Thursday, August 2, 2012


Sometimes the problem is you.  It's not always a comfortable realization to arrive at but it's an observation that drives Ruby Sparks, the latest work by directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine).  The film peers into the life of Calvin (Paul Dano), a former wunderkind author whose single great novel still has him on the speaking circuit, labeled a genius by adoring fans and academics.  Fast forward about ten years and, other than a few short stories, Calvin's been unable to follow up on that initial success.  In fact, he's fallen into a long dry spell with no writing at all.  Adding insult to injury, his last girlfriend left him shortly after the death of his father.

Out of nowhere, Calvin begins dreaming of a mysterious and beautiful woman.  The vision triggers something in him, kicking him out of his rut and, after being pushed by his therapist (Elliott Gould), he begins to write about the woman of his dreams.  And then things get weird.  The girl, Ruby (Zoe Kazan, doing double duty here as screenwriter), appears in his apartment, seamlessly picking up the role that he's written for her; she's his girlfriend.  It's a bit of a shock at first (Calvin tells his brother that it's like Harvey, except "she's not an eight-foot rabbit").  Before long, though, he relaxes into the idea, quickly becoming comfortable living with and loving a woman who is essentially the product of a first draft.

Ruby's transformation from a simple fantasy into something far more complex--gasp, a real woman with actual emotional baggage--throws a wrench into Calvin's initial joy over her appearance.  But, since Calvin wrote Ruby into existence, he assumes (correctly) that he can change her behaviors via a few rewrites.  Whether or not he uses or abuses that power and what it says about his own ability to connect with others soon becomes the central conflict that haunts Ruby Sparks.  When we finally get the opportunity to meet Calvin's ex, her insight on their failed relationship, paired with Calvin's choices regarding Ruby, lay his flaws bare for us to see.

This impulse to tinker with the basic ingredients of others has been explored before in films like S1mOne, Stranger Than Fiction, and, even VertigoRuby Sparks is far better than those first two films but, of course, has nothing on Hitchcock's masterpiece (recently declared the best film of all-time by Sight & Sound).  Outside of such comparisons, it's a fine diversion with good performances all around, even if it often feels episodic and can't quite figure out how to effectively resolve the tension of its third act as it heads towards the still satisfying conclusion.

Ruby Sparks opens at the Regal Fox Tower on Friday, August 3rd.  More info available here.

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One can be forgiven for labeling The Ghost and Mr. Chicken as nothing more than a live-action take on the animated Scooby Doo, Where Are You? mystery adventures.  There are certainly plenty of reasons to compare the two, since both favor cowards, ghosts, and dark mansions filled with cobwebs as storytelling devices.  And, yeah, I could point out that The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966) precedes the Hanna-Barbera series ('69, dude) by a few years.  But the real reason to care about The G. & Mr. C. (as all the cool kids call it nowadays) is the presence of Mr. Don Knotts.  The dude is pretty much a genre unto himself, a b-grade Brando if Brando were all twitches, bug-eyed mugging for the camera, and a family friendly persona that steered clear of any project resembling reality in the slightest.

All jokes aside, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken may not be what you'd automatically toss on at home (unless you're looking for something for the kids to watch--it's great for that) but it is a film that seems perfect for an event like Top Down.  It's filled to the brim with small town humor, some of which has aged in mysteriously off-color ways.  And I can't imagine a more ridiculous sight than watching a 42-year-old Don Knotts trying to woo a 26-year-old Joan Staley, both of them acting as if they're blushing, virginal teens gone a courtin'. 

Bottom line: this film's ridiculous and so very right for a campy night of outdoor film viewing.  Add a few drinks to the experience and you're in for some fun.  And it doesn't hurt if you're already down with Mr. Knotts, either.

The NW Film Center's Top Down Rooftop Cinema series presents The Ghost and Mr. Chicken on Thursday, August 2nd at 8pm.  More info available here.

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Those in attendance at this year's first installment of EFF Portland no doubt heard a lot of conversation about Portland's past as a mecca for experimental film.  To a certain extent, the mission statement of the new festival centered around rebooting that legacy.  One could easily point out the loose collective of video and film artists known as Peripheral Produce as being one of the touchstones of Portland's experimental past.  From the mid-90s through the first decade of the new millennium, the film collective dipped their paws into exhibition, distribution and, perhaps most influentially, began a local festival (PDX Fest) for highlighting experimental fare.

This Saturday night Peripheral Produce rises from the ashes to celebrate the re-release of their 1996 video compilation the Auto-Cinematic Video Mix Tape.  Collective organizer Matt McCormick has cobbled together a showcase of new and old experimental work for the evening's entertainment, replicating the feel of the collective's legendary experimental film nights.  Audiences can expect to see works by McCormick, Miranda JulyVanessa Renwick, Andy BlubaughAshby Lee Collinson, Orland Nutt, Rob Tyler and many more.

Consider it a forum of sorts between the wizened elder statesmen (okay, statespeople...this is the 21st century, after all) and the new school of underground film kids.  By all means, take notes, folks...this is how it's done.

Let's all take a moment to gaze upon an excerpt from the press release:

The August 4th show will feature seminal Portland works along with a selection of new works from Portland’s fast rising “next generation” of experimental filmmakers. The show and DVD features acclaimed artist and filmmaker Miranda July’s 1996 video Atlanta. Atlanta was July’s first significant video piece, and shows the makings of her sharp sense of humor and attention to detail found in her later blockbuster works (Me and You and Everyone We Know, The Future). 

The show and DVD also include writer/filmmaker Jon Raymond’s 1997 piece Battles on the Astral Plane, a clever mocking of the popular Mortal Kombat video game that shows Raymond’s crafty, self-effacing wit that can still be found in his books and screenplays (Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff, Livability). Vanessa Renwick, Chel White, Rob Tyler and Matt McCormick also offer works from early in their career. 

Also included in the program is new works from NW Film Festival winner Orland Nutt and TBA darling Ashley Lee Collinson, as well as work from Stephen Slappe, Andrew Blubaugh, Ben Popp, Jim Blashfield, and many others.

The Peripheral Produce manifesto

the subconscious art of graffiti removal (excerpt) from matt mccormick on Vimeo.

Peripheral Produce's dvd release party for the Auto-Cinematic Video Mix Tape happens at the Hollywood Theatre on Saturday, August 4th at 8pm.  More info available here.

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