<<Home Niagara Falls Reporter Archive>>


By Michael Calleri

If you know actress Vera Farmiga's movie work, it's probably because of two features: "The Departed" and "Up In The Air." However, the 38-year-old actress has been very busy. She's appeared in more than two dozen films, many of them small, and starred as Detective Susan Branca on television's "Touching Evil. She's very active in the New York City theater scene. Farmiga has a quiet onscreen presence. She's an insular actress, and her performances are often very interior.

"Higher Ground" is Farmiga's strong debut as a film director. The accessible drama tells the story of a woman's spiritual quest from her teens through her middle years. It's a serious journey, in which Corinne, played by Farmiga, struggles to be a devout believer in God.

During this fruitful, but also complex period in her life, she associates with other true believers. Through it all, Corinne keeps listening for the voice of the Lord and becomes concerned that she doesn't hear what she wants to hear. She believes and then questions. Is this the correct way? Praising God, yet asking more and more questions?

The movie shines a bright light on an important aspect of the human experience, one not often explored onscreen, which is the power of faith in a contemporary world. How does religion frame people's lives, whether they believe in organized theology or take a less-structured spiritual path?

The film is not pro- or anti-religion. Its purpose is to examine the reaction of one woman to everything she is told and studies about the virtues of following religious teachings. The sincere screenplay, which focuses on evangelical Christianity, is by Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Metcalfe, from Briggs' memoir "This Dark World."

Farmiga's view of religious life is respectful. In fact, considering the beating religion has taken in many Hollywood films, the movie almost stands out as an endorsement of finding solace in one's faith. That the film is not a blanket, unquestioning endorsement is a tribute to the director's respect for her characters, especially Corinne, who is conflicted about elements insisted upon by leaders of her faith.

"Higher Ground" takes a long, hard look at the control men have over the needs of their congregations, especially females. Preaching is a world dominated by men, a fact that causes Corinne to question things. The picture is not without humor, as we see in the discussions of the importance of sexual relations between husband and wife.

Farmiga is earnest in her desire to depict the church's own belief that it encompasses a loving community. But under the surface, Corinne discovers that she is not alone, there are those with doubts similar to hers. She wrestles with her questions and isn't afraid to verbalize her concerns, which creates new problems.

"Higher Ground" is filled with notable performances, especially Farmiga's in the central role. Joining her in excellence is the director's younger sister Taissa, who plays the young Corinne. Equally good are John Hawkes, Donna Murphy, Bill Irwin, Dagmara Dominczyk, Norbert Leo Butz, Joshua Leonard and Nina Arianda. New York theatergoers will recognize these names. The supporting cast is very strong. The film was a hit at Sundance.

Farmiga and her team never resort to Hollywood's penchant for sensationalizing religion. They never pander, nor do they insult the audience. Here is an intelligent film, beautifully done, brimming with ideas. Reward yourself -- go see it.

The new "Footloose" is an unnecessary remake of the popular 1984 picture that made Kevin Bacon a star. In some respects, that earlier tune-filled movie was a reaction to various elements of Ronald Reagan's presidency, but it was mostly symbolic, a shout-out for the last vestiges of youthful rebellion against 1950s parental authority.

Its story, about a town that banned teenagers from dancing because some kids died in a car crash, also took a swipe at religious rule and the separation of church and state. The leader of the anti-dancing law was a preacher, whose son was one of those killed in the accident.

The film spoke to a generation that was eager to disco. Bacon's co-star in the first effort is Lori Singer. Bacon has a comic sidekick. The music is kicky.

There would seem to be little reason to make a carbon copy of the original picture, but this is what lackluster director Craig Brewer and his co-screenwriter Dean Pitchford have done. The two men were devoid of fresh ideas.

They seem shockingly unaware that times have changed. Cable television has brought the thrills and dangers of the outside world to small towns. Add smart phones, iPads and all manner of digital connectivity, and it would seem ludicrous that what happens in the new "Footloose" would actually happen. Instead of knuckling under to an ornery reverend, today's kids would have texted information about a Flash Mob and ignored the absurd anti-dancing law.

The current "Footloose" is resolutely awful. Some scenes are shot-for-shot copies from the 1984 feature. Huge chunks of dialogue -- and I mean huge -- are lifted from the original, as are four songs.

Instead of Bacon and Singer, both of whom had personality and could act, we're stuck with the bland Kenny Wormald and a stiff Juianne Hough in the lead roles. Neither brightens the screen, although both can dance.

Dennis Quaid as the preacher and father of Hough's character is nowhere near as good as John Lithgow's fire-and-brimstone reverend from the first picture.

The new version follows the same story -- a Big City boy ends up living in a small town where dancing has been banned. This time around, the unlucky teen moves from Boston to Georgia. I guess the influence of the sophisticated, cosmopolitan Atlanta has held no sway in the tiny town that seems to exist in a time capsule. Although Brigadoon it isn't.

The newcomer falls for the preacher's daughter and leads the high school kids at the town meeting to get the three-year-old law repealed. One thing you'll notice is that in spite of the fact that dancing has been banned, everyone can bust a move like a Broadway superstar. You laugh, unintentionally, at the naivete of the enterprise.

The new "Footloose" has no magic.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Oct. 18, 2011