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An anti-Christmas treat from Hollywood and a gorgeous love story from Japan

Falling 

An anti-Christmas treat from Hollywood and a gorgeous love story from Japan

I've always liked Thanksgiving best among the national holidays. In addition to the savory food and family cheer, I like that this day of appreciation for our health and our loved ones is relatively unencumbered by chintz and kitsch. Sadly, that's changing as Thanksgiving is now, more than ever, merely the kickoff to our annual obligation to max out our credit cards. On Saturday, reeling from endless cheery news stories of people poised outside big box retailers before dawn to begin a month-long orgy of consumerism, I retreated into a movie theater for a film about which I knew little.

What a nasty little pleasure Ice Harvest turned out to be! From the very opening shots of Harold Ramis's sharp, amusing and slightly twisty film noir, I knew this was a holiday movie for me. The setting is late afternoon on Christmas Eve in the fictitious town of Wichita Falls, Kan. But instead of the usual gauzy montage of lights, happy shoppers and tinkling bells, an ugly freezing rain is falling on the darkening city. Under the opening credits, we see sidewalks with half-melted snow, freezing pedestrians and, finally, the rain falling down on a nativity scene in the town square. Not even baby Jesus in the manger is dry.

Throughout the chilly and thoroughly entertaining Ice Harvest, there are so many digs at the poor state of Kansas that the film almost seems like a cinematic companion to Thomas Frank's provocative book What's the Matter with Kansas? There's no mention of the state's increasingly effective assaults on Charles Darwin, but the inhabitants of this particular heartland town have a fondness for a curious graffito that reads: "As Wichita Falls, so falls Wichita Falls." (For the record, however, Kansas is the home of the still-standing town of Wichita, while the nation's only Wichita Falls is located in, ahem, Texas.)

Although it's not fit for man nor beast in Wichita Falls tonight, the strip bars are open for business as usual and its owners and patrons are getting ready for a night of thieving, double-crossing and murder. The film opens with two men, a crooked lawyer named Charlie (John Cusack) and a crooked strip club operator named Vic (Billy Bob Thornton), spiriting a bag of cash out of another sex club mogul's office.

The plan is to sit on the cash 'til morning, then hightail it out of town. As always, however, complications ensue. Chief among them is the weather, a freezing rain that drives all but the criminals and the cops from the streets. Another wrinkle emerges in the form of the sexy and dangerous Renata (Connie Nielsen), who is yet another strip club owner. It seems that the blue-nosed politicians in town are regulating hoochie-koochie out of business, a matter of grave concern to the film's principals. Renata enlists Charlie to recover a sex photo that compromises the hypocritical councilman who is leading the family values crusade that threatens her livelihood. Not much comes of this plot strand (which perhaps is developed more fully in Scott Phillips's source novel), but it opens the way to the true themes of Ice Harvest.

While the sex and skullduggery of the plot more than satisfy the requirements of the noir genre, what could have been a jokey blend of Bad Santa and Blood Simple instead becomes an uncommonly intelligent portrait of middle-class male despair. Cusack's lawyer is the sort of guy who is slowly corrupted by life's disappointments. No doubt his Charlie was once a well-intended law student, but the man he's become is a negligent ex-husband and father, and he's drifted into being a legal fixer for the town's business crooks. Coeval in his passive decay is Pete (Oliver Platt), his best friend who, we discover, has married Charlie's ex-wife. In a series of comic bits in the middle of the film's long, cold, booze-soaked night, Platt steals scenes as a businessman on a bender before he finally vomits in Charlie's car.

It's in these finely written and quite funny sequences that the film reveals its roots in the suburban literature of the 1950s, particularly of John O'Hara (Appointment in Samarra) and John Cheever. I haven't read the Phillips novel, published in 2001, but the screenwriters assigned to the film couldn't be better: Robert Benton, best known for Bonnie and Clyde, and Richard Russo, the writer famous for a massive novel about another falling town, Empire Falls.

To the filmmaker's credit, there are no phony resolutions to this story, aside from tidying up the business of the missing cash and the disposal of a few dead bodies. In the end, Ice Harvest is the flip side of It's a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra's evergreen Christmas fable in which a despairing businessman finds a reason to go on living. But that was in a town called Bedford Falls. In Wichita Falls, however, money, marriage and Mercedes-Benzes can't fill the spiritual stockings of its hapless men.

Although Tony Takitani isn't a Christmas movie, obsessive shopping is the tragic backdrop of this 76-minute marvel from veteran Japanese filmmaker Jun Ichikawa. In its sheer artistry and sustaining of mood, Tony Takitani is probably the most delicately devastating film of the year.

The title character is a humble and solitary figure, a spiritual orphan whose existential plight is neatly tied to Japanese history, namely the lingering shame of World War II. Named for an American acquaintance by his hepcat father, Tony grows up alone: His mother died in childbirth and his father is always on tour with his jazz band. Tony (Issei Ogata) slips quietly into middle age, earning a good living as an illustrator who turns out meticulous renderings of small machines and other inanimate objects. It's a quiet life that--it turns out--is filled with quiet desperation. At long last, he falls in love when he meets the much younger Eiko (Rie Miyazawa). Although happiness beckons, she herself has a spiritual void which she fills with compulsive shopping, an initially amusing habit which strains Tony's budget and fills an entire room of their home with luxury clothing.

In its tale of vulnerability, vanity and love with a young woman, Tony Takitani comes off as a tragic-comic tale by Maupassant. In fact, it's adapted from a short story by Haruki Murakami, Japan's preeminent contemporary writer. As with his other work--such as his massive The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle--Tony Takitani is an exploration of the burden of Japan's wartime nightmare and postwar dream. Murakami's hip, affluent characters wear the appurtenances of prosperous modernity, but there's an inescapable feeling of loss.

As a work of cinematic art, Ichikawa's film has no peer in recent memory. Much of the film is narrated offscreen, with a camera panning across scenes from left to right, as if we're seeing pages turning in a book. The tableaus are impeccable: slow motion images of wind-blown trees and wind-blown hair, a glimpse of a tender smile, a montage of beautiful, expensive shoes. Delicate piano figures accompany the images, courtesy of Ryuichi Sakamoto, whose credits include multiple films by De Palma and Bertolucci. In the lead roles, Ogata and Miyazawa are not only perfectly restrained as the tender, vulnerable couple, but they also double as two other crucial characters.

Tony Takitani is a minimalist movie about the overwhelming emotions and tender desires of an insignificant man and the woman he loves. Rarely are such powerful movies made about characters who otherwise pass through life unnoticed. But each life is an epic to the person living it. As William Trevor--another great contemporary writer who also specializes in humble yearnings--once concluded gravely, "Only love matters in the bits and pieces of a person's life."

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