Cold Weather, which opens at LA’s Laemmle Sunset 5 Theater Friday, February 11, is not your typical American movie, despite the fact that it takes place in Portland, Oregon, with an all-American cast and a purportedly Raymond-Chandler-like plot line. It left me dazed and confused, but, in a good way. This was not a bad movie. It took me days to come to that conclusion, however. First the strong points. The cinematography is both intimate and epic. From the very first scene (a mom-pop-brother-sister dinner) to the last, a hand-held
camera puts you close to and among the characters. Cinematographer Andrew Reed (Quiet City) makes you feel like you’re part of the conversation.
The epic element displays itself in the cinematographer’s depiction of stormy Portland. There is a love affair going on between Director Aaron Katz and this city. Long, lingering, sometimes too long, shots of the city and the environs are a National Geographic magazine dream. These scenes are just darn pretty.
Next strong point: dialogue. It is so real and natural I had the feeling it was not written, but improvised. Again, adding to the intimacy factor, you feel like you’re overhearing people talking, rather than watching a movie. There are no histrionic speeches here, just the familiar linguistic patterns of the American middle and working classes.
So what’s my problem? Why was I confused? As a good student of Hollywood film-making, I prepared to see the film by drawing boxes on a page in my notebook so I could enter in the staples of every commercial American film: three-act structure, inciting incident, second act turning point, and so on. Hey, I hadn’t read Christopher Vogler and Syd Field for nothing.
If this film had an inciting incident, and I’m not sure if it qualified for that, it wasn’t until half way through the film. As for the climax? Missing in action. Up until the very last second of the film, I kept hoping for the “big reveal,” the surprise ending which would explain everything. It never happened.
When I left the screening room, still early afternoon, I considered apologising to my wife for dragging her to this film which I figured she hated. Instead, I decided to make it up to her and said, “Let’s go to Westwood and see another film.” We saw The Green Hornet and, as soon as it ended, I realized why I was not prepared to dump on Cold Weather. Although The Green Hornet followed classic Hollywood structure, there was no character in the film which you could actually care about. In Cold Weather, despite the lack of structure, you cared about all the characters.
The film introduces us to Doug (played by Cris Lankenau) who had dropped out of college in Chicago and made it back to Portland to crash on the couch of his much more sensible and anal-retentive sister, Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn who starred in Fox’s Canterbury’s Law). Doug wants to be a detective. When his ex-girlfriend Rachel (Robin Rikoon, Fringe and the Unusuals) disappears, he recruits co-worker Carlos (Raul Castillo, Don’t Let Me Drown and Amexicano) to help live out his Philip Marlowe ambition. But don’t let the private-eye stuff fool you. From beginning to end, this film is about Doug’s relationship to his sister.
I bounced my concern with this film’s lack of structure off writer/director Paul Chitlik (The New Twilight Zone, Beyond Belief, Who’s the Boss, Brothers, Amen, Perfect Strangers) at the Alameda Writers Group February meeting. Paul teaches a very structured approach to screenplay writing, but pointed out that ten percent of successful films don’t follow the traditional structure. He said that this was more common in films made outside the United States.
So, Cold Weather is a “ten percenter,” perhaps more European in style and definitely outside the normal Hollywood approach. It reminded me of starting to watch a soap opera (albeit one done with extremely high standards of writing, acting, cinematography and direction) on a Monday and stopping on a Friday. No wonder my wife liked it.
If you’re willing to live a highly unconventional 97 minutes in rainy Portland with interesting people, you may, too.