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movie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Northfork

Starring: James Woods, Nick Nolte
Director: Michael Polish
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 103 Minutes
Release Date: July 2003
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Claire Forlani, Duel Farnes, Mark Polish, Daryl Hannah, Graham Beckel, Josh Barker, Peter Coyote, Jonathan Gries, Robin Sachs, Kyle MacLachlan

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1.  Harvey Karten review follows movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review
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Review by Harvey Karten
3 stars out of 4

When Michael and Mark Polish wrote the script for "Northfork," they may have had no idea that their reach for timeless, universal human values could be taken right out of this week's headlines. As warring powers in the Middle East give the Bush administration's road map for peace a try, the Israeli government is faced with the prospect of having to move Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza out of homes they've occupied perhaps for decades. Given the religious fervor that ties many of these people to the land "given to them" by biblical injunction, they will inevitably be torn not only from their four walls but from their very identity as Orthodox Jews.

While religious zealotry does not impact on the people being displaced from their homes in Michael Polish's "Northfork," they nonetheless accept that inevitably from a group of black-suited, fedora-covered bureaucrats who look like refugees from "The Matrix," or they put up a fight to the death in their determination to remain on their Montana land, the only homes they know. Like faceless bureaucrats everywhere, the funereal officials offer some money to compensate the displaced from their rickety lodgings and feel good about what they are doing because their government plans to flood the land, dam the water, and create power for the greater Montana community.

"Northfolk," however, is only partly a cautionary note against progress, seen as leaps forward which are not achieved without considerable human cost. In its grand theme about the nature of identity, the Polish brothers tackle not only the loss that comes to people when they are expelled from the land that they love but even more important, our need to be a member of a family that loves us, that does not abandon us either physically or psychologically. In realizing that motif, the Polish brothers focus on eight-year-old Irwin (Duel Farnes), an orphan who is dying and whose parents among those forced to move out of the village of Northfork, Montana return him to the man who had taken care of him, Father Harlan (Nick Nolte) rather than become inconvenienced by the need to look after the child. A fevered Irwin, convinced that he is an angel who will be rescued by others of his ilk, conjures up a cast of characters who are so strange that people in the audience who believe in the literal images of the afterlife will be more afraid of death than ever. How long can we really put up with people like the androgynous Flower Hercules (Daryl Hannah), who tells the boy that she is both his father and his mother; Cup of Tea (Robin Sachs), who serves the hot drink between his dry, cynical statements; and the legally blind Happy (Anthony Edwards), whose limited sight is bolstered by a pair of glasses with six or seven lenses and considers himself a scientist in addition to being an angel without wings.

"Northfork" moves along its glacial pace in a non-linear fashion, telling two stories: one, which deals with the loss of the old vision of a landholding, agricultural America founded in 1776 which gives way to the faceless, post-1955 industrial giant, features James Woods in the role of Walter O'Brien who with his son Willis (writer Mark Polish) are one pair that make up The Evacuation Committee. Like modern-day salesmen eager to make their quota to enjoy company-paid trips to Hawaii, each pair needs to get sixty-five residents to sign waivers and abandon their homes and in return the company men will get title to a small plot of land. The other story finds the unfortunate orphan substituting his dreams for his bleak reality, though he is fortunate in having the local religious leader care for him while the search goes on.

Heavy as this all sounds, "Northfork" is not without humor, albeit of the driest kind, some so corny as to be camp. When one pair from the Evacuation Committee barges in on a lovemaking couple, they warn, "Stop screwing around." Seeing a ragged mat in front of one door, a bureaucrat explains, "They've worn out their welcome." The magic realism includes a church which is not much more than a roof with pews, the congregation looking not at stained-glass windows but at the more appealing sight of the broad Montana landscape in the raw.

True to their nature, the Polish brothers give their film the Indie look with a capital "I," desaturating the colors into ten shades of gray while lighting the angelic characters strongly to take the place of the more literal wings and haloes. Like "Twin Falls Idaho" and "Jackpot," both Polish films done in a matter of days rather than months or years, "Northfork" was knocked out on location in Montana in just twenty-four. Original that this film may be, it does recall the angels looking down and commenting on Berlin in Wim Wenders's "Der Himmel uber Berlin" ("Wings of Desire") and is of a piece with the same deadpan humor and desire for family connection in their "Twin Falls, Idaho."

As the old advisory goes, this is not for every taste. If you thrill to "Terminator 3" and area agog at "The Hulk," you'd probably pass this one buy. If you're looking for the antidote to the usual summer fare, this is your pic.

Copyright 2003 Harvey Karten

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