A Quickie With Lisa Marie: Higher Ground (dir. by Vera Farmiga)

Last August, I saw a wonderful film called Higher Ground.  Despite the fact that it had gotten a rapturous review in our local news paper, I was one of the only people in the theater.  Higher Ground played for a week before leaving and it’s been rather ignored during Oscar season.  And that’s a shame because I think that Higher Ground is one of the best films of 2011.  It’s certainly one of my personal favorites.

Taking place over the course of several decade, Higher Ground follows Corinne (Vera Farmiga) as she goes from being married and pregnant at 18 to eventually following her husband into joining a commune of self-described “Jesus Freaks.”  The commune, while being undeniably well-meaning, is also male-dominated and follows an extremely fundamentalist interpretation of the bible.  The previously fiercely independent Corinne quickly settles in to being a compliant housewife with her social life being pretty much limited to hanging out with the other housewives in the commune.  As the years progress, Corinne struggles to balance her own independence with her own religious beliefs until finally, she starts to both question her faith and the life she’s lived for the past 20 years.

For the most part, American cinema doesn’t have a very good track record when it comes to religious themes.  Regardless of whether a film is pro-religion or anti-religion, the final result often times seems to be heavy-handed, simple-minded, and finally rather condescending.  (I always roll my eyes whenever a white, Southern-accented preacher shows up in a movie because I know that he’s going to turn out to be a villain within the next 30 minutes).  It’s very rare to find a film that treats religion and the issues of faith (and the lack of it) with anything resembling intelligence.  Higher Ground is one of those rare films and, for the reason alone, it deserves to be seen.  A typical and lesser film would have taken sides and would have given us a bunch of easy judgments and hissable villains.  Higher Ground, however, is far too subtle and intelligent to give us any easy answers.  In the end, its portrait of religion and faith is intriguingly ambiguous and one that forces the viewer to reconsider their own feelings as well.

Ultimately, Higher Ground is triumph for Vera Farmiga, who both stars and makes her directorial debut with this film.  As both a director and a star, she contributes some very subtle work here and, as a result, the film almost takes you be surprise as you suddenly realize just how wrapped of you gotten in its story.  Farmiga’s direction is so assured that she even gets away with a few showy fantasy sequences where Corinne reveals what’s going on behind her devout facade.  It’s a triumphant directorial debut and I’m looking forward to seeing what Farmiga does in the future.

What Lisa Marie Watched Last Night: A Friend of the Family (dir. by Stuart Gillard)

What did I watch last night?  I watched A Friend of the Family, a 2007 film that shows up on the Lifetime Movie Network every couple of weeks.

Why Was I Watching It?


What Was It About?

Well, it’s yet another Canadian true crime, exploitation film that has found a second life on Lifetime.  Newly weds Allison and Darrin (Laura Harris and Erik Johnson) move to a small town in Canada.  Darrin befriends and goes into business with David (Kim Coates) and David is like so obviously a serial killer but Allison is the only one who notices.  And then, when Allison attempts to let people know that David’s the one who has been killing all the blonde waitresses in town, everyone responds by saying that she’s the one who is being silly and emotional!

What Worked

It all worked!  Well, okay, not all of it but enough of it worked that I had fun curling up on the couch and watching it.  Laura Harris was a sympathetic heroine (and she played her character with just a hint of instability so you wondered sometimes if maybe she was just imagining it all), Kim Coates was creepy in that Kim Coates way, and Erik Johnson — Oh. My. God.  So. Cute.

Add to that, I could relate to this film.  Nobody believed me when I said the janitor in high school was a serial killer and I’m still pretty sure I was right about that.

What Didn’t Work?

You know what?  It all worked, as far as I’m concerned.

“Oh my God!  Just like me!” Moments

There were several, most of them having to do with Alison’s struggle to get people to listen to what she was saying.  Seriously, men need to lean how to shut up and listen when it comes to potential serial killers living next door.

Lessons Learned

The main lesson was the same one that’s taught by most Lifetime movies: If you ever think the guy next door might be obsessed with you and plotting to kill you, take the law in your own hands.  Seriously, all the men in your life are worthless when it comes to these situations. 


Film Review: Shame (dir. by Steve McQueen)

Earlier this month, Jeff and I saw the new film ShameShame has gotten a lot of attention because 1) it’s rated NC-17 and 2) it stars a frequently naked Michael Fassbender (or, as me and my girlfriends call it, “the Full Fassbender.”)  I’m sure that some people out there will find Shame to be either too shocking or too disturbing or too explict for its own good but you know what?  Those people are idiots.  Shame is one of the best films of 2011.

(An extra benefit of Shame being rated NC-17 is that I was asked to show ID before I was allowed to enter the theater.  Usually, this is where I would do one of my patented “Don’t Tell Me What I Can’t See!” rants but, honestly, I had just recently “celebrated” my birthday and being mistaken for 16 made my day.)

In Shame, Michael Fassbender plays a succesful, outwardly confident New Yorker named Brandon.  Though the film never offers up a clinical diagnosis, Brandon is a sex addict who spends his time having anonymous sex with prostitutes, watching pornography on his computer, and apparently masturbating every chance he gets.  We discover this via an opening montage which quickly establishes both the pattern of Brandon’s life and that sex for Brandon is more about maintaining order than getting any sort of pleasure.  We watch as Brandon awkwardly flirts with an attractive co-worker and reluctantly goes out drinking with his boss and it quickly becomes obvious that Brandon is incapable of maintaining any sort of “real” relationship. 

Eventually, Brandon’s life is disrupted when his self-destructive sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) shows up at his apartment and proceeds to move in with him.  Though Sissy and Brandon are obviously close, it also becomes apparent that Sissy is everything that Brandon isn’t.  Whereas Brandon is rigidly controlled and closed-off, Sissy is erratic and demanding.  With Sissy’s arrival, Brandon quickly starts to spiral as his own behavior lurches out of his control, leading to one harrowing night that forces both Mulligan and Fassbender to confront who they are, each in their own individual way.

Obviously, for Shame to work, it has to strike a perfect balance.  With this material, it’s very easy to go overboard and come up with something that feels histrionic and false.  Fortunately, director Steve McQueen finds that perfect balance.  McQueen mixes scenes of clinic observation with almost lyrical montages in a style that reminds one of some of David Cronenberg’s better film. 

McQueen’s direction is matched by the performances of Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan.  Playing the role of Brandon, Fassbender finds the perfect balance between self-loathing and narcissism and he makes blatant self-destruction both scary and compelling.  It’s impossible to imagine this movie working with anyone but Fassbender in the lead role.  He has more than enough talent and charisma to keep us watching even when we want to look away.  (And, let’s be honest, the fact that he’s naked for most of the film helps too.)  As Sissy, Mulligan runs the risk of being overshadowed by Fassbender’s performance but she more than holds her own while paying a character that will probably inspire mixed feelings in most viewers.  Debatably, Mulligan gives an even braver performance than Fassbender.  It takes guts to be this potentially unlikable on-screen and it takes talent to make us still care about the character and, fortunately, Mulligan has both.

I’ve heard a few people complain about the fact that McQueen declines to spell out any easy motivation for why Fassbender and Mulligan behave the way that they do.  I would argue that this is the film’s greatest strength.  Any possible explanation that McQueen could have offered would have just served to render what happens on screen simplistic.  Ultimately, the characters played by Fassbender and Mulligan are mysteries to themselves as well as to the audience.  That said, McQueen does offer up several clues.  To his credit as a director, McQueen has faith in the ability of his audience to notice those clues without having to have things spelled out.

After watching Shame, all I can say is that perhaps, in the future, all movies should be rated NC-17.