Friday, July 27, 2012

Ruby Sparks

Boy Creates Girl                          
by Zac Sanford

After making a splash in 2006 with their debut feature, Little Miss Sunshine, the husband and wife directing duo of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris did not return behind the camera for another film until now.  After having your first piece of art so heralded, the pressures of finding the perfect follow-up can be a soul-crushing ordeal.  Many artists strive to find that creative spark and that perfect piece of material that will keep them from becoming a one-hit wonder, only to fall flat on their faces and quickly disappear into obscurity.  Thankfully, Ruby Sparks is a wondrous follow-up, full of wonderful characters and a high-concept premise that actually delivers through to the very end.

Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) was such an artist.  His first novel at the young age of 18 catapulted him to the top of the New York Times best-seller list.  He was mentioned in the same breath as J.D. Salinger.  He hit the lecture tours and soon realized he would not be able to top his previous creative endeavors.  The writers block wall was in front of him and there was no way he could drive around it.  Ten years later, he still talks on the same book tours and answers the same questions about his inevitable follow-up, but those pages do not pour out of him as he sits in front of his manual typewriter.

Paul Dano

His psychiatrist (Elliott Gould) recommends that he write about one of his possible encounters with a woman while walking his dog.  That night the dreams come fast and furious.  He sees his dream girl, Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan), and he wakes with a new fervor.  The pages fly out of his typewriter.  Ruby Sparks is the girl of his dreams and the inspiration for his next novel.  She's the perfect manifestation of his every desire.  But when he wakes the next morning, she is no longer a dream, but in his apartment cooking him breakfast.

Any rational human would question his sanity at this moment, and that's what Calvin does.  He goes out of the house, Ruby on his heels, to make sure his mind isn't deteriorating, only to find he isn't the only one who can see and hear her.  She is the real deal, and she is everything he ever wanted.

A concept like this could quickly deteriorate into schmaltz, but this script isn't afraid to take chances.  Calvin's brother, Harry (Chris Messina), could easily fall victim to Apatow-esque humor when he eggs on his brother to rewrite Ruby.  But Calvin is happy with his creation and the new-found love of his life.  And just like any relationship, what originally draws one to someone could become the one thing that tears the relationship apart.  The problem is, no one is perfect, and after they delve into a real-world relationship, those little fractures start to appear.

Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano

This is where the script really shines.  Calvin goes into rewrite mode to restore Ruby to his ideal dream girl, and nothing will ever be the same.  The constant rewrites send Ruby all over the map, and Zoe is pitch-perfect as she embodies the changes in her character.  The Manic Pixie Dream Girl stereotype is ripped to shreds, and it makes sense that Ruby's character would do such a thing, considering the script was written by Zoe. Writing the script was her way of showing her range as an actress.  She even outshines veterans Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas, as Calvin's hippie mother and step-father, in a sub-plot that does more to detract than to help move the film along.  It's a necessary step into the arc of Ruby's character as a real human, but the momentum just seemed to stop, and tonally, felt like a different movie.

Once Calvin and Ruby are back in LA, those cracks become even more apparent, and Calvin must do his final rewrite for her character.  To say the film takes a tonal shift would be an understatement.  What was previously light and fluffy hits a dark patch, and I must applaud the filmmakers for making that choice, even if it does make the end a little tougher to swallow.

Ruby Sparks is a charming rom-com that should make decent counter-programming against the studio slate of the crowded summer season.  Like Dayton and Faris's previous film, word of mouth should be strong, allowing an extended run through the end of the season.  

Friday, July 13, 2012

Your Sister's Sister

It's Really Complicated                               
by Mark Dispenza

The complex relationships between sisters and the people they love outside the family offer plenty of laughter and drama in Your Sister's Sister.  This latest indie feature from writer-director Lynn Shelton was made on a micro budget but has considerable appeal based on an outstanding script and the chemistry among its principle cast members.

We've been seeing a lot this past year of actors Emily Blunt (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, The Five-Year Engagement) and Mark Duplass (Darling Companion, Safety Not Guaranteed), and I'm pleased to see that they are losing none of their appeal from the heavy exposure.  Indeed they both rise to the challenge and improve with each new role.

The story unfolds as Iris (Blunt) decides to intervene to help her best friend, Jack (Duplass), recover from a long period of mourning the untimely death of his brother.  She invites him to spend some time alone in her family's cabin on a remote island off the coast of Washington.  On arrival he is surprised to find her sister, Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), seeking recovery from the break-up of her 7-year relationship with a lesbian lover.

Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt

A drunken encounter between Jack and Hannah leads to complications with the unexpected arrival of Iris.  It turns out that Iris and Jack have unresolved feelings for each other, and Hannah has a hidden agenda that results first in hijinks, and then an emotional collision that severely tests the bonds that exist between each of the characters.  

Unfortunately I can't reveal any more than that, because it's the successive revelations and how the characters cope with them that give the story its strength.  The plot is cleverly paced and the dialogue is both humorous and revealing, all the more impressive because I understand that it was based in improv.  I don't like improv dialogue as a rule, because it usually results in conversations that sound a little too flat and ordinary in terms of advancing the story.  That certainly was not the case here.  The dialogue is concise, witty and insightful.

Mark Duplass

It's worth mentioning again how impressed I am with the abilities of both Blunt and Duplass to create realistic chemistry not only between the themselves in this film, but with the range of other actors they have been cast with in recent months.  They seem to be getting better, and I expect the best is yet to come from both of them.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Los Angeles Film Festival Wrap-Up

by Zac Sanford

In the town of big budget blockbusters, Film Independent presented its annual bash at the Regal Cinemas in downtown Los Angeles. As with past years, the festival seemed to be without a unifying theme among the films selected, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing.  Some fests may pride themselves by having some sort of identity, but the scattered selection of films perfectly fits its hometown venue, a mix of studio fare from their indie divisions, foreign films and truly independent pictures.  Here is a small selection of the fifteen films I watched over the ten day event:

An Oversimplification of Her Beauty - Terence Nance mines his previous short film How Would You Feel?, expanding on his subject matter and the love of his life, Namik Minter.   Beauty cuts back and forth between the short and the relationships Nance has been in since his love went unrequited.  The film mixes media, easily jumping from the old short film with the simplicity of an eject button, jumping into animated segments, and a battle of words between two narrators.  Everything Nance brings to the screen isn't simplified, but complex as the love that he seeks.  While not a perfect film, the feature debut from Nance brings a distinct voice to the C Generation and a beautiful piece of art.

It's a Disaster - At a weekly brunch populated by a bunch of friends, Tracy (Julia Stiles) introduces her latest beau, Glenn (David Cross).  Tempers quickly rise when the guys cannot watch the game on television, someone can't bid on a collector's item on eBay, and one couple is late as usual.  As the guests discover the reason for the lack of TV reception and internet access, news comes that one of the couples is ready to call it quits.  But the biggest problem of all isn't the end of their relationship but a terrorist attach unleashed downtown, and all within the fallout range will soon be dead.  The end of the world has never been so fun and hilarious.

Juan of the Dead - Zombie movies are a dime a dozen these days, but what makes Juan of the Dead different from all others is its choice of locale.  This is the first zombie movie to come out of Cuba.  When the outbreak first happens, the local news media isn't truthful about what is really going down, instead they blame the changes on the corrupt governments of other countries.  Juan doesn't bring anything new to the zombie genre, but the new locale, the wonderful mix of characters and the social commentary makes for a fun thrill ride.


Robot and Frank - Frank (Frank Langella in an award-worthy performance) suffers from a severe case of dementia, and his son Hunter's (James Marsden) only hope is a robot to help him with his daily tasks.  The old curmudgeon refuses the assistance, searching for an off button, but slowly relents when he finds out the robot's sole directive.  The film becomes a buddy flick of man and robot, as they work together to rob from the rich, as the old man has always had a sticky finger.  The two make a wonderful team, and as they get in too deep, you can only hope that they never get caught.  Though the Robot is far from human, the emotion and connection is deeper than most human interaction in the biggest blockbusters.  While the concept sounds a bit out there, the film is full of heart and soul.

A Band Called Death - Along with Marley and Last Days Here, A Band Called Death completes the trifecta of extraordinary music documentaries in 2012.  From deep within the motor city, a trio of brothers formed a band in hopes of fame, success and women.  They were far ahead of their time, playing punk before it was such a thing.  They toed on the edge of fame, almost signing with a major label, if they would only concede one thing... their name.  The name Death was always the drawback.  They couldn't get the airtime or find venues to book them, but the oldest of the siblings was always too proud and knew they would find a way to make it to the masses.  The film follows the highs and lows of the brothers, including the early passing of one, before their only seven-inch recording started to find its way into the underground music scene.  A wonderful film about passion and never giving up, A Band Called Death will hopefully never die.

As more films from the festival premiere, more reviews are set to come including Celeste and Jesse Forever, Sister, Red Flag and my favorite of the festival, Ruby Sparks.