by Bill Chambers I don't socialize with director Matt Sadowski, but I appeared in his John Hughes tribute documentary Don't You Forget About Me (seventh-billed, thanks to the alphabet!), and the damned if you do/don't scenario of reviewing a movie by someone you know IRL, as the kids say, is that any praise is met with skepticism and any negativity becomes personal. But since Sadowski and I haven't kept in touch in the nine (!) years since that interview, and since new Canadian films and filmmakers never get enough attention, least of all from me, a few words about his fiction-feature debut, Pretend We're Kissing, which has actually become something of a minor sensation in its city of origin by outlasting its indie-release lifespan at the Carlton in Toronto. (It's currently wrapping up its third week there.) I will be as objective as I know how.
- This is a beautifully-photographed movie. I mean it. When I asked Matt for a streaming link, he was disappointed I wasn't screening it theatrically. "The film is pretty much all wide shots," he said. He wasn't kidding. (Luckily, I was at least able to view an HD feed, on a 46" display.) I subsequently learned from Twitter that Sadowski and presumably his team, including DP Joshua Allen, were mentored on the project by the late, great Gordon Willis, whose reputation for shadowy lighting--which earned him the nickname "The Prince of Darkness"--isn't as relevant here as the CinemaScope aesthetic he honed in the '70s. Surveillance state in the hands of Alan J. Pakula, it adapted beautifully to the delicate mix of wry observation and sweeping romanticism in Woody Allen's Manhattan--one of Pretend We're Kissing's most obvious influences, along with the better part of Allen's filmography. (Indeed, part of me wished Sadowski had gone the full Allen and called it Toronto.)
Anyway, the film is chock-a-block with Willis-esque long takes in which the 2.35:1 anamorphic frame, blocking, and subtle camera adjustments work in harmony to reorganize composition without the need for cutting. And when there's relative stasis, as for example during a particularly (and, I might add, purposefully) unpleasant sex scene, it's not the hopeless fixed camera of the terminally lazy. The skill and confidence with which the film is shot, I confess, took me aback, mostly because it's not in vogue. And because the last time I saw Sadowski he was basically shooting like part of The Blair Witch Project. If you're interested in seeing Pretend We're Kissing, try to catch it on the big screen. I know, I know.
- The picture also uses the city keenly, finding the truly iconic in a dawning view of Toronto from a ferry (maybe this movie's equivalent of Manhattan's poster-immortalized image of the Queensboro bridge) but not being precious about its locations like the recent The F Word, a.k.a. What If, to which Pretend We're Kissing has been meaninglessly compared. When the romantic leads go for a morning-after breakfast, it's at a diner whose marquee has fallen into such disrepair that all that's left is the word "food." That's the Toronto I know and love.
- If I have a problem with Pretend We're Kissing, it's that Sadowski does kind of go the full Allen in casting a veritable look-alike, Dov Tiefenbach, in the lead. (Rather than downplay the similarities, the fatigues-green jacket and baseball cap only conjure memories of Allen-as-Castro in Bananas.) My general feeling is that while Allen is hardly a warm presence, especially with the passage of time, any and all attempts to directly channel him bring into relief a degree of charm that his wannabes do not possess. In a way, Tiefenbach's resemblance to Allen at once enhances and cheapens the swoonier moments, though he's not so locked in to an impersonation that you can't believe he FaceTimes with friends, spends his days plastering the streets with posters, and occasionally drowns his sorrows.
- Plus, I like that Tiefenbach's Benny wears a hat so much--a cartoon character amount--that when he takes it off before getting into bed with a woman, it becomes for him symbolic nudity.
- While watching the film, I dreaded everything following a cut to black at the 76-minute mark that felt to me like the ideal ending, though I'm a bit of a masochist when it comes to fulfilling a set of narrative expectations and wouldn't mind if most movies ended more ambiguously. Yet I was ultimately glad Pretend We're Kissing continued on and resolved in the somewhat unconventional manner it had conducted itself all along. Yes, it's reminiscent of Allen, but even Allen contrives obstacles in the form of romantic competition to define the arc of his relationships. Here, whether the central couple breaks up or doesn't, it will more or less happen on its own modest terms. I dig this "nonromcom"--believe it or not--and I'm proud to know Sadowski.