Reel Life #5: Upgrade, Floating Weeds, and You’re Next

When it came to films, this ended up being an incongruous week. Unlike with video games, I usually don’t go out of my way to see a bad film, so I walk out of most of them with a positive attitude. This suits me just fine when it comes to writing about them, because I’d rather recommend a good film than bash a bad one; indeed, the worst I tend to see are the critical darlings that don’t live up to the hype.  Keeping that in mind, I’m sorry to say that only one of the following films will receive a passing verdict from me this time around.

Upgrade by Leigh Whannell (2018)

Grey Trace is a technophobic mechanic who stays at home. Paradoxically, his wife, Asha, works for the tech company Cobolt. He asks his wife to join him in meeting a client, a tech innovator and head of a rival company named Eron Keen. There, he introduces his latest creation: STEM. It’s a gadget intended to connect to anything and improve on it. He asks if Grey wishes to participate in an experiment, but he refuses. On the way home, their A.I.-controlled car malfunctions, taking them to Grey’s old neighborhood before crashing. They are then jumped by four men who kill Asha and sever Grey’s spinal column. Rendered a quadriplegic, Eron approaches Grey with a proposition. STEM might be capable of bridging the severed spinal column, allowing him to walk once more.

After eventually agreeing to the plan, Grey is stunned when he hears a voice identifying himself as STEM. The A.I. accesses the police files for him, and after replaying footage shot from a police drone, they identify one of the men responsible for Asha’s murder. Grey attempts to inform the police, but STEM realizes they can’t use the information as evidence, as he had signed a non-disclosure agreement with Eron’s company. They then set off to the culprit’s house in search of evidence they can use against him.

The 2010s has proven to be a wildly hit-or-miss decade for sci-fi. It’s easy to say that it has become a lot more ambitious with supporters claiming that it used pioneering iconic works of the eighties as a jumping-off point to explore new ideas. On some level this is true, and there have been a lot of legitimately great works within the decade such as Inception and Arrival that actively challenge their audiences. On the other hand, sci-fi in the 2010s seemed to lose the sense of wonder that could be found even in some of the darkest films of yesteryear. In its stead is a feeling of extreme, naïve pessimism with every other writer convinced the technological advances will bring about humankind’s downfall. Whether it was Ex Machina or Black Mirror, it seemed as though every other work of science fiction had to be a cautionary tale for a vague scenario that may or may not come to pass, and the critics accepted them without question. Some were praised for being prophetic, but I’m unconvinced. If one were to make hundreds of random guesses, chances are at least one of them, no matter how outlandish, is going to be right. Plus, if enough people buy into that pessimism, some of it may even end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Anyway, because of this, I was going into Upgrade with something of a sense of dread. Possibly due to the aforementioned propensity critics have, I’ve learned to be wary of works that hover somewhere around the 86%-94% range on Rotten Tomatoes. Admittedly, I also didn’t see any previews (or if I did, I completely forgot about the film’s existence until I was just about to see it), and I’m not the one to judge a film (or any work) before I’ve experienced it.

So after all of that has been laid out on the table, here comes the big question: what did I think of it? For starters, I really like the setup. The film turns into a freakish combination of “The Six Million Dollar Man and Death Wish” as one critic aptly put it. I also really thought the world itself was intriguing; it features self-driven cars, criminals with guns implanted into their arms, and cybernetic eyes capable of recording what the user sees. In a way, it reminded me of Deus Ex with its numerous augmented humans running around.

Unfortunately, at the end of the day, Upgrade doesn’t escape the trappings of the unduly nihilistic 2010s sci-fi zeitgeist when it proceeds to completely squander all of that goodwill in the final act. The film reminds me a lot of Ex Machina in that it features a twist ending that probably sounded incredible and shocking on paper but comes across as painfully unimaginative in practice. It’s to the point where if somebody made a parody of a typical 2010s sci-fi feature, you’d barely have to change a thing barring a slight tone adjustment. |STEM turns out to have been the main villain all along. He orchestrated everything so he could fuse with a human – hence why Grey’s spinal column was severed. Through a hacker, he is able to take more and more agency away from Grey until the very end where he causes his mind to break. This allows him to take control of Grey’s body and mind completely, killing the officer who was on his trail, thus snuffing out the last hope that anyone could stop him. The film even features that one obnoxious storytelling gimmick you may have seen in countless other works wherein it looks like everything turned out alright for a brief second only to cut back to reality and show that everything has gone to hell. STEM wins – roll credits.|

Over the course of the four years running this site, I have made it no secret that I do not let works with weak endings off the hook just because they start off strong. Sticking the landing is an important skill to have, and it seems to be one contemporary science fiction writers uniformly lack. I can accept someone liking this film, as it does a lot of things right, but I have to say it didn’t do much for me (other allowing me render a negative verdict for the first time in this segment, so there’s that).

Verdict: Not recommended

Floating Weeds by Yasujiro Ozu (1959)

A traveling theater troupe arrives at a seaside town on the Inland Sea in 1958 during a particularly hot summer. The troupe’s lead actor and owner is Komajuro. He leads the troupe through town to publicize their kabuki show. Komajuro visits his former mistress, Oyoshi, who runs an eatery. They have a grown-up son named Kiyoshi, who makes a living at the local post office as a mail clerk. He is saving up money to study at the university. However, he does not know that Komajuro is his father, having been told his entire life that he is his uncle. In light of the ensuing personal issues and a modern-day audience largely uninterested with the troupe’s old-fashioned kabuki style, the future of the troupe doesn’t appear to be a bright one.

Film critic Roger Ebert once wrote a list of his ten favorite films of all time. This is what got me interested in checking out The Third Man earlier this year, but Floating Weeds also happened to be on the list. Contrary to what he believed, I had indeed heard of Yasujiro Ozu before reading his list, though the only film of his I could identify was Tokyo Story, which is considered one of the best films of all time. Either way, this got me interested in checking the film out. Interestingly, Floating Weeds is a remake of one of Mr. Ozu’s earlier works – the silent, black-and-white 1934 film A Story of Floating Weeds. Though silent films had been almost entirely phased out by the early 1930s in the West, Asia notably held onto the style for a few more years. A quarter of a century later, Mr. Ozu decided to remake the film, granting it sound and color, hence Floating Weeds.

One of the greatest things about films is how they capture things in the moment. Floating Weeds manages to succeed at depicting a slice-of-life story set in a post-war Japan. It’s such a simple, introverted film, but it will leave quite an impression on you if you let it. Indeed, the blurb at the top of the poster promises the experience to be a “supreme poetic sentiment overflowing with deep emotion”. In a way, it reminds me of the short films that comprise Dekalog in how it manages to impactful despite having few moving parts. Floating Weeds is highly recommended for those seeking out a good period drama from that era, and for newcomers to Japanese cinema, it would be a great introduction to the scene.

Verdict: Recommended

You’re Next by Adam Wingard (2011)

A woman named Erin accompanies her boyfriend, Crispin Davison to his family reunion in a large vacation house in rural Missouri. Present are Crispin’s parents, Aubrey and Paul, and his siblings, Drake, Felix, and Aimee. Also there are Kelly, Zee, and Tariq – Drake’s wife, Felix’s girlfriend, and Aimee’s boyfriend respectively. Their dinner turns into a heated, passive-aggressive argument, which is soon ended when two crossbow bolts are shot through the nearby window, killing Tariq and wounding Drake. Their attempts at calling the police are in vain when their cell phone signals are jammed by the assailants. With no way to contact the authorities and the house completely surrounded by mask-wearing killers, things are not looking good for the surviving family members.

What got me interested in checking out You’re Next for myself is a bit of a complicated story. It originally debuted at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival to an almost unanimously positive reception, being the first runner up for the People’s Choice Award behind The Raid. It wouldn’t be until August of 2013 that it finally received a wide release. Up until that point, the film sat around a 90% on Rotten Tomatoes. Because I wasn’t in the habit of watching a lot of films in theaters back then, it wound up slipping under my radar. A few years later, an internet personality made a video about it, expressing utter bafflement that the film received such high praise, essentially calling it a practical joke critics pulled on moviegoers. This made me uninterested in seeing until this year when I began watching more films at home. Having watched It Follows the previous week, I thought I might as well give it a chance to see who was in the right.

My conclusion? I think the critics jumped the gun on this one. As of this writing, the film currently sits at a more modest 76% on Rotten Tomatoes, and that’s around where I’d place it myself. This is a textbook example of a film that doesn’t know what it wants to be. There are elements of black comedy littered throughout the film, but they’re so subtle that when I caught on to them, they almost instantly took me out of the film. To make matters worse, this is very much a stereotypical horror film that relies on all of its characters being total idiots. |At one point, Paul thinks a great idea to leave Aubrey alone to cry over the death of Aimee. No points for guessing who dies next. In all honesty, this family practically does half of the job for the killers. The only likable character is Erin, who is the only one who acts with any degree of common sense up until the end when she kills the mastermind, making it nearly impossible to prove his culpability. To be fair, the killers prove to not fare any better in this regard; one gets killed blindly jumping through a window, a second pokes his head through another window, allowing Erin to stab him through the eye, and a third walks toward a flashing camera – a situation that would broadcast to most people that they are walking into a trap.|

And this is what causes the film to sink like a stone; it comes across as though the creators are playing all of these home invasion tropes ironically with the characters stopping just short of winking at the camera. However, in doing so, it’s practically indistinguishable from a straight example of the kind of film they’re trying to parody. I also wasn’t a big fan of Mr. Wingard’s handheld shooting style, as it made certain scenes difficult to follow when the camera seemed to fly all over the place. I can honestly picture people loading this film up on a horror movie night and having fun with it, but I personally find it a tough sell. It’s far from the worst thing I’ve seen this year, but in the end, I feel the work those festival attendees went crazy for just amounts to an incredibly basic home invasion film with a few vaguely clever touches here and there.

Verdict: Ambivalent

4 thoughts on “Reel Life #5: Upgrade, Floating Weeds, and You’re Next

  1. I actually came here to see what you thought of You’re Next, though reading about the other two was definitely interesting. You nailed it with your analysis, though- I enjoyed the movie, but really it was only when Erin was onscreen or doing anything. Every other character was written so poorly or unintelligently that it was hard to empathize or sympathize with them, which is something I feel a lot of recent horror movies lack to their detriment.

    I think home invasion movies always start at a pretty high origin point for fright in general, due to the ability to lean on the “this could happen to you” factor. Most movies I’ve seen in that vein haven’t been as great as critics have made them out to be.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, it really says something about Erin that even people who hate this film like her character. It’s like she came in from a much better film. And you’re right; every other character is either horribly obnoxious or painfully bland – oftentimes both. It’s not terribly surprising that she is the only one who (probably) survives the events of the film.

      To be honest, I actually think the 2010s has proven to be a better decade for horror than sci-fi, though because I tend to only see the most acclaimed films, I can buy that there have been quite a few stinkers.

      As for my take on its critical acclaim, it should be noted that I tend to see films if they get a 80% or higher on Rotten Tomatoes, and when You’re Next got a wide release, I wasn’t actually in the country at that time. I think the reason it slipped under my radar is because by the time I returned, its acclaim (rightly) dropped. If it had a 77% by the time I came back, I wouldn’t have noticed it. Either way, if we’re talking about comedic horror films, I would recommend stuff like Zombieland, Cabin in the Woods and Get Out long before I would come close to suggesting You’re Next.

      Like

  2. Between the font and the way the previews presented themselves, I can’t help thinking Upgrade is somehow connected to the indie game Ruiner, even though logically I know there’s no way. And yet, with your synopsis there… still doesn’t seem that far off.

    Liked by 1 person

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