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Upgrade (Sydney Film Festival)

Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

A vicious attack leaves mechanic Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) paralysed from the neck down and his loving wife (Melanie Vallejo) dead. This being the not-too-distant future, something can be done about the former: a reclusive techno-capitalist (Harrison Gilbertson explicitly not playing Elon Musk) donates an experimental computer chip called STEM that can bridge Grey’s severed spinal cord. This being a film that spends at least part of its time in the action idiom, Grey wants revenge – and it turns out STEM can help with that too. The politely-voiced (by Simon Maiden) chip also functions as a kind of Siri/Cortana-alike AI personal assistant – and one that has no moral qualms about helping Grey hunt down the ex-military thugs responsible for his plight…

Some of the technological window dressing aside, Leigh Whannell’s second film as director feels like something you might have luckily brought home as part of a weekly deal from your local video library circa, oh, let’s say 1989. It shares some DNA with Paul Verhoeven and earlyish David Cronenberg, but its real shelfmates are the kind of direct-to-video cheap but imaginative actioners that used to star the likes of Olivier Gruner. That’s not a slam – the wild, anarchic creativity of DTV SF permeates Upgrade, only it’s sheathed in the concerns of today, not mired in the cultural extrapolations of a few decades back.

What that means is that the film’s world is one of massive economic disparity and nigh-constant police surveillance, where the lucky (and, it is implied, massively reduced) middle class travel between gated enclaves in self-driving cars before retiring to computer-run smart homes for evenings spent in pristine but rather soulless luxury. It’s a future that doesn’t seem too far from our own present (Alexa, order me some dystopia) and our man Grey, who takes pride in working with his hands on vintage, gas-guzzling muscle cars, is something of a throwback – a man’s man in a touchscreen world. How bitterly ironic that he becomes beholden to technology to enable the physicality he takes such pride in.

When push comes to shove, he can’t even do his own fighting and killing, but that doesn’t mean we, the bloody-baying audience miss out. In what is hands down the film’s coolest conceit, STEM can operate Grey’s body like a six foot puppet, putting him through combat manouevres that would make Bruce Lee blanch. It’s these moments that people will be talking about afterwards, with Marshall-Green looking both terrified and awestruck as his computer-controlled body rains holy hell down on all and sundry about him (the violence is stunning and occasionally shockingly gruesome).

Those moments of splatter will jar some viewers, but Upgrade refuses to be pigeonholed tonally, hopping from sleek sci-fi thriller, to gritty revenge actioner and even occasionally attempting to mine pathos from the freshly-disabled disabled Grey’s misery. It’s not a scattershot approach, per se; what it is, is deliberately weird, pulling signifiers from a range of nominally similar films (Robocop, say, or Videodrome, or even the notably more sunny Robot & Frank) but deploying them in ways that keep the viewer off kilter. Upgrade manages to keep surprising, not just in its plotting but in tone and its staunch refusal to play to the tropes.

If you spend a lot of time in the genre ghetto, that weirdness is something to be savoured. For all that, horror, sci-fi and fantasy are nominally more imaginative than your typical rank and file dramas, it can be disheartening how often films from that subset cleave to convention. Upgrade‘s chief value is that it has the courage to colour outside the lines. It’s not a game changer, but it’s a strange little slice of gruesome genre fun, and that’s pretty awesome.

 

 
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Insidious: The Last Key

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Insidious: The Last Key is the fourth film in the wildly uneven but fun franchise created by Aussie horror luminaries, James Wan and Leigh Whannell. Since the trousers-on-head bonkers Insidious: Chapter 2 the series has moved away from continuing the convoluted narrative and has instead fleshed out the backstory of Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) and her earlier cases.

The results are often a mixed bag because it’s hard to generate much tension when you know what happens next chronologically, however Lin Shaye is an absolute treasure and the concept of a 74-year-old protagonist heading up the normally youth-centic horror genre feels fresh and interesting.

Last Key takes a deep dive into Elise’s childhood and needless to say it was a shitty one. Elise’s dad, Gerald (Josh Stewart) is a hard drinking 1950s psychopath who frequently locks his daughter in a dungeon-like basement for indulging in supernatural shenanigans. This proves to be an especially bad idea as Elise accidentally summons a key-fingered entity who unleashes chaos in the lives of the living, and strangles her mum, Audrey (Tessa Ferrer).

Cut to the present(ish) day and Elise gets a call from a mysterious stranger, Ted Garza (Kirk Acevedo) a man who is being tormented by demons in the psychic’s long-forgotten childhood home. What follows is pretty much Insidious business as usual. Elise teams up with the always agreeable Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specks (Leigh Whannell) to investigate a creepy abode. Cue lots of jump scares, ill-advised solo trips into basements and cobwebbed rooms and eventually some freaky shit kicks off, including a rather rubbery-looking antagonist who probably should have been on screen a little less than he is.

The Insidious series has always felt like The Conjuring’s weirder, cheaper sibling. While both franchises were initially helmed by Wan, Insidious more readily embraces its innate low-budget goofiness and swings for the fences in terms of plotting. Last Key is a mostly enjoyable romp with a couple of decent scenes of genuine tension, although the whole caper becomes a little silly by the time the third act rolls around, causing a number of unintentional laughs.

Still, in terms of overall quality this is far more coherent than Chapter 2 and much more enjoyable than Insidious 3. Lin Shaye yet again delivers a nuanced, human take on a character that could easily have turned into caricature and director Adam Robitel (The Taking Of Deborah Logan) keeps things about as fresh as you can realistically expect from the fourth film in a horror franchise.

Slight but entertaining, Insidious: The Last Key is an enjoyable bit of disposable popcorn horror that will likely be embraced by the teen audience for which it’s clearly skewed.

 
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Toby Oliver – Shooting Get Out

Veteran Australian cinematographer Toby Oliver only started working in horror recently with Wolf Creek 2. Now he's an in demand lenser of fright flicks, having shot The Darkness, Insidious: Chapter 4 and the record-shattering Get Out.