Directed by: Leigh Whannell
Run time: 100 minutes
The Lowdown: First things first, Upgrade, the latest retro-blast of drive-in cool from writer-director Leigh Whannell (Saw) is a huge step-up from his last film, the woeful Insidious: The Last Key, and a major improvement for leading man Logan Marshall-Green, following his rightfully-maligned co-starring turn in Prometheus.
Upgrade sets exactly the right tone from its opening frames. We’re in a time not too far off from the present. Technology has continued to evolve. Human beings have continued to lose themselves in virtual realities. And technological enhancements and brain-body modifications are now the norm.
Marshall-Green plays Grey Trace, whose wife was brutally murdered, a collateral victim in a vicious street war. The shooting left Grey paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair.
Grey eventually meets billionaire inventor Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), a kind-of less offensive Elon Musk, who lives in an underground fortress amid all of his experiments.
In one super cool sequence, Keen shows off his latest endeavor where he is trying to essentially build a cloud. A fucking cloud!
Keen has developed the equivalent of K.I.T.T. from Knight Rider, only instead of a smart car, he has created STEM, a smart system that can control a person’s actions and responses, including motor functions, once it is inserted into their body.
While it takes a bit for Upgrade to find its sure footing, once the STEM chip is implanted into Grey, the movie magically morphs into a captivating progression of high-concept, science fiction thrills.
With STEM talking to Grey in his head, and eventually assuming control of Grey’s reflexes, Grey is able to leave the wheelchair behind and display amazing skills as a nimble fighting threat.
“Did you see that?” he asks one attacker. “You thought I was an invalid; meanwhile, I’m a fucking ninja.”
Grey’s main nemesis throughout Upgrade is a cadre of enhanced solider henchmen who have had automatic weapons embedded in their arms. Yes, Virginia, arm guns are wicked cool.
Whannell gets mad props for fully embracing his most out-there inspirations, and Marshall-Green, for his part, makes you believe that with the flip of an internal switch, Grey can instantly transform from a defenseless paraplegic to a kick-ass cyborg.
In one of the best sequences of the movie, Grey has to wait for STEM to reboot. As viewers hear STEM say, “It’s nice to be back, Grey,” Marshall-Green launches into an insane series of backflips and ninja kicks, grabbing one henchman’s arm-gun, breaking it and spinning the arm cannon around to disintegrate the bad guy’s face.
And Upgrade smartly plants Easter eggs throughout, including a nice shout-out to Whannell’s co-conspirator and co-creator of Saw, Dead Silence and the Insidious franchise, James Wan.
Upgrade is exactly the kind of B-movie we need more of in the multiplex. It’s fast-paced, entertaining and derivative-free.
The Stuff You Care About:
Hot chicks – Yes.
Nudity – No.
Gore – Cyborg destruction.
Drug use – No.
Bad Guys/Killers – Corporate overlords.
Buy/Rent – Buy it.
Brainscan (Shout! Factory, 96 minutes, R, Blu-Ray): Given that Se7en is tied for my all-time favorite movie, one might think that I would have absorbed everything ever written by Andrew Kevin Walker.
Well, now that I’ve finally seen 1994’s Brainscan, I can say that I have.
Brainscan is a solid throwback to early-90’s horror. It’s the kind of film that you would expect a Culkin to star in, but instead we get Edward Furlong (Terminator 2: Judgment Day) as Michael, a tech-whiz-kid obsessed with creepy videogames who gets cajoled by his best friend into trying out Brainscan, a fully-immersive virtual experience.
As an aside, I always like looking at the walls of movie teenagers to see what band and film posters are displayed. For Michael’s room, he has a poster for The Replacement’s Pleased to Meet Me album, which I’m firmly convinced is some kind of unspoken, universal criteria to designate a film teen as a ‘cool kid,’ especially back in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
As directed by John Flynn (Rolling Thunder, Out for Justice), Brainscan really thrives or dies on how you feel about The Trickster (T. Ryder Smith), its central menace, who enjoys a solid introduction with the requisite circa-1980’s electricity volts crisscrossing his body whenever he appears or disappears.
For me, arriving to the party late, The Trickster is what I would imagine Drop Dead Fred might be, if he was a wholly evil maniac. He’s not terribly scary, but he gets the job done.
Crazy Six (MVD Visual, 94 minutes, R, Blu-Ray): Fans of cult director Albert Pyun (Cyborg, The Sword and the Sorcerer) may not remember this 1997 oddity, which boasts the remarkable pairing of Rob Lowe, Burt Reynolds and Ice-T, but it’s worth a watch, if only to marvel at Lowe’s awful handlebar mustache.
Blast (MVD Visual, 105 minutes, R, Blu-Ray): Yet another, ahem, blast from the past Albert Pyun archives, Blast is supposedly based on what might have happened following a terrorist bombing in Atlanta, Georgia (the film was released in 1997, a year after the Atlanta Olympics bombing).
Pyun wrote the film under a pseudonym, Hannah Blue, which has used frequently during his career, but it lacks the campy and surreal hallmarks of his best work. Blast is a straight-up, low-budget rip-off of Die Hard (look at the poster, which prominently features a high-rise under siege) that focuses on former martial arts champ Jack Bryant (Linden Ashby, Mortal Kombat), who now works maintenance following a career-ending leg injury.
Jack is assigned to clean the Atlanta Aquatic Center (not a high-rise office building), which is set to host the Olympics swimming competition. You know that it’s the Atlanta Aquatic Center because there’s a narrow, paper banner stating as much, affixed to the outside of the building (yes, Virginia, this is proof of budgetary restrictions).
Essentially, a group of terrorists infiltrate the aquatic center – while it’s empty, and just before the U.S. swim team is set to practice – and threaten to detonate a series of explosive devices.
Longtime genre bad guy Andrew Divoff plays the leader of the terrorists. Rutger Hauer shows up to help save the day. And Tim Thomerson has a blink-and-miss appearance as the Atlanta police commissioner.
Just because a movie was directed by an acclaimed cult director doesn’t mean that it’s a long-lost classic, and Blast exemplifies this in full. It's plodding, predictable and pedestrian, at best.
Autumn in New York
NCIS: Los Angeles Season 9
Mohsen Makhmalbaf: The Poetic Trilogy
Bram Stoker’s Shadowbuilder: Special Edition
Criminal Minds: The Thirteenth Season
Now on Video-on-Demand:
Apocalypse Rising (Giant Meteor Films, 83 minutes, Unrated, Video-on-Demand): There’s really no way to properly explain Apocalypse Rising other than this:
If you ever wondered what a movie about a not-so-advanced race of space aliens (who look and act human) who travel to Earth to procreate and who also might have among them the new Messiah looks like, then your prayers have been answered.
This is high-brow entertainment at its finest (insert sarcasm).
The film opens with a battle on a dying planet with two groups of people, some who wear military tactical gear and others who wear togas, yet all have access to space ships.
A ragtag band of survivors escapes and rockets away from Rathe (I think that’s the name of the dying planet). They go into stasis sleep without individual pods, which means the actors simply let their chins all fall forward to their chests and pretend to snore.
There’s a bizarre dream sequence (or premonition) with zombies, a guy with a donkey (who I think is supposed to be Joseph leading Mary to the manger) and the bloody birth of a zombie baby Christ. I'm also pretty sure the survivors' spaceship is meant to be the North Star.
Then the space ship lands on Earth circa 2074, except the first two people the survivors encounter are two teen-aged girls who immediately want to sex up the alien survivors, which is good because one of them announces that they came to Earth to fuck!
The main toga girl (whose dad on Rathe looked like a poor man’s Bruce Willis) keeps having visions of a Christ-like figure on a cross.
There’s a bunch of battles, which honestly I almost fell asleep during.
And then toga girl is revealed to be the new Christ. Seriously. People start praying to her and she starts allowing her followers to kill anyone who threatens them without fear of eternal damnation.