TERRY GROSS, host:
January and February can be notoriously slow months for new Hollywood movies. But our critic-at-large John Powers says they're the perfect time to catch up with exciting, new American talents and acclaimed movies from other countries. He's particularly enthusiastic about two currently in theaters, Aaron Katz's "Cold Weather" and the Cannes Film Festival hit "Poetry."
JOHN POWERS: If anything defines movies these days, it's their utter predictability. We know all along that Colin Firth's King George will learn to stop stuttering. We never doubt that Adam Sandler will wind up with warm, wry Jennifer Aniston, not the busty blonde he appears to be after. And there's undeniable pleasure in this. We like watching what we expect to happen, happen.
But there's a deeper pleasure to be had from movies that offers things we don't expect. That's the excitement you get from two wonderful new releases, "Cold Weather" and "Poetry." Although one's an American indie and the other from South Korea, they both keep us asking: Where could this possibly be going?
"Cold Weather" is by Aaron Katz, a 30-year-old Portland filmmaker who may not have much money to work with, but has everything else: a sly sense of humor, a light touch with relationships and a keen sense of visual beauty. These virtues were all on display in this dreamy, shape-shifter of a picture.
Cris Lankenau plays Doug, a college dropout who's one of those lazily alienated heroes beloved of current movies: a not-quite rebel whose idea of a cause is fantasizing about being Sherlock Holmes. Doug shares a Portland apartment with his sister, Gail that's the terrific Trieste Kelly Dunn - with whom he has a friendly, but distant relationship.
At first, not a lot seems to be happening. Doug takes a job at an ice factory, where he becomes friends with Carlos, amusingly played by Raul Castillo, who moonlights as a DJ. And he meets up with his old girlfriend Rachel. She's played by Robyn Rikoon.
The four start hanging out, but just when we fear that "Cold Weather" is going to be yet another movie about narcissistic 20-somethings sitting around, yammering, the story switches gears. After DJ-ing a show, Carlos wakes Doug up in the middle of the night and tells him that he's worried.
(Soundbite of movie, "Cold Weather")
Mr. RAUL CASTILLO (Actor): (as Carlos) It's Rachel.
Mr. CRIS LANKENAU (Actor): (as Doug) What about her?
Mr. CASTILLO: (as Carlos) She said she was going to come to my show tonight, and she didn't come. I mean, she just didn't show.
Mr. LANKENAU: (as Doug) So what?
Mr. CASTILLO: (as Carlos) Well, she said she was going to come for sure. I mean, she went out of her way to call me this afternoon and said she was definitely going to come.
Mr. LANKENAU: (as Doug) Okay.
Mr. CASTILLO: (as Carlos) So I called her after my set, and she didn't answer. And then I keep trying to call her, but it goes straight to voicemail.
Mr. LANKENAU: (as Doug) This is what you woke me up for?
Mr. CASTILLO: (as Carlos) It's just weird, man. I mean, I went over to her motel room and all the lights were on in her room, but when I knocked, no answer.
Mr. LANKENAU: (as Doug) She's probably asleep.
Mr. CASTILLO: (as Carlos) Why were all the lights on, then?
Mr. LANKENAU: (as Doug) I don't know, Carlos. The lights are on in here, and I was asleep.
Mr. CASTILLO: (as Carlos) Well, how come she doesn't answer her phone?
Mr. LANKENAU: (as Doug) How the hell should I know?
Mr. CASTILLO: (as Carlos) It just doesn't make sense, man.
POWERS: So Doug gets to play detective, after all. With help from Gail and Carlos, he tries to find Rachel, a woman-hunt that involves, among other things, sleazy photographs and a mysterious man in a cowboy hat. Yet while this search is engrossing, "Cold Weather" never turns into a routine thriller. It's not all about solving the mystery. In fact, by the end, we realize that Katz has been playing with mystery conventions to do other things - to reveal the city of Portland in all its Northwest beauty and grunginess, and more important, to capture how his characters - especially Doug and his sister - go from being trapped in chilly isolation to forging human connections that promise some warmth.
There's a different kind of mystery at the heart of "Poetry," the great new movie from Lee Chang-dong, South Korea's former minister of culture, who tells the most unpredictable stories of any filmmaker working anywhere. Here, he takes a premise that sounds almost laughably boring -an old woman takes a poetry class - and elevates it into a work as constantly surprising as it is enigmatic and moving.
Its heroine, Mija, played by Yun Jeong-hie, is a decent, proper sexagenarian who supports herself and her teenage grandson, Wook, by cleaning houses. In search of some meaning in life, Mija decides to learn to write poetry. Ironically, even as her poetry teacher tells her that she must learn to look at things closely, life is teaching her exactly the same lesson. When a young woman commits suicide after a sexual assault that may have involved her grandson, Mija is forced to start viewing life in a whole new way.
She tries to get to the bottom of what happened. In the process, we not only see the flowering of her awareness, but we're made aware of the way that the male-dominated, money-dominated Korean society has no interest in, or respect for, lives like Mija's.
But don't worry. Lee's film isn't some dreary, social tract. It contains a mesmerizingly rich performance by Yun, the Korean equivalent of Hollywood stars like Barbara Stanwyck or Katharine Hepburn, who came out of retirement to play Mija. And it boasts a theme that could hardly be more moral or wise. Like poetry itself, "Poetry" the film is about the search for beauty and truth in life and what happens when we discover that the truth is not always beautiful.
GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue and Vogue.com. You can watch clips from the film "Cold Weather" on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show.