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Vera Farmiga
Vera Farmiga, Taissa Farmiga, Donna Murphy, Bill Irwin, John Hawkes, Dagmara Dominczyk, Nina Arianda, Joshua Leonard
Writing Credits:
Tim Metcalfe, Carolyn S. Briggs (memoir "This Dark World" and screenplay)

Vera Farmiga's directorial debut, Higher Ground, depicts the landscape of a tight-knit spiritual community thrown off-kilter when one of their own begins to question her faith. Inspired by screenwriter Carolyn S. Briggs' memoir This Dark World, the film tells the story of a thoughtful woman's struggles with belief, love, and trust - in human relationships as well as in God.

Box Office:
Opening Weekend
$21.495 thousand on 3 screens.
Domestic Gross
$836.503 thousand.

Rated R

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 112 min.
Price: $45.99
Release Date: 1/10/2012

• Audio Commentary with Director/Actor Vera Farmiga, Actor Joshua Leonard and Producer Renn Hawkey
• “The Substance of Things Hoped For: Making Higher Ground” Featurette
• Production Diary
• Outtakes
• Deleted/Extended/Alternate Scenes
• Trailer
• Previews
• DVD Copy


Panasonic 50" TH-50PZ77U 1080p Plasma Monitor; Sony STR-DG1200 7.1 Channel Receiver; Panasonic DMP-BD60K Blu-Ray Player using HDMI outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Kenwood 1050SW 150-watt Subwoofer.


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Higher Ground [Blu-Ray] (2011)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 29, 2011)

Following in the footsteps of Up In the Air co-star George Clooney, actor Vera Farmiga steps behind the camera for her first directorial effort via 2011’s Higher Ground. The story starts in the 1960s and introduces us to young Corinne (McKenzie Turner). At that point, it shows some family drama related to failed pregnancy as well as her mother Kathleen’s (Donna Murphy) miscarriage. As a youngster, Corinne shows some interest in the Evangelical Christianity advocated by Pastor Bud (Bill Irwin), but her family lacks much religious fervor, so this doesn’t appear to go anywhere.

Fast-forward a few years to Corinne as a teenager (Taissa Farmiga). She falls for Ethan (Boyd Holbrook) and soon ends up pregnant. This leads to the proverbial shotgun wedding and a life as a teen mother.

Though his status as family man means he needs a day job, Ethan continues to play in a rock band at night, and he drags wife and baby along with him. On the way to a gig, Ethan’s bandmates goof around and distract the driver, an incident that sends the van into a river. They nearly lose the baby in the accident but manages to get her out alive.

Ethan chalks this up to divine intervention, and Corinne eventually decides to give her life over to Christ. As an adult (Vera Farmiga) with Ethan (Joshua Leonard), her life revolves around a religion-centered existence – until eventually their relationship starts to collapse and she begins to question her choices.

Despite that synopsis, Higher Ground borders on being plot-free. It doesn’t offer a narrative as much as it shows slices of life through which we see Corinne’s evolution. This means the movie can be a bit slow at times, but I don’t see the lack of real plot as a problem; the film involves us in the characters and situations well enough to overcome any potential concerns connected to the absence of an A-to-B story line.

I suspect some viewers will see a movie in which a woman becomes detached from her faith and take it to be Good Old Socialist Hollywood’s assault on religion. I think these people miss the point, however. Yes, we find a flick that looks at Corinne’s path away from the church, but it lacks the smug, condescending tone that many will expect – and some will probably still infer.

Corinne is not a woman who claims to know better than her Christian friends and family, and she’s not someone who comes to feel she’s been duped or misled. Corinne desperately wants to share their faith – she just doesn’t. There’s no crime or shame in that, and the movie treats neither Corinne nor the believers as better than each other.

Indeed, rather than condemn the influence of the “true believer”, Ground almost feels tragic when Corinne must turn away from the church. She’s not a woman who wants to abandon her religion, but she realizes that she doesn’t have the calling and makes the choice. She does so with sadness and without any judgment of the others, largely because she envies them.

That’s a crucial difference between Ground and many other films that take on the subject. I can understand the potential for some to misinterpret Ground as anti-religion because so many tales of this sort follow that path; they do end up with the main character wiser and better off when he or she “wakes up” and gets away from the faith that allegedly constricted them.

But I think that any interpretation of Ground as anti-religion is misguided and incorrect. As I mentioned, Corinne desperately wants to connect to the Holy Spirit; it just doesn’t happen for her. She’s not better off at the end of the movie after she leaves the church. If anything, we see a woman who’s somewhat lost; while she’s finally done something to be intellectually true to herself, she doesn’t seem happy.

Earlier in the review, I made a connection between Farmiga and George Clooney, since both are actors turned directors and they worked together in Up in the Air. When you look at their directorial debuts, the comparisons end, however, as Higher Ground couldn’t be a bigger contrast to Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind if it tried. Clooney’s flick was a real “kitchen sink” affair. He piled on a wild variety of cinematic techniques as if he feared he’d never get another chance behind the camera and wanted to pull out all the stops.

On the other hand, Farmiga makes Ground an understated affair – remarkably so, given the material’s potential for melodrama. Oh, the flick does deliver an emotional component, but it doesn’t arrive with gimmicks or intentionally showy sequences. Even the movie’s biggest “show pieces” – the baby’s near-death, a conflict with Ethan that gets physical – don’t beat us over the head with their drama. We see the events realistically and without excess melodrama, a choice that allows them to work more effectively.

All of these factors – and a nice cast as well – allow Higher Ground to deliver a quiet, involving character tale. Something this introspective won’t be for everyone, but I think it deserves an audience.

The Blu-ray Grades: Picture A-/ Audio B-/ Bonus C

Higher Ground appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this Blu-Ray Disc. I had no complaints about this terrific transfer.

Sharpness appeared strong and crisp throughout the movie. Only the slightest sign of softness ever appeared, and those instances were fleeting. Overall, this was a tight, well-focused image. I saw no signs of jagged edges or shimmering, and edge haloes remained absent. Source flaws were a non-factor, as I witnessed no specks, marks or other debris.

Colors were a strong point, as they seemed consistently accurate and well-saturated. The movie featured a warm palette that looked vivid and full, Black levels were appropriately deep and shadow detail seemed good, with no excessive opacity or darkness. I felt quite impressed by this solid presentation.

The DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack suited the movie pretty well but won't win any awards. The soundstage appeared nicely broad at the appropriate times and could be fairly engulfing on occasion. It's a talky little film, so the focus is mainly up front, but the audio expanded when necessary. Surround usage opened up best during some concert sequences and a few natural exteriors, but these were minor factors. Overall, this was a low-key presentation.

Sound quality seemed fine. Dialogue always appeared crisp and natural, without edginess or other issues. Music sounded warm and full, as the score provided nice dimensionality. Effects also seemed realistic and adequate for the tasks at hand. Nothing here stood out as exceptional, but the track fit the film.

When we shift to extras, we open with an audio commentary from director/actor Vera Farmiga, producer Renn Hawkey and actor Joshua Leonard. This running, screen-specific track starts with Farmiga on her own; Hawkey joins her before too long, Leonard shows up shortly after that, and all three stay together the rest of the way. They cover cast and performances, story/character areas, editing and music, period details, sets and locations.

First-time directors usually have lots to say, but Farmiga breaks that mold. Even with three participants, we get lots of dead air here, and the speakers often just identify the actors and extras. While a few good details emerge along the way, they’re outweighed by all the gaps and monotony.

Next comes a featurette called The Substance of Things Hoped For: Making Higher Ground. It goes for 18 minutes, 52 seconds and offers notes from Farmiga, Hawkey, Leonard, producer Carly Hugo, production designer Sharon Lomofsky, director of cinematography Michael McDonough, and actors Donna Murphy, John Hawke and Dagmara Dominczyk. “Substance” looks at story and characters, the film’s development and how Farmiga chose to direct, cast and performances, the movie’s look and period details. We don’t get a ton of depth here, but we learn a decent number of details.

A Production Diary lasts two minutes, 36 seconds. This focuses on a deleted scene in which Corinne hops into a donation bin. It’s a mildly interesting look behind the scenes.

After this we find an Outtakes reel. It fills 44 seconds and shows actors cracking up during two scenes. It’s forgettable.

Eight Deleted/Extended/Alternate Scenes occupy a total of 12 minutes, 25 seconds. The extensions/alternate clips offer minor additions or changes, but some interesting material shows up in the deleted bits. We see more of young Corinne, and we get a bit better exploration of the adult version’s family ties. Nothing exceptional shows up, but the sequences are intriguing.

The disc opens with ads for The Guard, Life, Above All, Take Shelter, A Dangerous Method and Carnage. These also appear under Previews, and we find the film’s trailer as well.

A second disc provides a DVD copy of Higher Ground. This offers a standard retail version, which makes it more valuable than the neutered DVDs that often pop up as bonuses.

With its themes of religion and independence, Higher Ground had the potential to be a one-dimensional screed. Instead, it gives us an involving character piece that succeeds due to its quietness and subtlety. The Blu-ray provides excellent picture, acceptable audio and a few decent supplements, though the audio commentary disappoints. I like the film and recommend it, though a rental is probably the way to go; with a list price of nearly $46, Ground comes as an expensive cinematic investment.

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