Friday, May 18, 2012

Beauty Wins Ground

     In today's bundle of DVD reviews, I cover a respected actress's directorial debut, a dramedy about high school wrestling, and an erotic drama whose title is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  You'll get it in a minute.  Forward into the breach...

Higher Ground - This is the directorial debut for Oscar nominated actress Vera Farmiga, and you can add her to the growing list of female directors breaking new ground in Hollywood.  First off, she is one of only two directors that I saw starring in their own movies this year (George Clooney being the other) where I did not find the choice to be ill advised.  She managed to fill both pairs of shoes splendidly.
     Higher Ground is the story of a woman and her quest for the divine, both earthly and heavenly.  It follows her from her childhood through her lost adolescence, her new spiritual life in a non-traditional but very dogmatic church, and the challenges she presents this church with regards to the role of women within it.
     The script is by newcomer Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Metcalf (whose writing credits are as disparate as Revenge of the Nerds and The Haunting in Connecticut) and is really very well put together.  Rarely does one see topics of religion and spirituality addressed in a serious and thoughtful manner with so little judgement or propaganda involved.
     The cast (aside from the always delightful John Hawkes) is made up of little known or unknown players, but Farmiga manages to pull nuanced, believable performances out of each and every one of them. 
     I don't know what else to say, except that I highly recommend this film.  I fully expect this to be the beginning of an exciting new chapter in Ms. Farmiga's career.  Available on DVD.  4 1/2 of 5*

Sleeping Beauty - After that rousing review of Higher Ground I would love to say that writer/director Julia Leigh's debut Sleeping Beauty is another example of the Renaissance of women directors that has been going on for the last few years, but it didn't quite make it out of the Dark Ages.  Maybe there is some deep feminist subtext that as a man (and a frog) I am left completely out of the loop on.  Maybe, but I'm a bit beyond the benefit of the doubt on this one.
      This movie tells the story of a young girl who rents her chemically induced comatose body out for old men to grope and fondle while she lies insensate.  That's it.  That's basically the whole plot.
      Maybe they should market the film as Sleeping Buddy, like the friend who cures your insomnia.  I drifted off at least three times trying to get through the first half.  Luckily, by the middle of the film so much of the screen time was taken up by footage of her doing her job that I was repeatedly throwing up in my mouth a little bit enough of the time to stay alert.  Full frontal octogenarian nudity:  Why, oh why was this film not more of a hit?
      I would recommend that you just skip this one, unless you need a Sleeping Buddy, in which case set your sleep timer to cut out before the first WWII vet starts to strip.  Available on DVD and Netflix Instant Play.  1 1/2 of 5*

Win Win - The dramedy starring Paul Giamatti as some lovable schlub of an everyman has almost become a brand unto itself.  This is completely to the man's credit both for cranking out performances of a consistently high quality and for having the wisdom (or good counsel, or fortune, or all of the above) to pick scripts worth making that are conducive to him doing his thing.  Not an easy thing to accomplish with regularity no matter how talented of an actor you are (Just ask Amanda Seyfried, er...).  I have not seen either of director/co-writer Thomas McCarthy's previous films, but I was for the most part duly impressed with the little modern day morality fable he weaves in Win Win.
     In this film, Giamatti plays a volunteer high school wrestling coach (Mike) who is also a lawyer, and has taken on the guardianship Leo, one of his clients (Burt Young). He does this under slightly false pretense with ulterior motives.  Leo's previously unknown of sixteen-year-old grandson Kyle ( Alex Schaffer) shows up after running away from home and turns out to be an all star wrestler.  Unable to reach Kyle's mother (Melanie Lynsky) in rehab, Mike and his wife Jackie (played brilliantly by Amy Ryan) take Kyle in...until his mom shows up.  The ensemble cast was almost unanimously marvelous with wonderful small appearances by Margo Martindale and Jeffrey Tambor.  I must, however, single out debut actor Alex Schaffer, who actually held his own capably opposite Giamatti.
     I hate to single an actor out like this, but both Bobby Cannavale's performance and the character (Terry) that he played as written in the script were by far my least favorite parts of the movie.  He seemed to have wandered onto the set by mistake on the way to play the best friend in a Will Ferrell movie.  I'm being a little undeservedly snarky (my apologies, Mr. Cannavale), but the entire tone of the character seemed better suited for a broader comedy setting.  It probably cost the film half a star here.  Available on DVD.  4 of 5*

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