The first three days of the South by Southwest Film Festival hit like gangbusters with the world premieres of a number of movies as well as a couple of returning favorites from other festivals. On Day 1, I finally caught Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, which premiered at Sundance as well as two premieres by returning SXSW filmmakers, Bryan Poyser’s The Bounceback and Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies.
On Day 1, I also saw TriStar Pictures’ horror remake Evil Dead, which ComingSoon.net’s other reviewer Joshua Starnes already reviewed and felt it was lackluster and derivative. Personally, I loved it and felt that it really delivered on the gore and scares that I’d expect from a movie called “Evil Dead.” Maybe it’s a bit extreme and gratuitous, definitely not for the squeamish, but if you like seeing 20-something kids being put through grueling hell, quite literally, then you should have lots of fun with it. Director Fede Alvarez is quite a find on the part of producers Sam Raimi, Rob Talpert and Bruce Campbell and he’s created a horror remake that’s well above some of the other ones we’ve seen in the past decade.
You can check out our reviews of Carruth, Poyser and Swanberg’s movies below.
It’s been nine years since Shane Carruth’s low budget time travel flick “Primer” won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance. Budgeted at just $7000, it was quite a surprise not only due to its budget but also because it created an incredibly complex time travel premise based in science which wasn’t the easiest thing for mainstream moviegoers to understand but found a cult audience among genre fans.
Some may presume from “Upstream Color” that Carruth spent the nine years since his debut driving himself crazy trying to create a follow-up to that movie and maybe they’d be right. Or maybe he was deliberately creating something so intricate and complex and original that it took that long for him to get this movie made.
Who knows what is going on as it begins? It has something to do with orchids that secrete a blue substance and grubs that can be taken like drugs, but we then quickly meet the film’s main character Chrissy (Amy Seimetz), who is abducted and conditioned using one of the grubs as she’s hypnotized by a man who makes her do all sorts of odd things like assembling paper chains and play checkers. We then see that there’s some mysterious tapeworm growing inside of her which she tries to hack out with a knife to no avail before a man stretches that worm between her and a farm pig, and that’s when it REALLY gets weird. Chrissy wakes up oblivious to the ordeal we watched her endure, stumped by the knife wounds and learning that all her money is missing but unable to remember any of it.
The pig farm we saw earlier is run by an odd guy who also seems to be involved with recording nature sounds and the experiment he conducted earlier seems to have created some sort of imprinting between Chrissy and that pig, and apparently she isn’t the only test subject/victim. When she meets Carruth’s Jeff on the subway, they immediately bond and start hanging out as we watch their relationship unfold. The passage of time in the film is one of the many things left open for interpretation – we could watch their relationship unfolding over weeks or months or even years as we keep cutting back to the pig farmer/synthesist and what he’s doing which has a direct effect on Chrissy and Jeff until they eventually realize they’ve both endured a similar experience and try to figure out how to resolve things.
At its core, “Upstream Color” is a love story but it’s by no means conventional as the dreamlike quality of the film pulls you into a place where you may not know exactly what’s going on, but you can always appreciate the artistry. It’s a real auteur film with Carruth not only writing, directing and starring but also providing the accompanying score, a gorgeous bit of ambience that feels as abstract as the images. In that sense, it’s similar to Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain” and even “Requiem for a Dream” where the story is told in such an abstract and unconventional way. If “Upstream Color” has a budget even comparable to “Primer” it’s even more impressive for the achievement.
Seimetz really carries this movie and while it’s hard to compare her performance to other standard roles that require memorizing and reciting dialogue, her interaction with Carruth’s character is so fluid that you really believe the relationship and the secret experiment that has created the bond between them. The hypnotic way they deliver dialogue bodes comparisons to Mallick for sure, but that also helps to create the appropriate tone.
More than anything else, “Upstream Color” is cinema as art and it’s the type of art that can lead to lots of conversations, presumably intelligent philosophical ones, and for that alone, it’s a more than worthy follow-up to “Primer.” Though to say it’s not going to be for everyone is a huge understatement.
Directed by Brian Poyser; Written by David DeGrow Shotwell & Steven Walters, Bryan Poyser
Starring Michael Stahl-David, Ashley Bell, Zach Cregger, Sara Paxton, Addison Timlin, Justin Arnold, Marshall Allman
Bryan Poyser’s return to South by Southwest may feel like somewhat of a ringer since the local filmmaker actually set his new movie in his hometown, using many downtown landmarks like the Ritz Alamo as part of the story. His previous movie, “Lovers of Hate” starring Alex Karpovsky from “Girls,” was set in Park City, Utah, which may have helped get that into Sundance, but the follow-up also involves stalking even though unlike “Lovers,” it didn’t originate from Poyser’s own screenplay as he writes with others.
We meet Jeff and Cathy at a time when they’ve been split for six months and living on opposite coasts when Stan learns that Cathy is traveling down to Austin to visit their mutual friends Jeff and Kara (Zach Cregger, Sara Paxton) who have split up themselves. As luck would have it, both Cathy and Stan arrive at the Austin airport at the same time forcing their friends to try to keep them apart.
A lot of the movie revolves the pastime of competitive air sex which Jeff and his douchebag roommates are obsessed with as Jeff tries to get to the finales. Meanwhile, Kara convinces Cathy to go out and meet some guys and Cathy scores by meeting a rugged vet named Tim while her friend “takes one for the team” with his less than desirable brother. The movie is cute and funny, often raunchy but sometimes romantic, but mixing all those things into a single comedy cocktail can lead to an erratic film.
Fortunately, Poyser has a great cast and he finds a lot of interesting ways to bring them together in different configurations so it’s not just the same two or three people for the entire movie. Sara Paxton is absolutely hilarious as Kathy’s foul-mouthed friend, her punky attitude matched with colored extensions and the type of language more expected from Susie Essman than the petite blonde cutie. Zach Cregger from “The Whitest Kids U’Know” also offers some of the funniest moments even if he’s the type of character we’ve seen in many indie movies from “The Puffy Chair” to Drake Doremus’ “Douchebag.”
I’m still not completely sold on Ashley Bell (of “The Last Exorcism” fame), because she always seems older than the roles she’s playing and far more mature to ever be with Michael Stahl-David – which may be the point. She plays things so seriously compared to everyone else in the movie that it makes it harder to enjoy her scenes that tend to be far more poignant than Stan’s. He also meets someone in Austin, a talented singer played by Addison Timlin, who he sexts with in another funny scene, but for the most part he’s playing the straight man to Cregger and the others.
Even with its share of tonal shifts, this is a fun follow-up to “Lovers of Hate” as Poyser shows he can work with a bigger budget and more ideas. I wouldn’t be remotely shocked to see Poyser make the jump to studio comedies with the incredible growth as a filmmaker he shows off in “The Bounceback.”
Written and directed by Joe Swanberg
Starring Olivia Wilde, Ron Livingston, Jake M. Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Ti West
To many, “Drinking Buddies” will be seen as Swanberg’s coming out movie because for the first time, he’s using known and established actors used to working from fully developed scripts into his world of improvisational storytelling. Comparisons to the Duplass Brothers’ “Cyrus” wouldn’t be too far off-base, because like his former fellow “Mumblecore” collaborators, it’s a fairly giant leap ahead to be able to bring familiar faces into his style of filmmaking.
Luke and Kate (Jake Johnson, Olivia Wilde) work at a brewery in Chicago, and being the only woman working at the plant, Kate’s gotten used to being one of the guys, often going out drinking with Luke and the guys. The closest of friends, they’re making the most out of the often difficult nature of being friends with someone you find attractive on many levels. Kate clearly has feelings for Luke and vice versa but their main hurdle is that they both have significant others – Luke with the far more practical schoolteacher Jill (Anna Kendrick) and Kate with the older Chris, played by Ron Livingston in his continuing series of playing d*ck boyfriends.
It’s pretty obvious the two couples are mismatched and when the four of them take a weekend trip to a beach house, Chris and Jill go on a hike together and end up kissing awkwardly, which becomes the catalyst for the rest of the film in how they handle the indiscretion. Chris reacts by breaking up with Kate, giving her the opportunity to explore her feelings for Luke. But before that can happen she’s hit upon by their slimy co-worker Dave, played by–who else?–Swanberg’s long-time pal Ti West.
As a self-admitted Olivia Wilde fan, it’s hard to be impartial sometimes, but the actress has really been pushing herself in recent years, both in terms of comedy and drama (check out last year’s “Butter” and “People Like Us” if you don’t believe me). Having to hold your own against such an experienced improviser as Jake Johnson and trying to keep up with his quips, because he is always on his toes in terms of keeping things light and funny. For that matter, following in the footsteps of Swanberg’s seeming muse Greta Gerwig is not something we’d want to put on any actress, but this really is a showcase for Wilde to show off new things that we haven’t seen from her in the past, things like vulnerability and rejection. Johnson and Wilde’s scenes together really drive the film and as fun as their scenes are together, the problems it may cause for them to hook up constantly weighs over all their interactions.
The always terrific Anna Kendrick also has some nice moments with the other actors and the film even includes an uncredited role for Wilde’s real life beau Jason Sudeikis, as the guy who runs the brewery.
That said, there really isn’t much of a story and even less of a resolution as the film starts to get quite dark and dramatic and Luke and Kate’s friendship starts falling apart. We won’t tell you if they eventually get together because that’s a large part of what drives the movie and what will keep you so invested even when it doesn’t seem like anything is happening to move the story forward.
Despite using the cinematographer from “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” Swanberg maintains a no-frills approach to shooting the patter-heavy scenes between the various character interactions, which may be the one thing that keeps the movie reaching the mainstream audiences that might appreciate it.
More than anything else, “Drinking Buddies” is a study of relationships between men and women and how attraction and chemistry can get in the way of keeping a friendship platonic. Sure, it’s been done before in much bigger studio movies but never quite like this.
We’ll have more reviews in the next couple days as SXSW continues until March 16.