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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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Brothers’ Nest (Sydney Film Festival)

Australian, Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Brothers’ Nest sees filmmaking siblings Shane and Clayton Jacobson reunite for the first time since the world-beating 2006 comedy, Kenny.

But this ain’t Kenny.

Anyone expecting a redux of that amiable toilet-themed flick is in for the shock of their lives. Brothers’ Nest is a pitch black noir-of-errors that could just about be termed a black comedy if you squint a bit. Comparisons have been made with the Coen brothers’ oeuvre, but Brothers’ Nest sits at the Blood Simple end of the spectrum there, rather than anywhere near Raising Arizona or The Big Lebowski. It’s grim business.

We meet our protagonists, elder brother Jason (Clayton Jacobson) and the slightly younger Terry (Shane Jacobson) as they ride bicycles through the pre-dawn light toward their remote, rural Victorian family home. Their mission: fake the suicide of their stepfather, Rodger (Kim Gyngell), and so ensure they inherit the house from their dying mother (Lynette Curran). They have all day to prepare for the murder before Rodger arrives. Jason has a checklist. Terry has serious doubts.

We spend a lot of time with Terry and Jason in their childhood home as they both lay the groundwork for their homicide and excavate their shared past, and by the time Rodger shows up we’ve got an intimate awareness of the dynamic that exists between these three men thanks to the deft script by Jaime Browne (The Mule). For all its closely observed character work, Brothers’ Nest still holds plenty of surprises, though – not the least of which is the odd burst of genuinely shocking violence.

It’s not gratuitous, though – the film is clever enough to know that meaningless violence has less impact than meaningful violence – horrible acts committed for awful but understandable reasons. The spurting claret is just one facet – the real horror comes in witnessing how these people, who know each other so intimately, turn on themselves.

Director Clayton Jacobson captures it all in an austere, chilly style that perfectly complements Jaime Browne’s writing. The overall mood is one of subtle but palpable transgression – the notion of committing a cold-blooded murder in one’s family home is an unsettling one. Effectively, Jason and Terry are strangers in their own lives, prowling past mementos and childhood artifacts in disposable coveralls while they discuss the quickest, kindest way to kill someone they’ve known since they were kids, and seeing these interchanges play out between the avuncular, all-Aussie Jacobson boys is at times deeply disquieting. The pair both turn in excellent performances, especially Shane as the increasingly conflicted Terry.

Brothers’ Nest is a prickly affair that delights in leaving the viewer off centre. It’s not quite in the same league as, say, The Interview, but it’s certainly adjacent to that singular Australian classic, both in tone and intent. That also means it’s going to be far too misanthropic for many, but if you’re open to its acidic charms, it’s one for the books.