Isabel (Elizabeth Banks) is having doubts about her upcoming marriage to Jonathan (James Marsden). Her mother, Diana (Glenn Close) is also having doubts about her open marriage to her philandering husband. These three tangled lives will also cross paths with a young actor, Alec (Jess Bradford), and a journalist on a mission, Peter (John Light), in the day-in-the-life film, “Heights.”
Ironically, I saw the advance screening of “Heights” on the same day the death of Ismail Merchant was reported. The longtime producer and collaborator for the Merchant Ivory franchise, with James Ivory, was renowned for the lavish period pieces, such as Howards End” and “The Remains of the Day.” But, it is somehow oddly fitting that Merchant leave us with a modern day, New York City fable with “Heights.”
Chris Terrio makes his film-directing debut with playwright Amy Fox’s first screenplay of her short play and follows five characters (at least) over the course of an autumn day and night in New York City. As the characters’ interrelated stories intersect each other, Diana, Isabel, Jonathan, Alec and Peter are required to make important choices about the rest of their lives before the sun comes up on a new day.
Terrio, who contributed additional material to the screenplay, shows that he has the makings of an actors’ director in this smart urban story with its New York theater world backdrop. To the filmmakers great luck or casting skill, the very talented young cast has the terrific advantage of having one of America’s great actors as a part of the ensemble. Glenn Close, as diva of stage and screen, Diana, is a complex weaving of such character traits as superiority, insecurity, helplessness, anger, joy, despair and more. The actress can tell volumes with a change of expression or the curt delivery of a line and dominates the screen whenever the camera is on her.
Elizabeth Banks, who made an impression on me by her mature performance as Jeff Bridges’ loyal wife in Seabiscuit,” gives a very different kind of performance in “Heights.” Isabel is a photographer whose work life and emotional future seem secure. But, there are cracks forming in this solid foundation when she has a “chance” meeting with an old lover, Mark (Matt Davis), who offers her a photojournalist job in Eastern Europe. The meet forms the seeds of doubt in Isabel’s mind over her pending marriage and future. Banks does a good job portraying the talented, insecure and confused Isabel.
Jesse Bradford is maturing nicely as an actor and gives his actor character, Alec, a good arc. Is he the focus of Diana’s personal attention for her own desires? Or, is he the potential boyfriend that will help drive Isabel and Jonathan apart? Bradford keeps you guessing and surprises you with the truth. James Marsden and John Light do not come out as fully developed characters and are in the story to help move the plot along. Supporting cast is richly populated by the likes of Eric Bogosian, Michael Murphy, Isabella Rossellini, George Segal and singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright.
The production is very chic as befits the NYC theater background that “Heights” revolves around (although Glenn Close could also be regarded as the celestial body that the film orbits, too). The city is shown in a crisp, clear manner by cinematographer Jim Denault, maybe not to the exalted heights as Gordon Willis did for Woody Allen – their collaboration on “Manhattan” made the city almost a fantasy world – but with a look that says New York, New York, USA.
Fox and Terrio’s screenplay is both broad and deep as it interlocks the lives of many and introduces various side stories One such has Peter sent to New York to interview the male models (and lovers) who posed for famous British photographer, Benjamin Stone. Stone is about to exhibit the photos in New York and one potentially scandalous photo is of one of the five main characters. There is more going on as each life is examined over the course of the 24 hours but none of it seems superfluous.
Heights” is an actors’ film and Glenn Close gives a brilliant performance worthy of note come year’s end. It is also an auspicious introduction for its young director, Chris Terrio, that should put him in good stead for the future work. I give it a B+.Laura:
In twenty-four hours, five New Yorkers will cross paths and change each others' lives dramatically in "Heights."
Amy Fox's adaptation of her stage play (with additional material written by director Chris Terrio) is the penultimate Merchant Ivory production to be completed ("The White Countess" is in post-production. Ismail Merchant passed away on May 25.), and it is, ironically, one of their rare non-period pieces. "Heights" is tonally blue in both look (cinematography by Jim Denault "Maria Full of Grace") and feel and features a fierce performance by Glenn Close.
Her opening monologue - actually a lesson being delivered to theater students - is a doozy. Diana is a lionized theater actress and director whose picture is plastered across the city for an upcoming production of "Macbeth." She passionately advises her students that modern actors have forgotten passion. Her wrap up - 'Time's up and fer crissakes take a risk sometime this weekend!' - sets the agenda for herself and the other four main players.
Diana takes a fancy to Alec (Jesse Bradford, "Swimfan," "Clockstoppers"), a much younger man auditioning for her, and invites him to her birthday party that evening. Noting the subtle sexual come on, he demurs with a lame excuse until she rather pointedly notes how his career may be affected by the contacts he could make. A jacket left behind by Alec may not be the only thing connecting him to Diana's daughter Isabel (Elizabeth Banks, "Seabiscuit," "Spider-Man 2"), a photojournalist who lives in the same building and who is at a career crossroads just as she's about to marry Wall Street investor Jonathan (James Marsden, "X-Men 2," "The Notebook"). Jonathan is ducking a Vanity Fair writer, Peter (John Light, Glenn Close's costar in TV's "The Lion in Winter"), who is interviewing the subjects of an upcoming Benjamin Stone exhibit which features male nudes rumored to be mostly ex-lovers of the photographer.
While this type of crisscrossing twenty-four hour time frame is nothing new, director Terrio, a James Ivory assistant, crafts the film into a thoroughly engrossing drama and gets assured performance from a sprawling ensemble cast comprised of both veterans and newcomers. The art of photography which permeates the film is used to express the different masks people use to project or reflect a certain image of themselves, from Diana's ubiquitous posters ('I look deranged or blind') to the come hither catalog entry Jonathan is panicking to repress to the candid shots Isabel steals in lieu of something missing from her life.
Above all, though, "Heights" is a showcase for Close, who hasn't been this great in years - this is potential Oscar nomination level acting. Her confident flirtation with a much younger man is a front for the pain she feels on the eve of a significant birthday. She knows that her husband Michael (Jonathan Walker, "People I Know") is indulging in their open marriage to a degree which will probably blow it apart. Close translates this anxiety into a justified concern for her daughter's upcoming nuptials. Her comforting recitation of Poe's 'Annabel Lee,' adapted for her daughter as 'Isabel Lee,' is an affecting moment of great tenderness. Her's is a truly magnificent performance.
Banks does well as a modern woman ducking the diva-ish antics of her mother, trying to make her own way yet knowing her footing isn't quite secure. She is frustrated by a fantastic career opportunity dangled in front of her by ex-lover Mark (a sympathetic Matt Davis, "Legally Blonde," Blue Crush") in what is clearly a bid to deep six her wedding plans. Her character makes a surprising connection in the place she'd least expect to - her mother's arena - which perhaps explains a dropped guardedness. Jesse Bradford is appealing as a struggling actor with principles and Marsden is solid as a man with fewer who is also in denial, yet trying nonetheless to do the right thing. John Light gives a quieter performance than the other four, but his presence is always hovering near. Supporting the main characters are singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright as a vibrant new friend of Peter's, George Segal (TV's "Just Shoot Me") as the Rabbi counseling Isabel and Jonathan, Eric Bogosian ("Talk Radio") as Diana's current director and one of Close's "Lion in Winter" costars, Andrew Howard, as the mystery guest who intrigues Isabel. Isabella Rossellini ("The Saddest Music in the World") appears in one scene as a powerhouse magazine editor and Regina McMahon is notable with just a few lines as an acting friend of Alec's.
With "Heights," fledgling director Terrio encapsulates a specific Manhattan environment and puts its denizens through life altering changes in one day without ever straining credulity or becoming melodramatic. His ensemble cast effortlessly glide over their character arcs, but no one soars higher than Close.
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