Skip wispy 'Northfork' and take a shot at 'Pistol Opera'

The term 'independent film' has become an awfully tricky one to define anymore, as major studios and their corporate masters exercise their own trickle-down economy and influence. What is true cinematic independence nowadays? A pair of new arrivals at two of Portland's genuinely independent venues speak to the issue.

'Northfork' is a determinedly ethereal chronicle of a Montana town's demise at the hands of progress. As six dour government agents attempt to move out the final die-hard citizens of Northfork to make way for a dam, an orphan boy (Duel Farnes) who may be an angel suggests forces at work even more mysterious than the federal government.

Director Michael Polish ('Twin Falls, Idaho') and his co-writer/co-producer twin brother Mark, who also plays one of the feds, attempt a sort of magic realism that too often feels prefabricated. Though the widescreen images of the vast Montana plains have an almost aching desolation and beauty, they are too often the breath of fresh air that relieves an artsy stuffiness.

Especially cringe-worthy scenes involve what seems like an errant circus troupe residing in what may be another dimension. One of them, embodied by Daryl Hannah in a fashion suggesting the sister of her 'Blade Runner' character, is named Flower Hercules Ñ which should give you some idea of how feathery and precious things can get in these parts.

The brothers Polish don't seem to be searching for a style so much as shopping for one Ñ a little Terry Gilliam here, a lot of David Lynch there Ñ and they trap a fine cast. Nick Nolte fares best in the least contrived role of town priest. James Woods looks terrifically severe as the most troubled of the G-men, and young Farnes has an innocent charm. But the film is more art school than art, rendering the deadpan humor dead weight, and leaving the whole thing at best, hermetic, and at worst, embalmed.

Hot as a pistol

Still full of vibrant life at 80, Japan's Seijun Suzuki defines the kind of cool that most of today's hot young directors could only achieve in their dreams. During Suzuki's sojourn as a contract director at Nikkatsu Studios, he gave pulp material such increasingly idiosyncratic and intense treatment that he was canned in 1967 for his whacked-out 'Branded to Kill,' now considered a cult classic.

Suzuki's new 'Pistol Opera' is a wicked step-sequel to 'Branded,' with the black-robed Makiko Esumi as Number 3 killer in Japan's Assassin's Guild Ñ the ranking once held by the killer from the earlier film (that character appears here, played by Mikijiro Hira rather than the distinctively pumpkin-cheeked Jo Shishido). A lively hit parade results when the killers go after one another.

If 'Branded to Kill' was a narrative fragmentation grenade, the dazzling abstraction of 'Pistol Opera' is like a shattered mirror, reflecting itself in elegant shards that slice at your eyes and bleed stunning color.

Theatrically cinematic, it's a head trip of graphic design, with a heroine who could grind the posturing Angelina Jolie's Lara Croft under her gleaming boot heel. 'Pistol Opera' is the work of a stubbornly independent sensibility speaking for and answering only to itself.

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