Regional cinema is something that "indie" filmmaking can and should be about but too often isn't: Think of Kevin Smith's New Jersey, Victor Nunez's Florida, or Abel Ferrara's New York. The Polish brothers, director Michael and writer/actor Mark -- their debut, Twin Falls, set in Idaho; the follow-up, Jackpot, taking place in Nevada; their latest, Northfork, centering on a Montana town being evacuated to make room for a new dam that will submerge it -- seem to be bidding to become the cinematic poet laureates of the landlocked west. This is an honorable goal and, it just so happens, one in which there isn't much competition.
The brothers' latest creation begins seven days before "the state officially drowns Northfork," as a local radio announcer says in between spinning vintage country songs from the likes of Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams. A band of men-in-black (among them James Woods, Peter Coyote, and Mark Polish) have been dispatched as either Angels of Death or Angels of Mercy (depending on whom you ask) by the state-funded Evacuation Committee to roust the few remaining holdouts and move them to higher land. Meanwhile, a sick young boy (Duel Farnes) is visited --in fever dreams or an alternate reality -- by a motley band of angels that features a mute cowboy named Cod, a wooden-handed nutty-professor type named Happy, an androgynous fairy named Flower Hercules, and a flamboyant old biddy named Cup of Tea.
Northfork seems to want to be some sort of meditation on American loss, with one character speaking evocatively of being a "witness to death" and of "a birth someplace else." But the way the film juxtaposes the sight of Old Glory waving with a preacher intoning, "Our town is dying," the way it establishes Northfork's birth in 1776 and "death" in 1955, and its use of the endlessly trendy Oprah-style idea of "angels" among us make one wonder about just how conservative this particular vision of a passing America is and exactly what losses are being mourned.
As the film wound interminably to its conclusion, the great mystery of Northfork became whether the film combines the worst aspects of iconic auteurs Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch, and Terrence Malick or just corrupts their best aspects. Like Jarmusch's similarly meditative Dead Man, Northfork is a very different kind of Western, and the Polish brothers frequently tap into Jarmuschlike deadpan jokiness. They also convey Lynch's serial oddness and, despite those flourishes, Malick's windswept sincerity. And you can add the goony humor of the Coen brothers too, in this case a bunch of purposefully anachronistic jokes ("fast food," "weapons of massive destruction," one character saying to another, named Willis --and I'm not making this up --"What you talking about, Willis?" and atonal regional humor: "Canada oughta claim that bunkheap they call Minnesota and throw in Wisconsin for free." (Okay, I laughed at that one.) This is a volatile mix and in Northfork it never really coheres, resulting in a film that's ponderous where it seeks to be transcendent.
What the film does have going for it are moments of undeniable visual poetry: a coffin emerging in the middle of a vast body of water; a one-room prairie church with the minister (Nick Nolte, still in police-mug-shot mode) preaching against a missing rear wall, cattle drives and mountain ranges serving as a backdrop for his apocalyptic sermons; a lone house whose proprietor has built an ark around it in an attempt to save it, Noah-style, from the coming flood.
The Polish brothers also understand --and get tremendous mileage out of -- the fact that any single object placed in a wide-angle shot amid their Montana landscape of vast prairies and distant mountains -- a car, a swing set, whatever -- automatically looks more interesting. Actually, the natural landscape might be Northfork's most compelling character. The film is otherwise saved by at least a couple of solid, grounded performances, from young Farnes and especially Woods, who, unlike the other name actors who people the film -- Darryl Hannah, Anthony Edwards, Ben Foster -- doesn't seem to just be hoping he's found his Tarantino but seems to actually believe in the message of Northfork, whatever that might be.
-- Chris Herrington
Body-switcher movies must be pure gold. Cast any two able-bodied comedians, throw together a relationship (typically parental) in which both parties think it would be easier to be the other, some high-stakes duties that both must perform in the other's shoes by the end, and, ta da, you've got a formula that works, practically mapping itself out along the way.
The late 1980s, which thrived on formula filmmaking, saw a spate of body-switcher movies all in a short burst: 18 Again!, Vice Versa, and Like Father, Like Son. Not masterpieces by any means, they were nonetheless successfully funny because they featured older, seasoned actors who were kids at heart themselves (George Burns, Judge Reinhold, and Dudley Moore, respectively) and paired them with up-and-coming young fellows who had proven themselves as legitimate comedic and dramatic centerpieces on popular sitcoms (Charlie Schlatter, Fred Savage, and Kirk Cameron, also respectively). Prelude to a Kiss came along in 1992 and asked more challenging questions than merely "What's it like being my dad for a day?" by switching the souls of an old man and a young bride (Meg Ryan) on her wedding day, with the old man none too eager to reveal the switch so he can enjoy his newfound youth for a while. Veering away from formula, that film succeeded in testing our understanding of true love by forcing the young groom (Alec Baldwin) to decide if he still loved his wife, even if she was in the body of an old man.
Never fear. Freaky Friday never asks any difficult questions. Based on a popular children's book by Mary Rodgers and remade from the 1976 film that paired Jodie Foster and the elegantly hilarious Barbara Harris (there is also apparently a 1995 TV film with Shelly Long as the mom, though not a serious candidate for inclusion in the canon), Freaky Friday follows the formula like this: Anna (Lindsay Lohan) sleeps late, is failing English, and gets detention a lot. Mom Tess (Jamie Lee Curtis) has more cell phones and palm pilots than is reasonable, organizes everything in her life, and is generally uptight on all fronts. Anna is in a garage band that has scored an audition at the House of Blues on the same night as Tess' rehearsal dinner for her wedding to Ryan (Mark Harmon). An argument at a Chinese restaurant yields magic fortune cookies, and the rest is formula.
By the beginning, you see, we know what the other will learn about the other. By being her mother for a day, Anna will learn a great deal about her mother's accomplishments as a pop-psychologist, what true love is all about (via Ryan), and what it's like to try to run a family. Tess will learn how hard it is to be a teenager these days, the discipline it takes to be a good musician, and what first love is all about again. This shall be done via sensitive stud Jake (Chad Michael Murray). Jake rides a motorcycle, and in Disneyland, this makes him a rebel. So, naturally, Tess doesn't approve. There is a delightful twist here. Anna in Anna's body is unsuccessful at snaring Jake's attentions completely, and Tess in Anna's body fails entirely. However, Anna in Tess' body manages to charm the young man into thinking that maybe the whole age thing might not be such a big deal -- even with Anna trying her best to be Tess. This necessitates the freakiest part of Freaky Friday -- Anna in Tess' body simultaneously juggling the affections of both fiancÇ Ryan and gentleman-caller Jake, while Tess in Anna's body can only feebly spectate.
You know, there's something really nice about watching Jamie Lee Curtis have this much fun. Always a charming actress (even while navigating her umpteen Halloween forays) and able funnylady, she's obviously having a great time here. When Anna -- as Tess -- decides it's time her mother spruced up her stately appearance and emerges from a platinum-card shopping spree freshly shorn and in contemporary attire, there's something triumphant about it -- a true rejuvenation. Lohan, no stranger to Disney remakes (The Parent Trap) also fares well, though it is admittedly more fun watching an adult play kid again than a kid play grown-up.
There's nothing new in this Freaky redux, but if you can handle the cotton-candy-flavored pop feeling that the film exudes throughout, you'll be rewarded with a truly funny, occasionally touching (if unreal) look at how mothers and daughters relate and how you should always pay attention to what your fortune cookie says. -- Bo List