Today I’m going to do three reviews at once, partly to help me get through the backlog of reviews I’ve got going right now, and partly because, while I enjoyed all three of these films, I don’t have deep, long-winded analyses to make about any of them, so I’m going to keep things relatively concise.
Upstream Color (2013) - As someone trying to make a career in the world of video and film making, Shane Carruth’s career is quite encouraging. After making a splash with his inventive and very low-budget time travel film Primer, he’s returned with Upstream Color, another low-budget film, not only written, directed, and starring Carruth, but even distributed by Carruth himself, and once again to great acclaim from critics and film lovers. Of the films I’ve seen so far this year, it is undoubtedly the most original and most intriguing, and it’s hard to imagine any other film coming out this year that could beat it on either of those fronts. The plot centers on a woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz) whose life is upended by a stranger and a parasitic worm that induces a hypnotic state in its host. After her ordeal, Kris meets Jeff (Carruth), they fall in love, and gradually as their relationship grows they begin to realize that they may share the same traumatic experience. The enigmatic nature of the film leaves it very open to interpretation, but the most simple way to look at it is as a story about how people are haunted by their past in ways that they can’t quite understand and about a couple coming to grips with that fact and searching for the means to break free from it. For Kris and Jeff, their past influences them in very literal terms - they continue to exhibit certain behaviors and enter trance-like states much like those they were forced into in their mind-controlled states, and furthermore, the worms that were in them still maintain a psychic connection to them even after being removed and implanted into pigs. Although the film doesn’t make it fully explicit, it implies that Kris and Jeff become attracted to one another because the pigs carrying their respective worms become mates, and their ensuing relationship and occasional unexplainable mood swings are in part due to the lives and emotions of the pigs, and so despite being rid of the worms, their lives are still out of their control. It’s not until they start to piece together their shared experience and find the pig farm where their pigs are being kept that they can finally feel free again. The film is full of great ideas and interesting visuals to match those ideas, like the stranger telling Kris his head is the sun, too bright for her to look at, and so in the scene we see a man sitting with a regular body and a sun for the head as the camera, like Kris, tries to keep from looking directly at it. The only aspect where the film lost me was in the editing, which was for the most part very rapid and erratic, a feeling that was emphasized by the sudden changes in sound with each cut. This isn’t in itself a bad thing; in fact, it makes sense for the film, keeping the audience ungrounded and as disjointed as the characters in the film are. I just personally find that rapid editing style unappealing and distracting, and it barred me from becoming completely engrossed in the film. Don’t let that sway you, however. Upstream Color is already available on Netflix, and missing it would mean missing what is truly the most unique film of the year.
Four out of five suns
Gimme the Loot (2013) - Independent filmmakers do a lot of things right, but one of the things they still often get wrong, just the same as Hollywood filmmakers, is that they still largely focus on stories about white people (two good examples: the other two films I’m reviewing here). That’s not necessarily a problem with the individual stories, but a problem with the industry and system as a whole, still too largely dominated by white male filmmakers who make stories they can relate to, which tend to be about white males. With that in mind, Gimme the Loot is a welcome burst of fresh air just for being an independent, low-budget film with minorities, two African-American leads (even one that’s a female! Progress!) and an almost-entirely minority supporting cast, excepting one prominent white character who (spoiler alert) kind of makes you hate white people. Adam Leon’s feature debut stars Tashiana Washington and Ty Hickson as Sofia and Malcolm, two aspiring and talented graffiti artists from the Bronx trying to build their reputation by hitting the ultimate target: the Mets’ Home Run Apple. Unfortunately, to get near the apple, they need $500 to pay off the security guy, so they spend two long days pawning, hustling, and stealing to get their money, hitting almost every possible obstacle along the way. This version of New York is one that hasn’t been seen onscreen for a while, one where life is tough and brutal and everyone is looking to scam everyone else, but it also shows the vitality and diversity of race, class, and background of people in NYC, which also makes it feel like the most honest and most appealing portrayal of the city I’ve seen in a long time. Washington and Hickson are both believable and endearing; we want them to succeed, which makes it even more painful every time someone screws them over, which happens a lot. Their relationship is the center of the film, best friends who obviously feel something more for each other but are too scared to say anything to one another. The film delves into issues of class when Malcolm delivers weed to Ginnie (Zoë Lescaze), a wealthy white girl in a high-rise apartment who invites Hickson to stay and smoke with her. Malcolm quickly falls for her, only to be spurned by her when she’s with her friends. The short relationship accentuates how important the film’s main relationship is for Malcolm and Sofia; in a hardscrabble environment like the one they live in, the only people they can really trust and depend are each other. It’s a teenage romance about characters that are rarely seen in romance films, and that thankfully doesn’t toss on any of the cliches of romance - no big reveal of feelings, no big kiss at the end, just the assurance that they’ll see each other tomorrow so they can find something else to stick their names on, the best way they know how to make an impact and leave an impression on the world around them, to keep themselves from becoming invisible in a city and world that rarely cares to see kids like them. It’s a simple slice-of-life film that feels real, fresh, and thoroughly charming, and it’s one of my favorites of the year so far.
Five out of five suns
Mud (2013) - Jeff Nichols’ last film, Take Shelter, was one of the best films of 2011. I wish I could say that his latest film Mud was a shoo-in to be one of the best of 2013, because there’s a lot about it that I really enjoyed. The film’s cast does a great job all around, led by Matthew McConaughey as Mud, a wanted man hiding out on a small island on the Mississippi River, and Tye Sheridan (only his second movie after The Tree of Life) as Ellis, a young teenager who, with his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), stumbles across Mud and decide to help him, bringing him food and supplies and helping get word to Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), Mud’s lifelong love, that he is waiting for her. Much like Take Shelter, the cast shines in part because of its realistic capturing of the American Midwest, not only in their accents but in the attitudes and moralities of their characters, and the cinematography captures the natural beauty of the Midwest as well as the effects of economic hardship on the communities and small towns of the area. What makes Mud stand out even more to me, however, is its status as a coming-of-age tale, one that has been repeatedly compared to the now-classic coming-of-age film Stand By Me. Mud captures a very specific transition in the “coming-of-age” process, which is the point at which a young person becomes aware of the realities of life compared to the stories we all heard as children, the reality that love doesn’t always conquer all, that life doesn’t always have happy endings, that the line between good and bad isn’t a solid one. At the end of the movie (spoilers, obviously), pretty much everything has gone wrong for Ellis - he didn’t get the girl he liked, his parents get their divorce, his family loses the houseboat, and as far as he knows, Mud is dead. And yet, even though he struggles greatly with the idea that life isn’t always what it seems and bad things sometimes happen no matter what you do, it’s clear at the end that Ellis isn’t defeated; he’s learned to move on and adapt to life’s changes, which is one of the most important lessons that a person can learn, one that some people figure out far too late in life. Looking at Mud purely as that coming-of-age film, I think it’s fantastic. But when you pay attention to other aspects, there are some really unfortunate flaws. The biggest problem is that the film is male-centric to the detriment of its female characters. Ellis’ mother (Sarah Paulson) comes out alright, although the film gives more attention and sympathy to his father (Ray McKinnon), but the film makes Ellis’ crush May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant) into a callous bitch and does a horrible job with Juniper, basically characterizing her as a slut who uses Mud when she needs protection and then dumps him for whatever abusive man she finds next, offering her no real sympathy and worse, leaving her to her unhappy life while everyone else gets to move on to better lives, or at the very least some hope for the future. Between Juniper, May Pearl, and Ellis’ mother, the theme of the film seems to be that women are relationship killers who try to destroy the lives of the men that love them. I don’t imagine that’s an intentional theme from Nichols, but it’s something that’s there and hard to ignore. I wasn’t a huge fan of the ending either, (again, spoilers) with the over-the-top shootout and the hokey final shot of Mud and Tom (Sam Shepard) boating into the Gulf of Mexico (call me a downer, but I’d have rather the film ended with Mud actually being dead), but it’s really that oddly shitty attitude towards women that keeps me from calling this a truly great film. Still, it says something about how successful it is as a coming-of-age tale that I can give it as high a rating as I’m about to, even with its misogynistic bent.
Four out of five suns