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updated: 10/3/2011 12:33 PM

Vera Farmiga tries her hand at directing

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  • Vera Farmiga directs and stars in "Higher Ground."

      Vera Farmiga directs and stars in "Higher Ground."

  • Chandra (Khomotso Manyaka) is the highlight of "Life Above All," a bleak drama about a South African girl who challenges the superstitions of her tiny village to find her mother, driven out by disease.

      Chandra (Khomotso Manyaka) is the highlight of "Life Above All," a bleak drama about a South African girl who challenges the superstitions of her tiny village to find her mother, driven out by disease.

  • Video: "Rapt" trailer

  • Video: "Higher Ground" trailer

  • Video: "Chasing Madoff" trailer

  • Video: "Life Above All" trailer

 
 

Vera Farmiga directs

Is there a secret formula to success when an actress decides to become a director as well?

Vera Farmiga thinks so.

"More than half the battle is surrounding yourself with an army of capable people, and I had rock stars by my side," said the star of "Up in the Air," "The Departed" and many other films. "All these actors possess such power. Above all else, I needed earnestness."

She got a lot of earnestness out of her actors in "Higher Ground," opening this weekend. She directs and stars in the story of a devoutly religious woman who begins to buckle under the constraints of a chauvinistic community.

Farmiga, a 38-year-old Ukranian-American filmmaker, grew up in a strong Catholic family.

"It was a very religious community, which is why I thought I could explore this subject fairly and honestly," she said. "There's so much of me in the film, and yet there's so little of me in the film. For me, what resonated was this character's longing to come from a genuine self, an authentic self."

Any inspirational heroes?

"Martin Scorsese. Anthony Minghella, Debra Granik. There's a passion that they possess. That's what creates discipleship: passion and honesty and joy. These are my three biggest inspirations. Their leadership rubbed off on me."

Any revelations about filmmaking after directing your first movie?

"It's incredible how you can shift your movie tonally in the postproduction process. Films continue to be made after postproduction, even after the editing, when you fine tune the sound and the color. It's wild to see how a film can shift."

What's the big deal about making movies?

"I suppose the thing that keeps me going is to see how people are affected by things. My profession gives me an enormous amount of empathy. And that brings about an openness. So it's a kind of spirituality in itself. And to see how a performance can touch someone and give them a perspective that's normally closed off. That's where I feel the most powerful. And lucky."

If you met yourself at 20, what advice would you give her?

"If I met my younger self, I wouldn't tell her a single thing. I'd say, 'You have a great adventure ahead. Just come from your genuine self and you'll be OK.'

"Actually, I'd like to meet my 20-year-old-self and get some advice from her."

Reel Life review: 'Higher Ground'

A crisis of faith causes a God-fearing Christian woman named Corrine (Director Vera Farmiga) to question her view of the world, God and herself in "Higher Ground," a low-key character study far more interested in the steak than the sizzle.

Farmiga, using a sophisticated, mature and rigorously fair approach to the material (based on the memoir "This Dark World,") plays Corrine as a reluctant participant in a faith-based community reeking with chauvinistic condescension.

We see Corrine as a child (played by Farmiga's younger sister Taissa, a virtual clone for Farmiga as a youth) and see the seeds of independent thought that will later compel her to leave her church, and risk losing her less-than-aware husband Ethan (played with rapt transparency by Joshua Leonard).

This is a thoughtful drama about women friendships, struggling relationships and finding place in a world that may not have room.

It's one of those auspicious directorial debuts that makes critics sit up, take notice and wonder where Farmiga might go from here.

"Higher Ground" opens at the Century Centre in Chicago, the Evanston CineArts 6 and the Renaissance Place in Highland Park. Rated R for sexual situations and language. 109 minutes. ★ ★ ★

'Colombiana' critique

Five possible reasons why Sony Pictures released "Colombiana" last week without screening it for local film critics:

1. The stunt double for little Colombiana (12-year-old Amandla Stenberg) appears to be twice her size during action shots where you can't see her face.

2. Chicago libraries are apparently perfect places for secret meetings: nobody else ever uses them.

3. The "Principal" sign on the school principal's office door is facing the principal, so that no one outside can read it, but the principal will always know it's her office.

4. President Obama's photo is on an office wall -- in 2007 before he was elected president.

5. A cop shouts that information should be leaked "to every newspaper and every magazine!" to flush out the secretive Colombiana. But he forgets to mention any form of social media. (No wonder the cops weren't all that effective here.)

Reel Life review: 'Rapt'

Lucas Belvaux's slick, shrewdly observed, fact-based kidnap drama "Rapt" couldn't be more of a biblical parable if it had come directly from the Good Book itself.

Adopting the saying "As ye sow, so shall ye reap," the story (based on a 1978 case) tells of how the kidnapping of wealthy French-Belgian CEO Stanislas Graff (Yvan Attal) sets in motion a merciless media examination of his life.

What the media find is a hollow, soulless entity masquerading as a human being. He's an arrogant, sexual pig with a secret love nest purchased for his extramarital conquests. He spends company money for his own gratifications. He harbors no feelings or empathy for his wife and children.

The movie's most telling moment occurs when an emaciated Graff, released after nine weeks of captivity, asks not for loved ones, but for his pet dog.

Here's a radically different, ruthlessly realistic kidnap thriller where the victim's greatest threat isn't the kidnappers. It's his own character.

"Rapt" opens at the Music Box in Chicago. Not rated; for mature audiences. 125 minutes. ★ ★ ★

Reel Life review: 'Chasing Madoff'

Nobody actually nailed Bernie Madoff for engineering a global Ponzi scheme that destroyed the financial lives of tens of thousands of people, companies and charities around the globe. The scheme collapsed and revealed itself in the wake of the 2008 economic meltdown.

Yet, three financial Muskateers from a Boston firm -- especially a dedicated analyst named Harry Markopolous -- had detected the scam 10 years earlier and spent years sending evidence to the Securities and Exchange Commission, which ignored the information and gave Madoff a green light to fleece thousands of more victims.

Jeff Prosserman's doc "Chasing Madoff" traces this unbelievable story of regulator incompetence and old-fashioned American idealism in jaw-dropping detail.

Prosserman focuses mostly on Markopolous, who emerges as a true-life Jimmy Stewart willing to sacrifice his career and safety to stand up against a man who he bluntly calls "evil." (Markopolous becomes so convinced that Madoff will have him whacked that he takes pistol lessons and packs an automatic.)

This doc has a slow start (Prosserman's a much better reporter than he is a storyteller). It also utilizes some cheap and unnecessary theatrical devices, such as cheesy film-noir-esque photography and an imaginary gun going off to illustrate Markopolous' increasing sense of paranoia.

That aside, few movies will ever match the power of "Chasing Madoff" to simultaneously enrage us and reassure us -- that for every Madoff out there preying on victims, there's an ordinary superhero willing to stop him at all costs.

"Chasing Madoff" opens at the Northbrook Court in Northbrook and the River East 21 in Chicago. Not rated. 91 minutes. ★ ★ ★

Reel Life review: 'Life Above All'

I saw Oliver Schmitz's bleak, yet life-affirming, drama "Life Above All" at Roger Ebert's film festival in Champaign this spring. After the screening, the star -- a natural young actress named Khomotso Manyaka -- took the stage and wowed everyone with her raw charisma and unguarded honesty.

Manyaka's 12-year-old protagonist Chandra serves as the light in the spiritual darkness of a gritty, dusty hamlet outside of Johannesburg, South Africa. The story begins with the death of Chandra's infant sister and rumors of a disease that cause her mother to abandon Chandra and leave the village.

Chandra is smarter than most kids and sets out to find her mother despite overwhelming pressure to leave things as they are, ruled by superstition and fear.

"Life Above All" has been photographed with loving attention to detail and framing. Dennis Foon's economic screenplay comes from Allan Stratton's book "Chandra's Secrets."

Schmitz's film recalls the lone-youth-on-a-quest drama "A Boy 10 Feet Tall," except at the end when it veers into ominous territory suggesting Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery." As much as I appreciated the movie -- especially Manyaka's unforgettable performance -- I couldn't buy the sudden and unearned story twist near the end.

"Life Above All" opens at the Music Box in Chicago and the Renaissance Place in Highland Park. Rated PG-13 for sexual situations. 106 minutes. ★ ★ ★

Daily Herald film critic Dann Gire's column runs Fridays in Time out!

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