Things are going upstream, and they're colorful, so from what this title is telling me, this should be a rather uplifting film, right? Well, in all fairness, these characters are going upstream in a creek, without a paddle, so I guess the title should sort of let you know what to expect. Hey, there is a degree of joy to be had here, because whether you like Shane Carruth's overly experimental films or not, it's nice when someone turns out to be alive. Well, don't get too excited yet people, because he might kill himself yet if he directs, writes, produces, edits, scores, designs, casts for, and stars in yet another film, as such an unreasonably, but admittedly cost-efficient series of jobs is apparently so stressful that Carruth, I don't know, slipped into a coma or something after "Primer", back in 2004. Man, he hasn't been around in a whopping nine years, though I don't know if I can so much blame a coma, or whatever it is that's been holding him up on working too hard as hard as I can blame, say, Carruth actually watching one of his films. Boy, this guy can sure make cinema so slow that not even he can stay awake through it, and if you don't believe me, just look at the poster in which he... I don't know, fell asleep in the tub... or something. Hey, there's a certain elegance to that poster, but not even the marketing is all that focused, so you know that this film gets to be misguided, which isn't to say that it doesn't have aspects worthy of, not simply complimenting, but praising.
As you can imagine, there's not much for the performers to work with in this abstract character meditation that is much more focused on style over substance and characterization, but for what they're given to do, these talented relative unknowns prove to be more effective than the offscreen performances, and that particularly goes for leading lady Amy Seimetz, whose subtle emotional layers and near-haunting atmosphere sell some of the more distinctly dramatic elements in the non-narrative. About as, if not more emotively effective as highlights in the performances is, of all things, Shane Carruth's score, which may not be particularly dynamic, but remains absolutely outstanding in its impeccably tasteful techno-ambience, which, more often than not, warmly carries the ethereal thoughtfulness of the more quiet meditative moments, without all of the tedious dryness, whose prominence reflects an underusage of the musical artistry, especially in comparison to the visual artistry. Just as it is a remarkable musical experience, - when the score is actually utilized, that is - this film is admittedly nothing short of a triumph of visual style, for Carruth, as cinematographer, takes notes from and, in some places, improves upon Emmanuel Lubezki's recent efforts with Terrance Malick with near-spotless definition behind bitingly crisp lighting and breathtakingly profound coloration that, while consistently beautiful, is richly dynamic in its particular style, often complimented by nifty framing and shaky cam plays that may be too experimental to immerse you in the film's plot, but surely immerses you in the film's environment. I almost hate to admit it, considering my not liking the film, but it's hard to see another film of 2013 being this visually spectacular, and when you couple the visual artistry with the musical artistry, a haunting aesthetic value is crafted, playing an instrumental role in securing the final product from contempt, but not without being well-utilized by genuine strengths in Carruth's efforts as director. Carruth's directorial efforts, like the efforts of many other film "artists" like him, are much more misguided than bad, for although Carruth's non-storytelling and punishing dryness are too questionable to be endearing, stylish editing and clever plays on Pete Horner's sound mixing and editing help in drawing you into the film, while a celebration of the aforementioned musical and visual strengths have their moments of effectiveness which move as a reflection of a much more realized drama. At the very least, Carruth's artistic ambition charms, not so much pretentiously demanding your respect, but carrying a heart to it that is endearing at times, especially when inspiration meets ambition and delivers, at least aesthetically. There's something very Terrance Malick about this film, and, quite frankly, that just goes to show you how subtle touches can make all the difference in films like this, because where Malick feels controlled enough in his plays with film artistry of this type to compel serviceably, maybe even reward, through all of the misguided artistry, this effort goes a few steps too far and falls flat, not even giving you the courtesy of coherency within flesh-out.
Seeing as how there's no real plot to humor with characterization or any kind of development of that sort here, it should come as absolutely no real surprise that this abstract meditation is lacking in expository depth, but there's still something pretty aggravating about this drama's telling you nothing about its characters, pseudo-narrative, or mythology, and distancing you with a lack of development about as much as a lack of coherency, even in its artistic liberties. The film is certainly unusual in its structure, but you've no idea just how unusual it is in its mythology, for although I suppose the film gets a good bit more grounded gets a little more grounded once Shane Carruth, as a lead performer, comes into play, the film backs set piece after set piece with bizarre imagery, figures and happenings that rarely, outside of the bare minimum of ways, connect, and could be easier to forgive if the film didn't seem to take its silliness so blasted seriously, often to the point of overplaying symbolism in an unsubtle fashion, that is, when thematic depth actually stands. I don't know if this film is trying to say something so unconventionally that you can't get a grip on the themes, or if the film is saying anything at all, but either way, in spite of the occasional subtlety issue, I can't particularly tell what is trying to be said, for the film is ultimately way too abstract with its overwhelming strangeness, made all the more annoying by strange experimentations' even plaguing the non-narrative's structure. Again, "storytelling", if you will, becomes a little more grounded around the film's body, but this effort, as well as being underdeveloped and overblown with style over substance, is more-or-less utterly unfocused, initiating something of a progression at times, only to swiftly abandon a potential extended plot for the incorporation of yet more aimless set pieces, as well as lapses in narrative consistency, until style completely overtakes substance. It's very difficult to come close to fully describing the level of strangeness and abstractionism to this artistically overblown affair, but I believe I can simply say that the final product is all but devoid of coherency, having no focus to development, consistency or structure to compel all that much, and adding the ultimate insult to injury with sheer dullness. When I said that this film takes its silliness too seriously, I meant that, on top of being misguided in its structure, the film is ethereal to the point of being tedious, underplaying kicks in artistic value, if not abusively misusing them to further, not so much immerse, but entrance in a manner that is not compensated for with effectiveness enough to be more than, well, frustratingly boring. The film stands to be more frustrating, and were it to make the fatal move that other abstract art films of its nature make and substitute the charm of its artistic ambitions with out-and-out pretense which demands your investment, rather than requests it, the final product would have easily collapsed as contemptible, and yet, no matter how charming or difficult to judge this film is is in its artistry, - which still excels in plenty of respectable ways - it is still a misguided misfire that is undeveloped, overly bizarre, incoherent and, of course, boring, and through all of my admiration of its aesthetics, I cannot begin to recommend this aggravating abuse of artistic license.
Once the color has finally flowed away, strong performances, extraordinary score work, phenomenal cinematography and effective moments in at least charmingly ambitious artistic direction leave the final product to drift from contemptibility, but overt underdevelopment, strangeness, focal inconsistency and tedious dryness reflect an overblown abstractionism which renders Shane Carruth's "Upstream Color" a mediocrely misguided experiment in abstract filmmaking.
2/5 - Weak