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Upstream Color
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43 of 47 people found the following review helpful
Hypnotic, fascinating, and frustrating, "Upstream Color" is a bold (if not entirely comprehensible) new experience from auteur Shane Carruth. Carruth made a huge splash in the indie film world with his first film "Primer," which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2004. "Primer" has become a bona fide cult classic and a love-it or hate-it proposition. It's an experimental sci-fi effort that wrestles with big ideas and proves that you don't need a huge budget to produce an ambitious mind-bender. It isn't perfect, by any means, but it is a film that challenges conventional movie fare. Much the same can be said about "Upstream Color," I suppose. There is something far more ethereal, however, more haunting. This is not particularly about story and narrative, it is about creating visual poetry. As such, this will surely be a polarizing film.

From my perspective, the first thirty minutes of this ninety minute movie are absolutely spellbinding. Not to give too much away, but this sequence plays out as crazy crime caper in which a man systematically destroys the life of a woman (Amy Siemetz). It's absolutely chilling and completely original. When the woman, now fragile and uncertain, later meets an equally wayward soul (Carruth), they try to piece together some semblance of normalcy. Here the film becomes decidedly more fragmented as they bond AND wrestle with their demons. They, among others, may have shared a similar experience. But what is reality and what is illusion? I may not be smart enough to make sense of all of Carruth's dreamlike vision, but I just relinquished myself to the experience. The movie images start to flow over you. Between pig farming, mind altering worms, an errant sound technician, and Henry David Thoreau's "Walden," you can't be entirely sure where you'll end up! But when you get there, there is surprising emotional resonance (even if you don't understand why exactly).

"Upstream Color" can be aloof and maddening and it may leave you struggling to see Carruth's vision, but it is certainly unlike anything else you'll see this year. I mean that as a compliment, but I'm also going to be conservative in my recommendation. This is a prime example of experimental filmmaking, it is not something that will necessarily speak to a mass audience. Those that love it will proclaim it to be a masterpiece. Those that don't will likely think it's a waste of time. There will probably be very little middle ground in the appreciation (or lack thereof) for this unusual experience. If you need traditional storytelling, this is not for you. I appreciate that Carruth made the film that he wanted, creativity and authorship are dying arts in most movies. It didn't always work for me, but it's well worth checking into for adventuurous audiences. KGHarris, 5/13.
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40 of 47 people found the following review helpful
on March 23, 2013
"How are you enjoying South By Southwest?"
"It's great. I've seen some great films."
"What's the best thing you've seen?"
"Upstream Color."
"Oh. What's that about?"

I try to tell them that it can't really be explained. I could tell them that the discernible plot centers on a woman taken advantage of by a thief using a hypnotic plant as his weapon of choice, but that barely encapsulates a quarter of the half of the film I actually did understand. And I know most of us hate math.

What I can say with clarity and certainty is that if you enjoyed Primer, you should almost positively love this movie. If you haven't seen Primer, go watch it now and share your experience with the world. If you like the work of Gondry, Kaufman, Malick, Herzog, Cronenberg, Lynch, or Aronofsky then I'd be surprised if you didn't love this one.

At the end of my screening a man stood up and said, "Loved the film, but I'll be out in the lobby if anyone wants to try to explain it to me." It's really not that confusing. Don't be scared.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on April 28, 2013
I've changed my review, because I think this is a great film, not a good one, nor a weird one (even though its surface is undeniably strange).

I'd like you to know why I think that's so, in the hope that you'll take it seriously while you watch, then watch it again, then tell others to do so.

The way into this film is to think of what you're seeing in terms of metaphor. If you start with that--the idea that the objects, actors, and scenes all represent something beyond themselves--the film isn't hard to follow.

If you start with plot--as you have been taught to do in American film since Jaws--you're lost. The progression is jarring, sometimes even disjointed, there's very little dialogue, and no character is going to suddenly appear and spell out everything for you.

But that's why you're reading this, so I'll play that character...

In a wild, impossible premise, the identities of the two protagonists, a man and woman, are removed from their bodies and surgically transferred to pigs.

This doesn't happen, however, until a botanist subdues and brainwashes both. We see only the woman's case, but can infer the other has gone through the same process, because both show a familiarity not only with the same memories, but also with phrases from Thoreau's Walden, as well as a propensity to repeat the mindless, repetitive gestures of taking pieces of paper and manipulating them into shapes.

The woman makes a paper chain out of folded sheets on which she has transcribed pages of Walden without thinking about them, and the man works with the paper casings of thousands of straws.

So that's the surface of the premise.

Let's look at a few other surfaces.

We first see the woman in a cubicle job, overseeing the editing of a brief sequence of a film that features lots of CGI work: a bleak landscape through which a scifi robot walks on four artificial limbs, like a quadripedal animal, except the environment is so artificial that none of it exists or has any link to reality. There's an error in the sequence: a trace of a human foot or hand, maybe from a gaffer, that ruins the illusion. The woman says something to the effect that if she can see it, someone else will. She then goes about the process of hiring the second choice for editor, lying casually over the phone (we love your work...sorry we've taken so long getting back to you).

During her brainwashing, she is told that water will stand in for food, and she will be satisfied with small doses of it while craving more--a nonsensical bit of reasoning borrowed from junkiedom.

She is told that she cannot directly behold the face of the individual telling her what to do, because he is made of the same material as the sun. A nonsensical bit of reasoning that smacks of religious insistence on the acceptance of non-facts. Or perhaps advertising; you see and hear actors, not the writers of the pitch nor the clients. The larger point is that he's lying. He's just a person, manipulating a situation.

To earn a few chips from a checker board, which allow her to "buy" sips of water, she is instructed to transcribe Walden word for word on blank sheets of paper which she must then fold, glue and form into a chain, which is later discarded by the brainwashing botanist.



A paper trail that soon vanishes; the brainwasher cleans up after cleaning her out, leaving with the (strange) evidence, and ending her trance with the phrase "the wall has crumbled...fallen down."

She loses her job, her savings, and likely her credit as well. All as a result of losing her identity.

Okay...another way of looking at this:

What was her identity to begin with?

Her job? Not editing, not filming, not color timing, but rather supervising the editing of someone else's film, which depicts a scene so artificial it can't exist. Nothing direct, three-dimensional, tactile or real.

She's supervising--a signal of higher pay in cubicle world. With the implication that it takes all her time. Her identity likely IS her job. A couple of lines to dash off after naming the company at a cocktail party.

What was her credibility? Her success, her credit rating, the credibility of her company.

All gone. Quickly.

Like being told water is a substitute for food, and being made to believe that transcribing someone else's information and reshaping it on paper is essential, time-consuming, all-encompassing work.

What's her next job?

Working at a signage company, this time as labor. Making signs she doesn't care about or understand.

Once again, perfectly in line with the messages and tactics of her brainwashing. It's more meaningless work, this time for subsistence. At best.

And now we meet the man. Already brainwashed. What was he before? A financier. Another manipulator of information several levels removed from making or doing anything tactile, three-dimensional or real.

Where is he now? Like her, vaguely in the same field, now lower down. He's discredited, off the books, unacknowledged and removed.

They're drawn to each other and don't know why. Like so many attractions.

They discover their memories are identical.

An exaggeration in the film drawn from the premise, but how different is that from people whose identities are essentially their jobs? How many dates are happening right now where both parties say something is amazing that isn't, shortly before discussing their like of all kinds of music, movies, and travel?

How does the film turn around?

The woman suffers a psychological break from the horror of being utterly lost, and finally tries something desperate, strange and (most important) unique: she creates a physical association with the words that were brainwashed into her by diving for stones she drops in a pool, then retrieving them one at a time, assigning each a phrase from Walden that suddenly means something to her.

Actions tied to words tied to ideas. Something tactile, three-dimensional. Real.

And she's literally beneath the surface finding these revelations, slowly bringing them to light. And the man recognizes the words as well, and their power; the implication is he was brainwashed with the same book. A guess that's reinforced by an early scene, with the brainwasher working on his plants while a record plays. An album of Walden being read aloud.

What is Walden about? Going one's own way. Finding one's own identity. Reconsidering and frequently rejecting what you've been told to accept by the social order, for the purpose of discovering the self.

How does the film end? The couple pieces together what happened to them, and the man and woman devote their lives to tending to the pigs--pack animals--who possess their true identities. A literal way of showing them taking care of themselves, taking themselves seriously simply as beings for the first time.

They inform other victims, who join them in this activity. As Thoreau has been asking you to join him by repeating his exploration of self discovery.

Because there's color upstream, waiting to be reclaimed and brought down to where you are.

Ask yourself now who the botanist/brainwasher is. Perhaps a stand-in for the goods you've been sold. The social messages you take as facts of life.

Ask yourself who the farmer is. And why he's killed. Perhaps a stand-in for a flawed god. Look how downscale his equipment is. Despite some startling successes--the ability to transfer consciousness between beings, and the stunning sympatico between strangers exposed to the same experiments, even he recognizes that his attempts have limits, and ultimately don't work the way he'd intended.

Then again, the botanist and farmer are both scientists; you can make a genetic argument here as well. Advertising, religion, bioengineering, social conventions, pharmacology, chemical changes through botany--in 2013, we're tinkering not only with psychology, but also physiology, brain chemistry, even DNA.

The larger point remains: conmen, gods or scientists, they take us far from who we really are.

In the end, how do they fail? There's an error in the sequence. A trace of humanity remains, ruining the illusion. If you notice, someone else will too. A man on a train noticing a woman. A person watching a film.

Great movie. Watch it again.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
Auteurs get a bad rap, and that isn't because they lack the ability to provide a cohesive product that can also make a buck. More likely, it's due to the fact that audiences avoid even investing time and effort into understanding not every film's message is going to be grasped and understood in the first fifteen (or so) minutes. As our attention spans have grown narrower and narrower, films that present a strong narrative or serve as an allegory for something bigger than the latest Ben Stiller comedy ("art" for the masses) or Martin Scorsese film (art for the critical masses) just aren't given the time of day. Now, granted, not every auteur-driven motion picture deserves as much commentary as the next, but a truly visionary film has the ability to not only change the way stories are told but also they might challenge us to think about ourselves and our roles in the greater world at large.

(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you're the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I'd encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you're accepting of a few modest hints at `things to come,' then read on ...)

Unlike writer/director Shane Carruth's earlier film - PRIMER - which I found to be entirely far too esoteric or relatable for its own good, UPSTREAM COLOR grounds its story in real characters that an audience can care about, root for, and understand. The hard science he leaves in the background - an undercurrent that drives the plot forward but isn't so overpowering that it ever rises to the central focus. Also, Carruth smartly populates COLOR with people whose flaws enjoy both conventional and unconventional definition, then pushes the envelope into some very conspiratorial waters but always maintains a workable sci-fi emphasis to bring it back to reality.

Amy (played with `girl-next-door' aplomb by Amy Seimetz) finds her world unexplainably spiraling out of control as she awakens from a substance-abused `invasion' that leaves her jobless and (nearly) penniless. As she begins her life anew, she finds herself curiously drawn to Jeff (Carruth) in ways that defy any logical explanation. It is as if destiny has pulled them together, though they've no collective understanding of why they behave with one another the way they do. Together, they begin to explore the various `surprises' of their shared existence, leading them to uncover the truth that their shared reality is not what it seems.

COLOR is the kind of film whose story is difficult to describe without spoiling some of the tale's internal magic. Suffice it to say, the science-themed romance is nothing short of visual poetry probably best suited for cinema buffs, film aficionados, and academics who prefer more meat than fluff with their meals. It isn't the kind of product that's designed for immediately pay-off of shots and sequences and even smaller moments; it requires a cognitive investment on the part of the viewer. Rest assured: everything presented has an answer, but it isn't forthcoming in the way traditional films are constructed. This is one that's revealed in substantive layers - in the nuances of what looks superficially to be even quirky performances by the players - and even the final scene can speak volumes to the person who `gets it.'

I've no doubt that some will or have dismissed COLOR as an art-house creation, and, to some degree, I suppose that's a legitimate criticism. Certainly, these 90 minutes will not be to everyone's liking. Discerning fans of intelligent science fiction will probably be most impressed ... so long as they're willing to make the commitment to come for the meal but stay for the pie.

UPSTREAM COLOR is produced by ERBP. DVD distribution is being handled by Cinedigm Entertainment Group. As for the technical specifications ... wow. The visual and audio elements of COLOR are exceptional; all aspects weave together to tell this singular story in several possible ways that are always clever and inspired. Unfortunately (and shame, shame, shame!), the only special features available on the disc I was provided are the theatrical trailers, and that doesn't even come close to scratching the surface of what I would've expected or wanted. This film is something special, and, as such, I believe it deserved more. Also, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that UPSTREAM COLOR served as an `Official Selection' of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, the 63rd Panorama Internationale Filmfestspiele of Berlin, the SXSW Film Festival, and the 2013 New Directors/New Films Festival. Also, the film won the Special Jury Prize for Sound Design at 2013's Sundance.

HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION POSSIBLE. UPSTREAM COLOR is an aggressively original vision of a world wherein cause, effect, and purpose collide in ways unimaginable. You'd be a fool not to discover it.

In the interests of fairness, I'm pleased to disclose that the fine folks at ERBP via Cinedigm Entertainment Group provided me with a DVD copy of UPSTREAM COLOR by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.
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13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on February 13, 2013
I walked into this at Berlinale not knowing what to expect. It was one of the most important experiences of my life. I didn't know film could do this. It is lyrical, poetic, poignant, and deeply emotional. I am counting the days until I can see it again.
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14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on July 12, 2013
ADDENDUM: I am changing this review to five stars, because even a week later, the visceral sounds and images haunt me (in a good way). If a movie can do that, it's big and deserves five stars!

"Primer", the director's first movie was great, so after reading a bunch of Upstream Color reviews I wasn't so sure if I even wanted to. Wired Mag had an interview with the writer/director, so I just had to give it a go. And I am so glad, as the movie surprised me in many ways. I read many reviews (including the hyped review from Wired after the Sundance premier), showing audiences puzzled and asking: what the heck did we just watch? Rumors started on-line that this picture required multiple viewings to find out what the director/writer/producer meant by this movie.

I think y'all are going in way too deep. Shane is a fine writer with a good vision or two on how great movies used to be made. And if I am not mistaken is a David Lynch fan, down to the music, the eeriness, spookiness and general weirdness of the characters, and the sounds are a lot like "Blue Velvet" but better. This is, for all its intricacies and esoteric topics basically a very, very simple movie. It is actually a testament to Shane's vision that he can convey simplicity and straight forwardness that eludes most third or fourth time directors. He is a master of Showing, not Telling.

In that context, it is an eloquent ode to love, and trying to make sense of a stolen past. This really is an endearing movie, and not just an exercise in atmosphere or an artsy fartsy indie flick. Again, it is about love, including love of nature. The main characters have both undergone a zombie-like experience in which they were robbed of their identities and lives. Now, they have developed synesthesia, a neurological condition usually present at birth. On top of that, somewhere on a field nearby, pigs roam, pigs that are now hosts to the worm that previously inhabited their own bodies and brains. And they have become hypersensitized to each others' and the baby pigs' suffering.

I see nothing abnormal in the movie; even the long worm in the film is akin to Dracunculus medinensis and is prevalent in at least 20 African countries, aka Guinea Worm Disease. I had just watched The Bay (don't, it's awful, but it did have scientists and others suffering from isopods) while this movie featured similar, smaller insects when the baddies are still larvae. Further, the Walden references did not bother me that much, for this movie it was appropriate to have a coherent glue that kept this story going forward. This was an engaging movie, and eerily creepy, with enough suspense and good dialogue to keep me fully engaged for the entire duration.

A couple of things fell short of my expectations; I did not understand the African American boy/character with the 1970's glasses except to have a kind of innocent introduction into the evils of the worm as a powder, or perhaps a voodoo reference. I also am not a 100% convinced that the Writer/Director should also be the lead actor, although the woman lead was fabulous, and I hope to see her in more movie roles. Lastly, the Photography and Sound was fabulous, which is an art and not easy to come by these days. My overall theory on the general body of work from this Writer/Director/Actor is that he may have Aspergers, and I actually appreciate that. The result is an extremely well researched and well done movie including a plausible neurological and biological angle.

So for all the professional reviewers who did not get it and "have to watch it a bunch of times", why didn't you? This is, although extremely well done, not exactly Calc Based Physics Two, or Intro to Probability, or even Molecular Biology! Oh, that's right, the reviewers probably didn't graduate from a Technological University. Ah, those Liberal Arts Degrees will trip you up every time! Sorry, but revenge of the nerds is a dish best served from the safety of a semi-anonymous Amazon review account...
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
UC is amazing, brilliant, confusing, lovely to look at and I bought it without having even seen it because Shane Carruth made PRIMER and that makes anything else he comes up with worth a look. I was not let down. This movie attempts to enlarge what movies can be. Instead of being trapped by a constant (and boring) demand for plot and more plot---this film offers ideas and feelings that you can go away with and think about later on your own. In short, unlike 99% of movies out there, this film stays with you. And any filmmaker brave enough to put pigs in his film as a serious element deserves a lot of praise. God knows what he will make next but I'll be there waiting to see it.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on July 29, 2013
You know all those Weekly World News-type stories about people allegedly kidnapped by aliens, who perform horrible experiments on their hapless captives before returning them to their original upright position behind the wheel of their car, now mysteriously relocated in the middle of a cornfield somewhere in Iowa? While they may have vague recollections regarding anal probes and such, these folks are generally a bit fuzzy on details. In "Upstream Color", writer-director-actor Shane Carruth may be offering an explanation. At least that's one explanation that I can offer for this fuzzy cypher of a film.

To say this film is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma is understatement. To say that it redefines the meaning of "Huh?!" may be more apt. A woman (Amy Seimitz) is jumped in an alley, tasered and then forced to ingest a creepy-crawly whatsit (all I know is that it appears to be in its larval stage) that puts her into a docile and suggestible state. Her kidnapper however turns out to be not so much Buffalo Bill, but more Terence McKenna (I believe the original working title of this film was "When Ethnobotanists Attack"!) As he methodically cleans out her financial assets over a period of several days (with her "willing" cooperation) while encamped at her house, he next directs her to commit passages of Thoreau's writings to memory (it was either that or waterboarding).

What happens next is...well, what happens next is, erm...OK we'll just say it's the creepy, fuzzily recollected part involving anal probes and such. All I know is that it takes place at a pig farm and fuzzily reminded me of that really creepy part of "O Lucky Man!" wherein Malcolm McDowell inadvertently stumbles into a top secret government medical research lab, where he's tortured and then the next thing he knows he's coming to on a gurney next to some poor wretched creature that appears to be half man and half sheep. Anyhoo, the next thing the woman knows, she's back behind the wheel of her car, parked alongside some cornfield off the interstate, and spends the rest of the movie slowly retrieving memories of her bizarre experience in bits and pieces. Oh, and along the way she meets and falls in love with this sullen dude (played by Carruth) who may have had the same exact experience! Wild and wooly metaphysical/transcendentalist hijinks ensue.

While I will give Carruth some points for originality (the closest I can come to a tagline for this one is "A Man and a Woman" meets "Eraserhead") and find it admirable that he is making such an earnest effort to be compared to Andrei Tartovsky, unfortunately he's falling short, just this side of a glorified Twilight Zone episode. This seems to be the latest entry in a burgeoning subgenre that I have dubbed "emo sci-fi" (alongside the likes of "Another Earth" and "Safety Not Guaranteed"). That being said, if you are predisposed toward such challenging fare, I wouldn't dissuade you from checking it out. And don't feel bad if you don't "get it" the first time you see it. I didn't get it the second time either.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
I also saw this premiere at Sundance this year and it struck me as brilliant and confusing and gorgeous and it still is rattling around in my head. The first 30 minutes are breathtaking -- I don't think I blinked once. Can it be described? Not fully. It should be experienced. Let your subconscious and your intuition go with it. I think Carruth did while making it. What I found rather surprising is that the closing credits to the film were only about two screens of names! This is a "tiny" film with a big impact.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on July 3, 2013
Nine years after his mind-bending debut feature Primer, Shane Carruth has put out his magnificent sophomore venture, the curiously titled Upstream Color. Featuring sparse dialogue and a beautifully exotic score, Carruth's latest film is at times confusing, metaphorical, and ultimately magnificent. Despite its 93-minute running time the film feels like an epic, and has qualities not unlike that of Terrence Malick's own sprawling metaphorical epic Tree of Life from 2011. Unlike Tree of Life, this film feels more concise, more calculated. Carruth showed us with Primer that he has the wits to make us scratch our heads, though here his motive seems to be not to confuse the audience but rather to explain partly what's going on in the plot and also what's going on in the minds of its central characters, portrayed by Amy Seimetz and Carruth himself.
Other than the format of the film that Shane Carruth has crafted, the best things about this movie are the sound design and the picture. Written and performed by Carruth, the film's score is possibly the most creative use of music I've seen in films in the past decade, and the sound design matches it so well you have to wonder if Carruth won't receive a few Oscar nods. The cinematography is much clearer and colorful than Primer, and may make the film one of the best looking to this point. Also, it's a bit less confusing than Primer, though it still may take you a few viewings to totally understand what's going on.
Overall, Upstream Color is an emotional and technical masterpiece, with its director focusing not merely on the mechanics of the "drug" shown in the film, but its effects on the characters that are under its influence. Carruth's second feature is a testament on love, loss, and identity.
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