Tag Archives: gooey

Upgrade

[3 stars]

There is more to Upgrade than you expect. Not a lot more, but it has a better story and script than a good portion of the films that have come out so far this year. On the artistic and intellectual side there are clearly intentional nods to Da Vinci, Frankenstein, Robocop, even a bit of Hitler in the visuals. This isn’t so much a dystopic future as it is an apathetic one with economic divisions just a bit more obvious than the present.

But while it starts off with a sense of Ex Machina, it loses that higher ground to drift closer to the sensibility of Automata. Both good recommendations, but very different movies. Upgrade is certainly willing to dive into ideas, like the potential amorality (or different-morality) of AI and what evolution means. And it is equally unafraid of emotions or taking its time to set up and execute on story. But they say “write what you know,” and writer/director Leigh Whannell just couldn’t quite shake his roots in Saw and Insidious. The ultimate result here isn’t very surprising–a good action and horror piece done with some talent. As a sophomore delivery from behind the camera, Whannell delivered a fairly solid bit of splatter punk. If there is any weakness, it is that despite some truly nice vistas and sets, the piece feels claustrophobic on a world level.

That smallness to the world may be due to its small cast, but Blade Runner 2049 had a similarly small cast without that sense, so I think it has more to do with Whannell’s framing choices. The cast are fairly solid and led by Logan Marshall-Green (Prometheus), who gives us an Everyman we can definitely sympathize and empathize with. He is a Luddite in a world of tech, but a person with deep passions and a sense of self and love of his wife and muscle cars (in that order). Betty Gabriel (Get Out) delivers to us a committed, if exhausted cop. Her role is challenging because we only see her decisions from the outside, which makes her seem disinterested or lazy, but I found myself enjoying the removed perspective and trying to piece together her off-screen and unspoken efforts. Harrison Gilbertson (Picnic at Hanging Rock) has an interesting challenge as well. Playing the distracted genius can be tiresome, but Gilbertson manages, by the end, to give us a shade of something new.

As purely a voice, Simon Maiden (The Dressmaker) imbues our nascent AI with a subtle personality. Stem is neither human nor too removed to keep it from becoming a character. There is a sense of HAL, but Maiden makes Stem very much his own. And, finally, there is Benedict Hardie’s (Hacksaw Ridge) neo-Nazi-ish villain. Here is where Whannell could have done a bit more. Hardie’s performance is well directed, keeping him from going to extreme, though his first scene is somewhat misleading on that point. But the character’s motivations and drive, though stated, never feel quite true. Some of that is on the script and some on the direction, but a better set of choices could have elevated this unexpected low-budget flick a couple more notches.

You do have to like violent, splatter-filled moments (not many, but enough of them) to enjoy this ride. It has the feeling of a video-game at times, but not so much that it breaks the story or the sense of the film. The story is actually engaging and the pace swift, even humorous at times, without short-changing the experience of the plot. Yes, there are some shortcuts, but most are given reasons not just shrugged off, and very little is too easy for our main character. And, yes, this one is dark, so keep that in mind as well.

Stem is not for everyone, but I have to admit I’m glad I got to see it and I’m glad it got a wider release than a non-traditional film like this normally would; definitely alternative popcorn fare for the right audience. And, perhaps most importantly, it is something new, not a sequel or prequel or reboot…and how many of those are we getting this year?

Upgrade

Tragedy Girls

[ 3 stars]

A bit like Heathers gone even a little bit madder, with a touch of Final Girls and any CW show thrown in. Brianna Hildebrand (Deadpool 2) and Alexandra Shipp (Love, Simon) really take the screen and shake it by the neck with confidence in this very dark comedy; this is their film. I can’t say you are cheering them on through their story, but you do watch with a certain amount of dark glee as they exercise and improve their skills.

The duo are helped along by a few familiar faces and many new ones. Chief among the known supporting cast are Kevin Durand (The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones) and Jack Quaid (Rampage). Durand gets to have a bit of fun, though it isn’t much of a stretch for him. And Quaid gives us a perfect boy-next-door against Hildebrand’s brand of psychosis. There are a host of other familiar faces if you’re looking, and they all help the story succeed, but the movie is really focused around them.

Director and co-writer Tyler MacIntyre (Patchwork) slaughters the slasher genre with glee and verve. It isn’t that we haven’t seen similar approaches before, but this one is solid from beginning to end, and probably a bit too raw for a lot of audiences. However, if you like your nearly believable gooey endings with humor, you’ll enjoy the ride of this blood fest. What it has to say about society and current culture, well, that’s a discussion for another day, but certainly one worth having. But for an evening of evil popcorn munching, this is a fun and well-done choice.

Tragedy Girls

Blade of the Immortal (Mugen no jûnin)

[3 stars]

Violence? Check. Dark comedy? Check? Crazy choreography? Check? Bizarre story? Check.

Blade is a manga adaptation (not to mention anime), and the dark humor and violent sensibility of that form are very present; right in director Takashi Miike’s (The Happiness of the Katakuris) wheelhouse. Blade adds another notch in his fluid and prolific opus.

This movie is never going to be a classic, nor is it something I need to see again, but if you enjoy the genre it is a pretty good romp. In some ways it feels like a riff on Kurosawa’s classic re-conceived as The Seven Anti-Samurai.

For a variety of reasons, I had to watch the dubbed version, which was unfortunate. The voices are off and mixed poorly (not unusual). But it is also a workable option once you settle into the story if you don’t want to get whiplash reading the rapid subtitles.

And there is a story, if a somewhat unexplained and unresolved one; it is essentially 2.5 hours of carnage and fighting. Despite the thin veneer, Miike does manage to take all his main characters and explain their actions; at least a little. Morality isn’t nearly as black and white as you think when it starts. But neither is there any really deep musing on the choices or philosophical meaning explored. But did you really expect there to be?

Blade of the Immortal

Altered Carbon

[4 stars]

Altered Carbon is solid science fiction. This also means it has struggled to find an audience. If you want real science fiction set in worlds that have been thought through and, sure, with plenty of violence and skin, you need to see and support it, or we’ll lose another opportunity.

This series was ably adapted for Netflix by Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island, Terminator: Genisys), based on Morgan’s award winning book. The world has some holes and gaps, but it is a believable society based on how the tech affected it. The show also has some incredibly complex plotlines going through it. In fact, probably a bit too complicated at times…the last couple of episodes have to rush to the end with a lot of rapid exposition to fill in the answers that are being revealed.

Driving the action, Joel Kinnaman (Suicide Squad) puts in one of his better performances. Alongside him is a kickass detective played by Martha Higareda (Royal Pains). A slew of great minor characters are around them, but it is their show through and through. Worth calling out, though, are Chris Conner’s delightfully weird and fun Poe and Dichen Lachman’s (Dollhouse) powerful and complex Reileen.

Adult science fiction is rare off the big screen (and not particularly prevalent on the big screen either). Typically, what is offered is something between Star Trek and Game of Thrones. In other words, something that may tackle tough issues, but usually in watered down or palatable ways without actually working through the true implications of the world that was created or the consequences of actions. Flash and action often substitute for actual logic and plot.

There are some exceptions. Humans is a current show that tries to tackle and deal with the implications of AI. Sense8, as well, took on a world altered by the possibility of gestalt entities. Farscape tackled an empire structured society with significant biotech. But, more often than not, you end up with something more like Stargate, Orphan Black, or The Walking Dead, all highly entertaining, but not good science fiction.

So, if you want the real stuff (with a bit of HBOness to it, without the HBO) jump on Altered Carbon so we can get another season. Even if we don’t, this 10 ep run is self-contained enough to not leave you hanging, but there is so much more to explore if they’re given the time to do so.

Altered Carbon

Tag (Riaru onigokko)

[3 stars]

When Tag kicks off, there is a familiarity to the scene of Japanese girls on a school trip, having a pillow fight, and generally being silly. That is until the blood starts flying. Well, that’s not too unusual in Japanese horror either. At that point you’re sure it is going to be in the vein of Battle Royale. However, it doesn’t quite go there either.

Instead, writer/director Shion Sono creates a surreal world where running and pillow fights become driving symbols in a shifting landscape. Yes there is carnage… massively over-the-top carnage, but there is also emotion. And, more impressively as the story continues, some serious directing chops holding it all together despite the genre and any assumptions that may bring with it.

Tag is a film about not only the human condition, but also about the nature of reality, fate, and life generally. It isn’t a philosophical treatise by any stretch, but neither is it completely empty mayhem. It all builds to a purpose and a point.

Reina Triendl, in particular, gives us a focus and a connection for the story. She draws you in with her innocence and desperation, as well as her strength and determination in the face of overwhelming insanity. Her counterparts, with Sono’s guidance, in Mariko Shinoda and Erina Mano carry that torch well which pulls it all together. Yuki Sakurai, Ami Tomite, and Aki Hiraoka all deliver too. Most of these young women have worked with Sono in the past and their c.v.s are almost entirely unknown to US viewers, but they are worth keeping an eye on. For all of its absurdity, the success of this movie is down to their commitment and interactions.

If you enjoy Japanese horror, this is a bit unusual and worth seeing. I was expecting gooey silliness given its write up, but it really is meatier and more interesting than you might expect.

Tag

Blood Glacier

Yes, it is time for silly again. I needed some silly, and boy could I find it. You gotta love the hyperbole in a title like this one. I mean: Blood! Glacier! It is everything you’d expect, and perhaps just a little bit more. This crazy B-flick is an unabashed riff on The Thing, but with a more environmental message. The result: an over-the-top environmental horror.

It isn’t as bad as you’d expect with that set-up. There is some actual attempt in the script to make it all seem a bit more realistic. Of course it uses a lot of shortcuts, bad science, and even worse science characters. But it moves along crisply, has some amusing f/x, and doesn’t apologize for any of its predictability or its genre.

In its favor, it isn’t all splatter. A few of the characters are entertaining and even have a bit of a real story to go with them. It also has a couple strong female characters. And there is, of course, a twist(ish) ending; that’s the genre and you can see it coming for miles. There is an aspect to the plot which I did find a tad objectionable, but I understand why it was there and why it had to be such a strong choice. Still, I suspect many folks will cringe when it is revealed as it weakens one of the characters particularly badly.

I do suggest seeing it with the subtitles rather than the dub. I checked out the dub (evil curiosity) and it was really pretty bad. For a rainy night or just a silly afternoon, I kinda enjoyed this film, but this isn’t  a movie for everyone… but for those who it is for, you know who you are.

Blood Glacier

Witching & Bitching (Las brujas de Zugarramurdi)

Imagine From Dusk till Dawn in Spanish … and with witches rather than vampires… and you have some sense of this horror mash-up. It manages to ride the line of dark humor and midnight horror well, never quite flying off the rails of the genre it has embraced. And within that boundary it succeeds. That is a credit to director/co-writer Álex de la Iglesia (Oxford Murders). A more general assessment of it would be considerably less kind, but it isn’t pretending to swim in the big pool.

The acting is, by design, broad and unrealistic. This allows for a considerable amount of slapstick humor as well as situational. Eventually it provides the bedrock for the insanity that is the final act. Though full of well-awarded actors, only Javier Botet (Mama) had hit my radar before, and he is more often than not loaded down with heavy make-up so you could be forgiven for not recognizing him in this or previous roles.

Witching is a movie for popcorn lovers of horror. But, be warned, the subtitling is rapid fire. If your Spanish is strong, no problem. If it is weak or non-existent, prepare for a marathon. The movie is also full of splatter and intentional grotesqueries. It is a fun run, but not a brilliant one. It does really try to have complete throughlines, motivations, and plot at least. Sit down expecting nothing more than entertainment and you’ll likely have enough fun to make it worth your time.

Witching & Bitching

The Girl With All the Gifts

You have to respect a horror film that really considers the biology and implications of their conceits. Zombie films, in particular, tend to be rather silly, even when fun. It has been a long while since I’ve seen a world where the science was derived from real life and thought through to give us a plot. Think 28 Days Later or Pitch Black (or even to some degree The Great Wall). Girl is a plague story with planned and realistic motivations, and with a script that doesn’t insult the viewer. In fact it goes places and considers issues with an incredible intelligence that belies its gory genre.

At the head of it all is the diminutive Sennia Nanua in her first major role. Expect to see more of her. She is confident and layered in her performance in a way that few young actors can achieve. She is supported by a talented adult cast as well. Paddy Considine (Miss You Already), Gemma Arterton (The Voices), Fisayo Akinade (Cucumber), and Glenn Close (The Great Gilly Hopkins) round out the main cast and become Nanua’s way to understand her world.

I have to believe that part of the reason for the success of this picture is the wide range of material under the directorial belt of Colm McCarthy. He does a great job of revealing the world and focusing the performances for Carey’s adaptation (of Carey’s own novel), navigating the genre without losing its humanity. McCarthy also understands the rhythms needed, keeping the emotional intelligence and human moments suitably calm so that the explosions of violence have impact. Even where it is predictable it is often unpredictable or satisfyingly complete; it never feels cheap. It is a rare that a director doesn’t give in to the histrionics and clichés in established horror tropes.

If you are looking for something fun and intelligent, this is your bowl of popcorn. It is full of action as well as thought and is every bit as good as you may have been hearing. If it weren’t for the genre, you’d probably have heard a whole heck of a lot more about it.

The Girl with All the Gifts

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse

star2star2

Oh, the wasted promise of this film. It really had potential. In fact, as it started out I though it might be for Cloris Leachman (The Wedding Ringer) what Lake Placid was for Betty White. But, alas, her part is too small. And, overall, it is just a silly movie that never quite gets out of its own way or delivers on the promise of the title despite some good performances.

Tye Sheridan (X-Men: Apocalypse), Logan Miller (Take Me to the River), and Joey Morgan play a triumverate of friends whose bonding began with meeting in the scouts at a young age. Of course, they’re older now and some are ready to move on.

There are, naturally, some females in the mix to prompt our hormone laden lads with some incentive. Sarah Dumont provides a serious kick-ass character who helps guide the boys to being men. And Halston Sage (Goosebumps) has a sweet role as an older sister, if not exactly a strong woman.

Director and co-writer Landon (Disturbia) kept things grounded most of the time. But, like Lazer Team, it kept overstepping the mark for me and rarely had surprises to offer. It also never quite figured out who its audience was: young adolescent boys or a more general audience. Aspects like the running joke that is David Koechner (Krampus) just got tiresome and never really paid-off because it was both too convenient and too silly.  And, though scouting is central to the theme and story, the idea of “always be prepared” and survival skills never get their showcase except in the most oblique way. 

For a rainy Saturday afternoon or a late-night, slightly altered experience, it wouldn’t be bad with popcorn and libation. As a pure flick, it just doesn’t quite have the chops.

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse

Tucker & Dale vs. Evil

star2star2star2

In a year that included Deadpool and Final Girls, which were both wonderfully subversive backlashes to their genres, Tucker & Dale sits comfortably, if not as ably, as its antecedents.

This crazy tale of misunderstanding, economic divide, and classism is driven primarily by the insanely prolific Alan Tudyk (Maze Runner) and Tyler Labine (Rise of Planet of the Apes). The two are a perfect buddy pair just trying to survive a really, really bad day. The two are joined by Katrina Bowden (30 Rock) who is as comfortable with prat-fall as she is being an ingenue.

By design the feeling is over-the-top and everyone is just a bit pushed. Jesse Moss however, as the main nemesis, is a bit too much so. He needs to be out there, but sometimes it felt like he was in an entirely different movie. Perhaps that is unfair given the intent, but comedy horror is never easy to balance, and this is one spot where it was a little off and where aspects of it could have been covered by story (for example, overuse of steroid based inhaler making him nuttier than usual). He was, to be fair, consistent, so I can’t fault his effort.

I will say that first-time feature director and co-writer Craig navigates the dangerous cliffs of comedic horror with tongue solidly in cheek, and still manages to make a good back-woods slasher flick that evokes Wrong Turn. Clearly fond of the genre and the tropes, he makes fun of them consciously and openly in the scenes and dialogue, which helps with the sense of reality. His sense of structure, though, isn’t quite fully satisfying. The opening and the closing of the film don’t quite work together, but he does seem to know when to end a joke, which helps the whole not collapse in on itself.

It is a gooey sort of laugh-fest but, if you can stomach that kind of thing, you’ll have a rather good time in this lake-side slasher comedy.