Reviews

REVIEW: Upgrade (2018)

After a brutal attack that leaves his wife (Melanie Vallejo) dead and himself a quadriplegic, Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) feels his life isn’t worth living. When an artificial intelligence implant called STEM is offered to him, Grey is able to move again and with his newfound abilities he seeks revenge for his wife’s murder.

Upgrade is really clever while never being obnoxious with it. The basic premise is something we’ve all seen before – having a man seek revenge/justice for his wife/girlfriend/family’s murder is the starting point for so many action/thriller films. With Upgrade it it takes that starting point and takes it to new and interesting places.

Upgrade is set in the new future where technology is so advanced. There are self-driving cars, smart houses, and the integration between humans and machinery seen as the norm. Grey is a guy who prefers to not rely on technology and to build things himself, so when he’s suddenly put in the position where he’s near enough defenceless without technology it makes things challenging for him as he has to relearn his body – both when he’s paralysed and when he can suddenly move again thanks to STEM.

STEM is like its own character. Grey can here its voice in his head and they have these conversations, discussing how to find the people who killed his wife. Stem can also take complete control of Grey’s body which lead to some very violent and innovative fight sequences. They really are great, and Marshall-Green does a great job as his body is moving robotically but brutally but the expressions on his face (which he always has complete control over) are often scared, confused and shocked by what he’s doing. His performance is all around great as you can clearly see the difference between not only when STEM has control and not, but also how Grey was before the attack.

Upgrade is a great revenge action flick but it’s also one of those films that has a decent amount of substance to it. In this world where reliance on technology is so great, there’s ethical dilemmas about what Grey has done to his body and how he can allow something to take control of it. And even outside of Grey’s situation the little bits of world-building that show how everyone is reliant on technology, surveillance and AI is interesting.

Upgrade is tense and thrilling and the action sequences really stand out due to how well they’re shot and how creative they are. The violence is sometimes pretty gruesome so be aware of that, but it’s also surprisingly funny thanks to the dynamic between Grey and STEM. Upgrade really is one of those films that you hear a load of great stuff about, and it does indeed live up to the hype. 4/5.

REVIEW: Fast Colour (2018)

After years in hiding, Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is forced to go on the run when her superhuman abilities are discovered. Years after abandoning her mother Bo (Lorraine Toussaint) and her young daughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney), the only place Ruth has left to hide is with them.

The three generations of this family all have abilities and while there’s similarities between them, they each have a different level of control to them. The abilities themselves, to break things down and rebuild them, to see the colours of the universe, for being a mythology that’s so different from the big blockbuster superhero films we are used to seeing, it’s explained well and it is captivating.

Fast Colour is one of those quiet sci-fi films. It’s a film about superpowered characters, but their abilities are not really the driving force of this story, instead it’s the relationships. It’s the moments where you get to see these three people just inhabit the same space that really work. There’s a static shot of the kitchen and slowly the three of them come in at different moments, easily moving around one another as they make breakfast together that hits home how even though Ruth hasn’t been with her mother and daughter for so long, they’re still a family and are connected to one another.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw is the standout here. Her guilt, fear and regret when it comes to how she acted in the past towards her family is palpable and I would say she gives a star performance, but to be honest she’s been giving great performances for years and it’s everyone else who needs to take notice. Lorraine Toussaint is also great. Her world weariness and desire to do anything to keep her family safe, her calm guidance when it comes to trying to teach her daughter and granddaughter their abilities, it all hides a pillar of strength and power more than those who’d seek to harm her daughter could imagine.

Fast Colour is just a beautiful film about familiar ties and inner strength. It has a beautiful and often haunting score by Rob Simonsen, that compliments the open, deserted spaces of a middle America where so many people are struggling. Fast Colour is a striking and impressive film, and it’s one that’s likely to stick with me for a while. 4/5.

REVIEW: All In: The Fight for Democracy (2020)

Documentary about the history of America’s democracy, how people gained and lost the right to vote, and the barriers to voting that so many Americans face today thanks to voter suppression.

Honestly, as a someone born and raised in the UK it really blows my mind how difficult it is for Americans to vote. I have never spent more than a couple of minutes at a poling station, with no more than three people in front of me waiting to vote in the five General Elections I’ve been able to vote in – never mind the local elections I’ve participated in.

Stacey Abrams, who ran for Governor of Georgia in 2018, is a big part of this documentary and her story almost bookends the film. At the beginning you learn a little about her upbringing and how her parents made sure she and her siblings knew how important voting is, and then the last part of the film sees more about her run for office, how that turned out and how it serves as an example of the damage voter suppression can do.

I learnt so much about the American voting system from All In: The Fight for Democracy. One thing that really surprised me was how after the Civil War and Black men were able to vote, there were Black senators in the late 1800s and, knowing about the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s and how the majority of Black people were unable to vote in Southern states I couldn’t comprehend how things went backwards in 80 years. But, All In: The Fight for Democracy showed how a similar thing happened after Obama was elected in 2008; as soon as people who don’t fit the “traditional” mould start getting power and influence, those who want to keep the status quo get to work. Honestly, I spent a lot of time watching All In: The Fight for Democracy in awe of the cruelty and underhand way people have tried (and succeeded) to prevent people from voting.

Today there’s the strict use of voter ID, polls closing, gerrymandering, voter intimidation and purging the electoral roll. All of these things make it a lot difficult for people to vote, but Black people, Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans, poor people and young people are disproportionately affected. Naturally if voting is hard or people don’t know their rights, they will eventually stop trying and then they will lose their voice and ability to say who governs them.

All In: The Fight for Democracy is an important and impactful documentary. With historians, authors, lawyers, politicians, activists and academics explaining how and why voter suppression is happening, and how communities can fight against it, it’s a rousing film. It makes you feel equally infuriated and inspired but it doesn’t shy away from the realities of what is happening in America and how all citizens voting rights are in danger and the difficulties that lie ahead in trying to once again level the playing field for all American voters. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Kyrgyzstan: Jamilia by Chingiz Aïtmatov

Translated by James Riordan.

Jamilia’s husband is off fighting at the front. She spends her days hauling sacks of grain from the threshing floor to the train station in their small village in the Caucasus, accompanied by Seit, her young brother-in-law, and Daniyar, a sullen newcomer to the village who has been wounded on the battlefield. Seit observes the beautiful, spirited Jamilia spurn men’s advances, and wince at the dispassionate letters she receives from her husband, while she also draws closer to Daniyar.

Jamilia is a very short book at around 90 pages and it’s just one long chapter. Jamilia is told from Seit’s perspective and he narrates the story in the first person. It’s a simple story in terms of plot, a young woman in a small farming community potentially finds a better and stronger love while her husband is away, and in terms of writing. The writing is so simple that it often reads like Seit is sat with you, telling you the story. That come partly the tenses as sometimes the narrative voice knows more than the present-Seit would.

Considering this book was published in the 1950s, Jamilia herself could almost be described as a manic pixie dreamgirl. Seit is infatuated with her, as are a lot of the other men in the village, and as it’s from Seit’s point of view, you never really get to see much of Jamilia’s personality or her hopes, dreams and desires. You just see her through Seit’s eyes, and his judgement is clouded by his own feelings for her.

Jamilia is one of those books that even though it’s so short it took days to get through. I think that’s because of a few things. One, the story didn’t really grab me, I thought there’d be an illicit romance and more drama when there really wasn’t and it was just a series of events in these farming peoples lives. Two, I thought it’d be from Jamilia’s point of view so you could see her conflict about being drawn to a man who wasn’t her husband and have more of an insight into her seeing she is the titular character. And three, the writing style was so simple it ended up being boring so even when there was something different happening in the plot, I wasn’t really engaged with it.

Looking at Goodreads a lot of people seem to really like this book so maybe I’m in the wrong, or it could be down to the translation. Either way I’m glad to have now crossed off Kyrgyzstan from my Read the World Project.

REVIEW: Vehicle 19 (2013)

Michael Woods (Paul Walker), a parolee, arrives in Johannesburg to reconnect with his ex-wife but when he unknowingly picks up a rental car that has kidnapped whistleblower Rachel Shabangu (Naima McLean) in the boot, he becomes entangled with the corrupt local police.

Vehicle 19 is one of those one location films and this one takes place in a car. It’s in a similar vein to Locke (2013) and Wheelman (2017) however with Vehicle 19 the camera never leaves the inside of the car. While Michael may briefly leave the car, the camera stays stationary. This technique is a double-edged sword really. It’s supposed to rack up tension as you are in a tight space with the main character with no escape, but equally some thing’s end up repetitive as you’re forced to see the action happening at a distance through the car windows.

Paul Walker does a good job carrying the film, giving a solid performance. His character wants nothing to do with Rachel and the trouble he’s now involved in and seeing him go from self-centred to determined to do what’s right feels like it’s earnt. Rachel and Michael’s dynamic ends up being really interesting and something I wish we’d seen more of. The fact that Michael is kind of a fish out of water works well too, both in terms of the politics of the city and just knowing about the layout of the city. He is clearly a skilful driver, but he doesn’t know Johannesburg at all so is often forced to ask for directions or go back on himself as he races through the streets.

Corrupt police officers are nothing new in film, but Vehicle 19 does manage to pull a few surprises with the genre. The car chases are often exciting though sometimes restrictive in terms of how the action is shown.

At just over 80 minutes Vehicle 19 does go by at a good pace and, after more character stuff at the beginning, the action beats are hit steadily. Vehicle 19 is a decent thriller and though its unusual filming style makes it stand out a little more than the generic action film it could’ve been, it’s still not something that’s super memorable. 3/5.

REVIEW: 30 Days of Night (2007)

After the Alaskan town of Barrow is plunged into darkness for a month, it is attacked by a bloodthirsty gang of vampires and survivors, led by Sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett), fight to survive the next thirty days until the sun comes up again.

30 Days of Night is a great vampire film and it’s also a great apocalyptic survival film. The film begins with many of the townsfolk moving away for the month as thirty days without sunlight is enough to put anyone on edge, nevermind throwing vampires into the mix. As people move out, Eben is called to investigate more and more weird occurrences and soon it becomes clear that something is trying to cut the town off from the rest of the world. When the sun goes down, it’s clear why that’s the case.

The film quickly sets up Eben as the lead and introduces various townsfolk and the people who are most important to him; his grandmother (Elizabeth McRae), his younger brother Jake (Mark Rendall) and his ex-wife Stella (Melissa George). As the sun sets and the vampires attack, things get very gruesome very quickly.

The initial attack on the town is brilliant. It’s very suspenseful and does the jump scares just right. There’s also a great overhead view of the town that shows the devastation these vampires are causing, pools of blood on the snow, people trying to escape before being struck down, and the echoes of screams.

The vampires themselves are very creepy and effective. They are all dressed really smartly but then they have pale skin, black eyes and a load of blood coating their faces and hands. Danny Huston plays the leader of the vampires and he is an intimidating presence whenever he’s on screen. Admittedly I often find Danny Huston menacing in films as I think I’ve only ever seen him play the bad guy, but adding fangs, long nails and blood into the mix makes him even more menacing.

There are time jumps, as seeing the whole thirty days would make a very long film, and it shows how time has passed with the growth of Josh Hartnett’s beard. The survivors have to decide between whether staying put for the thirty days would be their best option, or do they need to go out for supplies and maybe move elsewhere to be safer.

30 Days of Night is so effective because normally in vampire (or any monster) films, the humans only need to survive for one night, or generally a much shorter period of time than thirty days. The thirty days adds an extra layer of tension as there’s so many other things that could go wrong. The survivors could be discovered, they could turn on one another, they might run out of supplies – some of these elements could have been explored more but the ones it does touch on are good.

The performances are all great too, naturally the characters closer to Eben are given more to do and development than others, but there’s still some effective character moments. 30 Days of Night is an unsettling vampire/survival film, the score is eerie and adds to the whole creepy vibe of the story and the vampires themselves are some of the most lethal and scary ones I’ve seen for a while. 4/5.

REVIEW: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)

When the brilliant but unorthodox Victor Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh) creates life, it is far more powerful and gruesome than he imagined. After its creator turns his back on him, the Creature (Robert De Niro) escapes and swears revenge.

Much like the Dracula story, the tale of Frankenstein is one I know thanks to popular culture as I had not read the original book. While I knew how Dr Frankenstein reanimated the dead and it all went very wrong, the stuff about Frankenstein’s family, his upbringing, the intricacies to do with his experiments and the Creature was completely new to me.

Have to say I was rather surprised the film started with a crew of explorers running into an iceberg and their ship getting stuck on the ice. I did not know that was a part of the Frankenstein story at all. Still, it’s an eerie opening as there’s the threat of the elements the crew have to deal with before there’s weird noises and a strange figure appearing out of the snow.

As well as having the titular role, Kenneth Branagh also directed this film. His style is all over this with close ups of actors faces, spinning shots and dramatic zooming. The sets and costumes are lush and the house Frankenstein grows up in is suitably eerie when it needs to be thanks to the lighting choices.

Along with his over the top filming techniques, Branagh also gives some over the top acting. He says pretty much all of his lines with so much passion, even when a quieter reaction would better suit what’s happening. Branagh and Helena Bonham Carter’s chemistry is a bit hit and miss and her performance is just as grand.

Robert De Niro as the Creature is unrecognisable. The make up and prosthetics that bring that character to life are incredible and deserve that Oscar nomination. De Niro does well to portray the Creature in a sympathetic light as he is shunned by society and slowly tries to understand people and where he could possible fit with them.

The problem with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is that a lot of the time is spent waiting for something to happen. Especially when you know the basics of the story, you’re waiting for the monster to be created and then you’re waiting for everything to go wrong. The stuff with Victor and his friends and family just isn’t that interesting unfortunately.

All in all I think Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein could make a good double feature with Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Both are classic stories, with gorgeous sets and costumes and both are very dramatic and over the top. Unfortunately for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the exaggerated filming techniques and performances don’t work in its favour and it mostly ends up as a bit of slog to get through. 2/5.

READ THE WORLD – Greece: Three Summers by Margarita Liberaki

Translated by Karen Van Dyck.

Living in a big old house surrounded by a beautiful garden in the countryside outside Athens are Maria, the oldest sister, as sexually bold as she is eager to settle down and have a family of her own; beautiful but distant Infanta; and dreamy and rebellious Katerina. Over three summers, the girls share and keep secrets, fall in and out of love, try to figure out their parents and other members of the tribe of adults, and worry about and wonder who they are.

The majority of Three Summers is told from Katerina’s perspective and in the first person. Though there are the odd chapters from other characters perspectives, mainly the other two sisters, and those are written in the third person so it’s easy to tell when you’re momentarily stepping away from Katerina’s viewpoint.

Three Summers is set in the 1930s before the Second World War and the sisters do all seem to live an idyllic life. At the start of the novel, so during the first summer, they are twenty, eighteen and sixteen. They spend their time lying in the fields, talking to one another about their thoughts and dreams, and also generally getting the attention of the young me they know. They also think about their separated parents and other family dramas. They live with their mother, aunt and grandfather while their father, who is both a banker and an inventor, lives in Athens.

I found Three Summers quite slow going. At times that suited the story as it evokes the feeling of lazy summer days where the days blur into one, but on the other hand it made it more difficult to connect with the characters and on the whole I didn’t really care about them.

Maria was the sister that was the easiest to understand, she knows what she wants and decides who and when she’s going to marry quickly. Infanta is more reserved and at some points I wondered if she was written to be asexual or aromantic because of how distant she was towards the young man who clearly likes her. It could have been natural shyness or nerves but some of her reactions to strong emotions sometimes seemed more extreme for that. Katerina is more bold than her sisters and her curiosity and actions often made her mother despair. She doesn’t seem to fit in this family and while she does say she falls in love with a neighbour, it’s hard to tell if she really has and she’s not using him as a gateway to adventure.

The writing in Three Summers is quite flowery and paints vivid pictures of the old house and the surrounding countryside, but that sort of thing isn’t really for me and it wasn’t keeping my attention by the end of book. Maybe it’s because I did find myself skim reading the last section of the book, which was about the events of the third summer, but I did find it difficult to keep track of some of the friends and neighbours, how they were connected to the sisters and what they thought of them.

Because it’s set just across three summers and is more of a slice of life type story, there are some things that are open ended and potential relationships not yet pursued which is a little frustrating but that’s the nature of this kind of story. Three Summers is a coming of age story and it’s one that fans of period dramas may like a lot. It has the will they/won’t they relationships but with more of a stiff upper lip as young women weren’t allowed to be forthright with their wants in the 1930s.

REVIEW: Shirley (2020)

Famous American horror writer Shirley Jackson (Elizabeth Moss) finds inspiration for her next book after she and her husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg) take in young couple Fred and Rose (Logan Lerman and Odessa Young).

I don’t know anything about Shirley Jackson and haven’t read any of her books, and to be honest after watching Shirley I don’t think I have much more of an idea about who she was. Shirley is a strange take on a biopic. Instead of being a linear story about Shirley Jackson’s life, it’s more of a character study about how she, and to a lesser extent her husband, affect and manipulate a fictional couple who come into their lives.

There are interesting elements to Shirley, but interesting elements don’t necessarily make a compelling film. There’s a lot of extreme closeups on characters faces, tilted angles and some beautiful cinematography but it’s not enough to make the film memorable. The costumes and set design are also striking, as is the frequently intense score, but it often feels like window dressing on a film with a plot that’s just not interesting.

Elizabeth Moss does crazy and intense very well. Her chemistry with Odessa Young is strong as Shirley Jackson turns Rose into her housekeeper/assistant/muse for her latest novel that she’s trying to power through writer’s block to write. Real life merges with the fantasy of Jackson’s would-be novel as scenes from her book play out on screen, with Young portraying the missing girl in the novel.

The relationships between the four characters are supposedly important to the plot of the film but so many of them are pushed to the side that things happen between certain characters so out of the blue it’s jarring. Lerman’s Fred is absent for a lot of the film and his relationship with Rose suffers as she becomes more enamoured with Shirley Jackson. Stuhlbarg’s Stanley is also largely absent but when he does make an appearance, he does have more of an impact. Towards the end of the film Shirley and Stanley’s desires are revealed but because the way the film is put together, where you’re not sure what’s real or what’s fantasy, it’s hard to see the threads that led everything to that conclusion.

Shirley has a powerhouse performance from Elizabeth Moss but the film that surrounds her isn’t as engaging and leaves you feeling a bit confused as to what it was trying to say. 3/5.

REVIEW: The Blair Witch Project (1999)

In October of 1994 three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, while shooting a documentary. A year later their footage was found.

The Blair Witch Project is one of those films that I knew of but hadn’t watched because I am a wuss. I did wonder how effective The Blair Witch Project would be with so much of it has become a part of popular culture and referenced in various other types of media, so I was aware of certain shots and the general story before actually watching it. I’m pleased to say it was still nerve-wracking and creepy.

The pace of The Blair Witch Project is really smart. The opening twenty minutes is the three students talking to residents of Burkittsville, hearing the stories about the Blair Witch and the other weird and horrifying things that have happened in the woods outside town. This sets the tone and makes you expect weird and creepy things to happen, and soon they do.

The trio of filmmakers all give great performances and it’s easy to see why people could believe the events of The Blair Witch Project actually happened. The fear, panic and stress is clear to see and their reactions to the unexplainable events are understandable. Heather is the projects director and she’s the one who is always filming everything and to start with doesn’t seem to mind the creepy things that are happening around them as in her mind it’ll make her documentary even better. She’s joined by Josh, who she knows well, and Mike, who she doesn’t, and as things get weird, tensions rise.

As the trio bicker as they traipse around the woods, getting more and more disorientated, the addition of unexplainable and strange piles of rocks, sounds and bundles of twigs gets everyone feeling anxious and just wanting to go home.

The Blair Witch Project is a classic of the horror genre and it’s the film that really kickstarted the found footage subgenre of films. As someone who very rarely watches horror films in general, never mind the found footage subgenre, The Blair Witch Project is tense and eerie from the outset and all the tropes that are so common now, are effective and unsettling. 5/5.