Thursday, May 9, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray: UPSTREAM COLOR (2013) and REVENGE FOR JOLLY! (2013)

(US - 2013)

Shane Carruth's no-budget 2004 indie hit PRIMER came out of nowhere to become arguably the greatest time-travel movie ever made.  It took the flight simulation software engineer-turned-filmmaker nine years to return with his self-distributed second effort, the even more enigmatic and perplexing UPSTREAM COLOR.  PRIMER's dovetailing, backtracking plot is almost quaintly simplistic compared to the mind-twister he delivers here.  Carruth fashions a story here, but isn't as concerned with putting all the pieces together.  UPSTREAM COLOR focuses more on mood, feeling, patterns, sound.  It's too much to take in on one viewing or maybe even ten, and its mysteries aren't necessarily meant to be solved.  Almost like what might happen if Terrence Malick made a sci-fi film with horrific overtones, UPSTREAM COLOR opens with graphic designer Kris (Amy Seimetz) being implanted with a worm-like parasite by a man who will come to be known as The Thief (Thiago Martins).  Through this parasite, the Thief is able to brainwash Kris and control her, keeping her busy with mundane activities like crocheting, hand-writing pages of Thoreau's Walden and gluing the sheets to make paper chains, all part of an elaborate plot to get her to take out massive loans on her home equity and make off with the cash.  One morning, Kris awakens with worms burrowing under her skin and no recollection of what's happened.  But now she's broke, she's lost her job, and she's had some kind of surgery involving a parasite being removed from her and planted into a pig by a man known as The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig). 

Kris meets and forms a tentative bond with Jeff (Carruth), an accountant and recovering drug addict who lost his job and his wife when his habit compelled him to embezzle from his previous employer.  Like Kris, Jeff is putting his life back together and bears the scars of a mysterious past, figuratively and literally as he has nearly identical parasite/surgery-related scarring as Kris.  As these two damaged souls drawn to one another, building a relationship and a future together, they're haunted by shared memories they can't comprehend, telepathic connections to the pigs on The Sampler's farm, and prone to almost hypnotic states where a visual or aural cue will remind them of the brainwashed trauma they don't recall...until the pieces start to come together.  That is, for them.  Not necessarily for the viewer.  With the late-film introduction of two gardeners picking orchids and other flowers, there's some hints of a mythic "death/rebirth" Circle-of-Life motif, and one possible reading of the plot would be to say that Kris and Jeff are already dead, but I'm fairly sure that Carruth isn't going for that kind of rote, Shyamalanian simplicity.  I don't think the mysteries are important to appreciate the film, though things probably become a little more clear around the 10th or 15th time through.  Carruth (who also edited, served as a camera operator, and composed the very Cliff Martinez-ish score) has fashioned a trance-like film that's very Malick-ian in its visual beauty and might make an interesting double feature with Panos Cosmatos' somewhat similarly-themed and equally dreamlike and impenetrable BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW. (Unrated, 96 mins)

(US - 2013)

REVENGE FOR JOLLY! is the brainchild of writer/star Brian Petsos, a Second City and FUNNY OR DIE! vet who rounded up some of his more famous friends to join him in this grim, bleak black comedy that played the festival circuit over a year ago and never got a theatrical release.  Even with the closing credits rolling at 77 minutes--with an extra-slow credits crawl stretching it to 84--it feels padded and overlong, but it's a great premise for a short film and has some undeniably effective and oddly touching moments amid the relentlessly graphic carnage.  Low-level Staten Island criminal Harry (Petsos) lives alone, has no friends, and cares only for Jolly, his beloved Miniature Pinscher.  Harry owes some people money and when he returns home one morning after drinking with his cousin Cecil (Oscar Isaac), he discovers Jolly has been killed.  Overcome with grief and rage over losing the only thing in his life that mattered, Harry asks Cecil to accompany him on his search for Jolly's killer.  Learning early on that the man responsible is one Bachmeier (Ryan Philippe), Harry and Cecil leave a trail of dead bodies over their 36-hour quest to locate the killer and avenge Jolly.

With its cavalier attitude toward mass slaughter, it's little surprise, given some events of the last year, that REVENGE FOR JOLLY! might've made some distributors a little skittish.  It's extremely unsettling seeing Harry and Cecil crash the wedding reception of Bachmaier's sister (Kristen Wiig) and start mowing people down.  Petsos doesn't seem too concerned with making either Harry or Cecil particularly likable, but he makes Harry's grieving serious enough that in a strange, sick way, you understand where he's coming from.  There's some surprising heart to a monologue of Harry's where he shares his favorite memories of Jolly, talking about a night where he made bologna sandwiches and fed her some bites.  Petsos convincingly sells it when he says, with his eyes filled with tears, "That was a great night."  The film takes place in a strange Staten Island that may not be real and may just be a revenge fantasy in Harry's head, or it's just set in an unspecified past:  Harry drives a mid-1980s Cadillac, and no one seems to have a cell phone to dial 9-1-1, and there's no cops in sight, but I guess you just have to roll with it.  Directed by Chadd Harbold (another FUNNY OR DIE! vet), REVENGE FOR JOLLY! is uneven and doesn't have enough material to justify even its brief running time, but there's some interesting and occasionally daring stuff here (and a cool, synth-based score by Whitey) and at least as a writer, Petsos might be a talent to keep an eye on.  The large supporting cast of well-known or recognizable faces includes Elijah Wood, Garret Dillahunt, Kevin Corrigan (delivering the most uncomfortable best-man speech imaginable), Adam Brody, Bobby Moynihan, David Rasche, Jayne Atkinson, Gillian Jacobs, Amy Seimetz, Stephen Payne, Britt Lower, and John DiBenedetto.  (R, 84 mins)

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