Tom Provost’s The Presence

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.

-Nate Hill

Matt Palmer’s Calibre

It’s funny how in one instance of miscalculation, a situation can turn deadly and lives can spiral irreparably out of control. Matt Palmer’s Calibre, a stunning Scottish Netflix original thriller, shows just what happens when two Edinburgh pals (Jack Lowden & Martin McCann) venture out into the rural highlands for a hunting trip and some friendly interaction with the local townsfolk, some of which are amicable and receptive towards these two city boys, and others who are not. But… it’s their own damn fault if I’m being honest. Firstly, after a night of pubs and partying, one of them gives cocaine to a troubled local gal and ends up sleeping with her, which already puts them in hot water with her volatile father and his goons. What really gets them up the creek though is when they accidentally shoot and kill a hiking father and his eleven year old kid on their hunting excursion, and instead of simply telling the villagers what they’ve done and fessing up like real men, they bury the bodies and play dumb like a couple of pansy fools. Well something like that never stays buried and soon it’s a nerve frying game of suspense as to when these two bodies will be found, how the townsfolk will correlate the city boys involvement and what will be done about it. There’s a lot of films where city folk piss off country folk and horrible things happen, but this one ditches the lurid, pulpy overtones of something like Deliverance and levels with us on a plane that’s decidedly more down to earth and grounded, yet no less chilling. As in many tight knit small town communities there are two elders who collectively call the shots but have differing outlooks and personalities: a hotheaded, violent piece of work with unchecked rage issues (Brian McClay, Scotland’s answer to Ray Liotta) who wants to deal with the these two swiftly and ruthlessly, and a more level headed, calm and rational man (Tony Curran, excellent) who wants to aim for the least damaging outcome. These two provide terrific performances and a fascinating dynamic for this brutal, tragic turn of events to unfold in. I’ll be honest, I was rooting for these townsfolk the entire time; they were initially hospitable, reasonable albeit rowdy people who did their best to be nice to these outsiders, who in turn showed them disrespect at every turn and instantly made neglectful, stupid decisions to get themselves into trouble, then into further trouble. What did they think was going to happen? This story plays out in very believable fashion, the characters behave in a way that makes sense, cliches are consistently and cleverly avoided and substituted with realistic beats and relatable human character decisions, it works as a crackling thriller, dark morality play, grim cautionary tale and atmospheric rural nightmare. Great film.

-Nate Hill

Underworld: Evolution

Kate Beckinsale roars back into action with Underworld: Evolution, a sequel that, like many follow ups, isn’t as structured or fresh as the first but still manages to be every inch as stylish, baroque and gorgeous looking as the other few in the series I’ve seen (I am making my way through a Blu Ray box set of all five films in their extended cut glory). The action takes up right where it left off; outcast warrior Selene (Beckinsale) has killed vamp elder Viktor (Bill Nighy) and ran off into the night with her halfbreed lover Michael (Scott Speedman) with monstrous final boss Marcus in hot pursuit. This provides one of the entire franchise’s most jaw dropping, visually dynamic action sequences as they careen down Vancouver’s Sea To Sky highway against a muted overcast sky in a big rig semi truck. Now Marcus (Tony Curran under a metric ton of makeup) is one of those snazzy Spawn-esque vamps who can fly and has extra razor sharp limbs and cool bodily accessories to help him fight, so basically he’s flying alongside them at a crazy speed attacking the truck while Selene empties clip after clip into his face from her semiautomatics before ploughing right into the Britannia Mine tunnels, it’s just an exhilarating, incredibly well shot action sequence and the highlight of the film. Also I’m a bit tired of American studios filming here and then trying to pass off my beautiful home province as some place in the states or wherever so from now on I’m just going to refer to any film shot in Vancouver as being set here as well. Anyways, this is a solid entry that benefits from Marcus as a formidable, physically ruthless villain and continues the ongoing trend of seasoned British stage actors cast as vampire elders, Derek Jacobi stepping in here for a mostly absent Bill Nighy. Not my favourite of the series that I’ve seen so far, but a solid entry with memorable set pieces including a snowy medieval prologue that sets the tone for Rise Of The Lycans, an impressive climax set atop a ruined mountain castle complete with hovering helicopters and that Sea To Sky truck chase is just one for the ages.

-Nate Hill

John McTiernan’s The 13th Warrior

There’s always those films whose reputation is more widely known than themselves, where the stormy production or behind the scenes drama caused such a ruckus and eclipsed the final product, creating negative buzz whether or not the film is good. John McTiernan’s The 13th Warrior is one of those, I haven’t read up exactly on what went wrong but I’ve always felt the film that was born out of whatever trouble there was is an excellent one.

Antonio Banderas stars as an unconventional version of the badass hero we’re used to, one who starts off as anything but that and has to earn his way to glory. He plays a Persian poet sometime around 900AD, a man who is sent away for macking on the sultan’s wife and captured by a roving band of Vikings. They are amassing an army of elite specialist warriors to bring back home in the north in order to defeat a near indestructible menace that is moving in on their land. Banderas finds himself caught up in the war, alone with the tribe and forced grab a sword, find his courage and take a few swings at this fearsome enemy. The plot is fairly simple stuff but it’s atmosphere and character development that win the day here, as well as epic production design. Banderas starts off as basically a pampered court jester who the Norsemen mock and ridicule, until he learns their ways and a bond of brotherhood forms, an arc from both parties that is handled with dignity and heart. The enemy they fight are an unseen horror who burn, kill and eat everything in their path, there’s a sense of genuine fear and threat when they show up and the battles are staged with smoke, mist and fire for ultimate atmospheric effect. A highlight is when they raid underground caverns used to hide out in via ships and you really get a sense of setting as well as budget on display. Banderas is supported by various people including Vladimir Kulich as the heroic Buliwyf, Diane Venora, Tony Curran, Richard Bremmer, Sven Wollter and a very brief Omar Sharif.

People can talk shit about this one all they want but I really feel like they’re thinking of the troubled production instead of the film itself and need to get their heads out of the sand, and refocus their gaze. This may be a fairly scrappy flick but it’s simply not a bad film. Banderas is a solid lead, there’s a tactile sense of wonder to the settings, both southern and northern and McTiernan mounts the sieges, battles, massacres and poetic revelry assuredly. Great film.

-Nate Hill

Michael Mann’s Miami Vice

Michael Mann’s Miami Vice is a lot of things. Hypnotic, sedated mood piece. Thrumming, rhythmic action picture. Deeply romantic. More going on underneath it’s surface than what you see onscreen. Masterful crime piece. Showcase for digitally shot film. Restless, nocturnal urban dream. One thing it is decidedly not, however, is anything similar to the bright ‘n sunny, pastel suited 80’s cable TV show of the same name, also pioneered by Mann, at a more constricted and likely very different point in his career. A lot can be said for the show though, it’s instantly iconic and was one among a stable of crimeprimetime™ (The Equalizer and Crime Story did their part as well) to give many actors their break, actors who we take for granted as stars today. Mann’s film version is a different beast entirely, a likely reason for the uneasy audience reception. Let’s be clear: it’s one of the best films of the last few decades. Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx make a deliberately moodier, more dangerous Ricardo and Tubbs, and their high stakes undercover work is set against an austerely fatalistic Miami that bares little resemblance to travel brochures, let alone the tv show many were used to. Their story starts one of two ways, depending on whether or not you view the extended director’s cut, which is the version I’d choose as it sets up tone before throwing you into a hectic nightclub sting operation they’ve got going, which is hastily interrupted by the exposure of a CI snitch (John Hawkes in a haunting cameo). This sets them on course to take down a powerful Cuban drug syndicate run by a scarily calm Luis Tosar and hotheaded maverick John Ortiz. Farrell gets involved with a girl from their fold, of course (Gong Li is a vision), a romance that has grown on me over the years, while Foxx is involved with beautiful fellow cop Naomie Harris, yielding heart wrenching moments in the final act. Darting in and out of the story as well are Tom Towles, Justin Theroux, Isaach De Bánkole, Eddie Marsan, Barry Shabaka Henley, Tony Curran and Ciaran Hinds, all vital cogs in a well oiled, momentous machine that doesn’t drop it’s pulse for a second. Composer John Murphy piles on the mood with his mournful score, highlighting evening boat-rides, shadowy shoot outs and outdoor nightclubs with a top tier soundscape, while cinematographer Dion Beebe works tirelessly to get shot after shot looking mint, not an easy task with a film this energetic and particularly lit. From start to finish it’s to the point as well, Mann has no interest in useless exposition, mapped out play by plays or cheesy moments. Everything careens along at a realistic pace and you’re on your own if you can’t keep up or make sense of the off the cuff cop jargon. There’s stillness too though, in a torn up Farrell watching his love disappear on the horizon, Foxx looking on from beside a hospital bed or simply either of them glowering out at the skyline from a rooftop pulpit before things Heat up. Like I said, do the extended version and you’ll get that terrific opener to set you up, instead of being thrown in the deep end right off the bat. Either way though, Miami Vice is one for the ages. 

-Nate Hill