UPGRADE (2018)

Movie Review by LL Soares

The new movie UPGRADE is a pleasant surprise. I went into it with fairly low expectations, and had a helluva good time with it.

It’s written and directed by Leigh Whannell, whose original claim to fame was a writer of the first three SAW movies (2004 – 2006), as well as DEAD SILENCE (2007) and the INSIDIOUS series. His first directing credit was for INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3 (2015). Also an actor, Whannel might be familiar to you for playing Specs, a technician in the “ghost busting” team in the INSIDIOUS films. UPGRADE is his first non-sequel film, and his second film overall as a director.

The film’s plot is incredibly simple. It’s a crime-rampant near future, and a grease monkey who loves working on old cars named Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green, also great in THE INVITIATION, 2015, and the sadly short-lived Cinemax series QUARRY, 2016) is in a driverless car with his wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo), when something goes wrong and they get in an accident (maybe he wasn’t so silly to love old cars after all!). Some criminals descend on the wreackage, killing Asha and leaving Grey a parapalegic.

Tech wunderkind Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), the rich computer genius who Grey was restoring a classic car for in the first scene, offers the wheelchair-bound Grey a choice. Either stay the way he is, or test out a computer chip called Stem that can possibly give him his movement back. At first, Grey just wants to die after what happened. But he eventually comes around, and we cut to some clandestine surgery in Eron’s home, where the chip is implanted in Grey’s spine.

The experiment is a success, and Grey can walk again. But there are some unexpected side effects, the biggest being a voice in Grey’s head that only he can hear, the AI version of STEM (Simon Maiden, whose voicework here is as much of a character as any of the physical people onscreen). It doesn’t take long for STEM (all-capped, all-conscious now, as far as I’m concerned) to offer Grey a chance to track down the low-life criminals who ruined his life and knock them off, one by one. Grey is more than happy to go along for the ride, especially when STEM reveals that when Grey turns over the “controls” to his new friend, he is capable of superhuman feats of strength and violence.

Meanwhile, the detective on the case of what happened to Grey and Asha, Det. Cortez (Berry Gabriel, who was also so memorable as the maid Georgina in GET OUT, 2017), slowly begins putting the pieces together after a series of violent murders in the bad part of town.

Also a treat is Benedict Hardie as a creepy bad guy named Fisk, who is in many ways Grey’s equal. A scene where Fisk kills a bartender with a sneeze is both ludicrious and kind of cool. Fisk is a vicious adversary, and the final showdown between him and Grey (and STEM) is worth the wait.

UPGRADE is yet another in a long line of high-tech revenge stories, and yet somehow it seems fresh and different. Part of it, no doubt, is due to Logan Marshall-Green, who has real screen presence here. The dude’s an underrated actor who deserves a bigger career, and his interactions with robot voice STEM (and once again, I have to give propos to Simon Maiden as that voice) are the highlights of the film, making this a dynamic duo I wouldn’t mind seeing more of. Whannell’s script and direction are also refreshing. While the storyline might sound a little like ROBOCOP (1987), let’s say, it’s still a hundred times more entertaining than 2014’s ROBOCOP reboot. 

My only disappointment is that this one didn’t do better at the box office. It’s a low-budget horror/scifi film that shines much brighter than it has a right to, but I wish more people would actually see it.

I give it three and a half knives.

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© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

HEREDITARY (2018)

Movie Review by LL Soares

I’m always thrilled to hear that a movie is going to be scary. As a long-time horror fan, I know that truly scary movies don’t come around very often. A movie hasn’t genuinely scared me since I was a kid, but I’d relish the chance to experience that feeling again. So when HEREDITARY came off a very buzz-worthy screening at the Sundance Film Festival, and went on to get headlines like: “Welcome to the Scariest Movie of 2018” (Rolling Stone), “HEREDITARY is the most traumatically terrifying movie in ages” (AV Club), “HEREDITARY’ hype is real: It’s insanely scary and tough to shake off) (USA Today), and “HEREDITARY is going to scare the bejesus out of everyone” (The Boston Globe), I was no doubt excited about seeing it. Finally, a movie that had genuine scares! And what a cast, featuring Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne and Ann Dowd.

Which brings me to my issue with the movie. I sat there, waiting for the big visceral scare that everyone keeps alluding to. And waiting. And waiting. And it never came. There’s a scene where something heartbreaking happens to one of the main characters, but it’s not scary, just tragic. And I kept waiting for the big ending—thinking that was where the scares had to come—and found myself…underwhelmed.

So, let’s get something out of the way right away. HEREDITARY is not the scariest movie in years.

Which is not to say it isn’t a great movie. It’s just not as damn scary as everyone wants us to believe it is.

Aside from those headlines I quote above, I went into this one as blind as I could. I didn’t want to know much about the story. I definitely didn’t want to know what was so scary about it, or what to expect. I wanted to be surprised. Because nothing emphasizes the joy of a real scare as much as it being a surprise scare. And I’m glad I avoided any real details about the film. It made it that much enjoyable.

Annie (Toni Collette) and her family are getting ready for a funeral. Annie’s mother has died. It sounds like she had a long, drawn-out death and after years of not speaking to each other, Annie took her mother into her house for the last years. Despite this, Annie wasn’t very close to her mother, who was clearly a difficult person to live with, which complicates the grieving process. How do you process the grief you feel for someone you loved but didn’t necessarily like? When they get home, Annie even asks her psychologist husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne) “Should I be sadder?” I thought this was an original and affecting way to start the movie off.

It’s also interesting what Annie does for a living, creating tiny dioramas—dollhouse-level furniture, people and scenes—that are incredibly detailed. This is a unique profession for someone in a horror film (or any kind of film), and provides a literal microcosm of the bigger world. Especially when traumatic incidents occur and Annie creates tiny versions of them in order to cope.

Like most families, the one at the heart of HEREDITARY is dysfunctional, with a lot of resentments and guilt simmering just below the surface. If the death of Annie’s mother doesn’t make it all bubble over—because she wasn’t a very nice person, presumably—a second death occurs that is much closer to home, and much more tragic. This second incident, in fact, threatens to destroy the family with grief. And the trauma it causes seems to multiply as the movie goes on.

It’s then that this atmospheric, emotionally-draining film gets to its more horrific elements. Unfortunately, we’ve seen most of these elements before, and a strange, unique film begins to seem more familiar.

I won’t go into too much detail, but there are some bits and pieces reminiscent of classic films like ROSEMARY’S BABY (1967) and THE OMEN (1976) here, as well more recent (and lesser) films like PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2007), and OUIJA (2014), as denizens of the afterlife seem to invade the real world. The fact that these elements aren’t necessarily new (including the much-vaunted ending), means the movie utlimately feels an old car with a fresh coat of vivid paint.

But, despite some familiar tropes, there’s a lot to love about HEREDITARY. To begin with, the acting is superlative. Toni Collette—don’t forget, she was also the mom in the classic THE SIXTH SENSE, 1999, as well as being in television series UNITED STATES OF TARA, 2009 – 2011, and movies like FRIGHT NIGHT, 2011, HITCHCOCK, 2012, and KRAMPUS, 2015—a totally underrated actress, is terrific as Annie, the heart of this film. While not always about her point of view, HEREDITARY is mostly her story, as she comes to grips with grief in many forms, and possible mental illness. Which takes us through the well-trodden “is it real, or is it happening in an unbalanced mind” theme, and yet, the movie doesn’t belabor this. You eventually realize that yes, Annie is unstable, but she’s also dealing with very real dangers.

Gabriel Byrne is the “normal” one in the family, the rational, compassionate adult who tries to steer his family through these emotional storms, but because he’s so normal, he’s not very affective when things get really weird.

Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro are pretty damn great as their kids, Peter and Charlie. Charlie is a clearly odd 13-year-old who mostly keeps to herself and channels her alienation through creativity. She draws a lot and creates strange dolls out of unusual household items. When she snips the head off a dead bird for one of her dolls, it all seems especially creepy, and yet she’s a sympathetic character. Wolff’s Peter is a troubled adolescent who has clearly gone through a lot, and while he doesn’t stand out at first among the family members, he is the one who is fated to endure a lot of the most awful stuff the movie has to hurl at them. His performance is often understated, but powerful. After the harrowing incident that occurs half-way through, Peter goes into a pit of shock, becoming powerless in his fear and grief, that is both surprising and utterly believable.

Ann Dowd—so ubiquitous these days, appearing in everything from Hulu’s THE HANDMAID’S TALE to such other above-average TV shows as TNT’s GOOD BEHAVIOR and HBO’s THE LEFTOVERS—also shows up as Joan, who meets Annie at a grief-counseling support group, but slowly reveals she’s more intimately involved in all this than we thought.

Ari Aster, who wrote and directed the film, does an amazing job with his feature debut here, after making several short films, including THE STRANGE THING ABOUT THE JOHNSONS (2011), that got a big response online. HEREDITARY is a terrific start, and Aster is a filmmaker to watch.

I also enjoyed the cinematography by Pawel Pogotzelski. And the music by Colin Stetson at first felt a little overstated and intentionally sinister to me, to the point of being intrusive, but eventually it faded into the background and seemed quite effective.

My early statement that I didn’t find the movie scary is not in any way meant to diminish that it’s an exceptional film that’s worth your time. My point is simply that it is being hyped in a way that I found disingenuous. It’s not the scariest film in ages, but it does have unsettling moments, and a visceral tragedy inside it.

It’s still a great little film. Just don’t expect to lose much sleep over it.

I give HEREDITARY a rating of three and a half knives.

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© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares