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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with Zoe Kazan's RUBY SPARKS, Rodrigo Cortés' RED LIGHTS, and Chen Kaige's SACRIFICE!!!

Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…

What is it about human nature that makes us want to control everything around us — nature, information, money and, above all else, other people? The last thing on that list is easy: if we can control the people around us, life would be so much easier, right? The problem comes when the people around us refuse to fall in line, and therein lies the heart and soul of the fascinating new film from writer/actor Zoe Kazan (THE EXPLODING GIRL, MEEK'S CUTOFF) and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE).

Although many would like to pigeonhole RUBY SPARKS as an indie-style romantic-comedy, that doesn't really do it justice. Yes, the film is at times light and funny, the dark and occasionally sinister places it goes keep it from occupying that label comfortably. This is the story of Calvin (Kazan's real-life boyfriend Paul Dano, of THERE WILL BE BLOOD and LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE), a novelist who wrote a hugely influential novel when he was still a teenager and has yet to capitalize on that success as an adult. He can't even seem to produce a single page of new material on his old-school manual typewriter, so how can he be expected to hold down a relationship, when his creativity is so stifled.

He has a dream about meeting a girl in the park, and he's convinced she's perfection and, with the prompting of his therapist (Elliott Gould), he effortlessly writes several dozen pages about her in one night. But then he wakes up one morning to a living, breathing version of this woman named Ruby in his apartment acting like they are an established couple and exhibiting every last detail of how he wrote her. Dano displays some surprisingly deft comic timing and skill in these scenes, and he's particularly funny once he realizes she's real, others can see her, and she loves him without fail. One scene in which Calvin and his brother (Chris Messina) do tests to see if she is in fact a product of Calvin's mind is especially good.

But as we branch out outside Calvin's apartment, we start to see traits in other that Calvin has either written into Ruby or deliberately written out. When we meet his hippie mother (Annette Bening) and her wood-working boyfriend (Antonio Banderas), we see certain personality elements in mom that have made their way into Ruby. On the other hand, when Calvin runs into his ex-girlfriend (Deborah Ann Woll) at a party, we see that Ruby's claim that she's not much of a reader comes from the ex being too much of a reader and, by Calvin's standards, too involved in his writing career.

This is not the first time I've been this impressed by Kazan as an actor, but her ability to transform and fulfill certain needs that Calvin has as a result of his insecurities is astonishing. At the same time, her trips out into the world broaden her perspective (she has no idea she's a created person), and Calvin feels them drifting apart, leading to a series of "fine-tuning" episodes at the typewriter that are sometimes painful to watch. "If only I could change this one thing about someone, they would be perfect..." Not exactly. One particularly painful sequence comes after Ruby is caught flirting with Calvin's colleague (Steve Coogan), and there's a climactic moment where RUBY SPARKS goes from tragic to borderline horrific.

Kazan's screenplay is sharp, witty and laced with just the right amount of psychological insight to allow the metaphor of the controlled person to work almost perfectly. Dayton and Faris do an admirable job keeping the film from getting bogged down in too much visual trickery and simply let the story unfold naturally, with just the right amount of magic. There's a very good chance you'll come out of this film truly hating Calvin, and I think that's OK. You don't have to like him to enjoy this movie. Plus, no one hates Calvin more than Calvin, so you'd really just be kicking a man when he's down. But maybe he deserves that too. RUBY SPARKS is smart and entertaining, and at the end of the day that's all I require.

A couple years back, writer-director Rodrigo Cortés made BURIED, one of the most tense and claustrophobia-inducing films in recent memor. One could only wonder how this talented filmmaker was going to top himself, and wisely he doesn't seem to have tried exactly. Rather than keep his cinematic world small, Cortés has gone big with RED LIGHTS, the story of a pair of paranormal activity debunkers who go head to head with the world's most well-known psychic, who went into seclusion after one of his biggest detractors died under mysterious circumstances.

The university-employed debunkers are played by Sigourney Weaver as Margaret Matheson and Cillian Murphy as Tom Buckley, and Cortés places them in the middle of a very creepy scenario right off the bat, which they immediately tear to shreds using science and logic (don't you hate party poopers like them?) The pair have a remarkable bond and friendship that doesn't seem to extend beyond the job, yet Tom's loyalty to Margaret is unwavering for reasons only he knows. When legendary psychic Simon Silver (Robert De Niro) comes out of hiding, he starts making public appearances again, wowing the crowd with his powers. Immediately Tom and Margaret want to take a peak behind the curtain and debunk the one man they were never able to. Tom recruits a lovely student from Margaret's class (Elizabeth Olsen), and the team begin their work.

I don't want to say too much about where the story goes from here (if any critics go into details about the second half of the film, you should stop reading them because they're assholes), but I will say that Silver does agree to tests, the team secretly observes one of his performances looking for tells that trickery is afoot, and a big showdown is almost inevitable. There's a great scene between Murphy and De Niro in a rundown apartment building that turns up the tension significantly. But for the most part, Cortés is about the slow burn punctuated by insanity. The atmosphere of RED LIGHTS seems intentionally heightened, like a '70s Italian horror film that is both supremely melodramatic and perfectly tempered, except when it's trying to scare the crap out of you.

In so many ways, this movie shouldn't work. De Niro is aiming just a little past the bleacher seats. Murphy seems frantic or psychotic for most of the film. And bizarre supporting performances from the likes of Joely Richardson and Toby Jones seem grossly underwritten, but there is something about the film that does work. I was impressed with the clinical, realistic approach the investigators take to their work, and how even the midst of what appears to be be ghosts and other characters stirring up trouble during a séance, for example, they keep their cool because they know exactly what's going on. If you're able to overlook a few minor bits of silliness, RED LIGHTS is actually a lot of twisted fun.

For simple elegance on a grand scale, one need go no further than the works of the great Chinese director Chen Kaige (FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE, TEMPTRESS MOON, THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN), whose latest work to reach our shores is Sacrifice, a tale of warring clans, loyalty, and putting country before self. This costume period piece shows us a time when the Zhao family had ruled over a particular as long as anyone could remember. But its rule is threatened when Tu'an Gu decides to eliminate every member of the Zhao clan, including newborns.

The one last Zhao baby is put into the care of the doctor (Ge You) who delivered it, and without meaning to, he gives up his own child for slaughter in an effort to save the Zhao child. Determined to make the best of this terrible situation, the doctor raises the child as his own, but as he gets older, he attracts the attention of Tu'an Gu, the man who would see him dead. Having brought the doctor and boy into his home, Tu'an Gu begins training the boy as a warrior while the doctor plots with the boy to have patience and eventually kill his parents' executioner when he's old enough to do so. SACRIFICE has a few surprises up its sleeve as the boy grows to respect Tu'an Gu as a mentor and stops believing his father's stories about the warlord's awful deeds, thus threatening the doctor's master plan.

SACRIFICE is a visually lovely and fragile work that treats its moments of substantial violence as something poetic, bordering on lovely. The performances, especially by Ge You as the doctor, are tempered but often wrought with emotion. They are exquisite lessons in holding back, so that when they do unleash their verbal and physical violence, the raw power is devastating beyond words. And yes, SACRIFICE gets pretty gory at times thanks to a whole lot of sword play. But I don't remember ever cringing at any of the wonderfully staged action sequences. The film is both sweeping and intimate, classical (set in 583 BC and modern day), and concludes with an ending that is both inevitable and still quite shocking. There's a type of perfection in a movie like this, and I hope you seek it out when it comes to a theater near you.

-- Steve Prokopy
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Readers Talkback
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  • July 27, 2012, 8:11 p.m. CST

    De Niro

    by jasonzappa

    Rocks in this.

  • July 27, 2012, 10:41 p.m. CST


    by frank


  • July 28, 2012, 8:01 a.m. CST

    Old school typewriter

    by Garbageman33

    That's all I needed to read right there. Dayton and Faris tend to skip right past quirky and go directly to cloying. Little Miss Sunshine was unbearable in that respect.