Tag: harrison gilbertson

In the Tall Grass

In the Tall Grass (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Cal, where are you? …Becky?! …CAL?? …I’M HERE, BECKY! …WHERE ARE YOU??? …OVER HERE! …WHERE??? If watching and listening to people get lost in a field for over half the film is your idea of entertainment, then “In the Tall Grass,” based on the novella by Stephen King and written for the screen by Vincenzo Natali (who also directs), receives a most enthusiastic recommendation. But should you demand more from a horror film with a curious concept surrounding a piece of land with supernatural powers then stay far away. Spearheaded by an undercooked and misguided screenplay, there is no reason for this movie to be over thirty minutes, let alone a hundred minutes. It is an experience to be endured.

The best horror stories that just so happen to possess science fiction elements tend to have one thing in common: the rules are so watertight that although we are aware of them, we are entertained when they are broken or if they happen to come with crucial footnotes. By providing the audience a set of rules, there is an unwritten contract between the film and the audience. We are tasked to participate. We know, or think we know, what we are in for and so there is a higher chance for us to believe in the universe the filmmakers put forth.

This soulless, brainless, lazy film, on the other hand, is not concerned whether the audience has understanding of the rules. Its approach is to muddle the playing field so often and so brazenly that we find ourselves blindsided by the would-be brilliant twists. I found not one of them to be compelling; in fact, when examined using the picture’s own logic, these fail to make sense.

The opening scene shows siblings Becky (Laysla De Oliviera) and Cal (Avery Whitted) driving to San Diego. Becky is very pregnant and nauseous and so Cal pulls over next to a field facing a church. They hear a boy’s voice (Will Buie Jr.) from the tall grass, begging for help since he is unable to find the way toward the road. It sounds as if he’s been there for hours. Becky and Cal decide to lend a hand, but they, too, find themselves in the same predicament once they are among the grass. They get separated. It seems impossible for them to find one another because the source of their voices does not remain in one spot—even when they are standing still. They become convinced something is terribly wrong. Day turns into night and the supposedly horrific happenings continue. We grow tired of this formula even before the second act begins.

Eventually, we learn there is a mysterious stone in the middle of the field. A father (Patrick Wilson) who also got separated from his family claims that it is ancient, perhaps already there even before the earliest Ice Age. He has touched the stone and is stimulated every time he makes physical contact with it. There are carvings on the stone, but notice that the camera provides only a millisecond glimpse of them. You see, the images hint at what might happen later on should our subjects continue to make terrible mistakes regarding their situation. These carvings are only shown fully once the characters are at their lowest points. This choice, and others like it, stands out to me because it reeks of the filmmakers’ lack of confidence in the material. Or worse:

It is assumed that the audience are idiots, or that we have never seen a horror movie where curious figures actually prove to be important. The correct choice is to show the carvings front and center outright. Once we are equipped with this knowledge, tension is generated almost immediately because we wish for the characters to avoid what appears to be their fates. The lack of common sense from behind the camera is astounding. I found no willingness to embrace creativity from a storytelling point of view. In fact, the work feels like a bad TV movie.

But this isn’t to suggest the material is not without potential. There are hints surrounding the protective brother, Cal, possibly loving his sister, Becky, as more than a sister. It is not unimportant that the mysterious field just so happens to be situated in front of a church (according to the sign its entire name is “The Church of the Black Rock of the Redeemer”). Those who get lured in the field, with the exception of the boy, possess qualities that could be considered sinful. However, not one of these ideas is explored in a meaningful way. The movie would rather show visual effects of grass moving on their own, the sky turning blood red, corpses in various states of decay—CGI of the poorest quality.


Upgrade (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Every once in a while I come across a work that makes such a terrific impression that I become thoroughly convinced right in the middle of it that the movie will be remembered fondly ten to twenty years from the time of its release. “Upgrade,” written and directed by Leigh Whannell, is such a film for it takes a familiar template regarding our relationship with technology, specifically artificial intelligence, and wrinkles the blueprint just enough to create an ambitious, amusing, suspenseful, and highly entertaining project.

The writer-director understands that special and visual effects tend to show their age over time but ideas rarely so—not if it is taken seriously and treated with intelligence in order to match the skill or craft behind the filmmaking. And so Whannell invests on the ideas. Well-paced, atmospheric, and driven by an unrelenting forward momentum, we observe the screen as a giddy feeling takes over from the toes upward. We wonder what it is going to do next in order to surprise us.

Equipped with a specific near-future look that reminds one of the “John Wick” pictures, particularly when it plays with lighting, we appreciate the lived-in quality of nearly every space, from the trashy interiors of a sketchy apartment building to seedy restrooms of off-grid bars. Even in places where curious technology can be found in every corner, including those of rooms flooded with near-blinding white, these images are not so inaccessible or unbelievable that they come across looking like mere set pieces.

Because the different types of environment command an air of realism, it becomes easier to buy into not only its premise involving a quadriplegic man who gets a second chance to use his limbs again after he undergoes an operation to put a chip, called STEM, developed by a renowned innovator (Harrison Gilbertson), along his spinal cord but also in terms of the events that must take place after he learns that the biomechanical fusion comes with great advantages in addition to regaining movement.

The subject who gets the implant is named Grey, a mechanic, a man whose passion is to create using his hands, and he is played by Logan Marshall-Green. Obviously capable of delivering the necessary gravity and drama at a drop of a hat, especially when his character, nearly completely paralyzed on a bed or while sitting on a wheelchair, he is equally adept at providing wit and humor even right in the middle of an action sequence that requires jaw dropping acrobatics. Although Grey is driven by vengeance against those responsible for paralyzing him and killing his wife, there is a humanity to the character. In less capable hands, it is highly likely that the character might have ended up mechanical, standard, or boring especially in a revenge film where we already know that the bad guys are required to get their comeuppance.

The villains are quite formidable. A criticism can be made that not one of them is fleshed out, but I argue they do not need to be because they, in a way, function as symbols or ideas. They are not standard gun-toting enemies who drop dead after getting hit by a bullet. On the contrary, they are inspired because they, too, have enhanced abilities. For instance, the apparent ringleader (Benedict Hardie) can kill a person by simply breathing a certain way.

“Upgrade” offers great entertainment from the second it begins up until its devilishly delicious ending. If a sequel were to be made, I hope that its ideas will be grander and that that they are executed with at least the same high energy as its predecessor. I admired that the film embraces the fact that genre pieces can be enjoyable and smart. Here, it examines a new technology and its unexpected consequences.