The first unqualified hit of 2010 SXSW Film Festival premiered last night to a packed crowd (including recent Oscar snubbee Jason Reitman) at Austin's Alamo Ritz. Cold Weather, directed by two-time SXSW alum Aaron Katz (his Dance Party USA and Quiet City premiered here in 2006 and 2007, and are now available together on DVD), follows the bumbling adventures of Doug (Cris Lankenau), a former forensic science major who drops out of school in Chicago, moves in with his sister (Trieste Kelly Dunn) in Portland, gets a graveyard shift factory job and wastes away his days reading Sherlock Holmes novels and hanging out ... until his ex-girlfriend (Robyn Rikoon) shows up and touches off some shady business that requires Doug to put his vague detective skills to work.
Katz has long been associated with "mumblecore," the barely-there genre of naturalistic, low-budget, mostly digital indies that started appearing at SXSW about six years ago. The association made sense with Katz's first two films, in that they were homemade-feeling talkfests about young people meeting awkwardly and falling in tentative crush--and didn't make sense, in that Katz has a striking visual sensibility that drives his films more stridently than developing relationships within or realistically imprecise conversations. The unexpected beauty within daily, mundane situations was a subtheme of both Dance Party and Quiet City, both films that look unreasonably good for having been shot on relatively cheap video.
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Cold Weather was shot on not-cheap video--cinematographer Andrew Reed used the newish RED camera--and it's a much more controlled exercise than anything we're used to seeing at this budgetary level. Dance Party and Quiet City were, at the risk of sounding pejorative, Little Movies. Cold Weather, with its dolly shots, car chases, and extraordinary color saturation, is Big.
It's an impressive experiment in genre in more ways than one: a pulp fiction of troublesome dames and distinctly costumed villains, wedded to conversational comedy (Doug's banter with a co-worker played by Raul Castillo is a sharply scripted affront to the notion that the kids these days just make up their dialogue as they go along), while also a subtle exploration of friendship, family, and the behavioral differences between the two. And nobody does unspoken tension and unforced sensuality quite like Aaron Katz; when Doug's ex-girlfriend takes a sip out of his coffee cup without asking, it's the most loaded cinematic sip of coffee you're likely to see this year.
Here's the Cold Weather trailer. The film screens again on Tuesday and Thursday here at SXSW.