I know Uwe Boll’s reputation as a horror video game adaption filmmaker and I’ve seen a few of them so my personal expectations for Alone In The Dark were set pretty damn low, and yes it was a terrible godawful cheap mess but not… *quite* as bad as I was anticipating. Here’s the thing: I have years of watching B grade horror trash under my belt and when you’ve got that kind of buffer there’s not much, Boll’s output included, that can make you really, truly recoil, like I love trashy shit, it’s fun if it knows it’s place and fits it’s groove. This? This one is especially lowbrow and unapologetically so, as we see Christian Slater being a wannabe Blade/Van Helsing type monster hunter complete with an emo trench-coat, hilariously moody narration and a sexy/nerdy scientist sidekick played by Tara Reid who is about the farthest from nerdy scientist type you can get, which is great for a laugh here. Slater is embroiled in some murky supernatural hogwash involving human inter dimensional hybrid monster things that lurk around dark corners and disembowel people occasionally. He shoots some of them in between bouts of adorably sincere expository diarrhea dialogue and silly high tech gadgetry, and clashes with the gruff commander (Stephen Dorff) of a paranormal tactical squad and that’s about it. A weird subplot about an orphanage and the kids being used for experiments there back in the day went right over my head but I never played the game this is based on so that could be why, although I suspect it’s Boll’s haphazard direction and complete lack of focus in editing. I will hand it to the guy though for doing Vancouver proud, he not only films most of his stuff here in my city (and owns a restaurant in Gastown no less) but he actually sets it here too, so that Britannia Mines, Lions Gate Bridge and the Robson art gallery actually get to play themselves for once and not double for some hack USA location. This is cheap slipshod stuff, full of dodgy effects, indecipherably shadowy monster attacks and complete with an out of nowhere soft-core porn sex scene between Slater and Reid set to a giggle inducing emo lament by a group called ‘Nightwish’ who I’ve never heard of but outdo themselves in the Evanescence-lite department. This is one of the rare cases where there’s a sequel that’s way better than the original, they made a follow up with Lance Henriksen and Danny Trejo that actually attempts to do something worth watching, whereas this is just shameless, throw-in-the-towel dogshit.
Famed Canadian outlaw Bill Miner might have been the most soft spoken, polite, counterintuitive criminal in the annals of history and the late great Richard Farnsworth plays him as such with his trademark clear eyed, honest voiced, pure hearted charisma in Phillip Borsos’s The Grey Fox, a film of stunning quality, wonder and grandeur both great and small. Miner spent the early part of his life as a career criminal with a penchant for politeness and after a three decade stint in San Quentin, he meandered north to Kamloops, BC to reconnect with his estranged sister and start a new life. His old ways find him once again though and soon he carves out a new legacy as a notorious train robber and once again his life takes a turn for the adventurous. He falls back into this groove simply out of habit I suppose, and because he feels he isn’t meant for much else. He meets and romances early feminist artist Kate Flynn (Jackie Burroughs), mentors his dim witted partner in crime Shorty (Wayne Robson), does the odd shady rustling work for local magistrate and crime kingpin Jack Budd (Ken Pogue) and is pursued by an eerily placid Pinkerton detective (Gary Reineke). Farnsworth makes this character sing, he was a stuntman turned actor who was just born with a natural gift and lit up the screen with impeccable emotional truth and vivid vitality anywhere he appeared, and this (along with his beautiful work in David Lynch’s The Straight Story) may be the finest work of his career. He makes Bill a quiet, sweet, compassionate and honest man, the absolute antithesis of what we’ve been told a lifelong criminal must be like, he’s always the most comforting presence in the room, is a natural leader and trailblazer and his scenes of tenderness and love with Burroughs are blessedly open-hearted and kind. The film was shot in and around some keystone British Columbia locations that don’t often get to play themselves in cinema (American studios can’t just shoot in their own locations, they’ve always got to rip off ours with no due credit) including Kamloops itself, Cheakamus Canyon, Fort Steele, Lillooet, Cranbrook, Pemberton and of course Vancouver. This adds a rugged, authentic realism and elemental grace to Bill’s story as Farnsworth and his cast-mates wander about in the wild Pacific Northwest realm, captured wonderfully in its early days by cinematographer and set designers alike. The score intertwines with traditional Celtic melodies for a unique musical/visual experience as well, especially in a hypnotic opening sequence where a steam train makes its way around the bend of a mountain pass as the credits lope alongside it. From that gorgeous opening crawl until the final melancholic few moments where another train goes by, this time in the other direction and for a different reason, this is a mesmerizing experience, anchored by Farnsworth’s angelic, note-perfect character work and everything else mentioned above. Available for rental on iTunes for 99c.
CBC’s Schitt’s Creek was kind of an unassuming watch for me in the sense that I don’t usually go for sitcoms and when I do it’s for breezy background noise, or simply reruns of stuff like That 70’s Show that I’m already intimately familiar with; the genre just isn’t really for me. This show, however, grew on me like no other and from the first quaint little episode to the emotionally uplifting grand finale it has now become one of my all time favourite pieces of television. Ostensibly the story of one disgustingly rich family who is embezzled out of their fortune by a disloyal employee and forced to relocate to a tiny backwater town they once purchased as a prank, this is so so SO much more than just a “riches to rags” comedy lark and such an important piece, and what’s more is it becomes important and essential without even trying to be, which isn’t easy to do. Eugene Levy is Johnny Rose, former video store tycoon relegated to rural life with his frequently hysterical prima Donna wife Moira (Catherine O’Hara) and two adult children David (Dan Levy) and Alexis (Annie Murphy). As they are jarringly propelled from their ultra-bougie existence into a bucolic world of motels, diners and quiet country life we are swept up in a pithy, hyper-satirical slice of life small town dramedy that gradually and cunningly becomes something so good, so well developed and so engrossing the effect is almost profound. Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara already have roots in SCTV satire from their days of yore and bring every inch of that pop culture sendup energy here, as Levy’s own kid Dan co-creates with pops and we get the sense that every creative engine involved here is just firing on all cylinders and perfectly in sync. The epic and incredibly dense yet somehow blessedly lighthearted six season run see these four characters go through unbelievable, surprising, touching, hilarious and always realistic arcs as they adjust to life in the sticks, make friends, find love, bicker absolutely non stop in the most lovable of ways and simply just… live their lives. Others orbit them including the town’s incredibly offbeat mayor (Chris Elliott is too funny for words here), his darling of a wife (Jennifer Robertson), the local motel owner (Emily Hampshire, who I fell in love with within minutes), David’s eventual boyfriend and colleague (Noah Reid) and many, many others all portrayed wonderfully. What makes this show so special and such a standout amidst the absolute galaxy of sitcoms out there is a delicious mixture of a few things: it’s relentlessly, consistently funny, like you don’t even get a chance to breathe in between the airtight, intimidatingly verbose jokes especially when O’Hara and her priceless pronunciation is concerned. The characters here are real, developed human beings who you grow with, learn to care for deeply, are frequently exasperated with and the sense of community, family and love permeates everything. The themes are relevant and the tone is compassionate, understanding and candid in terms of LGBT content and the whole thing just hums on every level, it’s about as close to perfect as you can get in the television storytelling world. It’s a bittersweet turn that the show only achieved real, worldwide acclaim near the end of its run because I feel like it could go on to say and do so much more, and influence so many more people with its fun, positivity, empathy, masterclass writing and once in a lifetime performances. Could not recommend this highly enough for how great it is.
I’ve had some gnarly camping trips into the Canadian wilderness myself, but none so brutal, backbreaking and harrowing as the Ontario expedition that five bickering middle aged doctors embark on in Rituals, a punishingly intense, staggeringly effective thriller that despite a low budget, is about as high impact as possible. The cast is headed up by the late great Hal Holbrook and Lawrence Dane, two pack leaders in a team of five career medical professionals who are so far from the white coats and fluorescent lit hallways they usually no doubt inhabit, on a ruthless trek through the harshest terrain made all the more strenuous by the fact that they are being tracked, hunted and terrorized by an unseen individual who knows the region, and the psychological complexity of predator vs prey, far better than these fellows. This obviously has a Deliverance vibe on paper but not only is it a far stronger film than that (Boorman’s piece is a tad over-celebrated in my book), it isn’t just that tired old ‘big city blowhards tormented by inbred backwood yahoos’, there’s an actual believable reason why this person has targeted them, revealed bit by bit as their heinous ordeal unfolds. What also makes this so effective is the writing and performances; every character is fully fleshed out and feels like a real human being instead of a token archetype of your classic group dynamic, thanks to a script that has both compassion and condemnation for its characters in the same complex stroke. These are genuine human beings and the actors, Holbrook and Dane in particular, play them uncannily well in perhaps the performances of their careers. Not to mention the lush, lake speckled Northern Ontario scenery that abruptly turns stark, threatening and very Mordor-esque later on in the third act to mirror the increasingly hopeless plight of the men wandering through this desolate and unforgiving realm. This is an exceptional film, with a few damaged reels (VHS lines and cigarette burns lovingly dot the celluloid landscape) and Shudder has done a great job restoring what it could into Blu Ray quality while retaining a frayed, Grindhouse visual aesthetic at the same time. Highly, highly recommended.
There’s a lot of trash been talked about the Alien Vs Predator films and.. yeah, I’m not going to argue, they’re not the greatest thing in the universe, let alone the canon. But at least the second film, given the appropriate subheading Requiem, had the decency to actually be R rated and go for broke with gore, violence and ooze as we are accustomed to from each respective franchise and, as dutiful fans, no doubt deserve. While the first film was a lore-heavy, multidimensional Antarctic set SciFi horror with a ton of exposition, this one ditches all of that for a lush Canadian Pacific Northwest setting and a very thinly plotted slasher aesthetic wherein the residents of a quiet Vancouver suburb encounter both species when a predator research spacecraft carrying a bunch of alien face-huggers crash lands nearby. I won’t go too much into detail regarding the characters because they are just beyond cliched. Hot dumb blonde dating the asshole jock, underdog pizza delivery boy hopelessly in love with her, cue violent altercations blah blah who honestly cares, the writers literally put less than no effort into that arena. Tough guy town sheriff (John Ortiz) rallying the troops to fight these beasties and a mysterious army colonel (Robert Joy, adding the film’s only recognizable horror pedigree as far as cast goes) who has some egregious agenda connected to the Yutani corporation. Much of the film is shot in dim or dark settings like the first, so the action isn’t always discernible or legible, but there are a whole parade of Xenomorphs just crawling all over the place which is fun. One way this one succeeds is in its gruesome viciousness; the gore, kills, splatter and deaths here are an absolutely spectacular array of surprisingly nasty (we see kids and a pregnant mother in a hospital butchered by the marauding Aliens) set pieces and carnage, and when it comes time for the two species to have their WWE Smackdown the series of fights between them are brutal and not disappointing. The film has zero mythology and strips down all of that world building for a simple tale of one Canadian town being decimated by these two warring species as they beat each other senseless, and that’s pretty much it. I didn’t hate this film, and I didn’t love it but I sure as hell admired its willingness to go full on hard R like these franchises were always meant to be, unlike its pansy ass predecessor. And one more thing: this is the only film on record in either canon to feature an Alien/Predator crossbreed creature that seems to show up out of nowhere, and while that probably just means it was created in a lab by the Predator species who appear to be busy bees as far as experimentation goes here, I’d fondly like to think that at some point two of them fucked and had gnarly acid-lubed intergalactic alien sexy time, and I’ll leave you with whatever lovely mental image that may conjure up. Good bloody fun.
I expected Shadow Of The Hawk to be campy, cheesy or at the very least creaky, but this is a genuinely spooky, effective and quite earnest old school ghost story with three good natured lead performances, absolutely gorgeous Vancouver locations and eerie, atmospheric indigenous mythology. The great Chief Dan George plays a Native elder who voyages from his home in the British Columbia mountains to find his halfbreed grandson (the late Jan-Michael Vincent), to get his ancestral help in battling the ghost of an ancient sorceress who has put a deadly curse on their bloodline. Grandson is less than happy to be pulled into a facet of his life that he’s actively distanced himself from, but has no choice really as the dark magician and her evil minions are plaguing his life too. Together with a helpful reporter (Marilyn Hassett) they embark on a road trip into the sacred lands of BC to contend with these powerful dark forces amassing against them and cleanse their family lineage of this voodoo mysticism. Being an obscure 70’s horror flick theres naturally a touch of camp, most notably in Vincent’s doe eyed, slightly androgynous aura, but for the most part this plays it straight and spooky. The spirit of this witch first manifests as a legitimately terrifying masked phantom that haunts the characters wherever they go accompanied by some sound design that truly stood my hairs on end, then later she shows up in dreamy flashbacks as a snake charming witch-doctor played by Vancouver indigenous actress Marianne Jones. There are very well done set pieces here including a white knuckle suspension bridge crossing, an ongoing car chase between our three leads and a mysterious, supernatural black car that tails them all around the BC landscape. Vincent must fight a bear to death and as if that wasn’t strenuous enough then a Wolf as well *and* some masked cultist acolytes of the sorceress high atop a craggy bluff in a confrontation that has some Last Of The Mohicans vibes. It’s a fun film, with some really engaging visual atmosphere, very frightening score and a neat ‘modern world clashing with ancient spiritualism’ feeling as our characters venture from the cement and glass world of 70’s Vancouver out into the lush, elemental Pacific Northwest wonderland of British Columbia.
It can be jarring when horror sequels do something almost entirely different with their concept but still use that same franchise name as the first one, it either means bravely pioneering new ground or gravely deviating from an already solid blueprint into a morass of sideshow muck. In the case of White Noise 2: The Light I couldn’t tell you which of those two categories it fits into because it was such a confounding, nonsensical story I really didn’t make too much sense of any of it, so I suppose the second one if I had to say. Following the exploits of the excellent first film in which we saw Michael Keaton communicate with the dead, including his wife, via spooky VHS tape static, this one goes in a drastically different direction. Nathan Fillion plays a guy whose wife and child are murdered in the opening scene of the film by a disturbed, gun wielding maniac (perennial UK tough guy Craig Fairbrass) before the man blows his own head off. Lost in a pit of despair, Fillion attempts suicide himself and has a brief trip to the afterlife (cue the XBox 360 cutscene effects) before returning to make it a near death experience and discovering he has certain… abilities. Premonition, foresight, the power to sense impending catastrophes and save those in their path and the clairvoyance to know when certain seemingly benign people are going to perpetrate horrible acts of their own, kinda like the guy… well you can see where this going. He meets a friendly nurse played by the wonderful Katee Sackhoff and I must admit that their pairing is pretty much a casting match made in Heaven and the best thing the film has going for it, even if the script doesn’t do all that much with them together. The cast beyond them aren’t people I recognized except for a hilarious early career cameo from Jared Keeso, who Letterkenny fans will be just tickled to see here and may even do a double take. The film is set in Vancouver again and as always it adds a lot of atmosphere, but you can only do so much for a story that’s told as loosely and unconvincingly as this. There’s no real reference to the first film or it’s premise, this for sure didn’t even need to be called White Noise at all, it’s more a sequel to that Sandra Bullock flick Premonition than anything resembling a tie-in to the Keaton one, and it’s just not gripping, interesting, scary or affecting enough to recommend whatsoever. If you must give it a look to see Fillion and Sackhoff gently flirting for a few scenes then go for it, I don’t blame you, but just don’t expect anything close to an involving thriller here.
There’s home invasion films and then there’s whatever pseudo-psychological cosmic fuckery that transpires in Paul Fox‘s The Dark Hours, and I mean that in the best way possible way, this is a superior Canadian indie shocker that will knock your teeth out with its cunning verbosity, ruthless edge, terrifying villains and spooky atmospherics. Kate Greenhouse is Dr. Samantha Goodman, a veteran psychiatrist with a lot of inmates turned enemies who is spending some time away from her practice at a remote rural cabin with her hubbie (Gordon Currie) and little sis (Iris Graham). Unfortunately a former patient she once used shady malpractice on has followed her out there though, menacing serial rapist/murderer Harlan Pyne (Aiden Devine) with his twitchy, violent teen protege (Dov Tiefenbach) in tow. Harlan is extremely unstable, narcoleptic, sociopathic and out for mind-games, murder and revenge most sweet. Cue a very violent, anxiety inducing close quarters battle as we see the (not so?) good doctor match will, wit and physicality with this deadly psychopath and his monkeying lackey. Or do we? The third act of the film throws some metaphysical, supremely psychologically dense curveballs our way and there’s a reason for this: Samantha suffers from an inoperable brain tumour that causes unreliable rifts in perception, waking visions and all manner of cognitive disruptions. Additionally and for fascinating reasons that I won’t spoil.. Pyne suffers from the same type of ailments. So, we have an unreliable protagonist *and* an unreliable antagonist in an eerie setting with other characters orbiting them as cannon fodder for this brain damaged showdown and the result is nothing short of electrifying. The script is terse, intelligent, full of dark humour and vivid character eccentricity, the horror is shocking, genuinely unpredictable and very disturbing, the performances are raw, lithe and full of life and the overall aesthetic feels like a delicious concoction of Panic Room with splashes of Memento by way of the cabin in the woods motif. The very definition of a hidden gem, and a terrific film. This is streaming nowhere and dvds are apparently hard to find but there’s a decent version on YouTube, anyone can DM/email if they would like the link.
Paolo Barzman’s Emotional Arithmetic is a stunning independent drama that, despite a ridiculously prolific cast, ultimately slipped through the cracks into obscurity. It’s well worth hunting down to see four seasoned professionals as the top of their game in telling the story of various characters dealing with the lingering horrors of the Holocaust, both directly and indirectly. Susan Sarandon plays a Canadian woman sometime in the 80’s who survived a concentration camp at a very young age, and has invited two fellow survivors (Max Von Sydow & Gabriel Byrne) to a reunion at her house in the Quebec countryside where they will reconnect after decades of separation following a tragically abrupt parting from each other and will have the chance to meet her much older husband (Christopher Plummer) and their son (Roy Dupuis). It’s a pleasant, cathartic enough reunion but the collective scars they share from enduring such a horrific phase of their lives are apparent in each of them, in different ways. Byrne’s quiet, introspective character has buried his trauma under a cloak of calm, Von Sydow deliberately tried to forget using electroshock therapy, while Sarandon herself has obsessively documented, scrapbooked and reflected on their past very openly over the years to employ her own process. Plummer’s character is the outsider, having never gone through what they did and starts the film off in a sort of cavalier, borderline insensitive way until the grave reality of what his wife and her friends have suffered through hits home and he becomes more compassionate. All of the performances are absolutely magnificent and I really wish more people were able to see this moving film because each of these actors provide showcase work and should be very proud. If you are lucky enough to find a DVD, please ignore the misleading, stupid Hallmark style artwork and silly alternate title (Autumn Hearts, are you kidding me? Lol) because it’s as if the distribution company didn’t even watch the film and just did whatever the hell they wanted. This is not a sappy, syrupy film at all, it’s a deep, thoughtful, challenging interpersonal drama that stirs the soul in a realistic fashion without cheap manipulation. Highly recommended, wonderful hidden gem of a film.
Shoot To Kill (aka Deadly Pursuit) is a spectacularly suspenseful, beautifully scenic thriller that knows how to stage action set pieces like nobody’s business. It’s also famous for the return of Sydney Poitier to acting after a near decade long hiatus, but that aside it’s just a crackling great film on its own. Part adventure, part chase flick, part psycho thriller, it could even serve as a nature documentary for all the breathtaking shots of Canadian Pacific Northwest wilderness. Poitier plays a big city cop who is on the trail of a homicidal, hellbent jewel thief who has covered his tracks by disappearing amongst a team of hikers venturing out into the mountains. Poitier is obligated to use the services of expert mountain man Tom Berenger to find the party before things inevitably get violent, and take down the maniac for good. He has his own stake in it as his girlfriend (Kirstie Alley) is the group’s guide. It’s a tense guessing game to see which one of the hikers eventually reveals himself as the killer, and since they’re all played by hard-cases like Richard Masur, Clancy Brown and Andy Robinson, it’s a gleeful toss up. Poitier and Berenger naturally butt heads, and it’s funny to see the straight city slicker and gruff outdoorsman archetypes clash. They pursue the killer up the Oregon belt and into the Cascade Mountains, eventually arriving in my hometown of Vancouver which actually gets to play itself for once instead of doubling for some yankee burg. This one holds up great and hasn’t lost a bit of its edge in the years since it came out. Tough, rugged, brutal but gorgeous piece of large scale thriller cinema.