Monday, 22 October 2012

Spectrum MiniMix: Autumnal Shades

The leaves are fallin', it's getting darker, there's a chill entering the bones. What better time for Spectrum MiniMixes to make a return after a six month (wowzers) hiatus? This latest playlist is the soundtrack for your evening walks home in the wind and the rain, snug in your jacket with the collar raised. Some of the best new music spliced with a couple of fall classics make up a half hour of relaxing sounds rounded up by one seriously contagious Jessie Ware remix. Enjoy!

1. David Byrne & St. Vincent - 'Who'
2. Sufjan Stevens - 'The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts'
3. Kindness - 'Swingin Party'
4. Bat For Lashes - 'All Your Gold'
5. The Bird and the Bee - 'I Can't Go For That'
6. Grizzly Bear - 'Yet Again'
7. Jessie Ware - 'Night Light - Joe Goddard Remix'

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Ruby Sparks Review

Reading other reviews for Ruby Sparks, it’s surprising to see just how many critics have lazily applied the same cookie-cutter template to Zoe Kazan’s feature that the author and lead actress wishes to dismantle. Short-circuit terminology – “fantasy rom-com”, “off-kilter indie dramedy” and such like are thrown around readily in press releases and film section articles, threatening to paint this film as something it’s not. This whole process likely isn’t helped by the fact that Ruby Sparks was directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the married pair behind that go-to “life-affirming” indie feature, Little Miss Sunshine. That whole mid-noughties, accessible quirk (oh god let me vomit) is there if you’re looking for it, but in doing so you’re really limiting the scope of what Ruby Sparks achieves. Influenced by the likes of Woody Allen and Charlie Kaufman, Ruby Sparks is less some whimsical romance than it is a study of both the power of art to circumscribe and reduce reality, and of in turn how often people attempt to write those close to them as something more befitting to their own needs.

 Ten years on from the novel that made him a literary phenomenon, 29 year old Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) is struggling with long term writer’s block, and a resounding case of loneliness. Trading in on the success of that debut work, Calvin spends his days free of work with only the company of his dog Scotty and brother Harry (Chris Messina) giving any real colour to his routine. When his therapist, Dr. Rosenthal (Elliot Gould) suggests that, rather than try to write anything meaningful, Calvin simply write an account of someone who cherishes the insipid Scotty in spite of his faults, the young author dreams of one Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan), a woman who quickly becomes both his muse and imaginary soul mate. When Ruby one day materialises in Calvin’s house, the author’s self indulgent fantasy becomes a reality. But Ruby’s burgeoning personality, once made real, soon begins to press against the limitations of Calvin’s writing.

 Kazan’s script, in allowing for Ruby’s character to evolve once given a greater playground to move within, offers a deconstruction of the Manic Dream Pixie Girl more comprehensive and “real” than that offered in Dano’s earlier feature Gigantic, where it remained ambiguous whether Deschanel’s character was to be read as a refutation of this trope or merely a more extreme spin upon it. The growth of Ruby, and how Calvin struggles with this and the power he holds in re-writing her limitations, is the real draw of this film, exploring as it does both the onanistic nature of writing and the friction caused in relationships when people work to be recognised as more than just an extension of the partner’s own consciousness. We do not place such constraints upon our friendships, so why do we obsess so much over the face our loves project to us and the world around us? In a sense, as much as Ruby Sparks is a celebration of the creative process, it is also a critique of just how destructive a role art can play in altering our expectations of simple, every-day life and its expansion beyond the condensed delight of a two-hour narrative.

 I was never a huge fan of Little Miss Sunshine, finding it unnecessarily off-beat and self-absorbed, criticisms which cannot be levelled against Ruby Sparks. Here, Dayton and Faris’ approach feels far more cinematic; their slightly bombastic touches gelling well with the fears of inadequacy and need for control stemming from Dano’s deftly handled characterisation of Calvin. Dano’s skills as a lead have certainly grown since Gigantic, and it’s extremely pleasing to see the actor tackle meatier material again after a spout of rather anaemic supporting roles. The chemistry and in turn tension between him and Kazan packs a strong punch for anyone who might think “I’ve been there,” amplified by Nick Urata’s rather fraught score. This is intelligent, emotional cinema that isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty tackling the frustrations of relationships whilst still firmly positing the need to connect.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

'Looper' Review

In 2005, Rian Johnson’s debut feature Brick hit cinemas. Focusing on Joseph Gordon Levitt’s loner figure Brendan, it re-cast the teen high school drama as a pulpy detective story, using its noir themes as a catalyst for the intense feelings of isolation and angst that dog many a young teen. Like its peer, Donnie Darko, it’s revered as a fantastical genre feature yet is adored for its close familiarity to the feelings many of us tackle in our adolescence. Looper, Johnson’s second collaboration with JGL, might have similarly noirish trappings, but the resulting mood is decidedly different – where Brick settled steadily under your skin and sapped away at the marrow, Looper’s gritty landscape is offset by a glossy, even jocular approach that, whilst great fun, doesn’t quite leave the same mark.

In 2074, murder has been made near impossible through the act of tagging, so mob bosses use outlawed time travel technology to send their targets thirty years into the past, where they are swiftly despatched of by “Loopers.” Due to the nature of their practice, all Loopers must eventually assassinate their own future self, thus closing the loop, preserving the timeline and earning a hefty payoff in the process. When cocky young Looper Joe (Joseph Gordon Levitt) fails to take down his older counterpart (Bruce Willis), Joe must track down his target and ensure the loop is closed, all while “Old” Joe goes about ensuring the dystopic future he’s returned from never comes to pass.

Voices from many quarters have marvelled at the film’s willingness to forgo exposition and merely “tell it as it is,” a somewhat worrying statement when you consider just how much explanatory dialogue is present in the film. Make no mistake, Looper is no Primer level headache, but even as it chooses not to explain the logic behind its time travel machine (and honestly, how many time travel films actually do?) it puts more meat on its bones than, say, fellow recent genre inductee Dredd. This logic on the part of many critics is instead perhaps indicative of just how commonplace spoon-fed mythos building has come to be in genre features, and is less of a plus for Looper than it is a belated mark against the increasingly less relevant Inception, god-like as Nolan’s dreamscape thriller was hailed to be upon its release. For Looper’s best moments are when it chooses to indulge a little more in its reality – the moments when it fills in the 30 year gap in Joe’s life, or hints at the dark future awaiting in the hands of the foreboding Rainmaker.

In contrast, the film suffers in the areas where Brick really exceeded – character. After a rollicking first half of gritty sci-fi action and intrigue, Looper starts to slip and slide its way to the finish line upon the introduction of farmer Sara (Emily Blunt) and her intriguing young son Cid (Pierce Gagnon). These scenes, necessary as they are, feel more than a little sluggish after what came before, and are largely saved by the continual probing of Joe’s (old and young) moral ambiguity. Johnson has taken pains to craft a grimy, punkish world for his characters to live in that is then left at the wayside so we can all spend some time down the farm, Witness style, and the feeling of whiplash is more than a little jarring.

That said, by its climax, Looper has done a strong job of crafting a solid story, with Levitt and Willis functioning well as two sides of the same coin – it’s a shame they couldn’t have spent more screen-time together. Nathan Johnson’s percussive soundtrack keeps things ticking along nicely, perfectly capturing the mood, with the likes of Paul Dano and Jeff Daniels rounding out a plucky cast. Talk of Looper making it onto the top five lists of 2012 seems a little optimistic and short-sighted in light of some of the other gems this year has offered, but this is still a rare creature - an intelligent science fiction film that doesn’t try and shove its intellectuality down your throat, but is instead content to just enjoy itself. And I enjoyed it too.