Upload

As much as I love talking about my favorite movies and TV shows, I figured I could put my video addiction in service to the public by talking about newer shows. You know, shows that you’re on the fence about. Shows like Amazon’s new vehicle, Upload. The promo trailers for this show started playing around the time that The Good Place was ending, so I assumed that this was Amazon’s attempt to fill that void, particularly since it’s set in a sort of afterlife. Whether that was the intention or not, this is a very, very different show from The Good Place. Far from being a feel good comedy that addresses philosophical and ethical topics, Upload is actually a terrifying horror series, of Black Mirror proportions, masquerading as a comedy. I’m not sure if it knows that.

Right away, we are introduced to Nathan Brown (Robbie Amell of The Tomorrow People and Code 8), an uber-vain, but otherwise all-around good guy and his fiance, Ingrid (Allegra Edwards of Briarpatch and Orange is the New Black). The circumstances are not ideal; Nathan has been involved in a serious car accident and is, apparently, dying. Luckily, he exists in a fictional world where one can upload their consciousness to a virtual reality, effectively becoming immortal. Immortal, that is, as long as the servers that contain this digital afterlife keep running; can you imagine the pressure on their IT department? This is not a cheap procedure, but Ingrid comes from a super rich family, and she not only pays for Nathan to be uploaded, but also pushes him into it. Once in the system, Nathan meets Nora (Andy Allo of Pitch Perfect 3 and Chicago Fire), a woman working for the company hosting Nathan’s consciousness, who is essentially his handler. This company, Horizon, is the stereotypical, soulless tech company, and Nora, with as much power she has over Nathan and his entire reality, is just a lowly gig worker in the real world. On top of that, her father is dying and she’s desperate to save up enough for his upload.

The comedy aspect is kind of meh. The jokes never achieve laugh out loud status, nor are they overly insightful. While the world they have built is clearly a parody of modern day society, rather coming off as witty, as scathing commentary, they are blunt and heavy handed. It doesn’t help that none of the characters are very likable. That being said, there is one element of the show that keeps me watching. The mystery. A regrettably minor character is Fran (Elizabeth Bowen of Michelle’s and No Tomorrow), Nathan’s cousin who begins to investigate his death. In her amateurish, but dogged, investigation, she begins to uncover some very suspicious clues that he may have been murdered. Little breadcrumbs of clues are doled out, stringing the viewer along. Particularly me, since it’s the only aspect of this show that I find remotely satisfying. If I tune in for season 2, and that’s a big if, to follow Fran and her investigation will be the only reason.

One of the reasons I watched in the first place is to see Robbie Amell. Not because I’ve seen any of his other stuff, except for his brief time as Firestorm on the CW show The Flash, but because looks so much like Stephen Amell, of the CW show Arrow, I thought they were brother. The last name helped that thought as well. Turns out they’re cousins, but, damn, that resemblance. Andy Allo is decent as Nora, but one has to wonder if her talents are being squandered, as she is an accomplished musician. She sings, plays both piano and guitar, and has five albums to her credit. She’s good enough to be in Prince’s band and even collaborated on writing songs with him, which I consider pretty damn impressive. I gotta give a shout out to William Davis, who plays the super rich, David Choak, Nathan’s neighbor in the afterlife. If he doesn’t sound familiar, most people probably know him as The Smoking Man, from the X-Files. Arrogant and jaded, his brutal honesty with Nathan was a nice dash of spice in an otherwise bland show and I hope he gets more screen time in the next season.

Let me revisit my claim that this show is a horror. In the first episode, in his first few moments in the afterlife, we see Nathan looking at himself in the mirror. He is annoyed to find part of his hair out of place, sticking up like a cowlick. Viewers know that this Nora’s fault, as she gave it to him while creating his avatar as part of his upload. Try as he might, he can’t get his hair to lay down. At another time, we see Nathan reach for something he wants, only to be blocked and see a message come up that he has to pay more for it, like some in game purchase. Given that he doesn’t have any money, that he is on his fiancé’s dime, he seemed resigned to a very boring existence. Lastly, we are given a peek at the low rent region of the afterlife and it is Spartan to say the least. Stark, white, windowless walls, devoid of any art or decoration, enclose a cell-like room containing only a bed, chair and bureau, also all white. Far from being a virtual paradise, Nathan has absolutely no agency. Others control how he looks, what he has access to and the very world around him. This definitely feel more like Altered Carbon than The Good Place. Except that, unlike Altered Carbon, he can’t be resleeved, he can’t be put in another body, he will never again have a physical form.

Considering this reality to its inevitable conclusion, this a terrifying form of existence, because of the implications. If this technology exists, surely less scrupulous people/corporations/governments can use it for other purposes. This is an inescapable prison, a chamber of endless and novel torture. The show makes jokes around this concept, trying to be funny, but all I can think as I am watching this is OMG, this looks like hell. Even in the concept of hell, one is put there under a judgement from God, the Almighty. In Upload, it’s a human’s decision, with all the flaws and weaknesses of our species. This thought deadens every punchline for me. It paints a very dark reality and makes no concessions to soften the blow. There’s no mention of an ethics committee, no talk of regulation by an independent body, nothing about a legal framework moderating how this technology is used.

Look, I get it. It’s a TV show, it’s parody. Why am I thinking so much? First of all, that’s what I do and I’m not going to turn that off just to watch a TV show. Second, we’ve seen trope of a virtual reality before and it usually doesn’t end well. I’ve already mentioned Altered Carbon and Black Mirror (the episodes White Bear and White Christmas embody what I am talking about perfectly), but I’ve also seen it in Cube Zero, Source Code and Inception. In fact, even in the very first episode of Upload, the reality of Nathan’s new existence drives him to almost take his own “life”. I’m a little surprised that the show came from the mind of Greg Daniels, the creator behind such shows as The Office and Parks and Rec. With all my bitching, I gotta say that it’s not that bad of a show. It’s not that great of a show, but it’s not that bad. I did watch to the end. One could do worse for a sit-com. But with my background of watching sci-fi and horror, Upload just lands too close to some of the most horrific virtual reality scenarios I’ve seen. For every joke that brings a chuckle, it’s accompanied by a chill that runs down my spine.

A Cure for Wellness

While many works of fiction strive for the label of Lovecraftian, very few live up to the title. Trust me, I’ve seen more than my fair share. I love cosmic horror and the term Lovecraftian is irresistible to me and I am almost always disappointed. Then I saw the movie, A Cure for Wellness. It has that eerie, alien feel that proves so elusive to so many other contenders. It doesn’t quite embody cosmic horror, there’s no sense of a terror so large that it encompasses the planet or some god-like entity from outer space, but certainly a feeling that something is just…off. The sense that reality is not as solid as we thought and that there are corners of the world where man is not the only form of sentient life.

The movie follows Lockhart (Dane DeHaan of The Amazing Spiderman 2 and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets), an employee who is tasked with retrieving the absent CEO of a large company. The CEO went off to an exclusive spa in the Swiss Alps and has not been seen or heard from since, except for a cryptic letter, in which he sounds bat-shit insane. Just as Lockhart is arriving at the spa, he is involved in a major car accident and regains consciousness, in the spa, to find his leg in a cast. That’s when he meets Dr. Heinreich Volmer (Jason Isaacs from Star Trek Discovery and the Harry Potter films), the enigmatic proprietor of the spa and, shortly after, Hannah (Mia Goth of Nymphomaniac and Suspiria), a patient at the spa. I would describe her as a manic pixie girl, if she weren’t so damn creepy, almost inhuman. And while Dr. Volmer is quite personable, he will still give viewers the willies, though they won’t quite know why. Or maybe that’s just Isaacs. Through out the film, Lockhart never quite seems to find the CEO, and then, when he tries to leave, he finds that impossible, as well. In his explorations, Lockhart sees plenty of weirdness, but nothing compared to when he starts to get treatments himself. Let’s just say that there’s a lot of worms involved. I can’t say much more without giving anything away, but, while the movie does start a little slow, it gets to edge of your seat territory soon enough.

I am not very familiar with the works of DeHaan or Goth, but I have loved Jason Isaac’s work for years. I loved him in Case Histories, was very happy to see him in Star Trek: Discovery and was so, so disappointed when Awake was canceled. Regardless of his role, I’ve always felt that he’s given his all to to the part. There’s a certain weightiness to his acting, a gravitas that makes me think he performed nothing but Shakespeare, before making the leap to film, but what the hell do I know. I would love to tell you to go see the series Awake, since some have described Isaac’s acting in it Emmy worthy, but I can’t, in good conscience, recommend a one-season show to anyone. In it, Isaac’s plays a police detective, who is in a serious car crash with his family, in which, he loses his wife or his son. That “or” isn’t a typo. For the extent of the show, Isaac’s character lives in two realities; one in which his wife survived, but when he goes to sleep, his reality changes into one in which his son survived. These fluctuating realities, and the confusion behind which one is “real” is a central theme of the show. Writers for Awake had to keep track of two separate realities and timelines to avoid continuity errors. It was a phenomenal show and I have no idea why on Earth it was canceled. As to the other two actors, all I can say is that I’m glad I saw DeHaan in A Cure for Wellness first, because Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets totally sucked balls.

I wish I could talk about how this movie is genre bending, because the mystery behind the spa is key to the plot and there is a bit of romance between Lockhart and Hannah, but the oppressive unease that it fills one with places it squarely in the realm of horror. The way many of the characters act, one could be convinced that they aren’t really human at all and could take off their skins at any moment, revealing their true, horrifying nature. The conspiracy to manipulate and control Lockhart had me paranoid the entire time, like I was trapped, with the walls closing in. We never quite feel that his life at risk, there is no ax wielding manic hunting him down to dismember him or inhuman monster hungry for his flesh, but he is slowly tortured, in a variety of ways, and through watching this, we experience this torture as well. In fact, if I were to level one bit of criticism at this movie, it’s that it’s so damn long. While I was entertained by the non-stop anxiety the film induces, at almost two and a half hours, the run time may be more than most audiences can bear.

For all the negative emotions that I rattled off, this is a gorgeous film. Beautifully filmed, this may be one of the prettiest horror films I’ve seen. Filmed in the Swiss Alps, at a sanitarium that hosted Adolf Hitler and where political prisoners were lobotomized, the movies walks a line between horrific and ethereal. Like a fever dream that one wakes from, covered in sweat, plagued by vague fears that fade from the mind as consciousness takes hold, but remain in the pit of one’s gut, this film is psychological torture porn. I’ll be the first to admit that A Cure for Wellness may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it strikes a chord in me that few other movies do. Perhaps that’s why no one ever wants to go to the theater with me?

It Slices, It Dices

When I was growing up, late night television was a very different beast from what it is today. My family didn’t even have cable until I was in my late teens. No video on demand, no Tivo, no infinite channels, no online streaming and some television stations even went off the air at night. We got exactly 6 stations; ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS and 2 independent stations on UHF. There’s no comparison to how much better both the quality and variety of programming is now, but, still, there are things that I miss from the earlier days of television. One of those things is the commercials I used to see on late night TV.

Both the products and the style of the ads were so striking that I remember many of them to this day. I can’t hear the phrase, “we’ll be back to pick you up later” without thinking of the Mr. Microphone commercial. Several of the favorite songs of my youth came off of a variety of K-Tel music collections. I often marveled at the inventiveness of products that rolled out, seemingly endless, to address innumerable needs, both real and imagined. And the delivery? These commercials featured reenactments of everyday problems, played out by low budget actors, overdramatized to catastrophic proportions. Or, alternatively, displaying the amazing life that could be yours if only you purchased these amazing inventions. The pitches were delivered with all the subtlety of a carnival huckster.

I’m guessing that air time was cheap for a Maine television station at 3AM, so you’d inevitably see local car dealers and furniture stores hawking their wares, but the two big players of the late night circuit were Ronco and K-Tel. Ronco was an American company founded by Ron Popeil, who learned his trade from his inventor/salesman father, Samuel. Starting in 1964 making $89,000 in sales, by 1969 that figure had risen to $14 million. Popeil sold the company for $55 million in 2005, only to go bankrupt and fold in 2018. Quite possibly the father of the infomercial, Ron Popeil and his company have been featured in numerous news segments and interview, been the recipient of several awards, both honorary and derogatory and insinuating themselves into pop culture by everyone from the Simpsons to Saturday Night Live. Among their more well known offerings are:

The Chop-O-Matic – One of their earliest and longest running products

The Popeil Pocket Fisherman – I’ve never met anyone who has owned one of these, so I have no idea if they work or not, but the alliteration in the name made it fun to say.

Mr. Microphone – This seems like it would be the most annoying product one could ever design, but what has stuck with me is the ultimate cringe of a car full of teens using it to try and pick up some girls just minding their own business.

Inside-The-Shell Egg Scrambler – I never saw the purpose for this. I’ve scrambled eggs for a good part of my life and I’ve never had an issue with the traditional, outside-the-shell way of doing things. Evidently, this invention was inspired by Ron Popeil’s utter disgust at egg whites and incompletely scrambled eggs. While I think this is nonsense, it did win 84th place in Mobile Magazine’s Top 100 Gadgets of All Time, so what the hell do I know?

I could go on, but, seriously, one could write an entire book and I want to get this posted today.

K-Tel is a Canadian company founded in 1962 and became one of Ronco’s biggest rivals. Started by Philip Kives, a door-to-door salesman and a pitchman on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, he was the perfect man to match Popeil at his own game. In fact, K-Tel started out by selling some of Popeil’s products, like the Veg-O-Matic, before selling their own products. This company is no joke, going from $23 million in sales in 1971 to $178 million 10 years later, expanding their holdings to include real estate and oil exploration. They’re still functioning today, mainly making money from their 200,000 song catalog of golden oldies, such as “Tutti Frutti” by Little Richard and “Surfin’ Bird” by the Trashmen, carried on platforms such and iTunes and Spotify and featured in television, movies and commercials. Among their offering were:

The Miracle Brush – Basically a glorified lint brush. I was all set to talk shit about this product, but in doing some research, I’ve found several testimonials that rave about the Miracle Brush and state that they are still using theirs after 20-30 years.

The Fishin’ Magician – An all-in-one multitool, this gadget had a scale to weight your fish, a tape measure to measure it, a hook remover, a filet knife, a scaler, a bottle opener and more.

The Scrappy Scrubber – I only vaguely remember this one, but think an oversized electric toothbrush for your dishes.

Too many music compilations to count – Still a music powerhouse, K-Tel has released such timeless collections such as Disco Fever, Hooked on Rodgers & Hammerstein, Chipmunk Mania, Street Wave, Good Times in Country Music, Themes for Dreams – The Magic Sound of Panpipes and the list goes on and on.

While we have K-Tel and Ronco duking it out like Godzilla and Gamara, I would be remiss to not mention some of the other participants of the late night circuit. Notably, Ginsu Knives and their amazing feats will be forever burned into my brain. They sliced through a tin can and it still stays sharp enough to slice a tomato. What the hell kind of kitchen were they thinking of? Who could ever forget Suzanne Summers and her erotically charged ThighMaster? In addition to all the goods being sold, I must also mention the services. Classics like the Psychic Friends Network, Tony Robbins’ Self Help seminars and even sexy chat lines like 544-CHAT and 550-TEEN were all major players trying to capitalize on the desperation of someone watching television at 3 in the morning. These are all the classics I grew up with, now remnants of history, a dying breed after giving rise to Ebay and the Home Shopping Network. I often wonder if these things will all be forgotten in the passage of time, but I promise you that I will keep their memory alive until I take my last breath.

Contracted – The Most Disgusting Zombie Movie of All Time

If you know me, or if you’ve read enough of this blog, you know that it takes a bit to disturb me. As a former anatomy instructor, I’m no stranger to, not only dead bodies, but actively dismembering them. Sure, we call it dissection, but tomato/tomato. During my short term as a doctor, I’ve sewn up mangled hands and facial lacerations, driven a needle into a man’s stomach to draw fluid off (paracentesis), and, well, you get the idea. It should surprise no one that I am into the more extreme forms of horror. With that in mind, I want you to know that I am deadly serious when I say that Contracted, and its sequel, the inventively named, Contracted: Phase 2, are two of the most disturbing movies I have ever seen. These films fall squarely into the subgenre of body horror. What makes them more horrifying than most is their focus on sex.

Before I say more, let me tell you what these films are about. The first movie, Contracted, follows a young woman named Samantha (Najarra Townsend of Breakfast Buddies and Medinah) who is basically date raped at a party. Over the following days, she begins to feel sicker and sicker and fears that she has an STD. The rest of the movie is a slow burn, as we watch Samantha deteriorate, her symptoms becoming more and more disgusting. How disgusting, you ask? Well, there’s an awful lot of vaginal bleeding, hair and teeth falling out, vomiting, maggots under the skin; I could go on, but I’ll spare you the details. Equally disturbing is the gradual mental decline as the infection takes over. Her impulse control goes out the window and she begins to have violent outbursts. By the end of the film, she has become a full fledged zombie. Knowing this in no way takes anything away from the film; there is never any glimmer of hope for poor Samantha, as we watch her life crumble.

I can’t stress this enough, but absolutely do NOT watch this with someone you are romantically/sexually interested in. This is the opposite of a date movie and will completely destroy any sort of interest in sex, or even human contact. At least, it did for me. The is also the opposite of a feel good movie. I mean, it’s no Come and See, but the grim, bleakness embodied by this film will have you looking at the world through filth-colored glasses for a few days.

The sequel, Contracted: Phase 2, is not as good as the first movie. I would recommend skipping this one altogether, as it doesn’t improve the story any, exploring ideas within the first movie that didn’t really need exploring. Here we follow Riley (Matt Mercer of Auteur and Beyond the Gates), a friend of Samantha’s from the first movie, the two of them getting hot and heavy in one of the most skin crawling scenes I’ve ever seen. Starting to feel sick himself, and hearing of Samantha’s fate, Riley is appropriately worried and sees a doctor, who is frickin’ worthless. Allow me to digress a little here, since I’m a doctor and it always bothers me to see medical inaccuracies, but both of these characters received the most inept treatment possible. Fever, bleeding out of places that should not be bleeding, vomiting; if these people came into my office, I would be like WTF? The doctor doesn’t do a pelvic exam on Samantha, no blood cultures taken, and, in the second movie, where we learn that the government has knowledge of this virus, there’s no CDC alerts. I’m not saying that medical science is the end all, be all, but I wish they had a medical consultant for these movies, because the care they received did not at all ring true.

Anyway, enough of my rant. The second movie basically follows the exact same arc as the first, as we watch Riley slowly decline, oozing pus and peeing enough blood to stock a blood bank. Seriously, this movie took the disgusting theme and ran with it. No lie, the scene where he nose bleeds into the dip at a party, which is subsequently eaten by one of the guests, made me gag a little. Into this mix is thrown the additional plot behind the man spreading this virus, as a terrorist device, being hunted down by a police detective and, ultimately, the U.S. Government. This had the potential for adding depth in the narrative, but instead comes off as half baked and haphazardly tacked on. Where as Samantha was a tragic figure, I just wanted Riley to die already. There have been rumors about another movie, Contracted: Phase 3, but I have yet to find any solid information on this.

I like body horror, both because of the medical nature of most such films and because there is little I can think of that matches the terror of feeling one’s self rot away from the inside. The Fly, Cabin Fever, Splinter; I love these kinds of movies. I would contend that Contracted is a worthy entry into this genre, and that Contracted: Phase 2 is a sorry imitator. The first movie is like a case study in misery, Samantha’s life, health and, finally, sanity all slowly decaying with a morbid inevitability. If the second movie had just been a repeat of the first, only following Riley instead of Samantha, it would have been better. The terrorist side plot feels clunky and poorly executed and takes away from the film. But maybe that’s just me. Watch them for yourself and make up your own mind. But remember, and this is very important, DON’T see them with someone you love.

Happy Death Day

Spoiler Alert! I think I tried to avoid spoilers for these movies in this post, but I can’t be entirely sure. Therefore, I am placing the ubiquitous spoiler warning here. Consider yourself warned.

Much like my attitude regrading sit-coms, I’ve kind of lost my taste for slasher flicks. I saw Halloween and Friday the 13th when they first came out at the theater. At the drive-in, to be honest, which is an experience worthy of its own blog post, but I’ll save that for another time. The jump scares, the gore, the violence; it’s all sort of old to me now. There’s only so much you can see before it all looks pretty much the same and, let’s face it, I’ve dismembered several human bodies myself. No biggie. So, when I first heard about Happy Death Day, I wasn’t very interested. I probably would have remained completely ignorant of the franchise were it not for my unending hunger for things to watch. As chance would have it, I happened to stumble across Happy Death Day 2 U, the second movie, and figured, “What the heck?” I didn’t think I’d really be watching it, but surprise! What I found was a fun filled thrill ride that kept me intently watching the action.

What makes these movies different from the standard flavor of slasher movies? If you’ve read my previous posts, I’m sure you know the answer; because they’re fun. We follow the protagonist, Tree (Jessica Rothe of La La Land and the upcoming Valley Girl), the stereotypical sorority girl and total bitch, as she wakes up in the dorm room of Carter Davis (Israel Broussard of the Bling Ring and Extinction), all around, mild mannered nice guy. Her hangover doesn’t help her disposition any and she storms off across campus back to her sorority, where she’s an asshole to her roommate, a fellow sister and several random college students before fooling around with her married professor. After it’s established how shitty a person she is, true to slasher movie tradition, she is butchered by a masked killer, whereupon she awakens, once more in Carter’s bed. And so goes the pattern, as Tree is killed again and again, each time waking up, ala Groundhog Day, until, it is presumed, she solves her own murder.

With my love of comic books, it’s no big surprise that I enjoyed Happy Death Day; it was written by Scott Lobell, a comic book writer who has penned such titles as The X-Men, The Teen Titans and Superman. He stated that he wanted to follow the pattern of having the bad girl die first and the good girl to be hunted last and (in some cases) survive, and that he wanted the main character, Tree, to be both of them. To achieve this, Tree’s character changes, grows throughout the course of the movie, this character development being one of the most satisfying aspects of the movie. I’ve talked about certain movies being genreless, but Happy Death Day leans into genres and tries to stuff as many of them as possible into the film. It is undoubtedly a horror, but the mystery of who the killer is also a central feature. It is a romance, has comedic elements and, regarding the change in Tree’s personality over the course of the movie, feels a little like a coming of age story.

The Sequel, Happy Death Day 2 U, released just 16 months after the first movie, picks up immediately where Happy Death Day left off. It follows roughly the same pattern, throwing an element of Sci-Fi into the mix. This is the movie I saw first, but I recently watched Happy Death Day and went back to rewatch the sequel. Both certainly work as stand alone films, but seeing the first does make the second more enjoyable. In the second film we get to see the reason that Tree was trapped in a time loop, which is a fun pay off to wait to explain until the sequel. I would love to hear about a Happy Death Day 3, Lobell has even intimated some of his ideas for that, but the word from the producer, Jason Blum of Blumhouse Productions (of Paranormal Activity and The Purge, to name a few), is that it is unlikely, though not impossible. I’m not holding my breath.

If you haven’t seen it, and you’re a horror fan, I sincerely recommend these movies, preferably seeing them close to each other as possible, for maximum Easter Egg detection. There have been countless films featuring a knife-wielding maniac in countless variations of this theme, but Happy Death Day and Happy Death Day 2 U are both a breath of fresh air. It’s fast paced, quickly getting the setting and character introductions out of the way to start the killing and mayhem as soon as possible. Hat’s off to the editors on these movies, as they feel like films expertly trimmed of all fat. I applaud Rothe’s performance, as she proves that there are no small roles, as she expresses a range of emotions never before seen in Slasher movie history. Or, at least, that I’ve never seen, most horror movie protagonists seemingly limited to stunned bewilderment and shrieking terror. These actors have been a big source of my dislike of slasher films, since I find myself rooting for the killer. Tree becomes a very likable, somewhat relatable main character, that will have you cheering even minor victories. In that respect, it throws in more more genre to the mix. An action movie.