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‘Upgrade’ Is an Exploitation Film Disguised As Science Fiction

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In its opening moments, you would be forgiven for expecting Upgrade, a bloody new thriller, to be some kind brutal science fiction art film. That’s because the filmmakers reference one of the great works of 20th Century science fiction and art film — François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451. Rather than beginning with the standard credit sequence (or omitting it entirely, as many thrillers are wont to do), Upgrade’s credits are spoken aloud over a shifting, three-dimensional waveform display. The emotionless male voice of Truffaut’s film is replaced by a faux-emoting, robotic female voice; it’s a striking, attention-grabbing sequence, one that primes the audience to expect a film of ideas that examines The Way We Live Now. It’s an act of misdirection though, as writer and director Leigh Whannell has no interest in those bigger issues — he’s just here to make a gory revenge thriller. And at that, he mostly succeeds.

The year is never stated, but it’s safe to assume that Upgrade takes place somewhere in the near future. Logan Marshall-Green (a semi-professional Tom Hardy doppelganger) plays Grey Trace, a curmudgeonly mechanic who tunes up old muscle cars while his wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo), is at work for a rising robotics firm. They live in an electronically controlled home that can cook their meals and do most of their chores, but Grey distrusts the robotic helpers, preferring to do things himself. When his wife suggests ordering a pizza, he counters by suggesting they make a pizza.

We’re being led to think the movie might become a cautionary tale of an overly mechanized society, but it quickly reveals itself to be a simple — if powerful — revenge thriller. As Grey and Asha drive home one evening, their automated car malfunctions, speeding up until it crashes. A gang of masked bandits are waiting nearby, ready to exact mayhem. They brutally murder Asha and sever Grey’s spine, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. He is forced to watch helplessly as she sputters her last breath.

Upgrade

Grey’s recovery is aided by ubiquitous robotic and electronic helpers, but they do little to lessen the impact of his trauma. The only relief comes in the form of wealthy inventor Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), who previously bought a souped-up muscle car from Grey. He has created an almost insectoid-like chip called Stem that is capable of restoring sensation and motion to limbs. He also promises that it can do far more than just allow Grey to walk again, which is soon put on display. In a funny scene that pokes fun at science fiction films where characters tell video screens to endless enhance an image, Stem is able to identify one of Grey’s attackers from surveillance drone footage from the night of Asha’s murder. The little chip in the back of his neck has other surprises in hand, most of which will come in handy as Grey switches into vigilante mode and begins to hunt down his wife’s killers one by one.

Whannell came to prominence writing horror films, including the first few Saw movies, and his eye for violence makes Upgrade particularly affecting.

Up to this point, Whannell has created an intriguing bit of social commentary. His eye for class is surprisingly acute. Although Grey prefers to live in an analogue world, his wife’s wealth gives him the option to eschew those comforts. Others, including the assassins he hunts down, don’t have the means to swear off the same luxuries; they live in tiny homes little different from what one would find in a poor neighborhood right now. Whannell might have explored this vein of social critique more, but instead he diverts all his energies toward making a grindhouse exploitation film. An easy heuristic for gauging your enjoyment of Upgrade is by examining where you rank the first Mad Max film. I consider it the most fun of the tetralogy, even if it’s not the most technically accomplished or ambitious, and Whannell’s film is quite open in its admiration. His future world isn’t quite on the edge of collapse, unlike Mad Max, but it’s not hard to imagine rampant inequality and unchecked technological developments threatening civilization. (In another nod to Mad Max, the film was shot in Australia, though it stands in for a featureless, post-industrial America.)

Upgrade

Like that Aussie classic, considerations of the state of the world fall to the background once the hero’s need for vengeance kicks in. Marshall-Green is not the most convincing or compelling actor — he particularly struggles in his moments of despair over his lost wife — but he effectively conveys the fury of a man looking for revenge. His comic timing is also spot on during the beginning phases. Even though his quest for blood becomes increasingly dark, the early chapters are marked by a witty repartee between him and Stem, which is able to speak to him internally. Simon Maiden does his best impression of Douglas Rains’ HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and his unfamiliarity with human behaviors provides some necessary comic relief.

In between those short bursts of humor, Upgrade is largely blood-spattered and gory. Whannell came to prominence writing horror films, including the first few Saw movies, and his eye for violence makes Upgrade particularly affecting. Unfortunately, Whannell’s devotion to blood and guts overshadows the emotional content of this film. Vallejo is given little screen time as Asha, and we don’t learn a single thing about what sparked the couple’s relationship or the depths of their love; she’s merely a device to spur on Grey’s blood lust. Whannell isn’t alone on this — the classic exploitation films he’s referencing do exactly the same thing. But his film exists in a different time, with different obligations; the disposable wife doesn’t play as effectively as it once did.

Perhaps it was destined that Upgrade would always have these faults. The best ‘70s revenge thrillers are now considered classics more for their shocking impact and cultural documentation than for their actual quality. Upgrade doesn’t have quite the same impact or import, but it’s a hell of a thriller, which is good enough.

Brian Marks is Sordid Cinema's Lead Film Critic. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, LA Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and Ampersand. He's a graduate of USC's master's program in Specialized Arts Journalism. You can find more of his writing at InPraiseofCinema.com. Best film experience: driving halfway across the the country for a screening of Jean-Luc Godard's "King Lear." Totally worth it.

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Sam Mendes Creates a Rare Cinematic Experience with ‘1917’

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1917 Review

War movies have been a constant trend in cinema since the beginning of film. From black and white propaganda pieces during World War I and II to grand, ultra-realistic, modern dramas like Saving Private Ryan, war films have intrigued filmmakers and audiences alike for over 100 years. There’s a long list of films that have succeeded in recreating the horrors of fighting on the frontlines while telling a captivating story of heroism. Telling an emotionally gripping tale combined with some visually stunning filmmaking, 1917 can now be added to that list, and is nothing short of an incredible achievement.

Directed and co-written by Sam Mendes, and starring Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay, 1917 tells the story of two British soldiers during World War I that are given orders to personally deliver a message to a battalion off in the far distance. The message: to call off an attack that will result in the death of thousands, including one of the soldier’s brothers, should they fail to make it in time. Early on the two soldiers walk swiftly through crowded trenches; one of them, dragging behind yells, “Shouldn’t we think about this?” The other doesn’t reply. There’s no time to think about it. He carries on forward without looking back. The two had just been given orders, and time is now their worst enemy.

It’s this sense of urgency and persistence that drives 1917. Every minute is critical, and every moment feels dire. The two soldiers constantly push forward despite the overwhelming odds, as the life of thousands are in the lone hands of these two young men. The threat of failure is real, and 1917 never allows the audience to forget that.

Chapman and MacKay give wonderfully human performances as the main protagonists, Lance Corporal Blake and Lance Corporal Schofield. The audience gets to know the two men through little bits of conversation amid all the tension of getting closer to enemy lines. Their deepest and darkest secrets are never revealed, yet their actions provide reasons to care about them. The two men have their differences, but it’s clear that they want to help each other see the mission to its end. Their loyalty to one another and to the mission relentlessly drives them forward, and ultimately makes it easy for the audience to hope these characters succeed.

What really sets 1917 apart from other war epics is the masterful directing by Sam Mendes. The film creates the illusion throughout that the audience is watching a single continuous shot. From the first shot until the last, the focus never strays from its protagonists, allowing the audience to experience every step as it’s taken. Aside from the characters moving into a dark trench or behind a tall structure, it can be really tough to tell just how long each take is; where the director says “action” and “cut” is blurred to a point of fascination here, and though audiences have seen prolonged shots of war in past films, this is on another level. Combined with some brilliant pacing and jaw-dropping action sequences, 1917 never loses grip of its audience, as everything is seen without pause.

It’s also worth noting that every shot is elevated by a phenomenal score by Thomas Newman (who has worked with Mendes before on Skyfall). It seems that the goal here was not only to increase the intensity and drama of each scene, but also to allow the audience to feel exactly what the characters are feeling at all times. Whether the soldiers are walking through crowded trenches, cautiously cornering buildings, or taking a brief moment to catch their breath, every bit of what they’re feeling and just how their fast their hearts are pumping is translated. The music always feels natural, even in its most dramatic moments, and it deserves high praise for complimenting Mendes’ story so well.

1917 is one of the most unique movie-going experiences in recent memory. It takes the war movie genre and does something no one has ever seen before, which is extremely difficult with so many memorable war films in cinematic history. With 1917 Sam Mendes has created an unforgettable experience that needs to be seen on the biggest screen, and it deserves to be ranked among the greatest war films of all time.

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With ‘Road to Perdition,’ Sam Mendes showed another side of Tom Hanks

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In his long, distinguished career, one thing Tom Hanks hasn’t done a lot of on screen is dispassionately shoot people. Sure, in Bonfire of the Vanities he hit a kid with his car, and in Cloud Atlas he threw someone off the roof of the building. And yes, he played a soldier in both Saving Private Ryan and the Vietnam part of Forrest Gump, and there was a third-act gunfight in his 1989 cop/dog comedy Turner & Hooch. But the one and only time Hanks has played a full-on murderer was in Road to Perdition, director Sam Mendes’ 2002 meditation on fathers, sons, crime, and the legacies of violence.

Naturally, Hanks being Hanks, Mendes’ film positions his Michael Sullivan not as an irredeemable monster, but rather a humanized character who may not be beyond redemption (the film’s poster tagline was “Pray for Michael Sullivan.”) 

Set in the 1930s and adapted from a first-rate screenplay by David Self, Road to Perdition tells the story of Sullivan, a mob enforcer in Rock Island, Ill., who works for local crime boss Rooney (Paul Newman), the man who raised him. Frequently dispatched to bump off Rooney’s rivals, Michael is committed to not allow his young son, Michael Jr. (future Arrowverse actor Tyler Hoechlin), to go down the same path in life he did. 

Road to Perdition

When the young Michael witnesses his father committing a murder, it leads to a chain of tragic events that has the two Michaels on the road to Chicago to make a deal with Al Capone’s crew (in the person of his henchman, played in one scene by Stanley Tucci), and eventually on the run from a rival hitman (Jude Law.) Meanwhile, Rooney’s jealous son, Connor (a pre-Bond Daniel Craig), schemes against him. 

Road to Perdition attaches a violent crime plot to considerations of sin and specific references to Catholicism, which is something that directors from Martin Scorsese to Abel Ferrera have done for decades. But Mendes’ film finds a new way to tell that particular story by focusing it on the gangster’s young son. 

Road to Perdition, which came out in the summer of 2003, was Mendes’ second film, and his first after 1999’s Best Picture-winning American Beauty. It’s the better film, thanks to a strong script and the work of a great cast, but more than that, it’s absolutely visually stunning in a counter-intuitive 1:33 to 1 aspect ratio. The film’s final sequences, of both the rain-drenched gunfight and the denouement on the beach, are among the most beautiful cinema of the 2000s. 

The film won the Best Cinematography Oscar for Conrad L. Hall, the third of his career, although sadly Hall passed away before the Oscar was awarded; it was accepted on his behalf by his son, Conrad W. Hall.  Hall’s Oscar was the only one the film won after it was nominated for six, although not including Best Picture or Best Actor. 

Road to Perdition came at the front end of Hanks’ nearly 20-year Oscar nomination drought, between Cast Away and this year’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor. But Road to Perdition is an underrated Hanks performance. Even beyond all the murder, it’s very understated, and much more strong/silent than is typical of Hanks’ work. He also wears a hat most of the time, which Hanks doesn’t often do. 

Road to Perdition

Paul Newman was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for what would be his final on-screen role, although his voice continued to be used in Pixar’s Cars movies, even after his death. As for Daniel Craig as Connor, he’s playing a character who in today’s parlance would be called a “failson,” and it’s a role that he undoubtedly has been too big a star for just a few years later. 

Sam Mendes has had something of an uneven career. His first film, American Beauty, won Best Picture, but its reputation has somewhat suffered over time for reasons fair and unfair. He’s directed great James Bond movies (Skyfall), and not-so-great ones (Spectre.) He’s made small films that were decent (Away We Go) and big ones that were disastrous (Revolutionary Road). But while he’s getting some of his best attention for 1917, which has emerged as an Oscar frontrunner, Road to Perdition stands as his most complete and satisfying work. 

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Festival du Nouveau Cinema

‘Color Out of Space’ is Pure Cosmic Horror

Festival de Nouveau Cinema 2019

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Color Out of Space Review

Color Out of Space stands out as one the best direct adaptations of Lovecraft’s work.

Even before a meteor streaks out of the sky, Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space firmly establishes an atmosphere of alien, otherworldly dread. Opening on a fog-shrouded forest dripping with foreboding atmosphere, Stanley evokes the spirit of the controversial author in a way few filmmakers have, and the use of direct quotes from the short story further cements this as a love-letter to Lovecraft and his work. But Color isn’t just a slavish ode to the influential writer and his cosmic horror creations; the South African director also injects just enough of himself into the film to create something that builds upon the core of Lovecraft’s story, maintaining that kernel of pulp horror while introducing elements that feel wholly personal to the filmmaker. For this and many other reasons, Color Out of Space stands out as one the best direct adaptations of Lovecraft’s work, and one of the most engrossing genre movies this year.

The film by and large maintains the narrative core of the original, recombining elements to suit the change in medium, but staying quite faithful otherwise. Nic Cage stars as Nathan Gardner, who has moved his wife and two children to a secluded country home to get away from urban life. The Gardner family’s pastoral bliss is interrupted by a meteor that strikes their farm in the dead of night, and both their home and their very bodies begin to change soon after.

Color Out of Space

Unsurprisingly for a film with the hands of Lovecraft, Stanley, and Cage on the wheel, Color is often quite a strange experience, rife with disparate influences and odd touches. Nathan’s daughter, Lavinia, is a practicing witch, which is a story element that could only have come from Stanley, a magician himself. The Gardner family are also trying their hand at Alpaca farming — a bewildering plot element that feels like it could have been one of Cage’s notoriously eccentric fancies, right down to the brief lesson in Alpaca milking. Of course, Lovecraft’s passion for unknowable cosmic terrors is draped over all of this. There’s a wonderful atmosphere of dread and the unknown, about as pure an expression of Lovecraft as one could hope for in a contemporary setting. You’d think it would all make for a disjointed mishmash, but it all gels quite nicely, with the quirky family coming off as endearing more often than not. 

Color Out of Space is one of the most engrossing genre movies this year.

There are a few distracting, odd moments, like Lavinia’s turn to self-scarring in a desperate ritual to avert disaster. It largely isn’t commented on, and her sudden appearance with arcane runes carved into her flesh doesn’t end up feeling like the important story or character beat it probably should have. Likewise, Cage’s performance is on the eccentric side, with odd mannerisms and a truly strange accent taking over as the Gardner patriarch begins to go off the deep end. But then, that’s half the fun when it’s Cage we’re talking about.

Color Out of Space

Like so much of Lovecraft’s work, Color Out of Space deals with the intrusion of the unknowable and alien into the mundane waking world. While other works have had this manifest in the form of eldritch space gods or croaking fish-people, Color instead uses an alien environment as the intruder. While Stanley clearly isn’t working with a massive budget, this idea is still used to create some stunning environments as the Gardner farm’s transformation progresses, with the climax offering some of the most engaging visuals in recent memory. There’s also some truly unsettling body horror, more gruesome and explicit than anything from the story, but an organic fit for the material. Color Out of Space is Stanley’s first feature-length fiction film in around fifteen years, and by all indications, he hasn’t lost his edge. For both fans of Lovecraft and the director’s own works, there’s much to see and love here. The visuals are breathtaking, the atmosphere sumptuous, and it’s Lovecraft to the core with just enough original madness thrown in.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on October 14, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Festival du Nouveau Cinema.

Color Out of Space Review
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