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Film Clips: 'Northfork', 'The Man Without a Past', 'Under the Skin of the City'

A roundup of new releases

Friday, August 01, 2003

'Northfork'

RATING: PG-13 for brief sexuality

STARRING: James Woods, Nick Nolte

DIRECTOR: Michael Polish

Walter O'Brien (James Woods) could be mistaken for an undertaker, given his dark suit and trench coat, polished black Ford and task at hand. He is preparing a town for its imminent and certain death in 1955.

Walter is part of the Evacuation Committee, six identically outfitted men hired to boot the holdouts of Northfork, a fictional Montana town about to be flooded to make way for a hydroelectric project. In "Northfork," the title of the Mark and Michael Polish film, graves are being emptied, families leaving with their belongings and a few stragglers are standing their ground, with shotguns in hand or on an ark where everything comes in two, including wives.

The Polish brothers ("Twin Falls, Idaho" and "Jackpot") call their film part Gothic, part surreal fantasy and part coming-of-age story. Like a glass left under a running tap, it's overflowing with images and references to death, dreams, angels, feathery wings, new beginnings, journeys and hope. A couple actually named Mr. and Mrs. Hope turn up on the doorstep of a priest (a wonderfully tender Nick Nolte) who is caring for an orphan too sick to accompany his adoptive parents away from Northfork.

"Northfork" has some bizarrely beautiful and memorable images -- a final sermon being preached against majestic mountains, a boy dizzily twirling on a swing, a diner run by a crusty character named Ursula -- and four aggressively zany angels named Happy, Flower Hercules, Cod and Cup of Tea. They spring from the feverish dreams of the dying boy, and they pushed the needle to tilt for me.

At moments, "Northfork" soars, as if on wings. And sometimes, it sinks, a victim of its own cleverness and weighty symbols.

-- By Barbara Vancheri

'The Man Without a Past'

RATING: PG-13 for some violence.

STARRING: Markku Peltola, Kati Outinen.

DIRECTOR: Aki Kaurismaki.

"The Man Without a Past," a Academy Award-nominated movie from Finland, tells a story of redemption set in a society badly in need of it.

We meet the title character (Markku Peltola) as he's riding on a train. He arrives in a city in the wee hours, carrying his small suitcase, sits down on a park bench and falls asleep. Three punks proceed to rob and beat him within a millimeter of his life. Later on, in the hospital, a doctor pronounces him dead.

But our hero sits up, strips away the bedsheets, gets dressed and leaves. He is taken in by a poor family living in a discarded cargo container. Soon, he rents one from the landlord who, like his supposedly vicious guard dog, has a bark worse than his bite (and the dog never barks).

But where can he find a job, especially when he can't even remember his name? Irma (Kati Outinen), a Salvation Army lady serving lunch one day, tells him to come by for better clothes. He does, but also so he can see Irma again.

Director Aki Kaurismaki is a champion of the dispossessed but also a filmmaker with a finely tuned sense of quirkiness. Desperation and the kind of droll absurdities that can rise from it exist here in equal measure.

There is the landlord and his dog, the Salvation Army band that our nameless protagonist teaches to play rock 'n' roll, the deadpan lawyer and the bulldog cop reciting statutes to each other.

Kaurismaki encourages a florid proletarianism in both his actors -- Peltola represents a kind of homely heroism -- and his visuals. People do chores before the backdrop of white clouds mounted in a big blue sky, making them (and the colors) look larger than life.

But they also live in containers, in garbage Dumpsters or on the street. Irma, in her sad little dormitory, gets ready for bed and her long face sags into mournfulness. The banks, the government, prospective employers are indifferent or outright hostile. Ah, look at all the lonely people.

Through it all, there is an eclectic soundtrack -- rock and classical, stilted and playful, joyful and yearning. It is balm in a cruel world, as is our nameless hero, who becomes a better man by starting over with nothing after figuratively being born again. What was that again about camels and the eyes of needles?

-- By Ron Weiskind

'Under the Skin of the City'

RATING: Unrated but PG-13 in nature

DIRECTOR: Rakhshan Bani-Etemad

STARRING: Golab Adineh, Mohammad Reza Foroutan

"Under the Skin of the City" you find defiant teens, adults bemoaning "brain drain," a family dining out on pizza, an ambitious man too tongue-tied to speak to a pretty clerk and a child who blithely reports, "Daddy beat up Mummy and told her to get lost, so we came here."

Just another day in the paradise that is supposed to be America? No, it's Iran and "Under the Skin," at the Harris Theater, is from Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, the first lady of Iranian cinema. Here, we view a culture through a lens focused on a Tehran family led by Tuba (Golab Adineh), wife, mother of four and breadwinner who finds key decisions are, to her immense frustration, out of her control.

Although some relationships and scenes could be set in America -- in giving her husband a trim, Tuba declares, "You have 2 1/2 pieces of hair left, I can't make you 20 again" -- others are strictly of their time and place. The elder son (Mohammad Reza Foroutan) pins his hopes on a foreign-work visa, and a neighbor's minor rebellion results in a beating, with the sickening slaps heard over the shared wall.

The director, also co-writer and co-producer, delivers a political jolt in this reaction to the spousal abuse: "These kind of things happen as long as women are ignorant of their rights." She captures some powerful images -- a man dancing with a wedding gown may be the most delightful -- but makes you work to figure out who is who.

The movie ends with question marks punctuating several lives and while it's not the director's fault, some of the white English subtitles are impossible to read when placed against a white background.

-- By Barbara Vancheri

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