Archive for September, 2011

What’s Your Number?

Posted in Comedy, Romance with tags on September 30, 2011 by Mark Hobin

Poor Anna Faris. She just can’t seem to catch a break. Young, pretty and capable she has the ability to play a ditzy blonde better than any other actress of her generation. I mean that as a compliment of the highest order. After all, Marilyn Monroe made a career of it. The difference is Marilyn found herself in a dozen classics that still hold up today. Anna hasn’t been so lucky. There’s her memorable turns in Lost in Translation and Brokeback Mountain. And the only reason The House Bunny and Just Friends worked, were because of her considerable charisma. But little else has been worthy of her talents. Where is the vehicle that will catapult her fame into the stratosphere? Keep looking. What’s Your Number? is not that film.

The problem is certainly not the cast. Anna Faris plays the flighty, beleaguered bubblehead to a T. She’s as engaging as she possible can be under the circumstances. Here she depicts a spirited woman worried by a magazine article that claims the average woman has 10.5 sexual partners in her life. She has had 19 and the essay goes on to say those who have had over 20 will never end up getting married. After inadvertently sleeping with her ex-boss (#20), she vows to re-visit all of her exes in an effort to re-evaluate which was “the one who got away” so as not to go past that ominous number. So begins her quest to find Mister Right.

Anna is surrounded by an accomplished cast of up and comers on the verge of stardom. Chris Evans epitomizes self-assured swagger as the lothario-of-a-neighbor she doesn’t want to date, despite the fact that he’s handsome, friendly, close in age and conveniently right across the hall from her. There’s also the revolving door of actors that pop up as the men she dates. Joel McHale, Andy Samberg, Zachary Quinto, Thomas Lennon, Martin Freeman, Anthony Mackie and Chris Pratt (who just so happens to be Anna Farris’ real-life husband) each appear in cameos. Talented performers all, these thespians have demonstrated far greater talent elsewhere. Every time one of them emerged, I was hopeful “Oh wow! It’s THAT GUY that was so good in _______!” My expectations only to be disappointed time and time again. “Oh no! Look how tragically sad he is here.”

What’s Your Number? is painstakingly unfunny. The featherweight script is shockingly based on a 2006 novel by Karyn Bosnak entitled 20 Times a Lady. There’s absolutely nothing even remotely literary about the dialogue which suggests there’s nothing more humiliating than a woman without a man. It starts out, rather inauspiciously, with the same exact joke as Bridesmaids. Reminding the audience about the funniest movie of the year is generally not a bright idea unless you plan to raise the bar and be ever better. No such luck here. Everything from the jokes to the situations, feels desperate and stupid. That is, when the plot isn‘t relying on mind numbing formula. It’s devoid of funny lines, laughs and charm. A tragic trifecta in a romantic comedy. If not for Anna Faris and Chris Evans, the entire exercise would have been excruciating. Ok, I guess it was kind of excruciating anyway.

50/50

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on September 30, 2011 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketSerious drama (with touches of light comedy) concerns a young man who is diagnosed with cancer and how the announcement impacts the people in his life. His girlfriend, his best buddy and his mother are among those affected. Their reactions and also his own ability to deal with the tragic news motivates the storyline. It’s the acting that raises this dramedy above mediocrity. It’s lucky that the low key script was able to attract the attention of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard and Anjelica Huston, all high profile actors. Star Gordon-Levittt is especially magnetic in the lead role. He’s understandably sympathetic and quite appealing. It’s essentially his show as everything revolves around him. Also of note is actress Anna Kendrick as Katherine. She’s perfectly winning in her part as his young and inexperienced therapist. They have a tentative, almost awkward, banter that is very engaging. Seth Rogan plays another variation of the pot-smoking slacker he performs in every movie. Here though he’s sweet and displays several touching moments as his best friend.

The chronicle is thoughtful, funny and moving, which is somewhat expected given the subject matter. Screenwriter Will Reiser, cousin of comedian Paul Reiser, based the saga on his own experiences. There’s nothing particularly revolutionary here.  The action deals with everyday life. This is the kind of picture that rests on the strength of the performances. Given the actors involved, you expect it’s going to be good and the noteworthy cast doesn’t disappoint. Everyone contributes heartfelt work. The portrayals are entertaining and it all unfolds in a way that is never routine.

What ultimately sells the story is Joseph Gordon-Levitt and our genuine sympathy for his plight. We are emotionally invested in his circumstances. There is real drama in how things turn out for our protagonist. Thematically, cancer ranks up there with the Holocaust as an enjoyable topic for a film. At times, the narrative can be a bit maudlin. It’s a tribute to Gordon-Levitt’s talent that he infuses his character with enough likeability and humor to make the rough parts easier to take. The picture doesn’t re-invent the wheel. It simply succeeds on honest emotion.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

Posted in Action, Crime, Mystery with tags on September 27, 2011 by Mark Hobin

The year is AD 690 and the Empress Wu Zetian is soon to be inaugurated as China’s first female emperor. Two men in her court have spontaneously burst into flames, leaving just a pile of black ash behind. Apparently Wu Zetian’s ascendancy to the throne is threatened and she must determine who is out to get her. She turns to Dee Renjie (Andy Lau), a detective without peer. She knows he is the only one with the wisdom and the skills to solve this mystery. As speculative fiction, it’s based on the real life Di Renjie, who served as chancellor during Wu Zetian’s reign. Most of the plot unfolds like a whodunit blending mystery with historical drama.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is a eye popping cartoon fantasy. The details are where the spectacle shines. There’s a towering Buddha statue being constructed that is a particularly majestic set piece. The production design is phenomenal. To Western audiences it’s reminiscent of pictures like Crouching Tiger or Hero. But Detective Dee is much more fanciful than either of those flicks. It’s ridiculously over the top, verging on the convoluted actually. The action is a blend of CGI and martial arts and it’s dizzying display that is a wonder to behold. The feature is a comic book brought to life. Not unlike the classic movie serials that were made in the U.S. from the golden age of 1936 to 1945, the narrative has all the hallmarks of those short subjects. We’ve got the hero, the sidekick, the heroine, the heavy. There are multiple cliffhangers, each one more hair-raising than the next. The difference is it’s all done within the context of China during the Tang dynasty. It’s fun to watch but there’s not much depth behind it.

Overall the movie succeeds in spite of its flaws. Wu Zetian, the empress of China, isn’t particularly likeable. She exiled our protagonist in prison for 8 years because she didn‘t like his opinion of her. He’s released solely because she needs his help. The chronicle is criminally overlong and it’s plodding in parts. You’ll feel every single one of those 122 minutes, And yet, there’s a lot of visual style and creativity to love here. How can you not admire a story with a talking stag? The fight choreography is courtesy of master Sammo Hung and it’s powerful, as expected. The whole film is a visually impressive spectacular. Your eyes will be engaged the entire time. Your brain? Not so much. Detective Dee is an enthralling piece of cinematic hokum.

Moneyball

Posted in Drama, Sports with tags on September 23, 2011 by Mark Hobin

“The problem we’re trying to solve is that there are rich teams, and there are poor teams. Then there’s 50 feet of crap. And then there’s us.” –Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland Athletics

I’m a pushover for an underdog story. There’s something about the “come from behind“, “no one said they could do it“, “triumph over all odds” tale, that really resonates with me. Perhaps it’s the emotional exhilaration watching the person that no one thought anything of, superseding all expectations to become the most impressive competitor. That’s the driving force behind the storyline of Moneyball, the chronicle of Billy Beane. As general manager of the Oakland Athletics, he took a low payroll and was able to assemble an impressive team to compete against the big boys with deep pockets. I’m talking about the Yankees, specifically, a baseball franchise with more money than God.

As the drama begins, the A’s are coming off a particularly good season. They’ve made it to the playoffs yet again, only to fall short of the championship. Once the series is over, their best players are lured away by teams that can promise larger paychecks. Beane laments that they’re like “a farm team for the New York Yankees.” How to do battle in a game where money can buy a championship? Then he meets Peter Brand (a pseudonym for Paul DePodesta). He’s working for the Cleveland Indians and it’s through his analysis and non-traditional sabermetric approach to scouting players that attracts Beane’s attention. Brand evaluates players based on objective, empirical evidence rather than the traditional scouting methods. He becomes Beane’s assistant. With Brand’s help, he attempts to create a competitive baseball team at a fraction of the cost.

Brad Pitt is extraordinary. It’s not a showy, awards-bait performance but it is powerful in it’s subtlety. He’s remarkably restrained. Because of Pitt’s appearance and the subject matter I was reminded of Robert Redford’s The Natural while watching this. Both are uplifting stories about baseball, however Moneyball isn’t a sports movie, fundamentally. It deals more with what happens behind the scenes – beating the odds using non-traditional methods. Baseball informs the narrative and there are many rousing scenes of the sport in action, but it’s Billy Beane that permeates the drama with such considerable heart. We get not only an intimate glimpse into the soul of the man, but also the A’s organization and the various players that affected that winning season.

Ultimately what makes Moneyball so amazing is Billy Beane. Moneyball is adapted from American investigative journalist Michael Lewis’ 2003 book of the same name. This literary source is the basis for the script by master scribes Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin. It’s telling that the most exciting scenes of Moneyball aren’t the competitive games, but the back and forth trading of players. One particularly amusing scene has Beane and Brand haggling over acquiring Ricardo Rincón from the Cleveland Indians. It’s a masterfully written spectacle. Everything simply takes place in a room over the phone. There’s no reason why that should be so riveting, but it is. If statistics and computer analysis sounds like a surprising subject for a film, you’d be right. It’s the film’s biggest shock that the business of Baseball could actually be made more exciting than the game itself. A film that celebrates the romance and majesty of a game in a way I’ve never seen before, much like the man, Billy Beane, himself.

Drive

Posted in Action, Crime, Thriller with tags on September 16, 2011 by Mark Hobin

Elegant thriller based on James Sallis’s 2005 crime novel concerns an unnamed Hollywood stunt driver who also operates outside the law by driving getaway cars at night. There’s something decidedly 80s about Drive. From the “Purple Rain” font of the titles to the Giorgio Moroder-ish score, this feels like some recently discovered movie from 1983 directed by Adrian Lyne. The retro vibe gives this action thriller an artistic sheen that makes the drama so exciting. Perhaps the plot isn’t quite as profound as the impressive mood would have you believe. But the drama is underscored by a mesmerizing cast.

An almost perfectly realized marriage of style and action. L.A. has rarely seemed so slickly artistic. We get spectacular overhead shots of Downtown Los Angeles. Nokia Plaza has never looked so sleek and cool. This is an L.A. with shiny reflective surfaces, glowing street lamps and neon lights but without the inane chatter. Most of the happenings take place at night and the darkness complements the ethics. Gosling’s driver is morally questionable. His job as a stuntman is supplemented as a wheelman for thieves. These scenes which demonstrate his illegal activities are beautifully shot and surpass any generic action typical of today’s Hollywood product. One noteworthy sequence early on is a heart pounding chase between him and the cops where you root for the “bad guy”. That dichotomy between the legal and the illegal side of his life are what makes his character so fascinating. He means well. Especially when he meets pretty Irene in his building who’s raising a 6 year old son.  Carey Mulligan plays her with an enigmatic sweetness.  The boy’s father is in jail and Irene flirts tentatively with her neighbor. Clearly there are sparks, but the bond is unspoken.

Drive is highlighted by a refreshing unpredictability. The viewer is compelled to watch because we cannot guess what will develop. Expressions and mood are what conveys the chemistry. It’s intoxicating stuff because the script trusts the intelligence of the audience to understand their desires. Their motivations are rarely spoken. Ryan’s character is particularly silent. He wears a satin jacket with a logo of a golden scorpion, but we know little about him. He’s a doer not a talker. We know that much. He seems to be channeling Steve McQueen, also a man of few words. There are both good and bad things to that kind of an approach. There are times where he’s frustratingly vague. Irene drops the news that her husband Standard Gabriel is getting out of prison in a week and the news is met with a minute of silence and nothing more. Once he’s released there’s an uneasy relationship amongst the two men. Memorably portrayed by Oscar Isaac, Standard is a complicated ex-convict who is a threatening presence at first. Who exactly is this husband of hers? What does the driver think about him? And what will occur between the two men now that he’s back? The anticipation of what will happen next carries the narrative. The interaction between these two is never easy to foretell.

Drive is full of mysteriously complex individuals. Individuals that have that classic charisma reminiscent of the past but in a 21st century setting. We care about these people, but we don’t understand them right off. They don’t always behave in foreseeable ways. Drive is a stunning triumph of minimalism over gaudy extravaganza. Danish film director Nicolas Winding Refn keeps the operation simple and lean. It’s a retro thriller with a show don’t tell mentality. The production design is a celebration of retro modernism. But the experience is far from pretty. As the story plays out, the situation (and violence) escalates. By mixing elements of a 60s action movie and the synthpop gloss of the 80s with a modern sensibility, we get something wholly unique for the modern age.

Rollercoaster

Posted in Action, Thriller with tags on September 13, 2011 by Mark Hobin

“The Rocket” roller coaster flies off its tracks at Ocean View Amusement Park in a terrible accident where several people die. A safety inspector is called in to investigate. Upon talking with the park administration, he suspects that this was not negligence, but rather the work of a saboteur. He’s right but that’s only the beginning.

Woefully underrated thriller stars Timothy Bottoms and George Segal in a brilliant game of cat and mouse set at a series of theme parks. Disaster films of the 70s were big on gimmicks and short on characterization. Rollercoaster was marketed around its catastrophes. And while the action is highlighted by the threat of violence, it’s the performances of these two leads that draws you in. It’s really not a disaster movie at all, but a battle of wits. The narrative strips away needless extras and lays bare an intense relationship between good and evil. Timothy Bottoms portrays the demented young man who sabotages roller coasters around the country in an effort to extort $1 million dollars from the authorities. He presents the terrorist not as a crazed madman, but as a calm handsome, preppy type. The depiction is thoroughly unexpected and goes a long way in making him a delightfully uncharacteristic villain. He’s matched in his scheme by George Segal as Harry Calder, the Standards and Safety Inspector, whom he personally selects as his contact. Segal has got a world weary cynical tone that makes the dialogue better than it‘s actually written. Together their discomforting but occasionally amusing exchanges are what drives the script.

One of the qualities of disaster epics during this era is having a large cast of celebrities. Rollercoaster is no exception: Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Harry Guardino, and Susan Strasberg all appear. To be honest, Mr. Fonda shows up for an entire five minutes. Ostensibly long enough to be credited as a star and pick up a paycheck I suppose. Helen Hunt, not famous at the time, plays Segal’s daughter. And if you don‘t blink, you’ll notice Steve Guttenberg in his feature debut, uncredited mind you, as a messenger boy who brings some roller coaster plans to Calder.

Rollercoaster was originally released in “Sensurround” which was the trademark name for a process used to enhance the audio experience. By adding extended-range bass for sound effects, the low-frequency sounds could be felt as well as heard, providing a vivid complement to onscreen depictions of the amusement park rides. First developed for the 1974 picture Earthquake, the technique was ultimately short lived as it proved to be too costly as well as disruptive to adjoining theaters in the growing multiplex setting. Lalo Schifrin (“Theme from Mission: Impossible”) contributes a memorably tense score that frequently utilizes Bernard Herrmann-esque violins for the suspenseful scenes.

I’ll admit this isn’t a complex picture. There aren’t many plot twists that will be difficult to follow. But it’s that glorious simplicity that I find so appealing. The climax takes place at the opening of “The Great American Revolution” roller coaster at Magic Mountain in Valencia, California. The unveiling is introduced with a lot of fanfare. Cult Los Angeles rock band Sparks even makes an appearance as the entertainment for the grand opening. This is a big deal people! Apparently this was the world’s first modern roller coaster to feature a vertical loop. Ah these were innocent times. Given the excitement of the cluster at the front of the line, you’d think they had tickets to the moon. In the end, this isn’t the type of film to win a lot of Academy awards, but you knew that when you read the synopsis. It is however an incredibly entertaining thriller with wonderful performances. I loved it.

Brighton Rock

Posted in Crime, Drama, Thriller with tags on September 11, 2011 by Mark Hobin

British crime drama tells the story of a juvenile sociopath who seduces a naive waitress who can link him to a murder. Pinkie is an adolescent gangster in Brighton, England whose mob-boss mentor and father figure is semi-accidentally killed by Hale, the enforcer of a rival gang. Pinkie goes to take revenge on the culprit. But before Hale is done away with, a seaside photographer captures an incriminating snapshot of one of Pinkie’s accomplices, Hale the victim, and Rose an innocent bystander, at the pier. Now Pinkie must cozy up to the girl to get her claim ticket for the photo that would connect Hale’s subsequent death to him.

Based on a Graham Green novel, the drama was previously made into a British adaptation back in 1947. But where the novel and original were both set in 1939, this modern re-telling has been updated to 1964. The re-imagining adds to the narrative immensely. There’s a certain stylishness to 1960s era England amidst the clashing Mods and Rockers that’s very appealing. These are hoodlums, but they wear natty suits and ride Italian scooters. It all kind of suggests the British New Wave, a neo-noir thriller if you will.

At the center of the plot is the relationship between Pinkie and Rose. Pinkie Brown is played by Sam Riley. With his angular features and black hair he sort of physically suggests a young Kyle MacLachlan. The 30 year old actor is actually playing a teenager here. It’s a bit of a stretch, but his performance is magnetic enough to carry the suspension of disbelief. The object of his affection is Rose, played by actress Andrea Riseborough, a meek waitress who works in a tea shop. While it’s a portrayal that courts sympathy, I found her to be a most frustrating character. At first her naïveté and social awkwardness was endearing, but then it becomes incomprehensible. She is head over heels in love with a man who shows her little respect. Pinkie’s surliness is relentless. You’ll wonder what she sees in the reprehensible fellow. There is one particularly chilling scene where she implores the gangster youth to pledge his love for her on a vinyl recording. The scene is an eye opener to say the least.

Brighton Rock is highlighted by an expressionistic style that uses shadows, rain and religious iconography to set the mood. These stylish visual flourishes are further complemented by a musical score by award-winning composer Martin Phipps. At once ominous and beautiful, it’s reminiscent of the sumptuous music of a classic 1940s film noir. It’s decidedly old fashioned and I enjoyed how the vocal cues complemented the action on screen. This is the feature debut for screenwriter Rowan Joffé who just happens to be the son of director Roland Joffé (The Killing Fields, The Mission). Talk about pressure. Brighton Rock is not the hard-hitting political story his father is known for, but he does have a way with setting a mood. The evocative music and poetic visuals help dress up a slight story that is still is an excellent character study. There is much to enjoy in this minor, but entertaining period drama.

P.S. For most of the picture I assumed the title referred to a geographical peninsula. It doesn’t, but I won’t spoil that little surprise here.

Contagion

Posted in Action, Thriller with tags on September 10, 2011 by Mark Hobin

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012 – Addendum

One of the nice things about getting a complimentary copy of Contagion on Blu-ray from Warner Bros. is that I can use the money I saved, to stock up on the hand sanitizer I’ll need after watching it. Contagion is a picture that gets under your skin by exploiting something that I think is innate in everyone – a fear of germs. I mean if you didn’t have a virus phobia prior to viewing this, you will. Those “employees must wash hands before returning to work” signs posted in restrooms will take a whole new meaning. In 2011, Contagion became Steven Soderbergh’s biggest hit since Ocean’s Thirteen in 2007 and you’d have to go all the way back to 2000′s Traffic for a bigger hit outside of his Ocean’s series. It’s easy to see why. It’s a masterfully constructed film. Oh and that incredible cast doesn’t hurt either.

Contagion is a thriller that traces the origin of an unknown deadly disease as it spreads from person to person traveling at a rapid rate infecting humanity. We follow the virus at it becomes a pandemic. From Hong Kong to Minneapolis to London to San Francisco, we see various cities and how the sickness multiplies exponentially throughout the population. Around the world, doctors from the CDC and the World Health Organization race to find a cure for an infection that kills within days.

The narrative unfolds intelligently. You’ll be riveted for the majority of the picture. The transmission of the virus is the most unsettling part. Frightening because it could genuinely happen. Circulated through causal contact – a glass, an elevator button, a subway pole, it’s unstoppable. You’ll think twice the next time you graze a public surface and then touch your face. It’s invisible so the threat is particularly hard to protect against. Disease is mysterious.  The plot flawlessly instills that fear. The action is lean and unadorned. There isn’t a lot of flashy embellishments getting in the way of its expertly told tale. It’s not as commercially accessible as 1995′s Outbreak for example. Contagion has a somewhat documentary mood to it with its somber tone. That’s a wise choice given the subject matter. And while the simplicity benefits the material, in the end, it all feels a little insubstantial. Perhaps the climax doesn’t quite justify the buildup.

There is a huge amount of talent in front of the camera. Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Kate Winslet appear. The story by scribe Scott Z. Burns is well written to be sure. It’s rather informative actually. But while the script is convincing, it doesn’t really allow anyone to give an unqualified performance. I suspect the reason behind the impressive cast assembled, is the director involved. It’s nice to see Steven Soderbergh back making an unabashedly entertaining film. He hasn’t had an audience pleasing hit this big since Ocean’s Thirteen. You might remember Steven Soderbergh as the guy who first directed Erin Brockovich in early 2000 then followed it up in the very same year with Traffic. He’s talented to say the least. While Contagion isn’t as brilliant as either of those accomplishments, it is a stylishly compelling piece of entertainment. He does a clever job of creating a thriller that will truly get under your skin. While watching I was disturbed when I heard coughing in the theater. Now that’s true horror.

Warrior

Posted in Action, Drama, Sports with tags on September 9, 2011 by Mark Hobin

Two brothers seek redemption in a mixed martial arts or MMA tournament. Brendan is living in suburban Philadelphia with a wife and kids. He’s behind in his mortgage and will lose his home within a month unless he can make the payments. The other, Tommy is a troubled Iraq war veteran back from the conflict, who hides a secret. Audience pleasing sports drama does for mixed martial arts what Rocky did for boxing. It probably goes without saying, but if you’re even remotely interested in the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) this is required viewing.

The fighter film is the perfect archetype to show the literal struggle of man against the world. I have always been a sucker for these types of stories for that very reason. It’s hard in this day and age to take on this subject creatively because it has been the topic of numerous films over the years. The family struggling to pay the mortgage, the once alcoholic father trying to make amends with his sons, the estranged brothers who haven’t talked to each other in years, the students cheering on their beloved, but recently suspended schoolteacher, it’s all here, piled up high with an extra helping of melodrama. That shouldn’t be surprising coming from writer/director Gavin O’Connor’ who also did the rousing Miracle, the Disney drama about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. He has a somewhat theatrical touch and the proceedings here might have benefited from less fabrication and a bit more gritty realism. Warrior shamelessly manipulates the vocabulary of other, better movies of this type in appropriating emotion and excitement. Rocky, Raging Bull, The Wrestler, The Fighter – it suggests every one of these at various times throughout its running time. While it never matches any of the aforementioned for depth, I was still surprisingly moved by the entire thing. Yes, it’s a formula picture. The manipulation is indisputable, but there’s no denying that it’s skillfully done.

The plot is cleverly divided into two distinct halves. The first is a soft, tender examination of the relationship between father and his two sons. A little screen time is focused on their training.  There is some discussion regarding the upcoming brawl, but the majority of the action is focused on the bond amongst this broken family now reunited by circumstance. The scenes are beautifully acted and authentically moving. Nick Nolte is Paddy Conlon, the boy’s father. He’s outstanding. He hasn’t given a performance this articulate since Affliction in 1997.  Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy are his adult sons. The script uniquely spends equal time on each of their stories. Despite being opposites, I found myself conflicted in my support. I liked them both. The second half concerns the big “Sparta” contest in Atlantic City which is a huge $5 million winner-take-all MMA competition. Since neither brother has been battling in the professional MMA arena, how to justify admittance to an event in which only 16 competitors compete?  It’s mostly based on connections and luck so the brother’s welcome into the events was pretty far-fetched. Both of them are the very definition of a dark horse contender.  But the fights are so viscerally presented, the struggle is a joy to behold. It’s an epic battle between uplifting victory and bone crushing defeat.

This is an old school schmaltzy “rise from the ashes” tale of family. Sibling relationships, father and sons, it’s the genuine emotion that gives weight to the thrill of the altercations in the cage matches that follow. And what fights! They’re incredibly brutal. They mean so much more because we know the stakes behind them. This isn’t original, but it masterfully appropriates from the best and gives us a remix that amplifies emotion to the highest degree. Everything feels vaguely familiar and yet I ate up every cliché with delight.

Higher Ground

Posted in Drama with tags on September 7, 2011 by Mark Hobin

Emotionally shattering tale of a Fundamentalist Christian who struggles to keep her beliefs in a religiously tight-knit community. The movie is loosely based on novelist Carolyn S. Briggs’ memoir This Dark World: A Story of Faith Found and Lost. She also co-wrote the screenplay. Given that ominous title, I would’ve expected a much more critical take. Higher Ground is surprisingly sensitive of a religion often caricatured in contemporary films. This year alone has seen it an object of ridicule in both Paul and Red State. The script goes a long way in dislodging the stereotypes of Christian Fundamentalism. It’s the unique perspective that makes the film so utterly original. Never mocking, it’s a vividly written and moving account about a convert.

The story is highlighted by one great performance after another. Vera Farmiga is Corinne, the star. Her existence is presented from little girl to adulthood. The many phases are presented in detail and we get a sophisticated portrayal of the woman. It’s positive, but she struggles with her faith. How and why is a question best answered by watching, but it’s a lifelong process. These events inform the background of her religious odyssey. Also memorable is actress Dagmara Dominczyk as her best friend Annika. As a fellow member of her church, her character is unlike anything I have ever seen. Vibrant and sexy, she is not your typical depiction of a “holy roller.”  She’s affected by the religious tradition of speaking in tongues, “episodes of religious ecstasy marked by incomprehensible speech occurring in a trance state.” Corinne is bewildered by the practice. Her husband, a devout believer as well, regards it with disdain. That’s remarkably unexpected. Without having any understanding of the habit, it’s still something she wishes she could experience. Her desire to be closer to God is rather stirring.

The narrative features a female protagonist and it has a distinctly female voice. It will be hard for the picture to find a mass audience, but that would be a shame. It in no way affects the universality of the emotions. In her marriage problems, the voice is clearly hers, yet she objectively reveals flaws in her own commitment. Special mention should be given to actor Joshua Leonard as her husband Ethan. His nuanced performance makes his frustration with his wife’s struggle, reasonable. Nevertheless, it’s still told from Corinne’s point of view. Higher Ground marks Farmiga’s directorial debut. I suspect it wont be the last time she directs. Her talent is rather self assured for a first film. She is probably best remembered for her critically acclaimed work in the 2009 comedy-drama Up in the Air, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award. She does an even more impressive interpretation here.

Higher Ground is challenging. Fundamentalist Christianity is a difficult subject. It’s pretty foreign. Usually the source of comedy, it becomes a tough sell as sensitive drama. Few people will brave this story. But for those with an open mind, they’re in for a take on a subject that is wholly original. People will ultimately take away many different reactions to her journey. But writers Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Metcalfe imbue their characters with dignity and respect. That’s what keeps the viewer riveted. This is a deeply poignant drama that approaches its subject with intelligence and sensitivity. Make no mistake, this is not a glorified tale. It’s heartbreaking. But the struggle presented here is honest and unexpectedly life affirming.

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