Cold Weather (2010)

2 07 2011

Aaron Katz once again proves he’s at the very top of the pyramid when it comes to young American filmmakers. This gentle and beautiful pseudo-thriller should be enough proof that he’s far more mature than his mumblecore peers. His slight crossover into genre works perfectly as the film never seemed to be particularly jarring as a relationships movie that quickly becomes a mystery. In a way, this is what that terrible movie Brick should have been, a reflection on genre that doesn’t have to sacrifice any sense of realism. Katz has done something that very few have accomplished since the heyday of genre filmmaking in the 1940s and 50s – he has put his story in a world that we can recognize as our own and it is lovely to watch.

I don’t want this review to ultimately dissolve into a comparison of Brick because one, I quite frankly don’t care about that movie and two, it seems like it would be a disservice to Katz. Still, look at the way Cold Weather opens. A very subdued family dinner, nothing really “dramatic” or “intense.” In fact, the film never really gets into that territory. Brick immediately thrusts the viewer into a world that is modern but filled with people talking like characters in a Howard Hawks movie. In truth, I’d think Katz’s vision is probably closer to the mold of someone like Hawks or Ford even though he’s not studying and replicating their footprints like Rian Johnson. The fact of the matter is, Katz is able to ground his film by having a (seemingly) close-knit cast and the photogenic gloominess of Portland, Oregon as his backdrop.

One of the many strengths in Katz’s previous film, Quiet City was the way it obviously alluded towards Katz’s artier influences but still kept something that was distinctively apart of the “young adult” experience in modern day America. This might just be an elaborate workaround for using “hipster” on my part, but the point still remains, Katz draws from an influences as well as he manages to create some completely organic and new. The “pillow shots” of his previous film were a nod to Ozu, but here they seem to have progressed into something that belongs to Katz himself, not just a tribute. Again, it helps that what is being photographed is something that is just so intrinsically American. The images feel fresh and new, even while being guided through Katz’s already well established aesthetic.

It probably says something of Katz’s intentions that the mystery is essentially “solved” with still somewhere around 20 to 30 minutes left in the film. This seems weird, especially since we’re never given any closure in that time. Instead, the film’s final stretch makes it seem more like being a movie about a brother-sister relationship, which seems to be one of the relationships that has been given the least amount of serious attention in cinema. It’s easy for me to gravitate towards this because one, my sister and I are extremely close and two, Trieste Kelly Dunn is insanely beautiful in this movie. It’s actually sort of disconcerting since it is suppose to be a brother-sister complex and I couldn’t accept that she (nor any other character in the film) was going to be the object of romantic longings.

This is all a good thing, though. It’s a movie by a young American about young people and there’s no point in which stock feelings come into play. In other words, it feels authentic and that is more important than one would think in a genre film. While Katz hasn’t  done quite enough to put him up with say, Nicholas Ray, but he has made one of the most artistic and enjoyable genre films in a long time. Considering his monetary restrictions, it would be an understatement to call this an accomplishment.

Kes (1969)

2 07 2011

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Ken Loach’s Family Life but from what I remember, it had the same qualities as this. I respect Loach for being a socially conscious filmmaker, but he seriously seems better when he tries to shield himself from getting too preachy. Considering how early this film came in his career, it’s pretty startling. Although the main character is whipped around and mistreated in a way that paints the scene as pretty much hopeless (Casper’s mother says as much herself) the film manages to redeem itself by being a really tender depiction of teenage angst and lower class unrest. I guess this was the balance Loach has always intended to achieve, but from what I’ve seen, this is the greatest representation of that.

Like all of these British social realist films, Kes is downbeat, if not miserable. Andrea Arnold’s recent Fish Tank was an excellent reprisal of this sort of movie, albeit one with a lot more poetic flourishes than Loach or even Mike Leigh. The situations are so dire that they almost force you to connect to the protagonist. In this particular case, it’s pretty hard not to relate with a bullied teenage boy anyway so there’s less of a sense of martyrdom, as would be the case with any of Mizoguchi’s otherwise great tragedies. The film feels pragmatic even when the viewer is forced to sit through sequences that do nothing but further cement Casper’s standing as something of a geek. It would get tiresome if his way of dealing with the situations wasn’t so fascinating. He manages to be both remarkably mature and extremely childish.

I very often discredit movies of this nature for being too downbeat and trying too hard to be real. The remedy to this, at least from a textbook standpoint, is “comic relief” which often carries a negative connotation with it. I don’t think it should especially when the film is as bleak as this one. Thankfully, Loach interjects an extremely amusing bit in which the PE teacher attempts to live out his dream of football glory with his students. Loach even throws in a scoreboard text, further affirming the pathetic nature of the teacher’s delusions. Casper himself has some antics that do call to a mind something like Gummo or George Washington, albeit done under a much more somber tone. This is kind of off-topic, but the amount of running and jumping Casper does is enough to make someone think he’d make a half-decent hurdler.

While Casper himself exhausts himself physically, the film begins to exhaust itself with depictions of his misfortunes. The brightest, perhaps happiest moment in the film occurs toward the end when Casper’s English teacher takes an interest in him and Kes and even  lets the boy explain himself. It’s a touching couple of minutes, because it hints that the character could be finding something of a father figure but that’s too optimistic. In reality, people don’t suddenly become a huge part of your life through some conversations. It would be schmaltzy for such a thing to happen, but the fact that the relationship never comes to fruition is still heartbreaking.

The film’s finale essentially adds insult to the previously mentioned injury, but the way it ends somehow doesn’t make things completely hopeless. Sure, there’s nothing really positive at all, but the simple fade to black suggests that things could be worse. Casper has basically lost his first great passion in life, and he may never be able to revive it. While this is personally frustrating and heartbreaking, he is still young. His conditions are impossibly harsh but his existence continues. On the other hand, it might become an issue of whether or not he wants to exist anymore or not. Kes is the right amount of sadness for my liking, it is brutal but the tragedy is never escalated as anything more, just observed.