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by Eric Kohn
March 14, 2010 4:23 AM
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REVIEW | Not Elementary: Genre and Realism Collide in Aaron Katz's "Cold Weather"

A scene from Aaron Katz's feature, "Cold Weather." Image courtesy of SXSW Film Festival.

Some directors experiment with various moods before discovering their sweet spots, but Aaron Katz pulls of the impressive trick of experimenting within the boundaries of his sweet spot. In his first two movies, "Dance Party, USA" and "Quiet City," Katz displayed a unique ability to mix visual lyricism with unquestionably authentic portraits of lost young souls. His latest work, "Cold Weather," fits that description as well, while taking the precise formula often prescribed to innumerable filmmakers of the DIY variety and cautiously expanding on it to a remarkably memorable effect. As proof that movies offer unlimited possibilities, "Cold Weather" adapts multiple cliches and overcomes all of them to reach a greater significance.

Set amid the habitual tranquility of Portland, "Cold Weather" begins with Katz's usual dedication to stillness. The soothing natural beauty of the northwestern landscape (shot on the infallible RED camera) comes through in Andrew Reed's pointed cinematography, allowing the early setup to unfold more as a cinematic poem than any sort of conventional narrative device. Mopey twenty-something Doug (Cris Lankenau) abandons his ambitions of becoming a scientist, crashes with his sister, bums around the house reading old Sherlock Holmes novels and does little else. The drollness unfolds in casual steps: He meets with an old girlfriend. He has a few drinks in the evenings. At a certain point, he takes an aimless job at the local ice factory and makes a new pal (Raul Castillo). For some time, Katz remains content to let "Cold Weather" churn along as a gentle character study with nothing more than basic thematic intentions at its core.

But the patient rhythm actually forms Katz's brilliant self-aware ruse. After one character unexpectedly goes missing, Doug takes on a hyperbolic investigatory approach and lives out his Holmesian fantasy, while the movie adopts his subjectivity. Since the early scenes of "Cold Weather" work decently enough on one level, the playful injection of genre manages to elevate the viewing experience by contributing additional momentum with excitement and mystery. You get the sense that Katz knows exactly what he's doing from start to finish.

Ultimately, "Cold Weather" revolves around the relationship that Doug shares with his sister (Trieste Kelly Dunn), as she eventually comes to inhabit the role of Watson to his Holmes, turning the chemistry of the original Victorian duo into a metaphor for familial communication. We learn less about the history of their life together from dialogue than from simply watching them in different modes: First in the early realistic scenes, followed by the hyperbolic detective sequences that give their characters symbolic dimensions. Constantly seeking clues to uncover the mystery of his missing ex-girlfriend, Doug routinely comes across as a kid playing in his basement with a growing need for something better to do with his time. But solving the mystery is hardly a red herring in his hapless existence. Instead, it represents his ever-present need to take control of his life.

"Cold Weather" succeeds mainly because it contains so many access points for viewers. Katz shows that he has the capacity to build legitimate suspense while maintaining a deeper intellectual agenda. The movie comments on the power of role playing while allowing the audience to indulge in it, jiving with the story's unlikely flow in spite of the unexpected tonal shift. Keegan DeWitt's upbeat score gradually veers into a lively avant garde collage of discordant rhythms. It could be the soundtrack of the year -- but in the context of "Cold Weather," DeWitt's music mainly serves to enhance mood, amusingly commenting on the action as it becomes increasingly surreal.

While "Cold Weather" makes for a legitimate genre exercise, it also conveys a magical realist sensibility in the tradition of Paul Thomas Anderson's "Punch-Drunk Love," the kind of moving image experience informed by expressive audiovisual maneuvers rather than melodramatic overstatements. In spite of Katz's formal dexterity, however, his directorial approach remains noticeably patient. The grandiose accomplishments of "Cold Weather" are miraculously defined by the overall smallness of its design.

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3 Comments

  • Eliza Rosenberry | May 18, 2011 7:08 AMReply

    I actually disagree with David- check out my take on the film, along with an interview with Aaron Katz, on my blog:

    http://bostonianonfilm.blogspot.com/2011/05/aaron-katzs-cold-weather.html

  • David | November 14, 2010 7:50 AMReply

    Just watched Cold Weather and the film was a waste. I cannot understand how so many people found this entertaining when the synopsis itself was a lie. We are told (IMDB) that the film is about a college grad but he dropped out to work in an ice factory. The dialoge is stale and boring with excessive scenes of characters walking and excessive holds to which nothing is happening, ie... the story is stagnant link a puddle of watter. The story should flow or have movement. This story moves but only after periods of nothing. I am not famous but I do know what is entertaining. The story's staleness creates a need for something, anything to happen. This creates excitement in the hopes that something sustantial happens. Such as the missing girlfriend who just shows up from who knows where and yells at the main character... really? The story is too fragmented and needs more structure. My girlfriend is not even in the film industry and she was angry at the end as we could have spent our money on a different film. Not sure why people state this is such a fantastic film when everyone I spoke with did not find the film very entertaining. I do not know the film maker and I am sure he is a great guy but the film is less than desirable. Hope his next one is better.

  • johnnysletter | March 20, 2010 1:40 AMReply

    "Cold Weather" was definitely one of my favorites from SXSW this year. It's one a few I saw where I just completely forgot I was watching a movie. It's different but very immersive and entertaining. I was fortunate enough to squeeze into the second screening.