Upstream Color (US - BD RA)
Jonathan gets lost in the new film from Primer director Shane Carruth...
Kris (Amy Seimetz) is derailed from her life when she is drugged by a small-time thief. But something bigger is going on. She is unknowingly drawn into the life cycle of a presence that permeates the microscopic world, moving to nematodes, plant life, livestock, and back again. Along the way, she finds another being (Shane Carruth) —a familiar, who is equally consumed by the larger force. The two search urgently for a place of safety within each other as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of their wrecked lives. (Synopsis from the 2012 Sundance Film Festival)
Shane Carruth acquired a nice cult following after the release of his first film, Primer. For many, the draw was that he was an engineer that decided to make a film with his own money, covering all aspects of production including the soundtrack. Word of mouth got around and time travel/sci-fi genre aficionados were drawn to it as well and it has become highly regarded for its complicated, head-on approach to the nightmarish logistics of time travel. Its the kind of movie that will make any viewer's head spin the first time around, but always fun to get lost in. Some people even insisted on working out the maze to a nauseating extent. One things for sure, it was a very impressive feat for the work of one man without studio resources. Fans have been waiting years for his follow up feature, and now its finally here in the form of Upstream Color.
I love a movie that can tell a story through visual means. At the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man, I'd say that too many modern movies (even independent ones) are eager to fill the viewer in with narration and excessive dialogue exchanges. It's refreshing when someone like Carruth counts on the viewer to process what they're seeing and put together the pieces. I felt immediately involved in the mystery at the heart of Upstream Color. If you've seen Primer, I don't have to tell you that paying close attention will yield greater rewards. Here's where I'm at a predicament when it comes to reviewing this film. Normally I'd like to expand on the initial synopsis a bit and then make some observations about the narrative, but the joy of Upstream Color isn't in the story, but rather how the story is told. It reminded me of David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. in a way. Though vastly different in content, they are both filled with enough details to piece together a satisfying story, yet there is plenty of symbolism and ripe ambiguity to pick at long after viewing the movie. And for all of its oddities and science, the many themes resonating throughout Upstream Color are completely human.
Carruth's specialty is everything he does behind the camera. As a director his talents have increased dramatically since Primer. Upstream Color is a really good looking movie. The hazy visuals are a perfect fit in the context of the story and there are plenty of dazzling microscopic images and chemical processes. He's also credited as the film's cinematographer, writer, composer, and one of the editors. In front of the camera, I'm afraid his performance here had very little impact on me. Thankfully performances are not the driving force of this movie, and his leading lady Amy Seimetz is brilliant in the role of Kris. The relationship that these two form is not your typical Sundance romance, so those hoping for something touchy feely are out of luck. Both character's lives have been shattered by something the viewer is privy to early on, and with their current lack of identity and place in the world they form a bond based on their joined lack of personality. It's an interesting concept for sure, but watching the two characters fumble through expressions as they grow closer to one another is one of the less involving aspects of Upstream Colors. Still, its a necessary piece of the story, and it's totally unlike any other relationship I've seen in a movie before.
Upstream Color comes from the distributor New Video with a mostly solid 1080p transfer. One thing I immediately noticed is that the entirety of the disc's contents takes up 11GB on a BD-25. 11GB is enough to make a transfer look pretty good, but it could have definitely benefited from utilizing more of the 25GB of space. The film was shot on a Panasonic Lumix GH2, which you could buy online for under a thousand bucks. Its no Red or Arri Alexa, but for Carruth's budgetary and stylistic choices it gets the job done. The movie has a very soft look. More often than not, only certain objects on screen are in focus at any given time. Big blurry areas of the picture are usually where digital compression likes to make its mark, but more often than this Blu-ray transfer holds up quite well. You won't find a lot of sharp detail in the image, but it looks fine considering the filmmaking techniques. There are a just a handful of scenes where blocking is very noticeable. Just look at the blocky gradation on the young man's face in my first screen cap for an example. It never gets worse than that, and its hard to tell if this a fault of the Blu-ray transfer or if the problem goes back to the camera used.
This blu-ray comes with two DTS-HD Master Audio tracks. One is in 5.1 and the other in stereo. I watched it with the 5.1 mix and found it very impressive given the small film this is. Carruth's score is very dreamy fills the room nicely. Given the highly visual nature of the film, its important that the sound mix has a lot going for it to keep the presentation lively, and he succeeds. This would be an impressive score for a film of any budget. As for the other sounds in the movies, its mostly kept simple with most of the noise coming from the front speakers. One stand out is the segment featuring a character named "The Sampler". He's actually going around collecting sounds, and the mix has a lot of playful uses of the soundscape to recreate what he is doing. Dialogue is sometimes difficult to make out underneath the music, but it seems like a stylistic choice. Often its the emotions of the characters that matter here and not the exact words being said. All in all this is a solid mix that should delight fans.
Aside from trailers and a DVD copy of the film, there is nothing here.
Upstream Color reaffirms Shane Carruth as a thoughtful and capable filmmaker who wants to show us things we've never seen before. If you love visual storytelling and unusual sci-fi plots, this one is a real treat. It appears that Carruth's next film, The Modern Ocean, is already in production. I'm glad we won't have to wait another nine years to see what he has to offer next. This blu-ray release could've benefited from a higher bitrate, but the AV presentation is still impressive. Sadly, there are no extras.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Jonathan Hogberg
Release Date: 7th May 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 English
Extras: Trailers, DVD Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Shane Carruth
Cast: Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig
Genre: Drama and Sci-Fi
Length: 96 minutes
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