Saturday, September 22, 2018

Movie Reviews: Upgrade, Detective Story

directed by Leigh Whannell
This is a low budget sci-fi/thriller film that takes some very old tropes and ideas and wraps them up in fresh packaging to build an entertaining story. The film loses some steam in the middle. I think that the viewer will sooner rather than later pick up on the story twists and ending. But getting there was still fun. Some human fears and worries are consistent across time and space. I remember when my maternal grandfather led evening prayers he would always thank God for giving him and his another day of health and life. I didn't then appreciate my grandfather's emotions. After all most nine year-olds have little concept of aging, tiredness, body decline, disease, and death. But now, all these years later I can understand my grandfather's gratitude. I was reminded of that because one theme of Upgrade is how quickly and randomly our health or lives can be taken from us. 

The other important theme in Upgrade is how much we would give to get our health and/or the lives of our loved ones back. Although Upgrade has not a single solitary speck of the supernatural, Upgrade still riffs on deals made with otherworldy entities. The horror author H.P. Lovecraft wrote that wizards should be careful dealing with demons or the dead and to "do not call up any which you cannot put down". Upgrade emphasizes that. The movie nods to authors like Phillip Dick and William Gibson. What is it that makes us human? Can that spark of humanity be isolated and reproduced? Can it be transferred?

In the near future, technology assisted living is widespread. Drone surveillance is ubiquitous. Self-driving vehicles are the norm. Many homes are wired with voice activated technology for resident needs. Some people have computer/robotic enhancements. Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) is an auto mechanic and something of a Luddite. Grey has no bodily enhancements. Grey restores older/classic cars, those without self-driving technology, for millionaires and billionaires who enjoy vintage cars. Grey is married to Asha (Melanie Vallejo). Asha works for a company which specializes in robotics and cybernetics. Asha earns most of the couple's money. 

Grey has no enhancements and has a healthy disdain for excessive technology. After Grey has dropped off a classic vehicle at the home of Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson) the fey anti-social boss of a rival tech company, he and Asha head home. As Asha's car is self-driving Asha and Grey decide to have a little marital backseat boogie fun time on their way home. 

But before the couple can really get down to business and see paradise by the dashboard light their vehicle malfunctions. The car drives itself into the bad part of town, before speeding up and flipping over. People drag the couple from the wreckage. The gang shoots Asha and Grey. Asha dies; Grey becomes a quadriplegic. But all is not lost. Eron has a new experimental implant. This tech, which Eron calls STEM, should be able to amplify and rewire the commands that Grey's brain used to send out to his body. In short STEM will act as a bridge, allowing Grey to walk again. 

But Grey will need to keep this a secret. STEM is not fully tested or FDA approved. Not wanting to spend his remaining days watching his muscles rot or getting sponge baths from his mother (Linda Cropper), Grey accepts Eron's offer. Post surgery, Eron discovers that not only does he have full bodily functions again, but STEM (Simon Maiden) can make him greater than before. Cue Six Million Dollar man intro. There are no apparent side effects! Filled with new purpose Grey starts to track down his wife's murderers. 

The police officer assigned to Grey's case. Cortez (Betty Gabriel). is at first sympathetic but then suspicious as Grey is seen around murder scenes. You may think that this sounds like a run of the mill revenge movie. It's not. This is a sci-fi movie that investigates what is reality and what makes us human. You've seen the story before in other frameworks. I thought this film was a well done riff on the theme. 

Detective Story
directed by William Wyler
This is a very good Oscar nominated noir 1951 film which was pretty daring for its time not only in terms of its subject matter but also in its evisceration of certain expectations between men and women. 

Detective Story shows that whatever the day's current controversy may be your grandparents and their grandparents and everyone before them had to answer some of the same moral questions you face. People don't really change that much. Detective Story examines the idea of doing unto others as you would do unto them. Often people view forgiveness as something only done or even considered by the weak. Certainly in modern movies and in the culture that movies reflect, people do not usually consider forgiveness as admirable or heroic. Detective Story reminded me of the Tolkien quote from The Lord of The Rings : "Many who live deserve death. And some who die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment."

Anything beyond a brief plot description would involve spoilers so let's make this short. You just need to know that Detective Story follows a day in the life of Detective Jim McLeod (Kirk Douglas in full he-man mode) a real alpha male detective in NYC's 21st precinct. McLeod hates criminals. He lacks mercy or nuance. McLeod won't hesitate to put hands on bad guys. He's obsessive about arresting and charging criminals. McLeod's Knight Templar attitude comes from bad experiences with his criminal father. McLeod is hard nosed at work; he's soft with his beautiful wife Mary (Eleanor Parker). The couple can't get enough of each other. Their love is noticed and admired by McLeod's fellow police officers. 

McLeod has long been hounding a doctor named Schneider (George MacReady), who operates outside of the law. McLeod hasn't always played fair in his pursuit, something that worries both his partner and his boss. Just as he seemingly triumphs over Schneider, McLeod learns that Schneider has information that may change McLeod's perspective.

Douglas makes this movie work. Douglas inhabits this role, bringing the swagger, aggressiveness and menace needed in the first portion of the movie as well as the pathos, frustration, and desire which must be shown in the film's second half. There is a gritty realism to Detective Story. Most events take place in the precinct station house. The movie looks like a play but often feels like a documentary. The men are sweaty, tired and often in bad moods which they take out on each other and occasionally any prisoners. Some cops, despite their cynicism and roughness, still have a soul. Does McLeod still have his? 

William Bendix, Gladys George, Lee Grant, and Cathy O'Donnell also have roles. You should see this film.
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