At one point in Mark Fergus’ First Snow, one character tells another his future depends on which road he takes. One senses this is the line Fergus and co-writer Hawk Ostby (they both co-wrote the low-budget thriller Consequence, and were two of the writers of Children of Men) kept in mind when they were writing this movie. The plot sounds like it could come out of Bad Thrillers 101. Jimmy (Guy Pearce) is a flooring salesman who dreams of selling vintage Wurlitzer jukeboxes, and has a good relationship with his girlfriend Deirdre (Piper Perabo). One day on his route, his car breaks down. While waiting to get it fixed, he decides to kill time by going to see Vacaro (J.K. Simmons), a psychic. Of course, Jimmy doesn’t believe a word he says, but gets freaked out when Vacaro stops the session all of a sudden, tells him to leave, and even refunds the money. Then his predictions, innocuous as they seem (Vacaro tells Jimmy which way to bet on a game) come true, and Jimmy comes back demanding to know what else will happen. At this point, Vacaro reveals Jimmy’s life will be fine – until the first snow of the year, at which point he’ll die.
From the plot description, you might guess one of those overblown horror movies a la The Reaping, where everything is spelled out and special effects replace suspense. Instead, Fergus relies on old-fashioned suspense and character development. For starters, instead of being played as creepy (and as anyone who’s seen Oz knows, Simmons knows from creepy), Vacaro is reluctant to talk about his gift, and about what it means. For another, the film takes a different turn as Jimmy starts getting phone calls that hang up when he picks up, and even a shooting target in the mail. Is it Andy (Rick Gonzalez), the sales associate he fired? Or is it Vincent (Shea Whigham), who knows a guilty secret from Jimmy’s past? Fergus also deals with questions not pondered usually in American films, like whether or not man can control his own fate. At times, Fergus is almost too low key in his direction, and he and cinematographer Eric Allan Edwards sometimes overdo the dark photography. Still, they keep us hanging onto Jimmy’s fate. It helps, of course, that Pearce is quite good at playing the scoundrel in Jimmy while keeping us rooting for him. And after this and The Prestige, it looks like Perabo is growing out of bad family movies like Cheaper by the Dozen and its sequel.
At the beginning of Mira Nair’s The Namesake, a young Indian woman is about to enter the living room to see her parents and to meet the man she is soon to marry by arrangement. Before she does, she sees the man’s shoes, which are American sneakers. She pauses, and tries the sneakers on. She smiles a little, takes the sneakers off, and goes to join her family and her soon-to-be husband in the living room. That’s the type of detail that made Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel so readable, and Nair often has that quality in her best films (Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding). She shows it off in this film as well, one of the year’s best so far.
The woman, Ashima (Tabu, unknown here but a Bollywood star), and the man, Ashoke (Irfan Khan), do get married and head to America. The first third of the film shows the couple trying to adjust to life in New York. Ashoke gets a job as a professor, while Ashima tries to acclimate herself to the neighborhood. Ashima soon has a boy, and they give him the name of Gogol, because when Ashoke was on a train as a boy one time, a relative praised the Russian authors, Gogol in particular. As a young boy, Gogol prefers that name instead of his first name, Nikil, but when he becomes a teen (and is played by Kal Penn, of Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle fame), he sees the name as an albatross. The rest of the movie shows Nikil learning not only what his name means to him, but also what his heritage means to him and others. Unlike a filmmaker like Gurinder Chadha, Nair doesn't lecture us or sentimentalize her characters, nor does she create caricatures. Even Max (Jacinda Barrett), the white woman Gogol briefly gets involved with, is treated well. Jean Renoir once said the tragedy of life is that everybody has their reasons, and while Nair isn't quite on Renoir's level yet, it's that spirit that informs her movie, especially in the performances. Penn and Tabu both step out of more glamorous roles to do fine work here, but it's the slow and steady Khan who holds it all together. He just received a well-deserved Independent Spirit Award nomination for the movie, and I hope it leads to bigger things here.
The tagline for Satoshi Kon’s Paprika, at least in this country, was “This is your brain on anime,” and while it’s somewhat reductive, it’s also a true statement about this brilliant (albeit sometimes baffling) film. Brad Bird (The Incredibles) has said it makes him upset when people refer to animation as a genre rather than a style (or art form), and I’m sure Kon would agree; in some senses, this is a film noir/corporate thriller that happens to be done in anime (of course, the freaky dream sequences could probably only happen in animation). The plot turns on an invention called the DC Mini, which allows scientists, led by Dr. Atsuko Chiba (voiced by Megumi Hayashibara), to enter their patients’ dreams and help them. Turns out a few of the minis have been stolen, and whoever has stolen them is using them to drive people mad through their dreams. Also in the mix is Toshimi Konakawa (Akio Ohtsuka), a detective haunted by dreams of chasing a man through a variety of movie-like adventures, and being helped by a vivacious young woman named Paprika – who happens to be the avatar of Chiba (Hayashibara provides her voice as well). Although it’s pretty easy to figure out who the ultimate bad guy is, the plot turns aren’t always so apparent (what Konakawa ultimately has to do with the case, for example). But Kon, who adapted a graphic novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui, captures us with eye-popping visuals that parody and celebrate old movie conventions (the detective claims he never watches movies). And although there are typical anime conventions like the electronic music, this is in no way a kids film (there’s some sexual scenes in this).
When Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress finally came to theaters, of course the subtext of every review was how sad Shelly was murdered before she could see it released. The movie itself is sweet without being cloying. Much of that has to do with the terrific cast Shelly assembled for the movie. Keri Russell finds the right kind balance as Jenna, a waitress at a restaurant who is pregnant by abusive husband (Jeremy Sisto), and whose only joy in life is the pies she makes (which she gives titles like “Pregnant Miserable Self-Pitying Loser Pie,” which contains oatmeal and fruitcake, “flambé of course”). And Nathan Fillion has great chemistry with her as Dr. Pomatter, Jenna’s gynecologist and eventual lover, as well as his usual great comic timing (he describes his neighborhood as great “if you like trees…and who doesn’t like trees?”). There’s also fine supporting turns from Cheryl Hines (Curb Your Enthusiasm) and Shelly herself as Jenna’s co-workers, and even Andy Griffith does nice work as Joe, the somewhat crotchety owner of the restaurant, whom Jenna serves every day. As a writer/director, Shelly sometimes struggles with the tone – although Jenna’s co-workers are her best friends, the dialogue there sometimes sounds like it could have been written on a greeting card. But mostly, Shelly manages to keep this from getting treacly, and there are some inspired scenes, like the montage scene of Jenna’s smile after she sleeps with Dr. Pomatter for the first time. It makes you sad once again about the talent of Shelly’s that will remain unfulfilled.
This week’s major Criterion release is Akira Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel. Like last week’s Criterion release of Sawdust and Tinsel, this is an early work by a legendary director that’s as important for what it foretold in his career as it is for the movie itself. This marked Kurosawa’s first film with Toshiro Mifune, one of the most enduring partnerships in film history (they made 16 films altogether, from Drunken Angel in 1948 to Red Beard in 1965). In his biography of the two of them, The Emperor and the Wolf, Stuart Galbraith called Mifune the instrument through which Kurosawa best told his films, and that’s readily apparent even here. Mifune plays a gangster who forces an alcoholic doctor (Takashi Shimura, another frequent collaborator with Kurosawa, making 22 films with him) to treat him for TB. Although this is ostensibly a crime picture (Mifune is in conflict with his boss, who’s in prison), Kurosawa is also interested in how the postwar environment is affecting Japan, and, of course, in the nature of mankind. It’s a little too heavy-handed (Kurosawa and Mifune didn’t completely hit their stride together until Stray Dog, their follow-up), but it’s still quite effective, thanks to the performances of the two leads. Mifune, possibly the greatest physical actor of all time, is commanding as the gangster, while also unafraid to show his weak side, while Shimura underplays nicely as the doctor.