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

Stephen King’s Misery

It took me a while to finally catch up with Stephen King’s Misery (as adapted by Rob Reiner) but what spectacularly unsettling horror film, mostly thanks to an almost unbearably intense Kathy Bates. I can picture King during the writing process of this book waking up in a cold clammy sweat from a trauma induced nightmare about some psycho stalker fan (I’m sure he’s had a few), feverishly grabbing pen and paper from his nightstand and scribbling off another chapter. Reiner & Co. capture the cold dread, deafening isolation and mounting hopelessness of the story wonderfully, as unlucky hotshot novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan) finds himself injured, stranded and finally ‘rescued’ by super-fan Annie Wilkes (Bates), rushed off to her remote snowy cabin and nursed back to health.. and then some. The great thing about Bates’ performance is she doesn’t make Annie a complete outright monster, there are momentary flashes of something resembling humanity, albeit of a lonely, bitter, misshapen kind. She takes the maniacal behaviour to extreme heights by starting on a slow burn that has us *slightly* on edge and gradually turning the dial up to a deafening roar of obsessive behaviour, delusional fantasies and homicidal volatility. It’s a wicked sharp, playful, very somehow simultaneously in control and unhinged piece of acting, while Caan, in a difficult role, is bed ridden as he bears witness to and takes the full brunt of her tempestuous meltdown. The chilly winter setting is a huge plus, my cup of tea atmosphere indeed and the beautiful snowed in locations make for a splendid visual feast. We spend most of our time with Caan and Bates yet there is a curated supporting cast of memorable folks including Lauren Bacall, Frances Sternhagen, Reiner himself, the late great Richard Farnsworth as a charismatic local Sheriff and the also late great J.T. Walsh as the county’s most inept state trooper. I feel like King took the masochistic route here and heavily projected himself into the role of Paul, the trapped artist forced to plonk out new work on an aggressive timeline not of his own delineation. What trials and hardships is he trying to wrestle out of his mind by telling this story? The crushing doom of a publishing deadline? The vacuous, soul-eating doldrums of writer’s block? The no doubt nerve-wracking, paranoia laced burden of dealing with a fanbase of oddball horror nuts? Who can say. But this feels like a personal story for him, and it’s certainly a very well told, acted and produced film full of deeply shocking moments, icy tension and an antagonist for the ages served up by Bates who, to quote herself, is one ‘cockadoodie’ chick. Great film.

-Nate Hill

David Lynch’s The Straight Story

Nothing says determination like driving a John Deere ride-on lawnmower nearly three hundred miles across two states to visit a loved one who is sick. David Lynch’s The Straight Story tells the tale of Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), a man in his 80’s with failing eyesight and bad hips who can’t drive and therefore takes it upon himself to trawl his trusty mower, trailer in tow, across Iowa into Wisconsin to see his estranged brother (Harry Dean Stanton) who has had a massive stroke. It’s an unbelievable story but it really happened, and what’s more amazing and gives it authenticity you can’t fake is that Farnsworth, ever a trooper, was suffering from bone cancer throughout the shoot and champed it out anyways.

Straight, a WWII veteran with a tragic past, lives the quiet life with his daughter (Sissy Spacek) in a sleepy farming town until news of his brother Lyle’s condition reaches him. After buying a new mower from the local Deere dealer (a welcome cameo from Lynch regular Everett ‘Big Ed’ McGill) he sets out on a deeply personal solo voyage across hills, valleys, mountains, wheat fields, tree lined country roads and backwood fields. He meets and has poignant, clear eyed interaction with many folk along the way including a fellow vet, a pregnant teenage girl and a woman who can’t stop ploughing through deer on the interstate, which provides Lynch with the one sneaky opportunity to inject some of his trademark lunacy into the only Disney film he ever made.

There’s something so simple and so essential about both Alvin’s story and Lynch and Farnsworth’s methods of telling it to us. Even as the film opens we get a hazy aerial shot of golden fields in the evening sun and hear Angelo Badalamenti’s achingly beautiful, quietly reverent original score and a mood is set like no other. Everyone is decent and kind in this film, yet Lynch makes it very apparent that mistakes have been made and no one is perfect in their lives. Straight is just like his name, an open hearted fellow who has nothing left to withhold. He admits to losing years to alcohol, making mistakes in the war and falling out heavily with his brother years before. It’s a personal quest for him, and we get the sense that he won’t let anyone else drive him there out of sheer dedication to this final odyssey that will take him to his twilight years. It’s Lynch’s most benign film, but in no way is it dumbed down, sugar coated or blunted of an edge. The filmmaker has always been about truth wrapped in beauty, and all the desire to explore human nature is still on display here, only given a gentler, more elegiac touch. A masterpiece.

-Nate Hill