Upgrade (2018)

upgradeSet in an undefined near-future city, Upgrade is a low-budget sci-fi action thriller that reminded me of the good old days of the (original) Robocop. Its a reminder that sci-fi films don’t have to be mega-budget/high-concept blockbusters to succeed, and indeed in many ways Upgrade is more successful than Alita, which I happened to have seen not long before.

The film seems to have been spun off the possibilities, for good or ill, of AI (Artificial Intelligence) – there are trashy settlements of disenfranchised and unemployed on the wrong side of the AI divide, while the rich live in high-tech homes that are controlled by AI and who are driven around by AI cars. Inevitably, while it reminded me (through its violence and corporate dystopia) of Robocop, it also reminded me of Black Mirror, in how it spun its story around the technology and how it impacted the characters and world.

Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), an analogue guy in a digital world, is a mechanic who prefers old-fashioned cars that are driven, over high-tech cars that drive people around. His wife, Asha, has no such issues, fully at ease with the AI world that serves her every whim and ensures her a promising career with a tech company. However one night their AI car is hacked and malfunctions whilst driving them home and crashes. Four assailants pull them from the car wreckage in what is apparently a high-tech robbery, but it escalates into something more and Asha is killed, and Grey left crippled by a shot though his spine.

One of Grey’s clients who he rebuilt a car for, approaches Grey in hospital where Grey, mourning his dead wife is also bitterly looking ahead at a life as a quadriplegic. This client, Eron Keen, is the head of a tech company that has a radical (albeit illegal) new tech that involves implanting a revolutionary computer chip named ‘Stem’ into his spine to fix his new disability and offer Grey a normal life again. Grey agrees to the experimental procedure and signs an NDA to ensure the technology remains secret.

The operation is a success, although Grey has to continue to pretend to be paralysed until the procedure can be analysed and proven safe.  It also has unexpected benefits- Stem is a self-aware AI that Grey can ‘hear’ in his head and while it ‘fixes’ his disability is also able to take control of Grey’s body giving him super-human reflexes and combat skills, and all sorts of high-tech connections through databases. Stem offers to help Grey investigate the robbery/murder that ripped his world apart and Grey accepts, frustrated by the police inability to solve the crime.

Logan Marshall-Green is pretty damn good as Grey, it’s a tricky role in that he’s often reacting to, and having conversations with, a voice in his head and it’s a pretty physical  part as well, with some considerable action scenes and stunts. He manages to elicit some sympathy for his condition and fight for justice and carries the film pretty much by himself.

Naturally there are plenty of twists involved and in the great tradition of both Robocop and Black Mirror nothing in the corporate world is as genuine as it seems and the AI tech has a few issues of its own. The low budget ensures the film has a few limitations but on the whole its very successful, with offerings of body-horror/manipulation that reminded me of Cronenberg’s Videodrome.  Ultimately what seems to be a pulpish sci-fi action flick transpires to be a rather cautionary tale and on the whole it’s a great little movie.

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Hereditary (2018)

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Hype springs Eternal, especially with horror films, as the 2017 reboot of IT would testify, and it rings true with Hereditary, too, unfortunately. Thinking about it, I suppose it really depends upon what you want from a horror film. Scares, sure, they would seem a prerequisite, but anyone can do scares in movies (well, jumps anyway) – it’s mostly a question of manipulation, timing and throwing a loud ‘boo!’ on the soundtrack. Trickier, really, is establishing a sense of mood and dread, and here Hereditary scores pretty highly. This is a horror film that drips mood and the threat of scares, delivering plenty of creepiness and shocks, which is likely why it received all the hype and positive word of mouth it did.

But for me it lacked any logic, any sense, and the increasing hysterics of the family started to descend into farce long before the film reached its rather Pythonesque conclusion. I think any horror film works best if it can establish some sense of normalcy and then raise the stakes as things go wrong but right from the start the main characters are over the edge, nothing really seems normal and it just goes wilder as it goes on. Okay, here be Spoilers, so here’s a warning, although I’m one of the last few to get around to having seen Hereditary:

A text card states that Annie’s mother has died and the film opens on her family at the funeral. Annie (Toni Colette) is really rather unhinged from the off, and while Colette’s performance has been widely praised it just seemed too crazed for me, leaving her nowhere to go but further Out There. Gabriel Byrne is cast as her husband Steve and he’s utterly wasted here, and fails to have any discernible chemistry at all with Colette, not the only casting crisis of the film (which I’ll turn to later). Events get increasingly nuts (sic) around Steve and he just does nothing in particular, really. The couple’s two kids are frankly peculiar- ten year old Charlie (Milly Shapiro) behaves very oddly cutting off dead birds heads (foreshadowing there, I think) and making odd clucking sounds with her tongue, while teenage Peter (Alex Woolf) mopes around looking permanently terrified, stares forlornly at a girl he fancies and gets high on pot. Normal?

Would any mother insist on sending a ten year old girl with a deadly food allergy to an unsupervised high school party with Peter, and would Peter, intending to smoke pot and hook up with girls at said party, so easily agree to his sister going along? How many high school parties take place in huge luxurious mansions and how many teenage hosts bake fresh cakes in the kitchen (loaded with nuts, naturally)? So without Annie insisting that they take an Epi Pen along with them, when his sister eats the wrong kind of cake and starts to react badly, instead of calling for an ambulance Peter, having already smoked some pot, decides to put his sister Charlie in his car and race through the night to hospital.

So Peter has an accident on route, decapitating, no less, his sister. He then calmly drives home, and goes to bed, leaving his sisters headless corpse on the backseat and her head at the roadside. So next morning whilst he is still in bed Annie goes out to the car and finds her daughters corpse (well part of it) and screams her head off (sic).

Where are the cops in all this? Surely someone finds poor Charlie’s head on the roadside? Surely Annie and Steve have to explain to the police, or even more likely, demand an explanation from the police, regards how Charlie lost her head and died? Manslaughter charges anyone? Driving under the influence? Poor parenting taken to task? Peter’s punishment seems to be that he has to bike to school in future. Indeed, he returns to school soon enough, has a seizure and is sent home having nearly smashed his head to a pulp on his desk. Hello? Hospital anyone? Counselling? Maybe the cops would be interested?  Do they do Social Workers in America, are they a thing over there?

What really sent the film off the rails for me was the frankly bizarre casting of Ann Dowd as Joan, a woman who befriends Annie and sets her on the course of amateur seances and chatting with the dead. I mean, after stints in The Leftovers and The Handmaids Tale as crazy women with dark deeds in their minds, it’s like putting up a red warning light as soon as she appears. Terrible casting- I like Dowd and she was excellent in The Leftovers as a leading figure in a dangerous cult, but this is taking typecasting to some other level. Its lazy and its predictable- is anybody in the audience remotely surprised when it transpires that Joan is up to no good? Its getting so that everytime I see Dowd in something I audibly groan. She’s great at that kind of role but come on, she’s gone to the well too often, its run dry, it’s getting boring now.

It later transpires that Annie’s mother was a Satanist and she spent her life trying (and failing) to bring a demon to the world. It would seem that her Satanist colleagues dug up her body (when Steve is informed of the grave desecration, he decides not to tell Annie- I mean come on, someone’s dug up her mom for goodness sake) and somehow put that body in the family attic without anyone in the family twigging that strange Satanists have been in the house (other than somebody at one point wonder about a bad smell in the house).

Now, I may have it wrong, the film is obtuse to the point of making no sense at all, but it appears that said Demon is inside Charlie and this is why she behaves oddly and she has to die so that the Demon can escape her body, and that Peter has to die so that the Demon can enter his. One person has to die to lose the Demon, another die to be possessed by it? Did Charlie have to die before the Demon could enter her body in the first place, and was it a Satanist that put the nuts in the cake? When you really think about it, nothing in Hereditary really makes much sense. Annie’s mothers decomposing body up in the attic (for whatever reason) is apparently headless and for some reason Annie starts crawling on ceilings acting really unusual after begging Steve to burn one of Charlie’s notebooks and set himself alight in the process. He burns like a Human Torch but doesn’t singe the wooden floor much less burn the house down.

hered2DId I mention that the family also just happen to have a big treehouse across the drive that doubles as a ritual meeting room for the Satanists? DId I see Annie decapitate her own head with cheesewire and then her headless body float through the air into said treehouse?Is that her mom’s also-headless body kneeling alongside her own before the now Demonic Peter?

People took this film seriously.

Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)

velvetNetflix’ latest movie, Velvet Buzzsaw, has a great premise (basically, it is In the Mouth Of Madness replacing an author and his books with an artist and his paintings) but surprisingly, it pretty much fails dismally in its execution. One of its issues is its lack of focus- on the one hand it’s a satire on the artworld (similar parallels in how The Neon Demon was ostensibly about the world of fashion) and on the other hand, it’s a horror story about paintings, er, possessed by evil and about as hokey as some of the 1970s Amicus/Hammer horrors that might suggest.

Even the title suggests the messy state of the final film. Its a great title, sure, but there’s a sense they had the title before they had the film, shoehorning it in with an offhand reference to a character’s role in a 1980s counterculture band that has no further bearing upon the film at all, other than a tattoo featured in an awkward ‘obligatory because all horror films do it’ sting prior to the end credits.

There’s clearly a sense that the film-makers knew the story of a dead artist whose life’s work is possessed by his spirit, and that all who profit by it will die in horrible fashion, is a terribly unsophisticated premise and far below the talent involved. Its not the first horror film derailed by its talent thinking that the genre is beneath them.  It does appear that to maintain the film-makers interest there’s all this artworld commentary about millionaire dealers profiting on high-society sophisticates investing in art not because of its beauty but because of its worth, and  the shallowness that suggests. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and money corrupts all, those old tropes being the central theme of the film. One art dealer berates art critic (and film protagonist) Jake Gyllenhaal for a negative review thats costs him big money in a deal. The orbits of all these artists and dealers around the opinions of Gyllenhaal’s character is ironic, in the sense that Gyllenhaal himself, like most critics, has no apparent talent himself in the field upon which he is commentating (Gyllenhaal, by the way, is brilliant in this, and deserves to be in a better film) and that Gyllenhaal’s entire career is dependant upon the talents of those he can make or break. Indeed there’s no doubt a meta-irony here that I’m criticising a film when I have no film-making talent/training either, but what’s all us bloggers to do? The film doesn’t really explain why it is Gyllenhaal’s opinion, as opposed to any other art critic, that seems to be so important to everyone, but I suppose that’s true of most leading critics in whatever field they work in. In the end, it’s all ephemeral, except the money. Its all about the money, although everyone would deny it (except Rene Russo’s art dealer, maybe).

Its interesting how this satire commentary depicts the art world and its avarice and corruption- and then gets saddled with this strictly average horror film, in that this highbrow film-making team seems to be looking down on the horror genre as if it’s too easy and formulaic yet that’s what beats them. John Carpenter is no average film-maker; it takes a keen eye and surprisingly adept skill to succeed as he did in the horror genre and it’s foolish to under-appreciate the difficulty making a good horror film. This film is competently made; it’s got a great (largely wasted) cast and great cinematography (the HDR really sings) and in those respects it’s a far better film than Carpenter’s In  the Mouth of Madness, but as a horror film its woefully inferior.

Not a total waste, then, but distinctly a wasted opportunity considering the talent involved, and a salient reminder that Carpenter is some kind of genius and he should be making some Netflix movies of his own, if only someone, or some project, could get him interested again. In some ways, with Netflix giving filmmakers such apparent riches and creative control without the nemesis of cinema box-office, this is the perfect time for Carpenter to be making his brand of low-budget/high-concept horror, but his apparent indifference to directing again confounds all. A Velvet Buzzsaw with him at the helm, hell, that’s a film I would love to see. But maybe the Age of Netflix came just a decade or two too late.

Ghost Stories (2017)

ghost1.jpgThere are some genuinely creepy moments, and old-fashioned scares, in this horror anthology movie- indeed, for awhile I was pleasantly reminded of those old Amicus movies that I loved years ago. Initially I was wrong-footed by a titles/prologue sequence that seems to break the fourth wall and suggested that the film was a found-footage/pseudo-documentary piece- it’s only after this that the film settles down into a traditional film format that I was able to relax into it. I don’t know if this distracted others or if it was just me, but there’s something wrong with all this and it handicaps the film somewhat- I’m surprised the film-makers didn’t revisit it (there’s stuff going on in camcorder footage of a Jewish celebration and ensuing family discord that seems to have no impact on subsequent events at all).

Once the film slips into traditional horror-story territory it improves no end, and after seeing so many American horrors,  it’s lovely to see UK characters and locations in an old-fashioned horror story, in which very real, very ordinary people get caught up in genuinely unsettling situations. The film and its three seperate tales (albeit they are not quite as seperate as we are led to believe) are structured around the investigations of Professor Phillip Goodman (Andy Nyman, who co-wrote and directed the film with Jeremy Dyson). Goodman has devoted his career to exposing phony psychics and fraudulent supernatural claims. A childhood hero of his, Charles Cameron, who has been missing for years, suddenly contacts Goodman and tasks him with three cases of ghostly goings-on that cannot be explained: a night watch-man’s terrifying experience in an abandoned asylum, a young man’s car accident deep in some creepy woods and a father being haunted by the malevolent spirit of his unborn child. 

The tension during the horrific tales as they unfold is very well done- the film is not at all gory but is genuinely creepy and certainly it’s a refreshing nod to old-school horror films, where mood and atmosphere is superior to graphic excess. Other than that off-putting opening I really enjoyed the film and its ‘twist’ at the end, while perhaps not completely surprising or convincing, certainly honours the feel of those Amicus anthologies. Its a great old-fashioned ghost movie, and there’s nothing wrong with that- indeed, I’d love to see more of this kind of stuff. In just  the same way as science-fiction and fantasy films have become too persistent with graphically ‘wowing’ us by literally showing everything onscreen in CGI spectacle, so have horror films been persistent lately in graphically detailing all their gory horrors onscreen. Suggestion is sometimes a more powerful tool, no matter the CGI trickery that film-makers possess today.

Bird Box (2018)

bird1Netflix ends the year on something of a high, as this apocalyptic thriller is pretty solid stuff. Bird Box is based on a 2014 novel I have never heard of, and follows a reluctantly pregnant woman, Malorie (Sandra Bullock) on a journey to salvation over a five-year period during what is essentially the End of the World. Alongside Bullock, the film contains a pretty heavyweight cast (Trevante Rhodes, Tom Hollander, Sarah Paulson, John Malkovich) with a fairly high-profile director, Susanne Bier at the helm. I appreciate Netflix Originals might always have a hard time escaping a stigma of ‘straight-to-video’ and ‘tv movie’, but projects like this really should help break that. Besides, it also suggests that movies like this, which aren’t necessarily box-office gold by any means, can yet get made in a cinema environment dominated by noisy blockbuster franchise stuff- indeed, I think some mixed reviews of this generally stems from people expecting it to be something it isn’t (i.e. a huge ‘event’ horror blockbuster). Its really a character-based thriller rather than the graphic apocalyptic horror some might expect- although, that said, the early scenes of society crashing down are pretty graphic and convincing.

The talent involved both in front and behind the camera certainly suggests that Netflix might be onto something, and that perhaps something genuinely great might be in the offing someday. Bullock is very good in this film, with an interesting character arc and an involving performance, clearly taking the project very seriously.

Very often I was watching this wishing that The Walking Dead series (by now having descended into self-parody) had taken this route- I always like the dramatic tension of taking desperate characters and putting them in an enclosed space with a very real external threat. In The Walking Dead, the outside threat of the zombies has become almost a routine turkey shoot, we don’t feel the threat or smell the decay or the fear of, well, the walking dead overcoming everything. At least in Bird Box the apocalypse is horrible and scary, and wisely doesn’t explain everything. There is an awkward moment when one of the characters expresses what he thinks the unseen monster/s are and explains he did his research on the internet, but on the whole the film manages everything superbly well. I like the threat being unseen and unknown and largely unexplained- its the physical and mental results of that threat that drives things forward and I think leaving it unexplained helps. It could be demons, it could be aliens, in the end, it doesn’t matter.

 

2018 Review: August

August saw some news breaking regards the circumstances of Johann Johannsson’s passing, a commentary on the birthday of the late Chris Whitley, a note regards the death of Neil Simon, a new Blade Runner-inspired book, and all this-

Mission Impossible: Fallout – Film of the year, simple as that. I suppose that will depress some people no end, but as far as summer blockbusters go, like the previous entry, this is pretty much definitive.

Big Bad Mama – Funnily enough, years from now, when I look back on this years viewing, I think Big Bad Mama will be one of the most memorable entries of this year. It was a blast from the past, wildly nostalgic of that 1970s era of film and television with a great cast- afterall, this one has Captain Kirk and Captain Dallas sharing the screen. How could it possibly fail?

Extinction– A pretty frustrating movie, as I recall.

Ready Player One–  As disappointments go, this one is up there with Black Panther. A very vacuous CGI-fest, it seems to have the best of intentions but I suspect the book simply ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, so the film collapses under the weight of hype and expectations.

The Camp on Blood Island – Another Indicator boxset of Hammer obscurities. It just can’t fail. This was the first n the box and a pretty entertaining flick.

Yesterdays Enemy – Surprisingly modern in approach, this is an undervalued/forgotten gem, seemingly an apology for some of the more dubious racial sentiments of the Blood Island film which preceded it.

The Age of Adaline – Ouch.

Loving Vincent– A beautiful, unique-looking film.

The Stranglers of Bombay – Likely the weakest of the third Indicator Hammer set.

It – Oh dear, another disappointing film. I think this post had the most comments of any post this year.

Lady Macbeth – Still have mixed feelings about this, not wholly successful but worth a watch, certainly.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri –  Hey, this was brilliant. One of the films of the year. For once a film lived up to the hype (which is the trouble, I suppose, of coming to films late, whether it be disc release or later rental etc).

Cardinal Season Two – Entertaining thriller from Canada, ensuring interesting locations and, hmm, that Rocketeer bloke.

Murder on the Orient Express – My discovery of the charms of Agatha Christie continues.  This was a beautiful looking movie, even on HD streaming. Can only imagine what a Blu-ray or 4K UHD possibly looks like- ravishing, probably.

Only the Brave – Considering what has been going on in California a few weeks ago, I imagine this film will have long legs. Maybe some of these true story/biopics are a little too respectful or have little to say other than recounting the events? I mean, sure, that’s fine I suppose, but it’s surely an opportunity for some valid opinion or artistic viewpoint informing on those events?

15 reviews? Is this some kind of record?

 

 

2018 Review: July

July was marked by me starting a number of lengthy posts analysing BR2049 that took up far too much time and nobody read. I got a third one nearly ready to go but never posted it. I figured I’d return to it sometime as I enjoyed doing them (any excuse to rewatch BR2049 is officially A Good Thing in my book), but it was taking too much time to justify, and besides, there’s sure to be actual books about it coming out soon or similar stuff up on the internet already.  Surprisingly, really, I didn’t do too bad with new reviews in anycase:

Mission– French sci-fi must be an acquired taste, it was pretty sour to me. Funnily enough another Mars adventure, The First (which I reviewed a few days ago) was coming up that was much classier/serious than this silly nonsense- maybe my high evaluation of The First owes much to how daft this was.

How It Ends – An ironic title, as it turned out.

Calibre- Scottish Deliverance.

The Frankenstein Chronicles Season One– This was a great period horror series, I was a bit late catching up with it but glad I did.

Wind River – One of the best films I’ve seen this year, I think.

The Foreigner – A pretty fun, low-demand thriller that was more entertaining than I expected.

Resolution – This was fantastic, alongside its sequel/part two which follows next. A low-budget Lovecraftian sci-fi/horror that is genuinely disturbing and fascinating.

The Endless – Follow-up to Resolution, which it accompanies on Arrows excellent double-bill Blu-ray.  Not quite as good as the first film, but really, both are better than most sci-fi films coming the mainstream route. Anybody who got a kick from Annihilation would enjoy these two.

Eight reviews then, two of which were tv shows that take longer to watch for obvious reasons. July also unfortunately marked the passing of author Harlan Ellison and artist Steve Ditko, both of which I wrote posts about. I also wrote my first 4K review, which was a rewatch of the first Deadpool movie. Busy month, all told.