Michael Sarnoski’s Pig

Nicolas Cage just wants his beloved pet Pig back in a film that’s a lot more subdued, moody, rainy and melancholic than you might think, a Pacific Northwest tone poem about loss, grief, commerce, loneliness and truffles. It’s a strange brew of genre and tonal elements, but director Michael Sarnoski (in his feature debut, no less) spins them all together like the best chefs for a sensory experience and cinematic recipe that is something masterful, weird, eerily lingering and so deeply, deeply sad I had to watch some South Park afterwards before bed just so the heartbreaking, soul shaking beats of this narrative wouldn’t follow me into my dreams. Cage’s former legendary chef lives a hushed, reverent existence, haunting a stretch of rugged Oregon mountain country and dwelling in a simple shack with his pig, foraging and selling truffles to a cocky industry upstart (Alex Wolff, brilliant) from the city for a meagre living. When his pig is snatched in the night by poachers, he journeys back to Portland to a life and a restaurant scene he thought he left behind to find her, and along with her the last remaining ray of dim hope left in his broken, weary soul. This isn’t just about losing a pig, or finding a pig once again you see, it’s about loss overall, that of Cage’s character and that of the other two principal characters in the story, Wolff’s wayward young “entrepreneur” who has lost the favour of his restaurant mafia kingpin father (Adam Arkin, never scarier nor more bitterly pitiful) who has lost something so deep that he can’t even articulate it in words, and it takes involuntary sense memory to even get him to acknowledge it to *himself*. Sarnoski presents the Portland food scene as a frightening, clandestine mob underworld, a choice that could have easily come across as parody or tongue in cheek but the solemn atmosphere and deadly serious writing make it freakishly believable, I’ve spent time with people who work in that industry and it’s really not a far cry or embellishment from how it actually is. Cage’s performance is one of staggering vulnerability and shaggy, end-of-the-road resolve, a once worshipped god of cuisine reduced to a shambling ghost of greatness, made so by a tragedy he never speaks about and the film only carefully hints at. The poor lost Pig is indeed really his pet, whom he loves dearly, but she serves to represent that which we have all lost at onetime or another, that hidden thing that’s hard to talk about and sometimes makes us want to disappear into the woods of the northwest, live in a cabin and never see another human face again. This is a courageous film for allowing an actor like Cage to explore these painful, challenging themes against a backdrop of food, rain, trees and austere hierarchical czars and barons of fine cookery, a realm that is as fascinating as it is unsettling. Just be careful though man, because to be perfectly candid this film is sad as fuck, like maybe the most thoroughly spirit-dampening experience I’ve had in cinema for awhile, it took me a good hour to shake off the hopeless feeling it leaves you with, such is it’s power. It’s essential viewing for many many reasons, more than I’ve touched on here, but it should be wielded carefully, especially if you have issues with depression or immediate grief. I look forward to whatever comes next from Sarnoski, who has quietly ushered himself onto the scene with a stunningly powerful first feature, and provided Cage with what might be the role of his career so far. An absolute showstopper of a film.

-Nate Hill

Canadian greatness: Phillip Borsos’ The Grey Fox

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.

-Nate Hill

Alien Vs Predator: Requiem

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.

-Nate Hill

Shadow Of The Hawk

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.

-Nate Hill

Shoot To Kill aka Deadly Pursuit

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.

-Nate Hill

William Friedkin’s The Hunted

William Friedkin’s The Hunted is the kind of blunt, ruggedly visceral, artery slicing action picture we should be seeing more of in modern times. Where in other films there’s car chases, shootouts and the man to man violence is impossibly elaborate, Friedkin goes primal here, with knife fights that cut to the basics of the human body and its movements, fight scenes that make us wince because we can feel each jab and tear, as the camera dives in close to give us a dose of intimate adrenaline. While the story is simple enough, there’s a haunted complexity to Benicio Del Toro as a highly trained ex marine who has lost his mind. Someone with that skill set is a dangerous person when they go off the rails, and soon this traumatized warrior is hunting people for sport in the Washington rainforest. The only one who can track and possibly stop him is his former Lieutenant and trainer, played with earnest frankness by Tommy Lee Jones. The flashback scenes of Del Toro’s training are very matter of fact, as Jones shows him, without emotion or bias, how to wound or kill another human being in the most efficient way possible. This has made him into a deadly weapon, but they never took his psyche into account, which has run amok. I love action films set in the gorgeous Pacific Northwest region (see Shoot To Kill with Tom Berenger, another great one) where I live, the scenery takes on a lush, mossy personality of it’s own here. The latter half of the film is purely just Jones hunting Del Toro through the Northern wilderness, each using their skills, setting booby traps, reading the terrain until the eventual bloody confrontation. When I say bloody, I mean just that ; Their knife fight is some of the best close quarters action I’ve ever seen, and will have you shielding your major organs as you watch them slice and slash. Friedkin here acts the same way Michael Mann operates with his gunfight sequences: they both understand that less is more with these types of set pieces, to not go overboard and throw all the cards in (John Woo does this, but with grace and style), but to let the action be realistic, impactful in it’s pacing and land with the real threat and consequences of violence instead of screaming overkill. If this film has come out in the 70’s or 80’s like the vibe it exudes, it would have had one of those beautifully hand drawn vintage posters. There should be a criterion edition or some sort of boutique release that revamps the artwork and provides the ultimate DVD package for this film, because it’s one of the finest action movies ever made.

-Nate Hill