Tuesday, April 16, 2013


Shane Carruth's "Upstream Color" is a beautiful abstract work of art. It's confounding but never frustrating and always fascinating. Part love story and part science fiction drama, the film is meant to baffle. It's impossible to grasp all of what happens, and you're not supposed to. In its purposely oblique style, it is both very much an experiment and an experience begging what I can draw as its biggest -- out of many -- philosophical questions: how are we all connected in a world of loss? In "Upstream Color," reality gets realigned into a beguiling puzzle picture that puts faith in the audience to follow along and draw their own conclusions. Like the finest of paintings, there are infinite ways to begin looking at it.

There's something about grub worms that have been biogenically engineered to infiltrate a person's psyche and transport them to a hypnotic state once entered through the mouth. We follow one female test subject, Kris (Amy Seimetz), whose trance is detailed out in a series of quietly jarring sequences that lead to her trying to extract the worm from her body. Cut to a severe-looking ranch hand (Andrew Sensenig) who transplants the worm into the body of a pig. In one disturbing shot during the process, Kris and the pig are connected by one long umbilical cord.

Kris later meets a man, Jeff (Shane Carruth), who's apparently gone through a similar situation. They find an understated, unique bond that morphs into a strange connection, something beyond their own quasi-romance where their own memories and pasts get muddled and run into each other. They're both lost souls coping with a loss in their life and aren't even aware they're both dealing with something larger: a physical -- and literal -- emptiness inside them both. And back inside the corral, the pigs skitter about, the ranch hand the grandmaster of their souls. If this sounds weird, that's because it is. But it's also evocative and through stunning craft becomes enormously moving.

The film is sensually-directed and awash in texture, lush with vivid shots and sensory not only in sights but sounds as well. One of the themes is the repetition and recreation of specific sound effects that work as triggers to the test subjects, and listening to these interlaced throughout the world is one of the many great aesthetic pleasures. The conclusion brings little explanation (which may be troubling to some viewers), but the wealth of emotional significance it evokes is a true testament to its form. And in this, Carruth probably owes a lot of his technique to Terrence Malick, a master of mood. In the same vein, we may be witnessing the early stage of a new one-man voice in filmmaking, the vision of an artist of which this is a grandiose display.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013


This remake of Sam Raimi's 1981 horror classic "The Evil Dead" is like the non-ironic version of last year's satirical "The Cabin in the Woods." Five friends indeed go to a cabin in the woods, but this time it's not for a romp of drinking and sex. It's an intervention for their heroin-addicted friend in trouble (Jane Levy of  "Suburgatory"), so things start dark and only get darker, more twisted and disturbed from there. The reimagining from first-time writer and director Fede Alvarez exudes promise with gutsy -- literally -- bravado, and it's produced by both Raimi and the original B-movie icon Bruce Campbell and therefore has received the the stamp of approval from them with good reason. It may not match the wit and camp of the original, but it has enough clever winks and homages, doesn't mess with the simple formula to unfold the demonic chaos and, most importantly, upholds the same ooey-gooey, gross-out thrill ride pleasure.

This new adaptation certainly shares the same blood lust. The real success is the minimal use of CGI gore and instead relying on physical effects to properly mimic the homemade craftiness of the shoestring budget classic. It's easily the most grisly and gruesome horror release in recent memory. Slicing a limb with an electric meat carver, face-cutting with a shard of broken mirror and the good old fashioned use of a chainsaw are among the violent nuggets that test the boundary of good taste. The madness all starts with a twisted recreation of the famed "tree rape" scene, which serves as a great launching point to the demon-infested cabin carnage.

The only recognizable actor is Levy (save for maybe Lou Taylor Pucci who appeared in an episode of "Girls" and here plays the guy in the cabin who realizes that everything is not going to be just fine), and it's fitting because -- as it is with most in the genre -- they only serve as meat to be pressed into the horror movie meat-packing machine. What's really on display is the structure of tension build-up and release, which this reboot does quite effectively. The early suspense creates an unshakable fear of the gore to come, and once it strikes it evokes a combination of shock, disgust and nervous laughter just as every great horror movie should.

And just when we become desensitized enough and just when it feels as if the movie might be stepping a little too close to contemporary horror movie tropes, the outrageous finish cranks up the intensity in a blood-drenched finale. It's sickening fun that'll leave fans of Sam Raimi's horror work (especially bringing to mind his own return to form, 2009's "Drag Me to Hell") cheering with glee as the screen is awash in red raining down from the sky.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Remembering Roger Ebert (1942-2013)

I remember it was my freshman year in high school, and I was sitting in my friend's basement where a DVD rental of "Kill Bill Vol. 1" was presented to us by a mutual friend. As young teen boys would, he was elating to us about the level of blood, gore and violence in the movie, how we had to watch it, how it was so cool. I was excited to watch Quentin Tarantino's first movie in years for a different reason. Because just days previously I had come across Roger Ebert's four-star review of it, and I remember vividly a line that stuck with me:

"The movie is not about anything at all except the skill and humor of its making. It's kind of brilliant."

I thought it was so clever and interesting, a new way of consuming a movie, a way of watching and observing, looking for something more. Critical viewing. Film critiquing.

And with that line in mind, I sat with my friends and watched (sometimes through parted fingers covering my eyes) the gory onslaught of "Kill Bill Vol. 1" unfold. Reactions to follow: "Awesome! Cool!" But taking in the rolling credits, I knew I had seen it through a different lens. I was on a different plane, and it was because of Ebert's review I had a hugely different reaction than my friends. It was an unexpected emotional response. I wasn't reacting in adolescent glee to the limb-cutting and blood-spurting. I was reacting to it as art, and it was all thanks to Ebert's wonderful words, the critic of our lifetime, a man of great genius.

Since that day, I had labeled "Kill Bill Vol. 1" as the movie to really get me into movies the way I am today. But now as I sit going through words of praise and remembrance all over the internet for our dearly departed Roger, I realize it wasn't the movie that got me into movies; it was his words on the movie that made me see there was something more.

Ebert was the critic to put movie criticism in the public eye. He was the one who made it relevant, intriguing and, most of all, important. His two thumbs up or down turned a sophisticated analysis of movies and made it commercial. Beyond that, he made a sincere love for not only movies but the act of moviegoing mainstream and popular: "See you at the movies," he'd say.

And for me personally, he was the one who motivated me to get to where I am today in terms of my love and passion for everything movies and entertainment. He's my personal hero, and though I had always envisioned a life goal of meeting him one day, maybe it's better this way. He represents something greater not only for me but for anyone who appreciates movies.

He was a poet of a film critic, wise with his words and biting with his wit. He will be deeply missed but never, ever forgotten. Rest in peace, Roger.