"Upgrade" and "Terriers" are this week's selections.
It is the end of week two of social distancing. I have eaten all the Wheat Thins already. In an effort to stay active, I have begun doing those bicycle leg movements while lying on my back, like I did in elementary school gym class. I tried to copy Sterling K. Brown's exercise routine and gave up halfway through it. The man is a living Greek God statue, and I should not have tried to live up to his lofty performance. I am sorry, Sterling, and so are my lower abs.
I worry that I will soon forget my friends' faces, how their eyes tighten when they are angry or how their noses crinkle when they laugh. I will miss those images very much. In their stead, I am glad I have much television to watch. I have been meaning to catch up on HBO's "Succession" for quite a while. I hope the Roy family's drama keeps my soul warm in this trying time.
They are my new friends.
OK, maybe things aren't that dire yet, but the world continues to be hard for a lot of people. As much as it feels cliche to say it, watching a great piece of art does help. Whether you are looking for pure escapism or an educational documentary to keep the learning centers of your brain sharp, it's all out there. Binge Blog is here to help you find it.
If you haven't already seen this website's new Binge Blog spotlight, check it out. You'll find all past columns there, so feel free to pick and choose the ones you want. I promise there's something for everyone to be found.
HBO (until April 30), rated R, 100 minutes
I had heard about this movie in bewildered compliments for two years before watching it last week.
“You know, that ‘Upgrade’ movie, it’s actually pretty good. I know it looks like a hacky B-movie, but it kind of rules? Scratch that, it very much rules. It’s like if ‘Venom’ was technocentric and dystopian. I can’t believe no one has seen it. I can’t believe it’s good.”
I took that information, let it roll around my brain and then never watched it. But now I have, and folks, I have to say: Those people were right.
Forgive me for going into it skeptical, but I’m about to give the synopsis, and now you probably will too. Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green, a close-to-exact replica of Tom Hardy) is a blue collar man. He’s a mechanic — the older the car, the better — and he likes to play baseball. He is wary of technology advancing too far. Which is ironic because he is married to Asha Trace (Melanie Vallejo), a big player in the technology world. It’s not clear when this movie takes place. It could be the future or an alternate reality, but either way, technology is much more advanced than it is right now. Newer cars can fully drive themselves. They, like people’s homes, can also have full conversations with you.
Grey and Asha are quite a cute couple. Unfortunately, the love doesn’t last long. They get into a car accident and some street toughs, who have guns implanted into their arms, take advantage of the situation. When it’s over, Grey is left paraplegic, and Asha is dead. Grey falls into a deep depression, even purposefully overdosing on pills once, until one of his former customers, Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), the Elon Musk of this world, offers him a solution to his problems.
It’s an implant that looks like a small bug, known as STEM, that burrows into your neck and connects the brain back to your limbs. That’s the theory, anyway. Keen has never tested the implant, but desperate times, etc. Grey takes him up on the offer and does indeed regain his motor skills, but it also turns out STEM can talk to Grey, vibrating his eardrum, so no one else can hear. Grey can talk back, too. When Grey finds the men who ruined his life, STEM reveals it can do a lot more than talk — for better and for worse.
So yes, this is almost exactly "Venom," without the comic book elements and with a knockoff Tom Hardy, but here’s the thing: It’s good. The film is directed by Leigh Whannell, who also directed the recently released “The Invisible Man.” I haven’t seen that movie, but I’m excited to watch it now because he shows great potential with “Upgrade.” The fight sequences in this movie are shot in a way I don’t think I’ve ever seen before, with Marshall-Green mostly standing in place while the camera rapidly bounces from angle to angle and also … goes into hyper speed? It’s hard to describe without seeing it for yourself, but it works.
As much as I have ragged on Marshall-Green for being lesser Tom Hardy, he’s good in the role, showcasing a man so torn apart by his options — be confined to a wheelchair or have a supercomputer running your brain — that he never knows if what he’s doing is right or wrong. He’s more or less the only actor with significant screen time, and he owns the responsibility. He, and Whannell’s direction, carries the film across the finish line.
The script isn’t anything special — the ending is almost identical to another film I’ve written about here — but who cares when the rest of it is this fun?
FX on Hulu, rated TV-MA, 50 minutes (13 episodes)
FX on Hulu might be dumb branding, but if nothing else, it’s a chance for a wider audience to see some of FX’s old shows, which are streaming alongside new stuff like “Devs.” That means a hidden gem like “Terriers” might finally find the audience it deserves.
“Terriers” originally premiered in 2010, accompanied by the worst marketing campaign I have ever seen. Seriously, watch this commercial, and try to guess what the show is about:
It’s not about dogs, for one. Well, there is a dog in the show, but it’s a bulldog, not a terrier. And he’s not the star. The stars are Donal Logue, playing Hank Dolworth, and Michael Raymond-James, playing Britt Pollack. Their jobs (typically) have nothing to do with dogs, either. They’re unlicensed private detectives living check to check in San Diego. When the daughter of Hank’s old drinking buddy goes missing, Hank and Britt take up the case, only to quickly find themselves in deeper shit than either of them anticipated.
That plot description sounds like a lot of different things, but “Terriers” most reminds me of “Veronica Mars,” and not just because of the location. The show, written by Ted Griffin (“Ocean’s 11”), is quippy neo-noir without being annoying or showy. Logue and Raymond-James also sell it well. You believe that they are not just business partners but friends who care about one another. Like the best “Veronica Mars” episodes, outside of the main case, Hank and Britt each have their own stuff going on, too: Hank is recently divorced and trying to reckon with that — and with alcoholism — while Britt is an ex-con who is fighting with his longtime girlfriend Katie (Laura Nichols) about having children and what that would mean for their future.
To use one of my new favorite phrases, Hank and Britt are scumbums. They’re dirty, they’re cheap, they’re not always honest, but they’re more charming than Cupid himself, so you like them anyway. It’s fun to watch them sink into trouble, then scrape and claw their way out of it, time and again.
“Terriers” ran for only one season on FX thanks to low ratings …
*Glares at advertising team*
… but there might be a silver lining in that now. The main story gets wrapped up by season’s end, and although there are a few loose ends with side plots, it’s certainly better than fans of “Pushing Daisies” or other too-soon-canceled shows got. Treat it like a limited series, and you’ll know exactly how much enjoyment you can get out of it, without holding out for expectations of more. It’s perfect for a long weekend binge.
Or, you know, an extended quarantine.