Saturday, September 10, 2011


Just saw a movie that's been getting some critical attention: HIGHER GROUND. The main reason for the attention is Vera Farmiga. She directed and stars it. And she's been getting critical attention for quite a while now. I don't get it.

Well, I do get some of it. And don't get me wrong, HIGHER GROUND is well worth seeing. It's what's usually called an "independent" film, which usually but not always means a small budget and no big name stars, and has a lot of what usually comes with that label: quirkiness, character study, a slower pace, no car chases or explosions or gunfights or neatly wrapped up storylines, etc.

If you ever got to catch WINTER'S BONE, another small "independent" movie that's set in a world the movies usually don't feature or get right, HIGHER GROUND has a lot of the same authentic looking characters (in one case played by the same actor, John Hawkes, whose work is worth the price of admission alone) and feel to it.

Besides Hawkes's there's a bunch of great performances in this flick too (not quite on the level of WINTER'S BONE, but then it's not as tense or harsh of a storyline). One of them is Norbert Leo Butz, whose performance I singled out from the Tony's earlier this year where he did a dance number like none I'd ever seen before. He plays the preacher in HIGHER GROUND—which is a pretty realistic depiction of people struggling with faith, in this case that kind of hippyish '60s version of Christian fundamentalism—and you wouldn't recognize him from the Tonys. He underplays this role in a way I've never seen a preacher of this fundamentalist kind portrayed. It's not a caricature at all.

Another terrific and fun performance is Dagmara Dominezyk's as the best friend of the main character's, the one Vera Farmiga plays. And Farmiga's younger sister Taissa plays the same character when younger and does it subtly and movingly. Joshua Leonard as the husband is terrific too, and there's others with smaller parts that nail them.

And Vera Farmiga does a great job for a first time director as well, though as one of the friends I saw it with pointed out the pace was at times a bit slow and there were a few too many, for his taste, close-ups of the star, Vera Farmiga.

But none of that bothered me. Not even the unexplained source of money for a stay-at-home mom who suddenly has a new car etc. All that I could set aside because the subject matter is so interesting and the actors were so good and the writing was engaging. But what I can't seem to shake is just the opposite of what so many critics rave about when it comes to Farmiga as a movie actor.

As I've written about before here, The New York Times Magazine had a multi-page spread on Farmiga before I saw her in UP IN THE AIR, about how she was the new Meryl Streep and Katherine Hepburn rolled into one. Those names were mentioned again in the review Anthony Lane gave HIGHER GROUND in The New Yorker. These kinds of critics not only seem enamored with Farmiga's acting, but are totally adulatory about her screen presence. Lane talked about how George Cukor (I think I'm remembering what he wrote correctly) would have loved to work with her because she evokes the kind of screen presences of long ago golden age Hollywood female luminaries etc.

It's kind of endlessly rapturous. And these same critics obviously find her one of the most beautiful movie stars ever. I just don't get any of that. I remember seeing her after the NY Times article on her, in the role of the police shrink in Scorcese's much flawed THE DEPARTED. All I could think was there's no way I buy this character has ever been near a cop let alone is entrusted with their mental problems.

I liked her better in UP IN THE AIR and I think I know why. Because she was playing a character closer to what bothers me about her. I sense a smugness in her acting that distracts me from the character she's supposed to be playing and the story the character is supposed to be a part of. That smugness fit her character in UP IN THE AIR so it worked. In HIGHER GROUND it gets in the way again.

There are moments when I can see, oh yeah, I get it, she' looks beautiful for a second or is so inside her character for a scene or a moment that I forget about my objections to her. But then there it'll come again,  the smugness underneath the acting, the sense that she's basking in her own self-appreciation, either for her looks or for her acting.

Maybe this is all projection and no one else can see it. Maybe she is one of the most beautiful women on screen ever and it's just a matter of taste, and maybe she's also one of the greatest screen actresses of all time and... Nah. I draw the line there. Beauty might be a matter of taste, but movie acting I know a little about and though she might have moments of pretty fine acting, and never totally sucks, she's also no better than hundreds of movie actors I've watched and worked with over the years who haven't gotten anywhere near the attention she continues to get.

But don't get me wrong, I don't begrudge her the opportunities all this praise has given her, nor do I deny that she's making the most of it, like getting HIGHER GROUND made and directing it. But I wouldn't have minded seeing someone else in the lead.


Robert G. Zuckerman said...

I believe Vera's a Jersey Girl ;-)

Lally said...

I think you may be right. And I'm probably being too hard on her. Let's just say she's not my type as a woman or an actor.

Robert G. Zuckerman said...

That's honest. I don't know her and can't really recall her work. I recently worked with her younger sister and also met her Mom, who taught me how to say "thank you" in Ukranian.

Lally said...

I've been told by some who've met her that's she's okay, so I guess it's all projection on my part, and taste.