Sunday, July 8, 2012

Under the Radar: Higher Ground and Sleeping Beauty

There's always a set of films that pique my interest even though I've heard so little about them. As it would happen, 2011's set consisted of Vera Farmiga's Higher Ground and 'erotic fairytale' Sleeping Beauty, which I saw within 24 hours of each other. While I didn't love them, they're still worth a few words...


Vera Farmiga has always been a favourite actress of mine, especially since she completely won me over with her work in Up in the Air. So naturally, when I heard that she was going to be directing her own little film, Higher Ground, I got pretty excited. My 'excitement lights' were dimmed as the year went on, especially as her film wasn't getting any closer to a release date. Upon seeing it, I can only but wonder whether the fact that it slipped under the radar was something that was right for it, or completely wrong for it. Let's divvy it up:
This is an important film. Why? It looks at a woman's connection with faith throughout her life. As far as I'm concerned, faith and religion aren't the most prominent themes in film. Especially ones that actually look at the connect and the disconnect between someone and their religion. Most of all, it is a fairly accurate portrayal of someone processing all of the emotions inside of them. This isn't the sort of film that usually makes the rounds - well, the American rounds, anyway. Like wine, I'm sure this will only get better as it ages. However...
It isn't a particularly exciting film. For all it's possible importance, there's little holding all the shining moments together. It rolls out like a typical 'chronicle' film, teetering on the edge of 'textbook American independent films 101', repeating itself and going on such strange routes that never get fully realised. Vera Farmiga often approaches subtlety, which is something that I genuinely enjoy in films, but in this film, that subtlety never builds up to anything more - something that I felt it needed. It is a bit of a flat experience for the most part, particularly as it some of the scenes are so brilliant on their own that they don't have the glue to stick them together.
However. The performances are all great. Especially Farmiga's, which was quite different to anything I've seen her do. Plus, she's a dab hand behind the camera, too. I can't wait to see her next effort.

What I got:



Another film filled with some good scenes but not enough glue was Sleeping Beauty. Nope, this isn't a Disney fairytale. In fact, this one takes former child star Emily Browning and pits her in one of those roles that will solidify her future as an adult in the world of film, as she plays Lucy, a young university student who is driven to prostitution. Okay, it isn't really prostitution. She just gets put to sleep and men can have their way with her while she's off in the land of nod. Like I was with Higher Ground, I'm divided over this one. However, the division is so split down the middle that I really can't make sense of my feelings towards it. It is kind of like my knee-jerk reaction to I Melt with You, which ended up turning itself into immense dislike. For now, here are my divided feelings on it:
It looks good. I'd go just about as far as saying that every shot looks like a work of art. Emily Browning's performance is fantastic, too. She was pretty alright in the otherwise terrible Sucker Punch, but she really went for it in this one. Also, I'm sure there was a great yarn in there under five layers of metaphoric pretentiousness. Which is why I kept my eyes on the screen for the entire time. Although, I do admit to switching off when one of Lucy's clients had this long story to tell that probably made sense to the movie but it was done in such a dull way that I just switched off. Which leads me to my next point...
It really is pretentious. Now you can lop my head off because apparently no-one can utter that word in cinematic context but I'm sorry, that's exactly what it is. I know that first-time director Julia Leigh means well, but she's made this film with the help of "How to Trick People Into Thinking Your Movie is Really Good By Making it Arty, Volumes 1, 2 & 3". She takes this weird minimalist, subtle approach that annoyed the heck out of me because it was like sitting in an ice box: all we get is grey grey grey, cold cold cold, but never anything to connect with. Especially as I'm sure the main crux of the story doesn't happen until the last twenty minutes of the film. Sometimes knowing less turns out to be more (such is the case with Shame), but here, if there was a little bit 'knowing' this might have been a lot more successful in being a portrait of a woman indulging in a weird path of life. Instead, it basically just displays everything I dislike about artsy films. If I had downed this with I Melt with You, all hell would have broken loose.
The jury is out: I really didn't like this film.

What I got:

21 comments:

  1. I haven't really been interested in either of these films, and Sleeping Beauty (while I've yet to see it) does sound like a load of shit. I hate that a film like it has had such a wide release because I know a lot of people will judge arthouse cinema based on it. I hope they don't, because there are films miles better than I imagine Sleeping Beauty is that can also be called arthouse. That said, what you've described about the visual style and direction of the film sounds like something I would love, so who knows?

    As for Higher Ground, I really like Vera Farmiga so I might give that one a shot.

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    1. I guess you should check out Sleeping Beauty. While I didn't like it that much, there's a bit in it that's worth talking about. Plus, the way it is made is just how you like it.

      If you like Vera Farmiga then Higher Ground is a must!

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  2. Man, more than half a year has passed since I saw Sleeping Beauty, and I have to tell you: while I was not really sure about this film then, now I really dislike it, too. And I totally agree with you on Emily giving a fantastic performance, great looks of the film, but its complete and utter pretentiousness. Besides, I don't see nothing bad in the cinematic use of that word... Like Sleeping Beauty was pretentious and bad/average, while Tree of Life was pretentious (really, you can't deny that) and good/great. Anyway, the point is: no heads lopped off please! :)

    As for Higher Ground, we've had it here for like two days in terms of some wee festival, but although I was excited about the film and stuff, I decided not to go, but of course I'm looking forward to watching this. Farmiga FTW.

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    1. Yeah, I definitely think I'm on the dislike road with Sleeping Beauty.

      I'm glad that someone else allows the word 'pretentious' in cinematic context! I just think that a whole lot of people get offended because of how true that word rings to them. Hell, I can be pretentious sometimes but I don't complain.

      Definitely give Higher Ground a go. Vera Farmiga is awesome.

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  4. I don't really disagree that Sleeping Beauty is pretentious but somewhat inaccessible though it is, I still found enough interesting ideas floating around to like it. I had much bigger problems with Higher Ground.

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    1. Yeah, there were a few interesting ideas floating around in it - which is why I found it so hard to decide whether I liked it or loathed it.

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  5. I'd offer in defense of SLEEPING BEAUTY and the way it annoys you with its "grey grey grey, cold cold cold, but never anything to connect with" might be part of what I feel Browning's point to to denude the cinematic sex of any mystique or prettiness of even pleasure (vicariously felt). It's like that opening scene with the only "penetration" in the film which is so awkward to watch and the not aesthetic men Lucy sleeps with - as if to say (in, indeed, an artsy) this is how dull sex, and the worship of it, is.

    Of course, I can't indict you if it doesn't work for you. (Curious you bring up SHAME, though, because I ended up discussing them in tandem earlier in the year because I find them so similar - in their attempts to some degree).

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    1. I totally get where you're coming from, but the film was just missing so much other stuff that it never quite clicks.

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  6. I think the use of the word "pretentious" is perfectly legitimate. :-) Film makers need to know that artsy techniques don't substitute for other attributes, such as character development and good storytelling. And I think there's a difference between something like this (though I haven't seen Sleeping Beauty) and a minimalist movie like Drive or Shame. In Drive and Shame, the filmmaker really knows his story and characters -- and they are rich and fully developed -- even though we don't implicitly see this on the screen. Nevertheless it shines through in the film making and the actors' performances.

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  7. Sleeping Beauty is sitting in my top 5 of 2012 and I can't see it being dislodged anytime soon. I'm looking forward to seeing The Hunter this week as it's based on a book by Julia Arnold, the writer-director of Sleeping Beauty.

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    1. *Julia Leigh, mixing her up with the equally great Andrea Arnold.

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    2. The Hunter is really quite good. I enjoyed that movie.

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  8. I loved Higher Ground; thought Farmiga's performance was her best yet. It was a refreshing take on faith and religion. As you said, they're not often explored and film, and when they are, often with a pretty strong viewpoint one way or the other.

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    1. Yeah, I think her performance in Higher Ground is my favourite of hers to date. Which is kind of a big deal.

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  9. I completely agree with you about sleeping beauty... i wanted it to be so much more, but in the end I hated it!!

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    1. I'm glad that someone else agrees with me!

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  10. Sleeping Beauty really got on my nerves. I love Emily Browning, and she was wonderful and very brave for doing this film. But I hated how they offered no explanion as to why Lucy was doing all of this. Yes she needs money, why? What would posess her to take a job like this? There were just too many unanswered questions for me.

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    1. I know, I felt like we needed an explanation for that. And I wish that we'd seen Lucy seeing what happens to her. Or something more than just the last 20 minutes of the film.

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  11. Thanks for finally writing about > "Under the Radar: Higher Ground and Sleeping Beauty" < Loved it!
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You mustn't be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.

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