Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Mini-Reviews: Upstream Color, The To Do List

When I was coming up with the list for my Top Ten Movies of 2013 blog I was a little concerned about including Upstream Color for a couple of reasons but mainly briefly I wondered if by putting it on there, on a list that also included Thor: The Dark World of all things, it might come off as a bit pretentious choice especially since I did no want to talk about the plot of the film or even what I liked about it. Plus I’m guessing the average person hadn’t really heard of it (although as of this writing it’s on Netflix so the chances of you at least seeing it around may be greater than I might assume). Perhaps if I review it here, talk about why it’s a good film and what I really didn’t like, I’d feel bit better about the whole thing. As I’ve said in the past independent movies are a double edge sword; they have creative freedom from a meddlesome studio that only think about the bottom line but also lack a filter to distill ideas for a wide audience and thus things have the capacity to get weird. Upstream Color is a great example of this concept.

But because I don’t want things to get too serious let’s go ahead and also review The To Do List, a teen sex comedy starring Aubrey Plaza.

Two new reviews after the jump.

[WARNING: This review may have some spoilers for Upstream Color, minor though they may be. The filmmakers would likely prefer you watch this film cold so please take that in mind and read the following at your own risk]

Upstream Color 
Kris (Amy Seimetz) has a fateful encounter with a man at a club and she ends up losing a few days to a blackout, after which she finds that she apparently completely messed up her life. A year later Kris, who has only just found a semblance of normality from her shattered life, meets Jeff (Shane Carruth) and the two begin dating. However as their relationship continues they find that they have much in common and, more troubling, both their perception of reality and identity begin to blur.

I was being purposely vague with that plot synopsis to avoid any upsetting details. This is the exact type of movie that it would be best to not know the exact plot going in. So why did I enjoy this movie so much? Beneath the shell (which I will talk about) is a powerful story about control, or lack thereof, and the nature of love and reality. Some of my favorite movies make me question my life and my perception and this is one that at least makes me think about it. I really liked piecing things together and felt pretty good about myself when the puzzle started falling into place for story-wise. There’s also something to be said about the film not following standard Hollywood storytelling formatting. Doing things outside of the normal box can be refreshing and it is here.

But there’s that double-edge sword thing. For its intriguing and satisfying plotline it’s such a tough film to get into, especially if you’re the type of person who prefers lighter hearted flicks to use s escapism. Because this is not the movie you go to see because you want to have fun. Although I like that it doesn’t have a conventional structure the movie moves so goddamn quickly and explains very little as it moves along. It can be very frustrating. There are whole scenes that simple do not make sense until you watch the whole thing (and maybe not even then) and unless you have the patience there’s a good chance you’ll get bored and turn the flick off. Had I not been warned that this film was hard to follow yet told that it’d be worth the wait I don’t know if I would have been able to get through it. I came into this as a reviewer rather than just a typical viewer so I ended up being pretty open minded as I watched it. Most people won’t be. The ending is pretty weird too and left me feeling only half-confident that I understood what had happened. Ultimately it was fine and I know that I got what the director, Shane Carruth, was going for but, man, he really makes you work for it.

So in this scene Kris...um...she..uh...
I don't know what the f**k 's going on in this flick
I would only suggest this flick to people who like artsy films and prefer cerebral affairs when it comes to fiction. There are a lot of folk in that category but I’d wager the majority of people out there wouldn’t appreciate it. And I don’t blame them; Upstream Color is not an easy movie and as a person who does use films as an escape I relate to anyone how turns it off after the first ten minutes. But if you’re up for it there’s good stuff to be found, including a pretty good love story (or is it?!?!?).

I give Upstream Color 4 out of 5 Adorable Pandas.


-Good story

-Unconventional storytelling


-Is not an easy movie watch and understand do to its unconventional storytelling

The To Do List
Uptight and bossy teen Brandy (Aubrey Plaza, who’s almost thirty) has just graduated High School as the valedictorian and has big plans for her summer before she starts college. After the ceremony her friends drag her to her first party where she gets drunk, makes-out and almost has sex with college guy Rusty Waters (Scott Porter). Afterwards she realized she is completely sexually inexperienced and thus unprepared for college life. Brandy resolves to use the summer to gain the experience and, at its end, lose her virginity to Rusty Waters. She has made a list of what she needs to do…

You can’t argue with the cast in this movie. Plaza, herself a veteran of many comedies, heads it up but it also includes Bill Hader, Clark Gregg, Donald Glover, Alia Shawkat, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and even has a cameo from Andy “Hot Rod” Samberg. That’s a pretty awesome ensemble. And the film is indeed funny, which is the most you can ask for any comedy. There was more than one scene that legitimately made me laugh out loud. Plus it’s really goddamn refreshing to have a film like this star a female character. Let’s face it: girls like sex too but you’d never know it the way they are typically portrayed in fiction, especially Hollywood. So to have female characters talking openly about sexuality and having a female lead have the main goal of getting laid and having it be portrayed as a positive thing is something we hardly ever see and it’s great that it happens here.

Then again everything else about this movie is fairly typical. It’s a teenage sex comedy and only a very small percentage of that genre typically end up being really good movies and sadly The To Do List isn’t in that percentage. There’s nothing exactly bad here but there’s little we haven’t seen before outside the gender swap. And that’s really important that the gender has been swapped but so many of the beats feel too familiar. I think the problem is that this flick could have been one of the most important comedies of the decade but it doesn’t live up to its potential instead going for the same old gross out humor that the genre is known for. If you like that sort of thing it will be fine but if not there’s nothing that will attract you either. Also the movie kind of tries to suggest that Aubrey Plaza is in fact not the hottest person in this movie which made me completely unable to suspend my disbelief. I mean, have you seen her? Who wouldn’t jump through a fiery hoop for a chance to get with her? Seriously.

One of many, many awkward sexual encounters
The To Do List was a fun movie and, despite Plaza being well beyond her teenage years, is a pretty respectable teen sex comedy. Sadly it’s not much more than that. The concept of having a female lead in this type of flick is greatly appreciated and long overdue but it’s just not as funny or thought provoking as I think it would need to be to be in the upper tier of comedy. It’s fine but it’s not great and because it’s not great it almost makes me resent it. 

I give The To Do List 3 Adorable Pandas out of 5


-A teen sex comedy starring a woman 

-Genuinely funny 

-Has a great comedic ensemble 


-It features many tropes we’ve seen before in this genre 

-Despite breaking relatively new ground it doesn’t go as far as it probably should

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