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Northfork is not an inscrutable mess. Whether you wish to view the more fanciful scenes as literal or the product of a dying boy's imagination, one strong theme connects all the stories. Change happens. Each sub-story revolves around a profound change. The little boy is dying. The town is being evacuated. The movie illustrates how we get dragged along by changes we are powerless to stop. We should ideally make the best of them and accept whatever heartache they cause. Some look forward towards a new freedom (the little boy) and some obstinately refuse to accept them (the ark family). And Walter has to learn the lesson that there are some changes we think are over and done with that must be relived (reburying his wife). Just because we think we've buried a chapter in life under the ground doesn't make it so. This is shown so clearly by the conversations between Walter and his son Willis. I say that if you really want to know what the movie is about watch the scene that begins in the outhouse. And pay special attention to the Willis's speech about caring for his car. Its a beautiful movie that gains meaning for me every time I watch it.
Like the Polish Brothers' previous films (`Twin Falls Idaho' and `Jackpot'), `Northfork' divides audiences even as it baffles and bewilders them. Many will surely find this film to be slow moving, arty, pretentious and boring, while others will be intrigued by its originality and visionary quality. Either way you slice it, however, `Northfork' is an acquired taste.
It's 1955 and Northfork, a small town on the plains of Montana, is about to be wiped off the face of the earth by a gigantic flood. Only this time the destruction won't be the result of the angry hand of Providence but rather of a dam building project developed and conceived by the government in the name of `progress.' Out of this simple premise, Mark and Michael Polish have crafted an elegy to the past, a tone poem that reflects the deep sadness that comes with change, abandonment and loss. To achieve their effect, the writers have incorporated large doses of Magic Realism (with heavy religious and Biblical overtones) into their narrative. While we observe the harsh realities of people being driven from their homesteads, we are also introduced to a quartet of angels who are searching for one of their number who went missing a number of years earlier. Legend has it that the town of Northfork was originally looked out for by a group of guardian angels and it is from this rather twisted and bent angle that the Polish Brothers have chosen to approach their subject.
`Northfork' is far more about mood, imagery and tone than it is about plot and character development. In fact, the characters themselves the angels, a caring priest, a dying boy, and a father and son whose job it is to make sure no people are left behind when the land is inundated are as subdued in tone as the film is as a whole. None of the characters ever speaks above a whisper and each comes across as moody, introspective and stolid. It is in the visuals and in the unhurried, subtle pacing of the narrative that the film achieves its power. The dry barren plains, the weather beaten houses, the violated cemeteries, and the isolated figures of men and buildings placed in stark relief against an imposing horizon these are the images that seep inexorably into the viewer's subconscious and which make the film a stunning study in melancholy. Let it be noted, however, that there is also a modicum of hope and optimism in the story to help mitigate the sadness.
A number of big name stars have leant their talents to the project, including Nick Nolte, James Woods and Daryl Hannah. Woods, with his straight-faced, deadpan delivery, provides some much needed touches of black humor throughout the otherwise deadly serious work.
`Northfork' definitely requires that you be in a certain mood to appreciate and enjoy it. Hopefully, you'll hit it at just the right moment.
The Polish brothers are unique film artists, and they've really pushed the envelope here. A fantasy that has points in common with "Wings of Desire," "Northfork" tells the story of a '50s era small town in the middle of nowhere that is two days shy of being inundated and submerged thanks to the U.S. government's desire to make a reservoir on the place where the town stands. It's a wry parable about loss and remembrance, featuring angels, dreams, premonitions, and the most hilarious government reclamation functionaries since "Repo Man." The performances are all outstanding, especially Nolte and Woods. I've noticed in reading down some of the comments that there are people who were offended simply by the fact that the Polish twins use elliptical storytelling tactics, and I want to say, that's one of the things that makes this film so great: its willingness to embrace the mysterious as an aspect of everyday life. David Mullen's cinematography is stunning. Highly recommended; if you've suffered a meaningful personal loss, such as the death of a parent, I would even call this film necessary viewing. - Ray
"It all depends on how you look at it we are either halfway to heaven
or halfway to hell," says the priest Rev. Harlan in "Northfork." The
Polish brothers' film is an ambitious one that will make any
intelligent viewer to sit up, provided he or she has patience and basic
knowledge of Christianity. The layers of entertainment the film provide
takes a viewer beyond the surreal and absurd imagery that is obvious to
a less obvious socio-political and theological commentary that ought to
provoke a laid-back American to reflect on current social values. The
film's adoption of the surreal (coffins that emerge from the depths of
man-made lakes to float and disturb the living, homesteaders who nearly
"crucify" their feet to wooden floor of their homes, angels who need
multiple glasses to read, etc.) and absurd images (of half animals,
half toys that are alive, of door bells that make most delicate of
musical outputs of a harp, a blind angel who keeps writing unreadable
tracts, etc.) could make a viewer unfamiliar with the surreal and
absurdist traditions in literature and the arts to wonder what the
movie is un-spooling as entertainment. Though European cinema has
better credentials in this field, Hollywood has indeed made such films
in the past in "Cat Ballou", Lee Marvin and his horse leaned against
the wall to take a nap, several decades ago. "Northfork," in one scene
of the citizens leaving the town in cars, seemed to pay homage to the
row of cars in "Citizen Kane" taking Kane and his wife out of Xanadu
for a picnic.
The film is difficult for the uninitiated or the impatient film-goerthe most interesting epilogue (one of the finest I can recall) can be heard as a voice over towards the end of the credits. The directors seem to leave the finest moments to those who can stay with film to the end. If you have the patience you will savor the layers of the filmif you gulp or swallow what the Polish bothers dish out, you will miss out on its many flavors.
What is the film all about? At the most obvious layer, a town is being vacated to make way for a dam and hydroelectric-project. Even cemeteries are being dug up so that the mortal remains of the dead can be moved to higher burial grounds. Real estate promoters are hawking the lakeside properties to 6 people who can evict the townsfolk. Of the 6, only one seems to have a conscience and therefore is able to order chicken broth soup, while others cannot get anything served to them.
At the next layer, you have Christianity and its interaction on the townsfolk. Most are devout Christians, but in many lurk the instinct to survive at the expense of true Christian principles, exemplified in the priest. Many want to adopt children without accepting the responsibilities associated with such actions.
At the next layer, you have the world of angels interacting with near angelic humans and with each other. You realize that the world of the unknown angel who keeps a comic book on Hercules and dreams of a mother, finds one in an androgynous angel called "Flower Hercules." While the filmmaker does give clues that Flower is an extension of the young angel's delirious imagination, subsequent actions of Flower belie this option. You are indeed in the world of angels--not gods but the pure in spiritand therefore not in the world of the living. The softer focus of the camera is in evidence in these shots.
At another layer the toy plane of Irwin becomes a real plane carrying him and his angels to heaven 1000 miles away from Norfolk.
The final layer is the social commentary"The country is divided into two types of people. Fords people and Chevy people." Is there a difference? They think they are different but both are consumerist.
To the religious, the film says "Pray and you shall receive" (words of Fr Harlan, quoted by Angel Flower Hercules). To the consumerist, the film says "its what we do with our wings that separate us" (each of the 6 evictors also have wings-one duck/goose feather tucked into their hat bands but their actions are different often far from angelic as suggested by the different reactions to a scratch on a car).
The film is certainly not the finest American film but it is definitely a notable path-breaking work--superb visuals, striking performances (especially Nick Nolte), and a loaded script offering several levels of entertainment for mature audiences.
this is a very special movie, driven by imagery and character rather than by linear action or even plot. Things progress along two lines which eventually converge, that of the dying child cared for by the Father, and the evacuation of the valley. The child, delirious, is pulled back and forth between two realms, while the Father waits upon his dying. Nick Nolte plays this part with enormous sensitivity and restraint. The evacuation teams seem to suggest a parallel to the Biblical flood, and eventually the two lines of action merge into a dream state, as if the flood is waiting for the child, as well. James Woods gives a deceptively simple, finely nuanced performance, providing emotional depth and focus to the story line. The question seems to be, is the flood the waters of life, or the waters of death? Or is it both at the same time? The writers seem to feel that in the final analysis, there is no difference between the two. Rather than leaving one disheartened, this film uplifts.
When Northfork debuted at the Cannes Film Festival, many people didn't like
it because they felt it was boring and too slow. While I agree that it was
slow (one of the slowest movies of the year), in no way was it boring. As
Roger Ebert said, `there has never been a movie like Northfork.' I usually
don't agree with Ebert, but for once he speaks the truth. Although John
Sayles' Sunshine State may have some of the same immediate themes, nothing
that I have ever seen or known of can even compare to the striking
originality of the Polish Brothers' Northfork.
Northfork is a perfect example of how many times it's better to trek an extra few minutes to go to an art-house film instead of the latest Jack Black movie. The plot isn't some hackneyed, cookie-cutter plot; it's just so strikingly original. A small town in Montana named Northfork has a dam nearby that is about to be taken down. Therefore, the entire town must be evacuated. Some people, however, just don't want to leave. In a side plot, a young orphan (Duel Farnes) is very sick and bedridden; he's being taken care of by Father Harlan (Nick Nolte). The boy imagines himself as a fallen angel, so to speak, who help him out through his time of sickness.
Although much of the movie is straightforward, some of it could give David Lynch a run for his money. There's odd weather patterns, a weird, wooden, huge dog thing, and symbolism that would make Fellini proud. It's not as overall confusing as a Lynch film, but it's still quite odd. That's what makes Northfork so great: it's so out of the ordinary and yet so simple and plausible.
Northfork has a magical feel to it: it's almost like you're watching something you're not quite sure what it is but you feel entranced by it. As I said earlier, I agreed with Ebert on how this movie is unlike any other. However, I disagree when he says that it is `not entertaining'. He goes on to say it's just `enthralling.' Perhaps he just thought he should give it good reviews because everyone else is, but in lieu of how slow it was, I still thought it was very entertaining, something many dramas now can't do.
Northfork may not be the quickest movie or the most popular movie, but if you can get to and through it, you'll be extremely surprised, as I was.
My rating: 8/10
Rated PG-13 for brief sexuality.
It's a shame this movie is rated PG 13--it is really quite suitable for
anyone--though young kids might not follow it too well.
It belongs to that wonderful genre of serio-comic ghost/angel stories that would have to include everything from Capra's "It's A Wonderful Life" to Wenders's "Wings of Desire."
The photography is stunning, the acting first rate, and--wonder of wonders--the tone is uplifting.
My only criticism is that there is not much ambiguity in the film. The two interwoven stories seem intriguingly mysterious at first; but they resolve themselves a little too nicely for my taste. As the director points out in his commentary on the DVD, all the ingredients of Irwin's story are on his bedside table. The symbolism is just a trifle too pat for me.
But what a lark! My favorite scene has to be when the relocation team tries to get breakfast at a diner. This is practically theatrical in its magic--a tour de force of witty acting--subtle, playful, and positively rhythmic--coupled with striking cinematography and an acute eye for the grotesque.
"Northfork" is funny, touching, gorgeous to look at, magical (with the above reservations) and has not one single car-chase.
An easy nine stars.
A dreamy, stunningly atmospheric film takes place in a small town of
Northfork, Montana in 1955. The government officials arrive to evacuate
the town about to be inundated by a new hydroelctrical dam. There are
the other visitors in the town, the angels from another time but they
only seen by a dying boy Irvin. A local priest (Nick Nolte in a quiet
heartbreaking performance) takes care of the boy. Irvin pleads with the
angels to leave the place with them...
There is some unearthly quality in the film, some dignified mourning and sublime sadness when you suddenly realize the inevitable finality of everything - humans and their relationships, cities, countries, civilizations, the whole world as we know it. Death and birth have something in common - we go through them in the ultimate loneliness.
I cannot recall the film that affected me in the same way and as deeply as "Northfork" did, the film so beautiful and so tender, so quiet and so powerful, so heartbreaking and so moving. Even now, after several weeks since I saw it, tears come to my eyes when I only think of it.
After I saw it, I had to talk to somebody about it. I sent a PM to one of my friends and I asked, "Please tell me what I just saw?" And my friend replied with the words, "You just saw one of the greatest films of modern times. One of these days others will see the light."
I enjoyed this film's surreal nature and mysteriousness of the
characters. The cinematography is beautiful, and the film is well-cast.
Although I usually do not like Nick Nolte and the roles he plays, he
showed great depth in this film.
Viewers who are unaccustomed to abstract film-making will find the plot disturbingly confusing, but I thought the transcendent themes overode the ambiguuities. If you absolutely HAVE to "understand" the film, just listen to the director's comments on the DVD. Doing this, however, diminishes the abstract beauty of the film--the way an art expert can ruin the experience of a fascinating painting in a museum.
By an odd coincidence, I had toured the locale for this film only a few months before purchasing it, and I thought the director captured the awesome yet austere nature of western Montana well.
The film is worth seeing just for the scenery and cinematography alone, and it offers many interesting topics for sociological discussions. I have already recommended it to number of my friends who appreciate esoteric films.
The third film from the Polish brothers is their best, most beautiful, imaginative film yet. Though many audiences will have a problem with Northfork's lack of traditional dramatic structure, "Stick with it, Jack!". The plot is difficult to summarize, so just know that the story includes: agents trying to evacuate a city, God in a cowboy hat, the selling of angel wings, and a sick orphan (but it all works). M. David Mullen's extraordinary photography makes almost every frame exciting and wonderful to look at. The performances of the actors, working with the Polish Brothers' inspiringly offbeat script, are pitch-perfect and give the film its emotional punch. The strong-willed audience member will be moved by the mythology and folk tale of the story, the comic and moving actors, and finally the incredible courage and command that Michael Polish shows behind the camera. Again all of these incredible and seemingly disjointed elements come together magnificently in one of the most incredible things you should run out and experience. A great, great, great movie!!!
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