chicagoans the chance to see an impressively diverse array of films from around the world (from many Latin American countries to Spain and Portugal to the United States), most of which will screen once or twice at the AMC River East but not return to show at any other local venues. Simply put, this festival is an invaluable lifeline to anyone interested in not only Latino but global cinema.

Having started in 1985 when, according to the CLFF website, 14 movies were “projected onto a concrete wall for 500 viewers,” the fest has grown exponentially over the past three decades and just recently received a grant from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to support its various programs — including, perhaps most important for attendees, Q&A sessions with visiting filmmakers. Some of my classes will have the opportunity to earn extra credit by attending festival screenings. See the extra credit page of your course website for more information. Below is the first of two posts in which I will preview some of the movies at this year’s festival. Part two will be published next week.

A Love / Un Amor (Hernandez, Argentina, 2011)
Rating: 7.7

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One of the best films I was able to preview from this year’s edition of CLFF is Un Amor, an emotionally gratifying character study by Argentinian writer/director Paula Hernandez. The story shuttles back and forth across a 30-year time span: it begins in the early 1980s when Lisa, a precocious and flirty teenager, comes between best friends Lalo and Bruno before she moves away without so much as telling either of them goodbye. These scenes are intercut with present-day scenes from three decades later when Lisa, still free-spirited in middle-age, re-enters the men’s lives just as unexpectedly as she left. Some of the story elements may sound familiar (the “coming of age” scenes in the flashbacks, the old girlfriend unexpectedly showing up and exacerbating marital discord in the present, etc.) but everything about this film feels fresh and commendably life-like — with the most powerful moments also being the subtlest and quietest. The six lead performances are exceptionally nuanced, and the production values (especially the cinematography and musical score) are top-notch. A Love screens on Saturday, April 20 and Tuesday, April 23.

The Man from the Future / O Homem do Futuro (Torres, Brazil, 2011)
Rating: 5.4

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In this energetic sci-fi/comedy, a brilliant physics professor nicknamed “Zero” tries to create a new energy source but invents a time-travel machine instead. Like many a movie protagonist before him, Zero attempts to revisit and alter an event from his past (specifically, a college incident where he was humiliated in front of the woman of his dreams) in order to change his present life for the better. The only problem is that he ends up making things even worse and so ends up venturing into the past yet again . . . Like most time-travel movies, this doesn’t really make sense, and it predictably features the same old trite moral about the importance of being able to make one’s own choices in life. But the way these elements are dished up with humor, romance and a happy ending seems guaranteed to please audiences: there’s a reason why this was chosen as the festival’s closing night film. The Man from the Future screens on Thursday, April 25.

Sofia and the Stubborn Man / Sofia y el Terco (Burgos, Colombia, 2012)
Rating: 6.3

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Popular Spanish actress Carmen Maura (perhaps best known in the U.S. as the lead in Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) plays one half of the title duo — the “stubborn man” being her husband — in this gentle wisp of a comedy by first time director Andres Burgos. The premise is that Sofia lives in a remote, mountainous area of Colombia and, despite her advancing years, has never seen the ocean. Tired of her husband’s perennial postponement of their vacation plans, she boldly decides to take off on a road trip by herself. This boasts some nice landscape photography, and Maura’s completely wordless performance is effective, but one can’t help but feel that the reason for her character’s muteness (never directly addressed in the script) is to simply avoid what would have been an incongruous Spanish accent. This is light and fluffy stuff that should go over well with the crowd for whom it was intended: older viewers looking for something inspirational. Sofia and the Stubborn Man screens on Wednesday, April 17 and Thursday, April 18.

Strawberry and Chocolate / Fresa y Chocolate (Alea/Tabio, Cuba, 1993)
Rating: 7.1

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With the marriage equality debate reaching a fever pitch in the U.S., now might be a good time for Chicagoans to see or see again Strawberry and Chocolate, a warm-hearted look at the friendship between two very different men — one gay and one straight — in Havana. The film, a plea for tolerance that was a popular international success upon its release 20 years ago, is very cautious, however, even by 1993 standards: it opens with a sex scene between a man and a woman, as if to reassure straight males in the audience, and Diego (Jorge Perugorría), the gay character, is defined less by his sexual orientation than by his feminine mannerisms and his interest in “high culture” (which, inevitably, includes listening to recordings of Maria Callas). But the story is touching and very well acted, especially by Perugorría, who will be on hand to accept a lifetime achievement award to accompany these 20th anniversary screenings. Strawberry and Chocolate was the penultimate film of the great Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (who was suffering from cancer at the time and co-directed with Juan Carlos Tabio) though it lacks the formal audacity of earlier works like Memories of Underdevelopment or The Last Supper. Strawberry and Chocolate screens on Monday, April 15 and Wednesday, April 17.

More information, including directions to the venue, ticket info and showtimes, can be found on the official Chicago Latino Film Festival site: http://www.chicagolatinofilmfestival.com


Roger Ebert R.I.P. (1942-2013)

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Roger Ebert made a big impression on my life, as he seemingly did with everyone who cared about movies over the past few decades. He was the person who first made me aware of what film criticism was. That would have been at some point in the early-to-mid-1980s when, as a kid, I started watching the popular At the Movies show he co-hosted with Gene Siskel. Later on, in the pre-internet days of the early-1990s, I read and wore out my copy of his “Video Companion.” While there were other critics who would end up exerting a stronger influence on me as a teacher and writer, I still always read and admired Ebert over the years. Just last semester I played the classic At the Movies episode entitled “Women in Danger” in its entirety in order to illustrate to a class what the “slasher movie” subgenre is.

I think Ebert’s greatest contribution to film criticism was the way he proved it could be both intelligent and popular at the same time. While many reviewers lamentably borrowed the basic “thumbs up/thumbs down” conceit — trademarked by Siskel and Ebert — in order to serve as mere “see this/don’t see that” consumer guides, Ebert’s reviews themselves were always insightful. And he commendably used his fame to champion film history — as in his “Great Movies” series — as well as little-known contemporary films that needed more exposure. For instance, he reviewed, in 2010, Chicago Heights, a locally shot/self-distributed indie made on a budget of $1,000 that played for just one week at the Siskel Center. In an age when movie reviews are being systematically replaced in the media with “celebrity news” (as Werner Herzog put it yesterday), it is doubtful that any film critic in the future will have the kind of wide-ranging impact that Ebert did.

The only contact I had with Roger Ebert came last year. We had been “facebook friends” for some time when I saw that he posted an article about the time he interviewed Charles Bukowski on the set of Barbet Schroeder’s Bukowski-penned movie Barfly in 1987. This reminded me of something I had been wondering about for years: in Bukowski’s highly entertaining 1989 novel Hollywood, a lightly fictionalized account of the making of Barfly, Bukowski’s alter ego Henry Chinaski describes being interviewed by an Ebert stand-in named “Rick Talbot.” Chinaski asks Talbot what he disliked the most about “Kirby Hudson” (read Gene Siskel), the co-host of his movie review show. Talbot’s response was: “His finger. It’s when he points his finger.” For some reason, I always thought this passage was uproariously funny. So I asked Ebert if “Talbot” had indeed said this about “Hudson” in real life, and he was kind enough to respond. His reply: “Michael: In a word, yes.”

Here’s Ebert in a cameo as himself in a 1995 episode of the animated series The Critic. The duet he sings with Siskel at the end is great:


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Strawberry and Chocolate (Alea/Tabio)
2. Black Christmas (Clark)
3. Sofia and the Stubborn Man (Burgos)
4. The Man from the Future (Torres)
5. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica)
6. The World Is Ours (Sanchez)
7. Things the Way They Are (Lavanderos)
8. A Love (Hernandez)
9. The Others (Amenabar)
10. The Man from the Future (Torres)


Now Playing: Spring Breakers

Spring Breakers
dir: Harmony Korine (USA, 2012)
Rating: 8.7

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The bottom line: A bevy of bikini-clad babes beer bongwater bacchanal booyah beach-noir bouncing boobs butts Brueghel Bosch

Now playing in wide release is Spring Breakers, the fifth feature film by Harmony Korine. A couple of my students who saw it before me warned me that although they found it “visually beautiful,” they also thought “the story was terrible.” While I know what they mean, I think they are also missing the point and perhaps even inadvertently paying the movie a compliment; the “story,” such as it is — four college girls rob a fast-food restaurant to finance a spring break trip to St. Petersburg, where their involvement in criminal activity escalates after meeting a rapper/drug dealer — is so thin it’s barely there. But a more story-driven Spring Breakers would resemble many of the wannabe-edgy indie films already saturating the marketplace. Korine, like David Cronenberg in Cosmopolis, is up to something more daring and subversive. In any event, anyone expecting traditional storytelling or characterization from a Harmony Korine film is, as Billy Wilder might say, barking up the wrong fish. The weakest aspect of Spring Breakers, by far, is its exposition, which is also where it feels most like a “normal movie”: early scenes introduce the four girls — Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), Cotty (Rachel Korine) and Faith (Selena Gomez) — and show them pooling their money, lamenting their lack of funds and plotting the robbery, but these scenes feel obligatory and unconvincing. The robbery scene itself, shot through the windows of the restaurant from a moving car in a single long take that recalls the heist in Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy, is formidable. But it isn’t until the spring breakers arrive in Florida that the film starts to become great. This is in part because of how the editing rhythms grow increasingly non-narrative and abstract, and in part because of the arrival of James Franco as the rapper/drug dealer known as “Alien” — a gonzo Method performance that ranks as the actor’s finest to date.

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Like all of Korine’s films, Spring Breakers has sharply divided critics. The most common complaints leveled against it are that it is immoral (one well-known online critic recommended registering as a sex offender after watching it), lacking in substance or needlessly and tediously repetitive. While all of these criticisms are stupid, they have also unfortunately sent the movie’s supporters too far in the opposite direction in making claims for its greatness and profundity: some positive notices have interpreted the dire financial straits that lead the girls to robbery as some kind of incisive commentary on the current U.S. economy, and one Film Comment reviewer goes much further, claiming the film is nothing less than a statement about the decline of Western Civilization. I would put myself squarely in between these two positions, finding Spring Breakers mostly interesting as an unusually intoxicating piece of eye and ear candy: it’s like a very pleasant 94-minute fever dream or drug experience — with saturated, primary colors (Korine told his cinematographer he wanted the images to resemble pop music or Skittles candy), a trippy electronic score (courtesy of Cliff Martinez and Skrillex) and non-linear editing all combining into an impressive impressionistic swirl. And I found the deliberate repetition and reshuffling of certain shots and lines of dialogue, especially Alien’s creepy incantatory chant of “spraang breeaak . . . sprang break for-ev-ah,” to be one of Korine’s most appealing aesthetic choices; this candy-colored artsploitation fantasia, like no movie I can think of since Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express in 1994, achieves the sheer repetitive catchiness of a terrific pop song.

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The film’s other great strength is James Franco, an actor I’ve never paid much attention to in the past, but who explodes onscreen here in a way that has to be seen to be believed. The very look of Alien is extraordinary: he wears his hair in long cornrows, sports platinum grills and prison-tattoos, and has a ridiculously gaudy wardrobe that looks like a grotesque parody of a gansta-rapper. But his charismatic line deliveries are even more striking. (Franco has cited a couple of underground rappers as the inspiration for his performance but the semi-disturbing way he drawls through a permanent grin seems to recall Willem Dafoe in Wild at Heart as well.) “Why y’all actin’ ‘spicious?” he asks the girls after bailing them out of jail and imploring them to go for a ride in his car. Pretty soon all of the girls, except for the goody-two-shoes Faith (who beats a hasty retreat back home), are seduced by Alien’s hustler lifestyle, with its promise of easy cash and materialism. Alien, in turn, sees the girls as his muses — he calls them his “three mermaids” — and it’s not long before he’s recruited them to be soldiers in a war against his nemesis “Big Arch” (rapper Gucci Mane), St. Pete’s reigning drug kingpin. For the most part, the actresses playing the girls hold their own with Franco. Gomez as Faith has a couple of affecting scenes where she cries real tears, and Hudgens and Benson are creditable as the aggressive bad-girl duo of Candy and Brit; in one particularly memorable sequence, they make Alien fellate the barrels of their loaded guns, which turns him on (“Y’all are my motherfuckin’ soulmates!). The one weak link in the cast is Rachel Korine, whose character, Cotty, feels the least coherent of the four, and surely it’s no coincidence that, as the director’s wife, she also has to bear the brunt of appearing in the most exploitative scenes.

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Many critics have noted that some aspects of the film seem to allude to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, including one astonishing scene in which Alien delivers a monologue that begins “Look at my shit!” and then proceeds to inventory his most prized possessions for the girls’ benefit. (The roster, hilariously, includes not only his guns and clothes but also “blue Kool-Aid,” “Calvin Klein Escape” and “Scarface on repeat!”) This scene is a kind of unhinged modern-day update of the celebrated passage in Fitzgerald’s novel where Jay Gatsby, always mindful of the impact of his possessions on Daisy, throws dress-shirts of every style and color around the room. It is in moments like this — as well as in the inspired use of a Britney Spears song to accompany a robbery montage — where Korine’s true motives become clear: he is satirizing what he sees as empty and soulless about contemporary American pop culture. This would be far easier for more viewers to swallow, however, if Korine were less ambivalent in his critique. He doesn’t merely want to criticize his young female characters for being vapid; he wants to party with them as well, and shows their quest for fun as containing a legitimate desire for some kind of spiritual transcendence. Because this is the case, the film ends on a note that is simultaneously improbable, ridiculous and sublime. (Without giving anything away, it is also, as an action set-piece, more satisfying and coherent than any comparable scene in Django Unchained.) How one ultimately feels about Spring Breakers probably depends on the extent to which one finds Korine’s seemingly contradictory impulses hypocritical. One thing, however, is for damn sure: watching Leonaro DiCaprio flinging his shirts around in 3-D is going to seem awfully lame in comparison. Spring break forever, bitches.

Check out the red band Spring Breakers trailer on YouTube below:


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