"Northfork": Awesome -- and annoying

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent  |  July 18, 2003 at 7:24 PM
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LOS ANGELES, July 18 (UPI) -- "Northfork" is the most spectacular looking $2 million movie in decades. One staggering image succeeds another in the Polish Brothers' precocious and precious vision of a half-mystical Montana. For example, a little boy plays on what becomes -- due to the treeless desolation of the foreground, the mountainous grandeur of the background, and the monumental symmetry of director Michael Polish's framing -- the Platonic Ideal of backyard swing sets.

At age 44, visual artistry seldom provides me anymore with that old rapturous buzz, but "Northfork" delivered, for perhaps the first time since last year's "Unfaithful."

At age 31, Michael and Mark Polish are still in the extended prime of what novelist Milan Kundera calls the "lyric age." They possess the young artist's obsession with finding beautiful patterns in the world and revealing them with hallucinatory emphasis. There's something spiritual about their search for the perfect camera angle to show that even in the dingiest of diners, the ceiling lamps recede with a lavish regard for the laws of perspective that would have delighted Van Eyck or Vermeer.

Nonetheless, audiences watch movies for plot and personality, not perspective. "Northfork" is reminiscent of "2001: A Space Odyssey" in the way it elicits both awe and annoyance. Sure, "2001" is a classic, but admit it, there were times Stanley Kubrick got so pretentious and ponderous that you felt like punching him on the nose.

Indeed, I frequently wanted to wring the Polish Brothers' identical twin necks for making a film more grating than great. Yet, who else's movie this summer deserves even slighting comparisons to "2001"?

Their talent inspired three slightly over-the-hill stars -- James Woods, Nick Nolte and Daryl Hannah -- to appear for scale ($1,400 per week). The film tells their interrelated stories during the last days of the town of Northfork in 1955 before a new reservoir inundates it.

A sad, gentle Woods is one of a half dozen government agents who dress like undertakers in black overcoats and fedoras but wear angel wing insignias on their lapels to show that their job is to help lift the last holdouts to a higher place.

Meanwhile, maintaining the town's almost empty orphanage is a Catholic priest who -- with his shoulder-length gray hair, untrimmed white beard, and million-mile stare --looks alarmingly like that notorious mug shot of Nick Nolte. The priest cares for a dying little boy he calls an "angel" who was returned as defective by his adoptive parents as they hightailed it out of town.

Playing in a graveyard that's even grimmer than normal because the coffins have been exhumed and carried off, the orphan meets the still luminous Hannah and her three endearingly eccentric friends. The boy attempts to persuade them that he is their relative, the lost angel for whom they search.

Notice some Themes -- with a capital T?

As screenwriters, the Polish Brothers certainly work hard, inserting symbols here and metaphors there, then intricately connecting them. But angels have been an overworked motif in the decade and a half since Wim Wenders' set them brooding over the Berlin Wall in "Wings of Desire."

Further, "Northfork" may be too convoluted to be understood while you're watching it. The brothers actually do play fair in the end, but they engender too much confusion too early.

I wish I had understood at the time that they were employing two contrasting literary styles. The lad's fever dreams follow the nonlogic of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's magical realism. Woods' and Nolte's sequences imitate Tom Stoppard's "real surrealism," as exemplified by Stoppard's and Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun."

The grown-ups live in a world of fantastic sights with strange but reasonable explanations. While Nolte preaches to the remnants of his flock, there's no crucifix hanging behind him, just cows silhouetted against the Rockies. Why? The back wall of his church has been carted away.

Similarly, Woods finds a genuine Noah's Ark propped up on the otherwise empty Great Plains. Inside, a Mormon polygamist intends to float out the flood in Old Testament style.

In contrast, the child lives in his free-ranging imagination. The problem with magic realism is that because anything can happen, plots become pointless because there are no rules to the game. Still, "Northfork" climaxes with one touching scene worth sticking around for.

Heaven is notoriously harder to visualize than hell, but the brothers do a lovely job picturing how a dying 1950s American boy would have liked angels to sing him to his rest. Wearing a snazzy leather aviator's helmet, the orphan and his funny new family of friends board one of those cocky looking DC-3s that the Flying Tigers piloted over the Himalayan Hump, and roar off into a pink sunrise, the arc of their ascent matching the curve of the brightest glowing cloud.

Rated PG-13 for one brief sex scene.

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