One of the nice things about film noir is that it isn't a form that's attempted very often, like the friend from high school you're happy to see because he only drops in once every few years. There have been the requisite mini-revivals -- the most recent of consequence back in the late 1990s, post-"L.A. Confidential" -- but they're usually brief. Compared with, say, the lone hero of a dystopian action movie, it's downright rare to see a detective of even the soft-boiled variety on the big screen.
Which means that when it is tried, it's usually by someone appreciative of the form. Which in turns means that even when the film isn't fully successful, there's at least plenty of ingenuity behind it. That's what Rian Johnson infused into his 2005 cult hit "Brick," the noir he re-imagined, with gusto, in a Southern California high school. And that's what Aaron Katz deploys generously in his low-budget "Cold Weather," a title that premiered at SXSW and continues its warm festival run, ahead of release from IFC in the fall, at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
Ingenuity is hardly the only reason to enjoy Katz's film. The movie, which we caught Saturday night at LAFF and had an encore screening last night, is a noir only in the loosest sense (the film catalog actually describes it as a "comic mystery"), which is exactly why it's fun to watch. It's really more of a Sundance slacker movie -- post-college kid returns from Chicago to his hometown of Portland, Ore., to live with his sister and work a menial job in an ice factory -- that subtly morphs into a detective story when said slacker's ex-girlfriend goes missing and he and his work buddy and sister begin pursuing various leads to find her.
We of course won't review the film in this space -- although we're hopeful many others will at the time of IFC's release -- but suffice it to say that it's funny and charming and even a little exciting, especially when the mystery picks up and we move from the Sundance-y long takes and silences into the thrill of the chase. The acting is strong (the movie also offers a chance to see new indie It girl Trieste Kelly Dunn, who's also in the LAFF entry "The New Year") and there are also some great shots of Portland, a city that, like any good noir setting, becomes a character in its own right.
Perhaps what's most enjoyable is that while the film is aware of the tropes of a good detective story -- the missing girl, the clues left behind in a hotel room, a man and his partner conducting an investigation in a bleak-looking city -- it doesn't (unlike "Brick") explicitly send them up. In fact, part of the appeal is that it's just as interested in the characters in a non-mystery context, and spends a lot of time teasing out details about them that it unobtrusively puts over on us as we're caught up in the chase.
And that, in turn, makes the mystery more enjoyable. Because you don't need or expect the film to become a mystery, you don't need it to fit every piece together as it would in, say, "D.O.A.," or "The Big Heat." "The film has a foot in both worlds," Katz said at the Saturday night screening. "We wanted to take the genre and the people seriously." It does, and Katz does, which is what makes both the film and the emerging director (this is his third movie) worth watching.
When it comes to detective stories, it's always good to see an old friend again, especially if he's taken on some endearing new habits.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: A scene from Aaron Katz's "Cold Weather." Credit: IFC Films
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