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All things must pass: Nolte in Northfork.

Look Westward, Angel
By Laura Leon

Directed by Michael Polish

After watching the thoroughly entrancing Northfork, I wrestled with how to write about it. Let’s face it, it’s usually easier to write about why we don’t like a movie than to describe why we love one. Then it dawned on me in one of those 3 AM epiphanies: “bearing witness.” Northfork is an elegant, heart-wrenching elegy on the significance of bearing witness, not just to birth, which of course is a joyous rite for nearly everybody involved, but, as the movie’s Father Harlan (Nick Nolte) explains, to dying and death as well. Filmmakers Michael and Mark Polish focus not just on such rites of passage for humankind, but for communities and even ways of life.

Set in 1955, in the bleak eponymous town perched forlornly on the great expanse of Montana’s plains, Northfork tells its various stories in terms of a journey. In one of the film’s many wryly humorous touches, politicos cut black ribbons to inaugurate the new, massive dam that will finally bring power to the townspeople. Trouble is, the residents have to move on, since the dam will flood the entire valley, submerging any remnant of the frontier town and its history. Teams of G-men in black coats, silver wings pinned to their lapels, descend upon the town in massive black Fords to coax the few lingerers to move on. These men, including father-son team Walter O’Brien (James Woods) and Willis (Mark Polish, the film’s cowriter), use any means necessary to evacuate residents—their incentive being the lure of an acre and a half of prime lakefront property once the dam is fully operational. Among those departing are a forlorn couple who dump their adopted son Irwin (Duel Farnes) off with Father Harlan, admonishing the priest that he “gave them a sick child,” one who “can’t stand the journey.” Harlan tenderly cares for the failing Irwin, whom he calls, with real feeling, an angel.

For his part, Irwin exists mostly in happy fever dreams in which he runs, plays and befriends four angels, the hermaphrodite Flower Hercules (Daryl Hannah); the acerbic Cup of Tea (Robin Sachs); the silent cowboy Cod (Ben Foster); and the wooden-handed, scientific Happy (Anthony Edwards). Angels play a significant role in this movie, not just in the appearance of four characters who may or may not be a figment of a dying boy’s imagination, but in the seemingly incongruous miens of the evacuators. These hardened professionals see themselves as saviors, assisting otherwise doomed folk and offering an almost spiritual help. For hardcore residents, like the one who has nailed his feet to his front porch, they offer a special incentive: a virgin white pair of angel wings, nabbed from a young cherub who “must have strayed from his flock.” Irwin offers himself to his four new friends, who are looking for “the unknown angel,” and when Cup of Tea outright dismisses his claim, the question arises: If this angel is unknown, how will somebody recognize him?

The Polish brothers take great delight in such philosophical teases, but their tone throughout the movie is not irreverent or mocking, but serious, sad, longing. Much like Wim Wenders, whose classic Wings of Desire also dealt with the angel motif and spirituality, these filmmakers are in love with a vision of a forgotten America, particularly of a forgotten West, which they depict here with imagery of such openness and sheer magnitude as to make one wonder how any mere mortal could have been brave enough to pioneer here. (These visuals are enhanced extraordinarily by the gray gradations of M. David Mullen’s washed-out cinematography.) The monolithic power dam is nothing in comparison, and yet it, too, wields a monstrous power.

Although Northfork is nothing like a John Ford Western, the context is there: the dying out of one civilization, and its people, at the hands (or mechanical powers) of another. Just as Father Harlan watches over Irwin’s last days, and bids his fellow townspeople a “good journey,” the filmmakers seem to be bearing witness to a passing way of life. That they do so without resorting to nostalgia or melancholy is a remarkable feat.


Directed by Emanuele Crialese

Set on an impoverished but idyllic island off the coast of Sicily, Respiro (“I Breathe”) sometimes calls to mind Mediterraneo, the overrated 1991 Oscar winner about the sensually pacifist spell of the jewel-blue Mediterranean. But the equally sunlit and dreamy Respiro has a less-lulling agenda, and though the Ionian Sea provides a radiant backdrop, the film is more akin to the picturesque but nastily igneous coastline that hems in its inhabitants.

Chafing most under the island’s conventionality is the flamboyant Grazia (Valeria Golino), mother of three and wife to Pietro (Vincenzo Amato), a fisherman who is often away netting sardines. “She’s either too happy, or too sad,” complains a neighbor, and early on, we see Grazia losing her temper and being sedated with a hypodermic by her mother-in-law. This is, apparently, a family ritual, and explains why the middle child, a pensive boy of about 14, is always getting into scrapes. Occurring sometime between the end of fascism and the advent of mood-stabilizing drugs, Respiro is a lovingly detailed but inert rendition of the tale of a free spirit being driven mad by conformity. Problem is, Grazia really is unstable, and Pietro and his relatives do seem to be rather brutish, and the result is more of a pedestrian domestic drama than an updated Greek one.

Since it has nowhere to go, the film goes to the beach, where Grazia wades into the water topless, in front of her two sons and in full view of her husband’s boat and crew. On another part of the beach, a group of boys get pantsed with sea urchins by a group of bigger boys. The village swarms with bad-tempered boys, as well as unwanted dogs, which are kept in a cement bunker. To get back at her domineering husband, Grazia lets the animals go free, and they are promptly shot down like, well, dogs in the street. When it’s decided that she should be sent to an institution in Milan, Grazia escapes to the sea with the assistance of her simpatico older son. But since this is an isolated and primitive fishing village, oppression turns to lamentation, and the wild-haired misfit is practically beatified—although no one seems to know why.

The wan plot is enriched by imaginative cinematography—during a saint’s day celebration around a bonfire, the grief-stricken Pietro swims away on a golden tide of reflected firelight—and a gorgeously moody score. But even with Golino’s vibrancy turning the underwritten Grazia into a tuning fork of passion, the indolent script drifts when it should soar.

—Ann Morrow

Waiting for J. Lo

Directed by Martin Brest

Gigli is not, all press accounts and hype-fueled hysteria aside, the worst movie of the new century. (Anyone claiming that didn’t see Pearl Harbor.) It isn’t even the worst movie of the last five or six years. (Anyone claiming that didn’t see Coyote Ugly.) It is, however, a jaw-dropping misfire, a wildly uneven character-driven piece without interesting characters. While none of the actors is without fault, the blame rests primarily with the man who wrote and directed the thing, Martin Brest (Scent of a Woman, Meet Joe Black).

“It’s jeely, not jiggly,” hapless hood Larry Gigli (Ben Affleck) corrects his humorless employer Louis (Lenny Venito). Louis, who could care less how the name is pronounced, is a not-too-bright hood with a not-too-bright plan: To coerce a federal prosecutor to stop an investigation of his boss, he tells Gigli to kidnap the Fed’s developmentally disabled brother Brian (newcomer Justin Bartha). Then, to make sure Gigli doesn’t screw up the job, Louis hires a second “contractor,” Ricki (Jennifer Lopez) , to keep an eye on both the hood and the kid.

That’s about it for the plot of Gigli. There’s not much action, either, aside from a couple of low-key episodes in a morgue and a takeout joint, and a high-intensity confrontation with a gangster (Al Pacino). The rest of the picture is a couple of low-level hoods sittin’ around yappin’. Oh, and also falling in love—never mind that Gigli has the charm (and brains) of a box of hammers, and Ricki is a lesbian.

Sample dialogue: “Every relationship has to have a bull and a cow.”

The script meanders as Gigli and Ricki debate the merits of the penis versus the vagina, contemplate Eastern philosophies of war, and stare longingly past each other. Meanwhile, the developmentally disabled kidnap victim turns out to be just a prop. Specifically, he’s a “magic retarded person” (a variant on the “magic Negro”) who exists to help Gigli find his inner soul. This, in turn, inspires Ricki to find her inner penis-enthusiast.

Brest is the worst kind of “actor’s director,” in that he seems to let his cast do whatever the hell they want. This technique yields mixed results with the high-powered actors brought in for cameo scenes. Christopher Walken (as a cop), Lanie Kazan (as Gigli’s mom) and Pacino all seem to have been beamed in from different movies. Walken is all icy, off-kilter charm; Kazan is brassy, middle-age sexual exuberance; and Pacino is a raging maniac. When Pacino stalks around them doing his shtick, Lopez and Affleck wear looks of such horror that one wonders if they are reacting to the threatening character or the out-of-control actor.

Brest’s permissive approach is a disaster with Affleck and Lopez, who could have used some direction. There isn’t an ounce of menace in either actor, so neither is believable as a gangster. Lopez, who never seems flustered by even the worst dialogue, fares much better than Affleck, whose Methodism is more embarrassing than Pacino’s. At least Pacino knows how to move on screen; there are moments when Affleck doesn’t stand against the wall convincingly.

Pondering Gigli, one could almost say that the movie is only about 20 minutes of editing and a couple of car chases (or gunfights) away from being completely adequate. Then again, chimps are only a couple of chromosomes away from being human.

—Shawn Stone

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