In 10 Words or Less
Secrets and lies in intersecting New York lives
Loves: Good drama
Likes: Jesse Bradford, Elizabeth Banks
Dislikes: New York City
Showing how people's lives intersect, despite them not meeting, has been a theme in movies for a long time, especially in the films of Robert Altman, and those of Altman's cinematic progeny Paul Thomas Anderson. Chance, coincidence and fate tend to be the reason why it's a small world after all. Even in a massive city like New York, there's a good chance that the guy you met in a bar last night took a class with the guy who once dated your sister's college roommate.
In Heights, those kind of chance encounters connect five New Yorkers, who are also connected by their relationship to Benjamin Stone, a photographer who specializes in the nude male form. Peter (John Light), working on Stone's memoirs, is tracking down his models to talk to them. Among them is Jonathan (James Marsden, X-Men) an attorney, who is preparing to marry Isabel (Elizabeth Banks, Wet Hot American Summer), a photographer who is a great admirer of Stone's. Meanwhile, Isabel's mom, Diana (Glenn Close), who actually knew Stone, thanks to her status as a acting great, is busy being fascinated by a young actor named Alec (Jesse Bradford, Swimfan), who lives in the same building as Jonathan and Isabel. Small world.
Jonathan has a lot of trouble in his life, not the least of which is Isabel finding out about his past with Stone. Being Jewish, there are issues with his marriage to the gentile Isabel, and there are some underlying concerns about his relationship with his future wife. Isabel isn't having an easy time of it either, struggling with her relationship with her mother, her dissatisfaction with her career and her fiancee. And Diana is generally just disappointed, as nothing in her life is quite working out, outside of her acting. The whole story plays itself out over a 24-hour period, as each character tries to find their happiness, which causes a chain reaction throughout the characters' six degrees of separation.
Considering this film never had a wide theatrical release, the cast is stunningly loaded. Close is her usual great self, molding what could have been a flat parody of the emotionally wounded artist into a three-dimensional person, while Marsden and Banks are effective as young New Yorkers struggling with problems every couple faces, along with some unique ones as well.
Even minor parts, like Diana's theater director and Jonathan's rabbi are filled by talented actors, like Eric Bogosian (Talk Radio) and George Segal ("Just Shoot Me"). Bogosian is like Elliot Gould in his prime, while Segal was a great choice to play a slightly pivotal role with humor and depth. "Reno 911!" star Thomas Lennon and singer Rufus Wainwright are also bright spots, despite limited time on-screen.
As seen in the work of Altman and Anderson, the concept of showing how life interconnects is not exactly groundbreaking, but in the hands of director Chris Terrio, it feels fresh and energized. A part of the Merchant-Ivory film machine, Terrio impressed producer Ismail Merchant during his work as an assistant on James Ivory's film The Golden Bowl, earning him the chance to direct Heights.
Terrio's eye for New York serves him well in getting the most out of his location shoots, and his ability to create impressive visuals without becoming excessive, like his reasonable use of split-screen, helped him make the film an entertaining trip to a familiar landscape. What might be his most important talent is his ability to understand when to let the actor be the focus, a key skill when working with a cast as good as this one.
Heights is a one-DVD release, in a standard keepcase, with a promotional insert. The disc itself features a static anamorphic widescreen main menu, with options to view the film, adjust the subtitles, select scenes, watch the special features or check out previews. There are no audio options, though the film includes French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles, along with English Closed Captioning. The scene select menus include still previews and titles for each chapter.
The anamorphic widescreen video, for most of the film, is rather dark, but certainly not murky or smudged. Outlines remain relatively well-defined, though not razor-sharp, resulting in a solid image with quality detail. Color, especially during the more lit or daytime scenes, is spot-on. There's not a bit of dirt or damage in the image to interfere. Check out the scene of Isabel and Jonathan on the steps in chapter four, which is a good example of the quality and detail.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is very good as well, filling the surrounds with music and some sound effects to create a nice, deep sound field, while the center speaker kicks out very clear dialogue. It's not a showcase presentation for your system, but for the source material, it's a good fit.
The main extra is a feature-length audio commentary with Terrio and Close. I believe this is the first time Close has stepped behind the mic for a DVD, which alone makes it noteworthy. That she does a nice job providing enhancement for Terrio's detailed thoughts on the film makes it worth listening to. Close was only on-set for her scenes, so her questions about the rest of the production work to moderate the track, while her stories and thouhgts add color to Terrio's info. She's very select with her comments, often going quiet for stretches, but when she does say something, it's normally meaningful or insightful.
The featurettes included are short, but very appropriate for the film. "Shooting New York" is a set of videos taken on-set, with narration from Terrio. It's not the most in-depth piece, but a nice look at filming on-location in New York.
"The Scottish Play: Designing Broadway for Film" is just as good, focusing on how the production of "MacBeth" in the film was put together. The effort is very impressive for a film of this size.
The featurettes are followed by a photo gallery, which for most films is a space-filler. Here, where one of the main characters is a photographer, it makes sense. The pictures included in the slideshow are those of the photographers hired to create Isabel's art for the film. The disc also has several previews that wrap up the party.
The Bottom Line
The tale isn't exactly new, but when it's told this well, that doesn't really matter. Terrio is a talented filmmaker, and with the help of a great cast, he's created a film with understated style and solid storytelling. Even the twist ending doesn't seem forced, and instead makes perfect sense when the movie is over. The end result is a Merchant-Ivory film for a new generation. The DVD brings the film home in excellent shape, with an interesting, if small selection of extras. It's a film most fans of quality films will want to check out, especially those who enjoy the films of Altman or Anderson.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.