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

Rituals

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.

-Nate Hill

Indie Gems: Paul Fox’s The Dark Hours

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.

-Nate Hill

Indie Gems: Paolo Barzman’s Emotional Arithmetic

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.

-Nate Hill