Sunday, September 25, 2011

Bennett Miller: America's Favorite Cashtime (Moneyball)

Brad Pitt, Moneyball, Columbia Pictures, 2011.

The too familiar baseball flick is given a refreshingly pragmatic makeover in Bennett Miller's Moneyball. A cleverly scripted underdog tale pitting old vs. new, Miller's terse dynamism is clear cut in a way few sports films now could hope to be.

The corporatism of sports and the financial mechanics of baseball take the spotlight in a well done if unspectacular true story. Mathematics play a huge role in the re-imagining of the sub-genre, as the dichotomy of the dollar and the humane aspects of good sportsmanship battle for the bulge. What we're left with is a subtle, old fashioned story of family, loss and regret. Miller's pseudo-realist approach recalls the strengths of his first two features, the underrated The Cruise and the excellent Capote. Wheeling and dealing men behind the curtain resist the onslaught of technology, represented by Billy Beane, a former player turned manager played by a steely, focused Brad Pitt in attack mode.

Intercutting archival game footage, the director works with ace writers Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, d.p. Wally Pfister and editor Christopher Tellefsen play off one another in a mirror display of fierce teamwork. Pfister's proactive illumination of the ordinary perfectly complements Mychael Danna's contemplative score and the picture's overall grasp of the medium in everything.

What we have hereis an incisive, lived in cast. Alot of the actors are so natural in their parts that they are easy to forget. Pitt's performance ranks as one of his best. Jonah Hill shines in an image shaking turn. Philip Seymour Hoffman reminds us what a superb character actor he is with his understated take on the tired coach character. In the end, Miller's unconventional approach to the athletic climax sums up the overarching tone of the movie; predictable but well done.

John Singleton: Stranger in His Own Life (Abduction)

Taylor Lautner, Lily Collins, Abduction, Lionsgate, 2011.

The schadenfreude that is American popular cinema is thrown under the bus in all of its vainglorious monstrosity with crafty director John Singleton's paycheck motivated Abduction. In theory a desperate bid by the powers that be to translate Twilight star Taylor Lautner into a stand alone star, in practice becomes a deliciously campy wreck you can't take your eyes off of.

Shawn Christensen's basic, by the numbers script is brought to the screen with a trash compacted force by Singleton, who similarly handled 2 Fast 2 Furious and Shaft. Hyper masculinity and burgeoning teen sexuality translate to fear and trembling in this modern spun action bubble gum yarn, replete with feuding FBI agents and  shady villains, a token girlfriend and other throwaway characters as we go. Lautner has a boyish swagger and confidence with his physicality which makes him compulsively watchable. A-list actors the likes of Alfred Molina, Sigourney Weaver, Jason Isaacs and Maria Bello fill in the ranks.

What makes it work is the s(l)ickly done way in which Singleton, a pro at stylistic movement and subtext, takes the generic and touches on those stereotypes in a spirited way, complemented by surreal, frenzied action cut to Edward Shearmur's propulsive score. He has a knack for making us enjoy the obvious as if the candy coated razors are what we wanted all along. It is a dubious trait, but one attributable to his command of the craft. Boyz N the Hood, Poetic Justice, Higher Learning, Rosewood, Baby Boy and Four Brothers all used elements of the mainstream and genre to get us into their worlds, to care about their characters. While admittedly the bottom of his filmic barrel, Abduction is good trash.

Tom Tykwer: Beat as One (3)

Devid Streisow, Sophie Rois, Sebastian Schipper, 3, Strand Releasing, 2011.

The extreme visual rhythms and fractured striving protagonists of under-appreciated German auteur Tom Tykwer's filmic universe get a subdued surge in his under the radar new film, 3. A mercurial mixture of art house pretensions, relationship drama, sexual dynamism and revisionist romance, this peculiar yet ultimately endearing picture is worth a closer look.

After a lengthy set up which luxuriates in the mundane facilities of modern love, Tykwer gets down to the slowly simmering business of building up a tense love triangle. Arthur Hiller's forgotten Making Love (1982) and Gregg Araki's mostly unknown Splendor (1999) spring to mind as precursors to a male/female/male diagram of love and lust balanced with (mis)trust.

Sophie Rois recalls a distinctive and focused Fassbinder actress, Sebastian Schipper is beguilingly entreating and Devid Streisow perfection as the unreadable object of desire.  These three illuminate the screen as they carry on a Tykwer tradition of ambiguity and burning to live.

Art, science, entertainment and private lives are center stage and called into question as metropolitan Berlin is sampled under a microscope. Tykwer adores these constituencies of work and play, private and public. Since his wunderkind early years, where he became the art house darling for the likes of his original and daring films Winter Sleepers and Run Lola Run , he has followed his heart, traipsing from personal (Heaven, 3) to public (Perfume, The International) and at times finding the medium (The Princess and the Warrior). Despite all of this he has remained true to who he is as an artist. Writing, directing, producing and co-composing (always brilliantly, with Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek), he is a genuine Renaissance man, running for the pulse.

Although everything does not always feel smooth in his latest, in the end we feel touched and sort of transformed by the director's take on an old story. When we can feel his trio's hearts beat as one, we know he has reached us.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Nicolas Winding Refn: Gold Standard (Drive)

Kaden Leos, Carey Mulligan, Ryan Gosling, Drive, FilmDistrict, 2011.

With the force of a ten ton truck, Nicolas Winding Refn's incendiary crime drama Drive schools all the American boys on how to play with their toys. Taking the guise of an action-thriller, Refn's exhilarating new picture is that and much more. For its not easy to define the richly complicated works of one of the best young filmmakers working in the world.

Here he has crafted a masterly homage to the glorious 80s films of Ridley Scott and Michael Mann, dim lit expressionist L.A. streets teeming with the heat and panache of affected action movie making.. Simultaneously a thriller, a character study, an actor's showcase, a family drama, a literal and figurative chase film, a revenge drama. First and foremost, this stylistic powerhouse is a moving love story. Refn is in complete command of his creation as he unites the mainstream with the artistic, which is rarely seen at the movies these days. The prowl of his tremulous camera, his peerless blend of sound and vision, the beats of his characters' hearts are so close to us we can feel them.

Ryan Gosling gives a career defining turn as the driver, a movie stunt driver by day, getaway driver by night. The affectations and restraint he displays are brilliant, as he holds us at bay, controlled cadences perplexing us at who this man really is, betraying little pieces of his soul. His electric solitude is truly star making.The mechanism of Hossein Amini's ruggedly sparse script is perfectly played out in beats by Refn and his game cast. Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Ron Perlman, Oscar Isaac, Kaden Leos and Christina Hendricks have never been better in a film. Albert Brooks gives a chillingly transformative performance which gasps with evil brilliance.

Newton Thomas Sigel's hushed visual overtones blight and intensify, hiding these fringe people in shadow and illuminating their complexities. It is the strongest work thus far on his excellent resume. Cliff Martinez's score is a thing of electronically brooding beauty, effusive and roughshod, while the songs used in the film fit the retro-future soul of a movie basking in the glories of the past while looking to the promises of the future.

Refn, a young master whose Pusher Trilogy, Bronson and Valhalla Rising are some of the most genre smashing triumphs of the art form in the past decade, here goes above and beyond. Like the great Hollywood helmers of the past, and even more so, he takes the skeleton of another's script and brings it thrashing to pulpy, orgasmic life. Imbued with gender duality, rich in visual and thematic subtext, the director highlights the lonely spirit of city life while pinpointing the soul of his inspirations. Culpable tension escalates, infusing standards with severe subtlety. A masterpiece on many levels, his Drive left me in a state of cinematic ecstasy.

Alain Corneau: Wicked Game (Love Crime)

Ludivine Sagnier, Kristin Scott Thomas, Love Crime, Sundance Selects, 2011.

Corporate intrigue has proliferated many of the most fascinating narratives set within the workplace in the past 25 years. Working Girl, Profit, Office Killer, American Psycho, The Business of Strangers, demon lover and Damages are but a sampling of the dark entries in this dramatic sub-genre. The general motivation is to cleverly display the intrigues of big business while embellishing them in a ghoulish light.

Overlooked French auteur Alain Corneau's swansong is another brick in the wall. Love Crime is deliberate in its composure and framing, a cerebral yet blackly humorous melodrama which soon devolves into unlikely mystery. Ludivine Sagnier and Kristin Scott Thomas both deliver razor sharp turns as deceptively demure naif assistant and dragon lady boss. The first half of the film is familiar if stylistically ingenious in its materialization of high end workaday nightmare and psycho-sexual trauma. The second half is less stimulating, relaying black and white flashback and mystery guesswork.

Corneau made a career out of noir procedurals and standard character studies. And yet his strength and vision came through in many films and parts of others. His Serie Noir and Tous les Matins du Monde are both rightful classics of the crime drama and costume drama. Love Crime highlights his power while belying his haphazardness. A retrospective of his oeuvre is long overdue, and his final film is noteworthy as an entertaining genre film and a showcase for its two actresses, especially Chabrol muse Sagnier in a tour de force turn.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Rod Lurie: Remake vs. Peckinpah (Straw Dogs)

Kate Bosworth, James Marsden, Straw Dogs, Screen Gems, 2011.
So many 70s-80s films are being remade these days that every week is sure to see a reconfiguring, loose or tight, of an obscure or major past picture. This week its underrated film critic turned writer-director Rod Lurie's faithful homage to the man himself, Sam Peckinpah, and his unbridled 70s revenge classic, Straw Dogs.

Having transposed Great Britain to the American deep South, Mississippi to be exact, Lurie indulges in a symphonic opening on the brooding swamps.Rife with hunting metaphors and the sexual symbolism of tools and weapons, this version immediately pits the urban against the rural, and at times too obviously drags us through the differences.

James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgard, Domonic Purcell and James Woods all shine, bringing their purloined characters to life. Lurie's visually inspired montages belie a deliciously pulpy spirit, reeking of long gone drive-ins and double features. Body language masks terse male aggression as a cosmopolitan screenwriter and his beautiful actress wife return to her middle of nowhere family farmhouse in her backwater hometown, where a creepy ex-boyfriend (Skarsgard) and his hunting buddies go to work on the barn roof. Class and sexual conflict ensues.

Marsden is especially astute at pinpointing the soul of his fascinating character. Bosworth gives a sharp turn, Skarsgard adds a solemn complexity to his villain, and Purcell's sensitive portrayal of a mentally handicapped man is noteworthy.Redneck jock asshole braggadocio boils to the surface in a stereotypical Southern town with a token African American sheriff, punctured by battle symbols (including Marsden's ambitious Stalingrad screenplay), phallic symbols (popsicles, guns, hammers, pool cues), female objectification and a particular emphasis on male dominance in sexual roles.

Lurie fills his flick to the brim with stimulating symbols and innuendo, but can only carry it so far before he must follow the dictates of the plot. What this version is lacking is Peckinpah's masterly vision of male sexual violence. Lurie's strengths lie in the political arena, as displayed in his interesting past films, Deterrence, The Contender, The Last Castle, Resurrecting the Champ and Nothing but the Truth. Straw Dogs is a departure for the disciplined direction of the liberal minded auteur, closer in blood to his sports melodrama Champ than any of its brothers. He revels in the chance to indulge in pulpy stench.

This version of Straw Dogs is the common man vs. celebrity, conservative vs. liberal, manual labor vs. creativity, agnostic vs. Christian, and ultimately remake vs. Peckinpah. The director tears apart tradition and lifestyle, assaulting us with the fluid transgressions of hunting, rape, football and revenge. His B-movie is all about opposites, so polarizing that they collide and somehow meet halfway.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Tsui Hark: A Ballet of Blood (Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame)

Andy Lau, Bingbing Li, Detective Dee . . . , Indomina Releasing, 2011.

Hong Kong auteur Tsui Hark delves into another pseudo-historical fantasy adventure with the immensely entertaining Detective Dee . . . ,  an epic pageant which sweeps us off our feet. Tsui's utilization of gorgeous CGI and attention to period detail are racking, his wondrous vistas and majestic Imperial sets making our hearts beat a little faster as Sammo Hung's balletic fight scenes leave our heads spinning. The cartoonish pacing unravels the urgency of his imagic rhythms while a game cast postulates amid the industry's trademark falling petals and wispy smoke.

Andy Lau, Chao Deng, Bingbing Li and Carina Lau are all in top form, fulfilling the requirements and beyond of their stock characters, whilst talking deer, magical insects and nefarious six armed men crowd the corners of the frame. As usual in the genre, the plot is incidental as the action and imagery take center stage. Red herrings and tangled allegiances cloud the "story" as we reel on the sheer magic of Tsui's cinematic energy. One of the integral pleasures of his newest picture are the elements of film noir dissolved in a martial arts extravaganza, as stylistically intricate as the massive Buddha being erected by the evil Empress in the middle of the city.

The Wuxia mania is proliferated by attacks of logs, arrows and stampeding deer in a fury of style over substance. Only, with Tsui, the style IS the substance. The master craftsman's articulation of the action aesthetic in his Imperial detective tale, punctured by spontaneous combustions, is infectious. In the end, there may be too much narrative compressed into one film, which can wear thin. While Detective Dee may ultimately be a minor entry into an undervalued genre director's canon, lacking the circumspection of Once Upon a Time in China or Time and Tide, he definitely succeeds in cultivating another entirely immersive escapist entertainment.

Doug McGrath: Urban Emptiness (I Don't Know How She Does It)

Sarah Jessica Parker, I Don't Know How She Does It, Weinstein Company, 2011.

Yet another entry into the seemingly bottomless pit of "chick flick" insults to intelligence and womanhood, the soporific I Don't Know How She Does It generically purports to penetrate the life of a modern metropolitan career woman, wife and mother, portrayed by the talented but tiresome Sarah Jessica Parker.

Parker went from a likable young character actress to a TV star with her smart turn as a sassy career "girl" on the campy smash Sex and the City. She and her co-stars all shone, yet so far, Kim Catrall has been the only one to show good taste as an afterthought, working with great film directors the likes of John Boorman and Roman Polanski. Parker, on the other hand, has gone the other route, trying to corner the market in the Julia/Meg/Sandra/Reese territory of nauseatingly coy rom-coms. She's currently competing with Katherine Heigl for the title of America's sweetheart. Neither actress is really cutting it.

From Failure to Launch to The Family Stone to the Sex and the City movies to Did You Hear About the Morgans, Parker has turned up in one headache after another. I was hopeful for her new film, that maybe it could possibly fall somewhere between screwball and sap, Cukor and Reiner. Nothing doing. The great cast is defeated by a listless script, and mediocre production all around. SJP does her Carrie Bradshaw mugging, only as a semi-domestic diva now. Greg Kinnear and Pierce Brosnan are utterly wasted as her male co-stars.

Doug McGrath is a vastly underrated actor-director whose presence here raised my hopes. He is a veteran Woody Allen actor, and has himself amassed an impressive body of work including Emma, Nicholas Nickleby and Infamous. I Don't Know . . . was definitely motivated by a paycheck, as it is his worst film. The navel gazing narrative and typical visual style are lazy and derivative.

To say the entire affair is a travesty is saying too much. It is so boring as to fall below the radar, yet another nail in the coffin that is Sarah Jessica Parker's career.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Steven Soderbergh: Conflux of Genre and Humanity (Contagion)

Jude Law, Contagion, Warner Bros. Pictures, 2011.

In his roundabout of each and every cinematic genre and sub-genre, the immensely prolific and diverse Steven Soderbergh has finally come to the epidemic film, a usually overlooked but important thriller sub-genre which seems more vital than ever now. Barry Levinson's Outbreak is probably the best remembered, and it was definitely good in its own entertaining way. What Soderbergh has accomplished here is a meticulous, curiously immersive experience which proves to be one of his very best films.

The visual and narrative structures are classically Soderberghian, with cold distant hues birthing the convergent lives of a culturally diverse group of people. Their involvement in a modern plague plays out with a particular  emphasis on their vulnerabilities and the bureaucratic mechanisms which hold them in its grasp. This calls to mind Soderbergh's masterful Traffic (2000) in all of its complexly mined glories.

An outstanding cast is balanced out by Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne,  Marion Cotillard, Jennifer Ehle, Bryan Cranston, Elliot Gould, Gwyneth Paltrow, Demetri Martin, Sanaa Lathan and John Hawkes, all at their best, making up one of the most incredible ensembles of the year. Scribe Scott Z. Burns' screenplay is trenchant and to the point, Soderbergh's control of the camera has never been more meticulous in design and delineation, and Cliff Martinez delivers yet another wonderfully driven score.

From the opening of a cough over black, to the ending which brings the simple yet invigorating structure full circle, Soderbergh has us under his spell. Like all great films, Contagion makes us think as it entertains us. Its powers of artistic persuasion only remind us of the greatness of Soderbergh's voice, and his place as one of our country's great cinematic visionaries.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Gavin O'Connor: The Weary Fighter (Warrior)

Tom Hardy, Warrior, Lionsgate Films, 2011.

The urban family drama and the inspirational athletic tale get a not so new yet intermittently interesting makeover in noteworthy helmer Gavin O'Connor's new film, Warrior.

Last year, younger American master David O. Russell schooled us on how convention can be spun into urgency with his excellent film The Fighter. O'Connor, a talented workman, once again treads familiar ground with potential yet ultimately not enough panache. What saves his overlong, overwrought family/sports drama are the intimate performances of Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton and Nick Nolte, fueling a much needed intensity as father and sons. The inner-city, working class milieu, drenched in alcoholism, Catholocism and resentment, is pungent and a bit much. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi lights the grim proceedings luminescently, alternating rugged and washed out as the proceedings dictate, ultimately swallowed at the grossly "glorious" falsity of the climax in hollow light.

O'Connor has always shown a propensity for local color, as displayed in his even more routine sports smash Miracle, and his best film to date, the underrated cop drama Pride and Glory. His undoing is always his indulgence and reliance on the dull, worn out cliches of his screenplays, which other directors could tweak and elaborate on. O'Connor seems to take them deadly serious. The outcome is a frustratingly mixed film as this one.

While Nolte infuses his twilight pater with hard edged sorrow, and Edgerton locates the heart of his conflicted brother/son/teacher/husband/father/fighter, it is Tom Hardy who is what heart this pic does have. The palpitations of his raw, honest portrayal of hurt and longing reverberate across the mediocre pieces, confirming what anyone who's payed any attention to this hallowed hunk actor has always known. The star of Bronson and Inception is going to be one of the greats, a la James Dean and Heath Ledger, the angst of a generation.

In the end, we walk away weary, from the familiar done too typically, the peculiar depth of the acting, and the hyper masculinity and Adonis bodies run rampant.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

John Madden: The Truth Will Set You Free (The Debt)

Helen Mirren, The Debt, Focus Features, 2011.

The honest to God truth of the power inherent in historical melodrama is laid bare in John Madden's lucid, stimulating new film, The Debt. A remake of an Israeli film little seen stateside, the film has been given the full Miramax treatment, down to the regal Helen Mirren and John Madden as director.

The picture opens spectacularly, drawing us into its interplay between the past and present, and ultimately the truth and the lie. A trio of Mossad agents infiltrate 1965 East Berlin to capture an infamous Nazi surgeon inspired bt Joseph Mengele, to return him to the homeland for trial. But nothing goes smoothly, of course, as the two very different men (Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas) become enamored of the one woman (Jessica Chastain),  the dynamic becomes highly sexualized and endangers the larger task at hand. In the present, the trio are feted at a book launch about their exploits. In these segments they are portrayed by Ciaran Hinds, Tom Wilkinson and Helen Mirren.

Most everything is done just right in this film, and yet many key things are awry. The structure and its invitation to the audience to think is ingratiating, as are the look and performances. Moral questions of its representations of crucial history, and more importantly, its exploitation of said elements, are more debatable. Although it hits a few snags, ultimately Madden triumphs with one of his most stylistically interesting films.

Madden is a great director who often gets lost in the modern cinema rubble. Best known for helming the good but overrated 90s Oscar winner Shakespeare in Love, he also helmed some of the most thought provoking costume dramas and literary adaptations of the past twenty years (Ethan Frome, Mrs. Brown, Proof and Killshot). With this remake, he only confirms his status as a neglected visionary.

Another underrated visionary, Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake, Stardust, X-Men: First Class) has done a top notch job producing and co-writing the near seamless script. Ben Davis' cinematography goes a long way to contributing visually through a separation of the hallowed past and the harsh present. Thomas Newman's progressive, dynamic score proves once again his gift as one of America's greatest film composers.

As for the cast, they are all superb in their own rights. Csokas stands out in the past segments, his steely countenance and virility masking a weakness he communicates strongly. Worthington's gentle earnestness is deeply felt, and Chastain finds her conflicted character's heart brilliantly. It's been a grand year for Chastain. She co-starred in the year's most artistically important film, Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, and then in one of this year's most grossly overrated and condescending ones, The Help. Here she falls somewhere nicely in between.

Mirren's driven grace steals the present scenes. She's not the cinema's grand dame for nothing. Yet she is matched by the haunted countenance of the great Hinds and the hypocritical expostulations of the inestimable Wilkinson. Jesper Christensen is especially creepy and affecting as the "evil" Dr. Vogel.

Despite a third act denoument which is as puzzling as it is achingly cliched, Madden's picture achieves what it sets out to do. Namely, dramatize a segment of Holocaust/Cold War history with romantic trimmings, forming it all into a cohesive entity, replete with themes of guilt, revenge, regret and truth. For the most part, the truth herein does set us free.

Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego: Screams in Space (Apollo 18)

Apollo 18, Dimension Films, 2011.

The found footage sub-genre of horror films is an interesting, if recently overdone/overexposed one. The Blair Witch Project set the standard beautifully, inspiring a phenomenon of fear and mimicry all the way down to Paranormal Activity and The Last Exorcism. These small films, pretending to be actual footage capturing supernatural occurrences, can be made cheaply and, if capturing the "imaginations" of the mass audience, can reap the big bucks.

Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego's promising English language debut film, Apollo 18, effectively tweaks American space history and NASA data procedures to produce an entertaining variation on the sub-genre in a cheesy Z-grade vein. Although the "footage" isn't always convincing as dated or found, Lopez-Gallego's conviction in the temerity of his piece is infectious.

A cast of unknowns perform their duties well, as the true horror of the mysteries of space come to light. Jose David Montero's camera work is well done, fascinating and abstract in many places. Even though we've been there, done that with all of this before, there's no harm in enjoying a fun night out at the movies or applauding a genre job well done.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Joann Sfar: Ne'er Do Well for a New Wave (Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life)

Laeitia Casta, Eric Elmosnino, Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, Music Box Films, 2011.

Musical icon Serge Gainsbourg's careening life was equally matched by his textured artistic output. Any filmmaker would seem to be daunted at the task of bringing his story to the screen, but French graphic novelist Joann Sfar rejoices in many shades of cool, adapting his own print work representation of the master's existence.

Sfar has found his Serge in Eric Elmosnino, an actor who not only looks almost exactly like their protagonist, but who turns out to be an excellent actor in his own right. Elmosnino's ability to inhabit the body and mind of Gainsbourg makes us believe in magic even more than Sfar's surreal visualizations of Gainsbourg's dreams and conscience.

The entire affair drips with a Gallic artiness which overtakes one like breaths of thick incense. The deep-hued cinematography by Guillame Schiffman lends alot to the strangely intoxicating combination of hip history and hallucinogenic fantasy. Sfar's triumph is, ultimately, his ability to thread diverging elements and themes into a hypnotic whole. The realization of his culty graphic novel as an important bio-pic is inspiring to behold.

Gainsbourg's music, in all of its multi-layered enchantment, fuels the fevered images of the film, and keeps it adrift in many narrative snags it hits along the way. There is no denying that for a film debut, Gainsbourg is massively impressive. It's shifts and shades belie an artistry which is hard to come by in current cinema.

Aside from Elmosnino's possessed lead, which is one of the best pieces of acting to come at us recently, the women in his life play an equally important part. Lucy Gordon, Laetitia Casta, Mylene Jampanoi and Anna Mouglalis all light up the screens in an incendiary fashion. Sfar's ability to pull what he saw out of these excellent actresses and transform them into 1960s sexpots is mind blowing. They purr and coo and yet locate the hearts of these women. It is a delicate but hard won balance.

The fantasy sequences utilize CGI and stop motion animation, and the fusion of two far flung techniques uniting in one film is oddly exhilerating, as is the entire affair. The pitch between drama and unconsciousness is near-perfectly achieved and well suited to the life of this new wave ne'er do well and the imagination and passion he ignited.

Vera Farmiga: Kind of Like a Prayer (Higher Ground)

Vera Farmiga, Higher Ground, Sony Pictures Classics, 2011.

Questions of faith and faithlessness are usually raised in motion pictures in two distinct ways; with a smirk or a frown. When done with a grin the film is usually funded by the church. Actress Vera Farmiga's directorial debut Higher Ground falls somewhere uncomfortably in between.

This new film is difficult to classify, which can be a good thing. To pidgeonhole it, is it a melodrama? A satire? Propaganda? Indie-hip? It is all of these and none of these things, and the resultant mish-mash is hard on the heart and mind to watch. You can ascertain what the gifted Farmiga is attempting to do here, it just does not work. To start out, the screenplay written by Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Metcalfe, based upon Briggs' memoirs, is told in too broad of strokes. A personal story shies away from the intimate and ends up falling into cliche and dramatic compromise.

From the ashes of a disastrous blueprint rises a misfired first film, albeit a ballsy one in many respects. Farmiga lends the same unshakable discipline and vigor of her brilliant acting jobs to the promising incomprehensibility of her directorial debut. The episodic 1960s to 1990s structure is interesting, as are certain scenes which are chillingly right. The rift between intention and creation running through the picture is beyond reconciliation.

So we are left with a fabulous cast, lead by the wrenching but subtle turn of Farmiga, who hits every note of her character with perfection, and Joshua Leonard (The Blair Witch Project) who matches her with a flawless performance as her husband. John Hawkes, Dagmara Dominczyk, Nina Arianda, Bill Irwin and others give richly nuanced performances, amid the stylistic chaos. The look is subdued and suitably "indie", as the picture swings from solemn strength to cringe worthy hysteria and offensive manipulation.

Beside this all is the shining light that is Vera Farmiga. Her bravery and strength as one of this country's greatest actresses allows us to look beyond her first film into the future. Her gift as an actor's director is unmistakable. Here's hoping that next time is soon and she finds the right vessel for her expression.