I didn't get to attend Sundance this year, although I really wanted to. Several folks from the studio I work out of went to support several Texas-made films that were premiering in competition.
Those films were David Lowery's Ain't Them Bodies Saints and Shane Carruth's Upstream Color.
In an interesting coincidence, both of these films actually used our studio (Ideaman Studios in Dallas, Texas) during various stages of their production and/or post.
Lowery's film will be released in August by IFC Films and so I have not seen it, but Shane is distributing Upstream Color himself and last night in Dallas he held a preview screening before the film opens officially on Friday at the Angelika Theater. And I was there.
Upstream Color has been reviewed a lot since it's Sundance premiere and so I'm not going to really do that here, plus I'm not a film critic... I'm a filmmaker who on occasion gets to watch films (I have two small children so I mainly watch Disney Channel). I also don't consider myself a "cinephile". My taste vary wildly and I probably tend to prefer more commercial fare.
Not Michael Bay commercial mind you... more like Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese commercial.
As a frame of reference, some of my favorites films are...
Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid
I could go on, but you get the idea.
I'm not a film historian and really don't know much about French New Wave or the French for that matter. I just like good movies.
What's my definition of a good movie? Typically speaking, it's one that I will watch more than once. And that doesn't happen very often. And it's all very subjective of course.
So I guess what I'm saying here is this Upstream Color "review" is coming from someone who doesn't really watch many "art films".
I actually had a debate on Facebook recently about that phrase... art films. I posed the question, aren't all films art? I think they are. But with the caveat that not all art is created equal. As a Facebook friend of mine Lance Von Trachtenberg says, "A print that you can buy in the clearance bin at Ross is in fact art, but really doesn't carry with it the resonance of an oil by Monet".
So, art then is delivered in degrees of complexity... And that brings us to Upstream Color (finally, right?)... :)
I actually didn't know what to expect seeing the film.
I've followed it's progress pretty closely though since it was produced in Dallas - and actually I know Shane, Casey Gooden (the producer) and Tom Walker (the production designer). And many of the cast members I've worked with and are friends with. But Shane kept the film pretty quiet. Pretty secret.
Until the Sundance premiere.
That's when the Twitterverse lit up after the premiere screening. I was taken aback some reading the initial WTF responses. Especially considering the film played to what is undeniably a friendly "art house" crowd.
That's not to say the reaction was bad per se, it was just more of confusion. But that was kind of expected, wasn't it? After all, if you saw Primer (Shane's first film that won Sundance in 2004) you were already primed (pun intended) for a puzzle of a story.
The tweets settled down though later in the Sundance week and slowly turned to high praise from many top critics. But, as often happens, film critics are much more in tune with art house films than general movie goers. So, I still wasn't really sure what to expect.
Lots of folks compared the work to Malick or Kubrick, which is setting the bar pretty high - although I am not a huge fan of Malick's recent efforts such as Tree of Life. That film tries way too hard and says very little (I know many disagree with me). And actually, Malick's name gets tossed around a lot these days if a film has a "lyrical" quality to it. So I personally think his name is overused in describing work today. But I digress...
Upstream Color does have elements of Kubrick (in many of the shot compositions) and a lyrical style reminiscent of Malick (yeah, I did just say that), but in the end it's all Shane Carruth. And I liked it.
There, I finally said something about the film!
Now, let me say I'm not exactly sure why I liked it, but I did. I really didn't connect with any of the characters. I really didn't get consumed by the story (and yes, there is a story and a narrative albeit in the background).
And speaking of the story, it was actually pretty simple. And pretty straightforward.
The way it was told was fairly complex and enigmatic.
It was also ambiguous. And ambiguity is great in my mind, but not confusion. That is a fine line, but there is a difference.
After the screening at the Q&A Shane said something that I really thought was interesting... He said as a filmmaker he's not there to provide answers, he's there to ask questions. I really like that.
So I think for me the attraction to the film was more about tone. It was also about sound design. And it was about music.
These three main elements really made it work.
Again, this is a lyrical film. You're not watching this to be engrossed in an action thriller storyline. It's more of a sensorial experience.
I'll also say the performance of actress Amy Seimetz was really good, and the cinematography was very intriguing in a shallow depth-of-field, out of focus kind of vibe. It absolutely added to the experience in a very good way.
One minor cinematography (and/or editing choice) caveat here for me was the use of the "hand shot" - it got a bit old. It's a very cool shot - a close-up of a person's hand gliding along a leg, or a bed or grass - whatever. It's been done a lot and I really remember it in Ridley Scott's Gladiator, but also in other (yep) Malick work. That's not to say others can't use it, you can, but it felt over done here - a lot like those damn sun flare shots in any (yep) Malick film. Those are beautiful the first 10 times you see them, but man, in almost every shot? Gets old.
So will fans of Primer like this film? That's hard to say.
It's not really a puzzle of a story. It's also not sci-fi or really a genre film. It does have genre elements in it - especially at the beginning with the worms and then pigs. That has a horror vibe going, but only for a while. The pacing is good throughout, although it does meander a tad in the second act. But the third act is beautiful and virtually dialogue-free. In the end the film is really a love story and actually has (all things considered) a rather sweet ending, too. All of course told in a very unique way.
So yeah, Primer fans will for the most part like it I think, as long as they know what they're in for. But it is a different kind of film, and a much more mature film.
I really hope (art) film fans will go out and support this. Shane and co. are distributing this themselves and so every ticket sold really matters. The film opens this Friday locally in Dallas and Plano at the Angelika, and across the country as well. So go see it!
It will also be released on VOD and Blu-ray, etc. in early May in the U.S. and that will likely be where most of its business comes from...
I know I'll be watching it again.
P.S. I really loved the score. And you can buy it right now digitally or on vinyl (which is really cool), and as a matter of fact you can preview a track right here...
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Who Am I?
I also created the Streamy and Webby award-winning web series PINK, which to date has been viewed online around 10 MILLION times at places like YouTube, Hulu, Koldcast and TheWB.com. And speaking of TheWB.com, I also produced and directed an online thriller for them called EXPOSED. It was released summer 2010. And most recently I created a new online sci-fi series called CONTINUUM, which is part of the online indie TV network JTS.tv - Just The Story and NOW available via VOD through indie platform Distrify.
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