Monday, April 4, 2011

Cold Weather (2010)

Cris Lankenau has a funny way of walking.  He seems to be dragging his body, his floppy arms falling where they may, and he is uncomfortable and unsure with every step.  His character Doug in Aaron Katz’s newest masterpiece Cold Weather is perfect casting.  Lankenau has made only two feature films.  His previous film was Katz’s Quiet City, a beautiful and quirky love story between strangers.  Cold Weather is a beautiful story of friends and the mumblings of everyday life.

Doug is a college dropout now living with his sister, Gail.  He studied forensic science but has taken a job at an ice factory.  He makes best friends with Carlos, a part-time DJ and Trekkie and fellow factory worker.  Doug wants to be like Sherlock Holmes, and when his ex-girlfriend Rachel mysteriously goes missing, Doug and everybody he knows turns amateur sleuth.  Part of what is so great about Cold Weather is that the director is able to take these aimless figures and infuse their lives with so much meaning.  Doug is a loser.  Let’s face it.  His parents seem quietly disappointed in him; Doug knows it but remains steadfast in all his uncertain decisions.   But never once is he pathetic.  He’s absolutely loveable.  He is so focused and quirky and real that he is immediately enduring.  Some might be put off with Lankenau, though both times I saw the film there was plenty of laughter so this might be an incorrect guess.  Lankenau appears so mawkish and wimpy.  He is incredibly soft spoken and not a typical leading man.  He’s not even an everyman like Jimmy Stewart.  Cris Lankenau is this generation’s cinematic hero—awkward good looks, even temperament, an all around decent guy who never gets upset.  Perhaps he is the embodiment of mumblecore.

Every character in this film is as real as the person sitting next to you on the train and this is a terrific ensemble cast.  Raúl Castillo as Carlos has some great interplay with Lankenau’s character.  Carols isn’t a mindless worker shucking ice.  He’s a DJ who develops an interest in Sherlock Holmes.  A Latino character in the movies wouldn’t normally be a Star Trek fan, but Carlos can name every member of the show’s space crew and the respective actors.  He gushes as he admits that he got a signed 8x10 glossy at a convention.  It was absolutely charming to see his performance.  He disappears about ¾ into the picture unfortunately and I would have liked more of his character.  Gail, Doug’s sister, is terrific, and in fact this sibling relationship is the best thing about the movie.  They are not adversaries.  These are aging 20-somethings who understand that life is what you make of it.  They have conversations that do not advance the plot.  We get hints of history but the film never stops dead in its tracks so brother and sister can recall hackneyed stories of the past.  Trieste Kelly Dunn is brilliant as Gail.  She and Lankenau are superb together.

Above all Doug and Gail interact.  We see them on the roof splattering grapes on the ground below.  Doug pulls Gail out of work to watch the whales by bribing her with sandwiches.  They hang out together, play cards with Carols and Rachel, go dancing.  I hate to use this phrase again but they are real.  The mumblecore movement is built partially on improvisational dialogue that exists to show existence or experience between its characters.  Very little of the dialogue advances the story.  For example, when Doug and Gail are on a stakeout, he asks her a very personal question.  Does she have friends?  Since they’ve been living together he has never seen her hang out with anyone.  The film could have survived without this exchange.  It goes nowhere, and yet it is captivating.  A lesser film would have curtailed the static stakeout and picked up with the next bit of action, but Cold Weather is less concerned with telling a plot.  Katz knows enough to let his characters carry the picture without focus and he’s talented enough to make it interesting always.

He’s also something of a visual master.  As with his previous films and sort of against the mumblecore style, Katz knows how to compose shots to suggest inner emotion with the man-made landscape of Portland, Oregon.  Similar to John Ford’s westerns, Katz uses setting suns and telephone wires to aid his storytelling.  He gets some heart-wrenching imagery that really supports his character’s personalities and place in life.  He’s also not afraid to hold shots.  Early on there’s a scene of Doug and Gail eating sandwiches on the beach.  Nothing happens here; it’s a long shot, they’re in the foreground, the water behind them.  A gull circles around, and I was consciously thinking, ‘how great to be able to contemplate on what I am seeing.’  The purpose of art is to engage its audience, and to see an American film made in 2010 that gives its audience time to think is very promising.  Movies like this are proof that the cinema is not dead.

The music is terrific.  Composer Keegan DeWitt deserves an Academy Award nomination for his fun and brilliantly used music.  Film music needs to service the images more than it needs to be listenable.  While the music is fantastic on its own, it really creates a sweet and quirky mood that ties this material together.  There is not a fault with the picture.  The acting is terrific, so is the direction, and the story is rightly focused on its characters rather than the mystery that turns out to be not that big a deal.

That’s what’s so surprising about Cold Weather.  I keep forgetting about the mystery.  Even when Doug and Carlos search Rachel’s abandoned hotel room, the film is focused on the interplay of its characters.  Perhaps this is the case with every thriller, but in Cold Weather everything is natural and nothing artificial.  I said the mystery is not that big a deal and it really may not be.  Doug figures out his clues and is able to help his ex-girlfriend, but these scenes again are about the experience of being these people.  I don’t want to turn potential viewers off.  That the mystery is less important is why the film works so well.  There is suspense in the film, and the odd characters who conduct themselves as Holmes bring a twist to the material that only heightens the tension of some of the “chases”.  I actually cared about these characters, but never once did I expect them to get killed for their efforts.  In normal thrillers death is always a possibility, but Cold Weather knows that murder is an uncommon occurrence.  For every person that is killed, millions more go on living.  I was concerned that Doug would be caught snooping and be forced to give up his adventure.

I keep suggesting Cold Weather is a small film about character but the more I think of it, the film is aiming high.  Instead of artifice, Aaron Katz and his wonderful actors are more concerned with naturalism, and that they succeed makes it one of the more memorable independent films in recent years.  These characters may as well be our best friends, we know them so intimately.  The film gives us moments in their lives, moments a bad movie would dismiss because they lack vitriol and violence.  I sat through every scene in this film with a large grin across my face!  Great movies make me happy, and I was delirious at Cold Weather.

Cold Weather (2010)
Director: Aaron Katz
Writer: Aaron Katz
Stars: Cris Lankenau, Trieste Kelly Dunn and Raul Castillo
In English
Runtime: 96 minutes

Cold Weather is currently playing in select theaters across the US.  It is currently available On Demand from Comcast and other service providers under "IFC In Theaters". The film should be released on DVD by IFC in the near future.

IMDB link: