Film reviews: Upgrade | Searching | Cold War | Yardie | The Man From Mo'Wax

Schlocky sci-fi horror Upgrade is great fun, while Idris Elba's 1980s-set directorial debut is an all-too-familiar gangster tale, set in London's Jamaican community
Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) and his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) in UpgradeGrey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) and his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) in Upgrade
Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) and his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) in Upgrade

Upgrade (15) ****

Searching (12A) ***

Cold War (15) *****

Yardie (15) **

The Man From Mo’Wax (15) ****

Upgrade, a scuzzy cyberpunk sci-fi horror film from Insidious creator Leigh Whannell, is the sort of ultra-efficient genre effort that makes much of its mega-budget competition seem obsolete. Set in a near future where AI-powered automation is edging ever closer to full implementation, the film quickly establishes its world with a few self-driving cars and Alexa-style home appliances, before pitting its hero, a muscle-car-restoring analogue hold-out called Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), at its mercy when a car-jacking (or rather a car-hacking) leaves his wife dead and Grey paralysed from the neck down. Salvation comes in the form of a young tech mogul (Harrison Gilbertson) who offers the now paraplegic Gray the use of his body again if he’ll submit to being a guinea pig for a radical next-level biocomputer chip called STEM. Once fused with his brain and spine, STEM can do pretty much everything, including communicate with Grey in a HAL-style voice and, oh yeah, turn him into a ruthlessly efficient vigilante with Matrix-style instant kung-fu skills. Whannell is fully aware of the ridiculousness of this concept and, as he sets Grey 2.0 on the trail of his wife’s killers, he has some fun with the goofy sight of an ordinary guy suddenly transformed into a ruthless killing machine. But he makes sure the action is brutal enough to satisfy hardened genre fans and there’s a pleasingly logical through-line to the plot as well, one that allows him to wrap up the film with the satisfying neatness of a Philip K Dick short story or old-school Twilight Zone episode.

It’s too bad the same can’t be said for Searching, a zeitgeisty riff on the detective thriller that uses a screencast of its protagonist’s laptop activity to dramatise a father’s hunt for his missing 16-year-old daughter. John Cho is the widower turned online sleuth who discovers he doesn’t know his daughter as well as he thought he did when he trawls through her laptop and social media accounts in a bid to aid the police investigation into her disappearance. All of which sounds like a juicy set-up and co-writer/director Aneesh Chaganty succeeds in exploiting the screencast concept for a while, largely thanks to Cho’s sympathetic performance. Alas, the film isn’t as formalistically rigorous as it should be. A clanging score, manipulative camera moves and footage from external sources that couldn’t possibly be Googled repeatedly break the screencast illusion. In the end, the technique feels like a red herring designed to distract attention from how corny the story really is.

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Idris Elba makes his directorial debut with Yardie, a period Brit gangster film set amongst London’s Jamaican community in the early 1980s. Ten years on from witnessing his peace-loving brother’s gang-related murder in Kingston, 20-something D (up-and-comer Aml Ameen) is sent to London with a brick of cocaine which, for reasons the film struggles to make clear, he refuses to hand over to his boss’s British associate (Stephen Graham, acting like the permed cousin of Gary Oldman’s True Romance scumbag). Instead he starts a turf war that puts his estranged wife and daughter in needless jeopardy; only later does he discover his brother’s assassin is living on a nearby estate. The plot, in truth, doesn’t make much sense, a problem separate from Elba’s boldest creative choice: an admirable refusal to soften the Jamaican patois of the characters. The latter adds a sense of authenticity that hints at the movie this could have been had Elba subverted the played-out gangster movie tropes as well.

Pawel Pawlikowski’s first film since his Oscar-winning Ida sees him burrowing ever further into his Polish roots with a haunting love story loosely inspired by his own parents’ tempestuous relationship. Set against the backdrop of the massive political and cultural changes taking place across post-war Europe, Cold War tracks the fiery relationship of jazz musician Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and singer Zula (a star-making turn from Joanna Kulig) over a 15-year period during which their initial spark keeps reigniting in ways both dreamy and destructive. As with Ida, it’s shot in period-evoking black and white, which gives the film a nostalgic cinematic sheen while maintaining focus on the harsh reality of lives lived under restrictive conditions. Like a bleaker, Eastern-bloc take on Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, it understands the intensity and complexity of a true connection as it reverberates through the years.

The Man from Mo’Wax charts the rise, fall and slight reprise of James Lavelle, the Mo’Wax label boss who brought the burgeoning trip-hop scene to the masses in the 1990s and can lay claim to releasing one of the most important albums of the last 25 years: DJ Shadow’s groundbreaking debut, Endtroducing. In his early 20s at the time, Lavelle’s story is one of hedonism and hubris and Matthew Jones’s film is fairly unstinting in documenting Lavelle’s declining fortunes, particularly as he tried to prove himself as an artist with UNKLE, an ongoing collaborative project that has seen him work with the likes of Thom Yorke, Mike D, Richard Ashcroft and, latterly, Queen’s of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme. Though Lavelle is upfront about the bridges he needlessly burned along the way, the film is also sympathetic to the need for big-picture thinkers like him. ■