The Presence is one of those horror films that sets itself up so perfectly, so evocatively and effectively drew me in so well in the first act that it was profoundly frustrating when the rest of the film kind of loses its way, to some degree anyway. Sometimes simplicity is key and films start off with a setting and aesthetic so pure and distilled they don’t realize their story would just be more powerful if they stuck with that instead of shoehorned over-complication that muddies up an otherwise pristine experience. The first third of this film sees a haunted looking Mira Sorvino as an unnamed woman at a cabin by a lake (cue some lovely Oregon scenery), on solo vacation to wrestle with some personal demons. From the first few frames we learn there is in fact a ghost also in this cabin and about the grounds, a mute and mostly still figure played by the gaunt, angular presence of Shane West, who we remember as the boyfriend in A Walk To Remember. There’s a hushed, hypnotic aura as Mira goes about her chores around the cabin in silence, sleeps alone and wanders the grounds of the island seemingly both searching and at rest, while West’s pale-faced spectre observes her in sentinel stillness from various spots. Then all of a sudden her boyfriend (Justin Kirk) arrives from the city and, like a vacuum, all the atmosphere is sucked out of the frame as a level of dialogue ridden dramatic heft shoves its way into an otherwise unique experience. There is tension between them almost immediately as the ghost continues to observe, she is clearly not excited to have him around and he presses a marriage proposal on her that seems rushed to her. Then as if that whole angle wasn’t enough clutter, another strange supernatural being shows up personified by Scottish actor Tony Curran as some kind of demon who influences both Mira and the ghost while wearing a black suit that seems jarringly out of place amidst the otherwise earthen, elemental tone and the whole thing just speeds up way too fast. There’s also a subplot involving a vaguely sinister shopkeeper (Muse Watson) who delivers supplies to the island by boat, and this ongoing romantic tension that permeates the atmosphere. One aspect I did find fascinating was that Mira’s character was sexually abused by her father as a child and part of her journey out to this childhood property is to confront the memory and trauma of that. But why all this Faustian narrative diarrhea that feels forced into the script somehow? The opening act is SO effective, so eerie and well wrought, why couldn’t we have just coexisted with her and the ghost and the trees for 90 minutes as she grapples with her traumas among a peaceful yet unnerving nature environment? This is all of course just my reaction to the film and some may have gotten a kick out of the ‘whispering demon’ angle but to me it felt like a crippling element to an otherwise engaging and immersive setting and premise. Shame, because the first third is really something worth watching, right up until the boyfriend shows up and the dialogue starts.
Julia Roberts has many notorious pop culture hits under her belt, all of which become memorable for a reason: they’re flashy, relatable, well made crowd pleasers like Erin Brockovich or Pretty Woman. But that irresistible charm (if you’re a fan of hers) was also put to great use in some quieter, more challenging and less accessible pieces like Lasse Hallstrom’s Something To Talk About, an interpersonal dramedy that explores the relationship between her and her husband (Dennis Quaid) in the aftermath of him cheating on her. She comes from a big family, has headstrong parents (Robert Duvall and Gena Rowlands) who have an influential role in her life and a fiery, fiercely protective older sister (Kyra Sedgwick is fantastic) who literally kicks Quaid in the nuts when she finds out. Now, this is a 90’s film and doesn’t have the same perspective on life we now know today, so her frustration, anger and outrage at her husband’s infidelity isn’t taken as seriously as it could be right off the bat. Duvall is more worried how it may be bad for business than any emotional toll it will take on his daughter, while she simply wants to be heard and allowed to be pissed off at the guy. Her husband reacts with a sheepish wounded animal tactic that wears off when he realizes his wife is smarter than that, and Quaid handles the arc carefully and humbly. It’s basically about the snowball effect an affair can have in a close quarters family situation, and while I enjoyed some of the laughs provided by Roberts deliberately exposing other sneaky cheaters in their tight knit community, I connected most when the film focused on her as a woman wronged, and a woman who’s not afraid to stand up for herself, even if it means stirring shit up royally. She’s a movie star with a mile wide smile and people know her as such, but I think that the high profile roles sometimes have us forgetting what an absolute diamond of an actress she is as well, and small, character driven pieces like this serve well to remind. She rocks it here, and is supported by all around her including Muse Watson, Brett Cullen and Haley Aull as their intuitive daughter. A treasure.
I’m a huge fan of the Hallmark style drama films, and anyone who scoffs at the inherent melodrama or perceived schmaltz is missing the point completely and deliberately robbing themselves of the therapeutic, diversional catharsis one can find in them. When you’re feeling shitty about the world, your problems or any other negativity, they can be a life affirming escape because they almost always are just small stories about kind people, families overcoming trouble or getting together for various holidays, just pleasant, earnest entertainment for entertainment’s sake, simplicity itself. Joyce Chopra’s The Last Cowboy is a fine example, and especially a treasure for the way it casts usually edgy, frequently villainous character actors in sympathetic, against type lead roles. The great Lance Henriksen is Will Cooper, a stubborn, salt of the earth old school rancher whose land is in danger of being seized by the bank. After his estranged daughter Jake (Jennie Garth) returns home with her young son after many years absence, it becomes clear that it’s up to her and Will to reconcile their differences, put the pain of the past behind them and work together to save the ranch before it’s too late. Henriksen is always a dynamic actor and imbues Jake with grit and grace, while Garth, who I haven’t seen in a single other thing, does a great job too. The real scene stealer is character actor M.C. Gainey as Amos, Will’s lovable farmhand, friend and confidante. This is a special role for him because he’s almost always found playing roughneck bikers, evil criminals or redneck truckers, but here he’s an honest to goodness decent human being and he just nails it. Bradley Cooper shows up as well in a more subdued role as a horse owner who brings business to Will and stirs Jake’s heart. This is a small, very low budget TV movie and has barely ever seen the light of day in terms of exposure (it took me like five years to track down a DVD), but it’s heartfelt, really well acted and if you’re a fan of anyone in this cast it’s a rare gem.