Upstream Color (2013, Shane Carruth)

I guess it’s about two people with traumatic pasts who try to track down where their lives went wrong – but as I could tell from the trailer, it’s hard to say exactly what it’s about. One thing I wasn’t expecting: it opens with Swanberg/Wingard regular Amy Seimetz being kidnapped and force-fed a mind-control worm by a patient abductor who takes her home and gets her to sign over all her home equity, which he cashes and disappears.

In her shabby new life working at a signage shop, Amy is relentlessly courted by divorced ex-junkie Shane (our writer/director/etc) who tries to help her come to terms with her life. He has his own identity problems – she tells him stories and he fashions them into his own memories and tries to re-tell them to her. During the mutual-paranoid-freakout scene in a bathtub the movie started to remind me of Bug.

Elsewhere in the world, a pig farmer is somehow involved with the worm-brainwashed abductees and possibly the harvesting of new mind-control worms. Also he seems to be a sound recordist. Amy pieces together enough details to discover his farm and kill him, upon which they find documents on all the other kidnappees, and invite them all to the pig farm.

And I haven’t even mentioned these guys:

The above is a silly description of an entrancing movie.
This was a long time coming after Carruth’s great Primer.
Co-edited by David Lowery, whose Ain’t Them Bodies Saints made waves the same year.

Cinema Scope has an excellent interview with Carruth:

From a writing perspective, I don’t want these people to wake up and have a normal resolution. That’s impossible for me because that means that I understand all of this and have a morality lesson to explain to the audience. And I don’t. All I have is an exploration. So the characters can resolve their story in their own way, but that doesn’t stop the exploration for me.

Mirror (1975, Andrei Tarkovsky)

An unseen narrator is flashing-back to his childhood in 1935. Since Tarkovsky made his first feature in the early sixties and this one is called Mirror, I’m going to assume it’s partly autobiographical. It’s also his Tree of Life – deeply-felt fragments with no easily-readable storyline. I might have missed some and misinterpreted the rest, but here are the episodes as I saw them:

1. A stutterer is cured under hypnosis. Sepia-toned film, shadows of camera crew visible, and neither character appearing in the rest of the story, because this episode is watched by the young protagonist on television.

2. color, a lost doctor talks to a woman at her house while two shaved-headed boys watch drowsily from a hammock. He leaves, turns back as a great gust of wind blows through the grass. I could watch this segment all day.

3. color, the barn burns down. Long takes bring The Sacrifice to mind.

4. b/w, woman wet hair vamping like The Ring monster, the house crumbles around her like a Low video, older woman appears in mirror reflection.

5. color, Alexei talks to his mom over phone, an Andrei Rublev poster on his wall. “Remember the hay-loft that burned down at the farm?”

6. b/w, woman proofreader thinks she’s made an error, runs through a printing press to check and it turns out okay but then everyone insults her. I think she is called Marousia, or Masha.

7. color, unseen man talking to ex-wife who reminds of his mother (same actress). “When I recall my childhood and my mother, somehow she always has your face.” Their son is Ignat. Wife might be Natalya. b/w news footage interlude.

8. color, Ignat has deja vu, then sees people who might not exist when left alone, talks to dad on phone.

9. color, a boy, maybe Ignat or his dad when young, in army training, notices girls, throws a fake grenade. War footage in b/w.

10. color, bird lands on freckly boy’s head

11. color, the mother/wife works in a ruined room.

12. b/w, Ignat’s unseen father wants Ignat to live with him, but ex-wife and Ignat disagree, dad says Ignat is stupid and recommends the army. Flashbacks and dreams: a bird flies through a windowpane.

13. color, mom comes to visit relative of the doctor – same one from first scene? Tells doc’s wife “a ladies little secret” while boy is alone looking in mirror. Red-haired girl might be Alyosha. They both feel sick. A chicken is killed.

14. b/w, a woman levitates

15. color, shaved-head kid talking to mom at farm, but mom is the old woman from reflections in #4.

16. color, doctor looking at sick guy, we see his hand holding a little bird

17. color, young woman lays on some guy in field, while two kids walk with older woman.

RW Knight for Reverse Shot:

Each event-that is, each cut, each encounter, each memory flashed back or forward-in the film’s networked composite is skewed by the film’s narrator. This narrator is the camera, and the film. His face is never seen. We are denied an identifying reverse shot. We are simply presented with his point of view: the identification is our instantaneous assimilation. His disembodied voice, weathered and granular, presides over the whole body of the work. His body is the work: the film and the guiding frame of the film. Occasionally when reading poetry the voice-over registers differently than when heard talking to other characters from outside the frame, but it still sounds like the same man. In fact, there are two voices: the poet-narrator is voiced by Arseni Tarkovsky, the director’s father, while the strictly first-person-narrator/character is voiced by Innokenti Smoktunovsky, the “first international Russian film star” (according to imdb.com), one of many point of view refractions. As identities merge in the film (father becomes son while mother becomes (ex-) wife and the son becomes his father in youth) they overlap in reality as well: the real father becomes the film star, and vice versa, incorporating their identities in the film, and its maker.

TCM summarizes:

The Mirror forgoes a conventional narrative structure, instead weaving together loosely autobiographical reminiscences, dreams and newsreel footage to suggest how the past is reflected in the present, both on a personal and on a larger historical level. … As a further personal touch, his real-life mother Maria appears as the mother in old age, his wife Larissa appears as the doctor’s wife to whom the mother sells an earring, and his stepdaughter appears as the red-headed girl with whom the narrator falls in love as a young boy.

Some good wind, and fire. Slow motion. Objects move by themselves, sometimes mysteriously just before an edit. This is the closest Tarkovsky came to making The Shining.

Begun in 1968 then interrupted to make Solaris. Appears in the Sight & Sound directors poll top-ten (and critics poll top-twenty). Probably not my favorite Tarkovsky movie, but neither would I mind watching it again right this minute.

Spider (2002, David Cronenberg)

I last watched this in theaters so my memory was fading. The first thing I forget about a movie is the ending. So I know Spider (Ralph Fiennes) is in a post-asylum halfway house remembering his childhood, when his mom was killed by his dad (Gabriel Byrne) and replaced by a new woman he picked up at a bar, but after that gets hazy.

John Neville (Gilliam’s Munchhausen), who plays Spider’s fellow patient, died the day before I watched this:

Miranda and her two Spiders:

Well, both women are Miranda Richardson, and young Ralph (often shown with the ghostly presence of full-grown Ralph following behind, peering through a window or hiding around a corner) takes matters into his own hands, tying his spiderweb-strings to the oven knob and turning on the gas after the new woman has passed out. But the woman who lays dead when the emergency crew arrives is Spider’s own mum, his dad weeping over her, uncomprehending.

My favorite comic-relief scene:

The central mystery of the movie seemed to be “how did a seemingly normal, if quiet and string-obsessed, boy turn into this mumbling, shuffling schizophrenic?” and one presumes it has something to do with his dad killing his mom. But the ending reveals that Spider was unhinged from the start. This is the kind of ending that makes you want to rewatch the movie with the thought that Spider’s POV is unreliable as both child and adult, but I blew it by rewatching having forgotten the twist.

Buy from Amazon:
Spider DVD

The Go-Between (1970, Joseph Losey)

“The past is a foreign county. They do things differently there.” No longer just a Silkworm lyric (from the same song that references “Willie” Somerset Maugham and possibly Casablanca), now back home in its proper element, or at least the film adaptation of its proper element.

A quality picture with excellent production design and fluid camera movement – like Carol Reed with a touch of Alain Resnais. It’s a perfect storm of my least-favorite types of movies: British upper-class period costume dramas and coming-of-age stories. But, highly recommended and Cannes-award-winning and all, I stuck with it and really loved the last half hour.

Kid named Leo is spending the summer with a family in the country, but his playmate Marcus (I like him – privileged asshole with a good vocabulary) gets the measles, leaving Leo to pal around with the grownups, getting involved in their secret affairs as a messenger boy. Julie Christie (between Petulia and McCabe & Mrs. Miller) is the young hottie of the household, promised to dull scarfaced Hugh Trimingham (Edward Fox of Day of the Jackal) but having a Leo-assisted affair with rough farmer Ted Burgess (Alan Bates of Secret Friends, also Chabrol’s Dr. M). Once the lovers are caught together and Julie seems lost to him, Ted shoots himself.

Fancy Hugh:

“We can’t expect to be happy all the time, can we?”

Fun sidetracks with Leo’s belief in occult curses. A dog with a name like “dry toast” (tri-toes?). A cricket ball is batted straight into the camera. A 1970’s love-triangle movie set among wheat fields, bringing to mind Days of Heaven. Little bursts of voiceover dialogue, like scenes omitted for time, or sometimes repeating what we’ve heard. An unexplained, unheard shot of a conversation between two characters we haven’t seen – only when going back through the screenshots did I notice the television set in the corner, definite sign of a flash-forward. The present day keeps breaking through into the early-century period story, and suddenly Leo is sixty (now Michael Redgrave of Mr. Arkadin, Secret Beyond the Door), summoned to visit Julie Christie (backlit to avoid displaying her old-age makeup).

“So you met my grandson”
“Yes I did”
“Does he remind you of anyone?”
“Ted Burgess”
“That’s it. That’s it. He does.”

Leo Redgrave:

Based on a famous novel, screenplay by Harold Pinter, who also wrote The Servant and Accident. Senses calls it Losey’s last great film and compliments Michel Legrand’s fine score. “Aside from its intelligence and insight, however, it hardly seems to be a Losey film—it is evocative, judicious, perfectly cast, but rather cautious.”

Shooting Down Pictures:

Occurring mostly in the past with occasional flashes to the present, Pinter’s manipulation of time feels perfunctory compared to what Alain Resnais was doing a decade prior, or even what Pinter managed in his script for Losey’s Accident. More interesting is Losey’s entymological dramatization of British manor life, exhibiting both gentility and prejudice with near-emotionless decorum. Pinter’s dialogue pinpoints the neurotic weirdness underlying British politeness with unnerving precision, and is served ably by the ensemble, especially Dominic Guard as the boy, whose naivete and unwitting indiscretions stand sharply against the hypocrisy and innuendo surrounding him.

The Tree of Life (2011, Terrence Malick)

This completely lived up to expectations. I’ve been a big Malick fan since The Thin Red Line, and this movie showed plenty of his current style (whispered voiceovers about pained relationships as the camera pans up through the trees) while forging a whole new one, had the boldness to turn a man’s memories and inner life into a visual montage of the history of the planet Earth. It shows small moments, real and imagined, and becomes almost completely untethered to plot. It’s almost unbelievably gorgeous in the way it looks and moves through time. But all this is what I expected, from reading vague reports of the film’s genesis as Malick’s intended follow-up to Days of Heaven, to its winning the top prize at Cannes last month, to the rapturous critical acclaim it’s been receiving upon release. I expected the best, most ambitious movie of the year, by a long shot, and that’s pretty much what I got, so I’m gonna have to process it for a while.

Jack and his brothers live in a quiet Texas town with proud, hardass father Brad Pitt (representing Nature in the film’s mythology) and pure, uncritical mother Jessica Chastain (representing Grace), both of them loving in their own way. Years later, Jack is Sean Penn working at a giant, modern architecture firm, looking world-weary. He chats with dad on the phone (we don’t get to see Brad pull out the Ben Buttons old-age makeup), but Katy guesses that mom has died, maybe recently. Oh, also there’s the history of the universe and of life on earth, with CG dinosaurs. The movie scatters its narrative for so long, it’s like a two-hour trailer for a life-length feature (or perhaps just the rumored six-hour cut). It’s like nothing else, ever, not 2001: A Space Odyssey or Malick’s earlier movies or anything else it’s being compared to.

Production design by “man in the planet” Jack Fisk (all five Malick features, four by Lynch plus There Will Be Blood and Phantom of the Paradise), shot by Emmanuel Lubezki (The New World, Sleepy Hollow, all the Alfonso Cuarón movies), music (very good, sometimes too large and overpowering) by Alexandre Desplat (Fantastic Mr. Fox, Birth) and edited by a bunch of guys (including, counterintuitively, Jarmusch’s buddy Jay Rabinowitz).

It’s not hard to find people walking about Tree of Life, but it’s surprisingly hard to find film critics as unhesitatingly impressed by it as I was. Suppose they’re doing their job, hesitating to fully recommend the most narratively unhinged major film of the year. I haven’t been recommending it around much myself. P. Bradshaw in The Guardian calls it “a rebuke to realism, a disavowal of irony and comedy.” The movie has no built-in defense against people who snicker at the cartoon dinosaurs and the whispered voiceovers and the biblical metaphors. It takes itself very seriously and demands that you do the same, or the whole thing could fall apart.

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007, Paul Greengrass)

A quality ending to the trilogy. I liked the timely references (waterboarding, gov’t using Echelon to track keywords spoken over cellphones) and new actors – David Strathairn (Good Night and Good Luck) as the new evil bureaucrat and Paddy Considine (same year as Hot Fuzz) as an intrepid reporter. Unfortunately, by Strathairn’s orders, Considine gets a bullet in the head.

Evil David Strathairn:

Julia Stiles and Joan Allen take Bourne’s side, and a wide-mouthed Albert Finney plays a haunting evil from Bourne’s past, proving that all women are friendly and craggy-faced old men are wicked.

Evil Albert Finney:

An informant in Madrid is blown up by a CIA hit man. Bourne fights two of those guys but only kills one, at most. He’s like Arnold in Terminator 2 now, a killing machine that doesn’t want to kill. The action is surprisingly comprehensible except for one hand-to-hand fight edited for maximum headache potential.

Buy from Amazon:
The Bourne Trilogy [Blu-ray]

Mon oncle d’Amérique (1980, Alain Resnais)

“Don’t worry, I won’t steal your memories.”

Based on the behaviorist survival theories of Henri Laborit, playing himself, and written by Jean Gruault (who wrote for Truffaut and Rivette, including Paris nous appartient). One of the strangest, most off-putting movies I’ve seen by Resnais. It takes you through the lives and relationships of three characters, but without the subjective view of Providence or the single perspective of Je t’aime, je t’aime, and using the scientific mind theories to distance us from the characters, to think of them as lab animals (one recalls the white mouse from Je t’aime), like the Coens’ Burn After Reading but, of course, better. We’re back to the associative memory-editing of Muriel and Marienbad, appropriately as the narration explicitly tells us how memory works with our survival instincts.

Odd attempt to combine scientific thought with an entertaining story. Despite the lab comparisons breaking down our characters’ behavior, I didn’t feel completely detached from them or unsympathetic. In fact, maybe I was even more sympathetic, watching them fail and hurt each other while our scientist tells us their own lower instincts are responsible for the hurt. Besides the lab flashbacks, each main character has a favorite film actor, and when they’re having a mood, Resnais cuts in a short, dialogue-less associative clip of their hero portraying the same emotion.

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Apparently this was supposed to be a documentary on Laborit, who said the only person who could make a successful documentary on his work would be Alain Resnais, who surprisingly agreed to do it, hiring Gruault to write the story around the theories. I would love to check out the half-hour interview with Gruault on the foreign DVD sometime.

Starts out by sketching the three protagonists’ life stories using stills a la La Jetee or Dog’s Dialogue, from birth through their career, then backs up to an earlier career stage and picks up with the story proper.

Janine Garnier (Nicole Garcia of Duelle) had communist parents, defied them to become a stage actress. After starring in a successful play for a year, she started an affair with radio news reporter Jean Le Gall and started work at a textile company, eventually becoming a manager.

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Jean (Roger Pierre), also a historian and a struggling author, had children with his wife Arlette (Truffaut star Nelly Borgeaud, the mysterious married woman in The Man Who Loved Women). He was born on a private island, to which he returns to clear his head or to impress girls.

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René (Gerard Depardieu, who has come a long way since his Stavisky cameo) left his family farm to become an accountant. He works at the textile plant until there is a merger and he’s pitted against another accountant, an intimidating hyper-efficient guy (Gerard Darrieu, three shots down, who had small parts in Elevator to the Gallows, Z and The Elusive Corporal). Depardieu loses his post, is sent to a faraway town to manage another office, which separates him from his wife Thérèse (Marie Dubois, lead girl in Shoot the Piano Player, also in Malle’s The Thief) and makes him nervous all the time, not really being the managing type.

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Jean has “kidney attacks,” lashing out at whoever is near him when he’s in pain. His wife Arlette visits Janine in secret and tells Janine she is dying as a (successful) scheme to get Jean back. Gerard can’t take the pressure of his new job and after a meeting with management (Janine herself) attempts suicide. All this is compared to studies of rats subjected to electric shocks, how they behave when escape is possible (escape!), when no escape is possible (depression) and when another rat is present (meaningless fighting). The movie’s scientist announces that the movie aims to show us how our brains work and cause negative behaviors so we can better understand ourselves and others. Ambitious movie!

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Human behavioral analysis (and/or Gerard Depardieu) must’ve been in vogue in ’80 because this won major critics awards and a Cannes jury prize. Lost all six of its Cesar nominations to The Last Metro (also starring Gepardieu), and lost its writing oscar to Melvin and Howard.

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I’m not clear who Zambeaux was, but he’s played by Pierre Arditi, Rossellini’s Blaise Pascal, who became a Resnais fave (he was the silver-haired main man on Not on the Lips and the bartender in Coeurs). Jean’s family friend Michel (who helps Jean lose his job) is Philippe Laudenbach, below, who played the war-scarred young man’s buddy in Muriel, later in Truffaut’s Confidentially Yours.

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from Emma Wilson’s Resnais book:

Mon oncle d’Amérique seeks to set up mirroring patterns between art and science through its own internal reflections. The manner of presentation of Laborit mirrors that of the protagonists, despite his different status with relation to the film’s drama. Fusing fiction and documentary, Resnais opens space in the film for Laborit to offer short discourses on human behavior. We see him talking to camera, presenting his ideas as if he were in a documentary. The experimental basis of his work is reflected as Resnais illustrates Laborit’s ideas with close-up scenarios showing laboratory rats. The relation of these scenarios, and of Laborit’s discourses, to the action in the film as a whole is further suggested as in its late stages we see both Le Gall and Ragueneau in rat form, with rat faces, acting out their own dilemmas.

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Houston, quoted by Wilson:

Not since Muriel, perhaps, has Resnais made a film structured for such precise, delicate and sympathetic effects; and it may not be coincidental that this is also the first film he has made for many years, really since Muriel, which is wholly French and of the present.

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Grunes:

The title refers to an illusory ideal of happiness. What one of the characters says: “America doesn’t exist. I know; I lived there.”

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Brand Upon The Brain! (2006, Guy Maddin)

A total trip, better than I’d dared hope it would be. Would’ve been soooo nice to see in theaters, but I’ll settle for the multi-narrated DVD. Even more family-focused than Cowards, it also goes further inside the psyche of the Maddin character than that one did, with his flashbacks and memories and fantasies splayed out on the screen, cutting and fading into whatever “reality” he’s seeing at the time. Black and white, great-looking photography with subliminal flashes of color. Attractive and expressive actors do a great job with the gonzo plot before the editing rips it to pieces. More obsessions on dead fathers, hands (gloves), infidelity, sexual transgression, betrayal, and memory oh the memories!!

Shotput of butter!
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Briefly: Adult Guy Maddin returns to his childhood home, an island lighthouse orphanage, by request of his dying mother. As he paints the place he remembers his life there with older sister Sis, forbidding faux-suicidal Mom, mysteriously hard-working Dad, twitchy traumatized friend Neddie, and leader of the orphans Savage Tom. One day teen detective Wendy Hale comes to the island, but after she falls for Sis (and Guy falls for Wendy), she disguises herself as brother Chance Hale, leading to much sexual confusion for poor Guy. With the kids, Wendy finds out the terrible secret, that Dad is stealing brain nectar from the orphans (and from Sis) and selling it. Sis awakens one night and kills Dad with a knife, Guy is adopted off the island, Dad is resurrected then both parents are exiled and, after Wendy leaves, Sis burns herself up like a moth in the lighthouse lamp. Back in the present, Guy is still obsessed with Wendy, tries to get to know his mother better, and there’s almost a semi-happy ending before the melancholy memories take over once more.

Conspirators! Guy in center, Sis on left, The Lightbulb Kid whispering:
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New cinematographer (sorry, but you can’t tell), same editor as Cowards Bend The Knee (you can kinda tell), and music that I’d swear was influenced by the 60’s Russian song used in Heart of the World. Features no actors from anything else I’ve ever heard of (well, Guy’s mother was 33rd-billed in Henry Fool).

A rare glimpse of color:
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The shorts on the disc are cool, too. It’s My Mother’s Birthday Today is a “biopic” (heh) of the “castrato” who sang with the live show – a few minutes of abstract business, with the vaguely Scott Thompson-looking guy making hard-boiled eggs and singing with a caged bird. Footsteps juxtaposes scenes from the movie with the sound crew in their lab doing foley effects, including some questionable techniques of bare-butt-slapping and horse’s-ass-kissing. Slower-cut than My Mother’s Birthday but even more fun to watch.

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2046 (Wong Kar Wai, 2004)

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My pick for film of the decade, so far.

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cjsuttree:
“The end credits of 2046 feature subtle voiceovers documenting landmark historical events: the [1967] riot; TVB’s inauguration; “50 years of stability and prosperity” (in big-screen viewings the voice sounds like that of Margaret Thatcher); reports of economic downturn; protests about the Beijing massacre, 1989; the handover-to-China ceremony; and others.”