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Not surprisingly, some of the most satisfying films are those that are not the summer blockbuster, or the tentpole studio film. The little, almost ignored pictures can present themselves as fully satisfying experiences. This is the case with Heights.

This past summer, a small film was released which, although was not distributed widely, garnered much critical praise. That film was Heights. Directed by Chris Terrio from a screenplay by Amy Fox, Heights is basically the story of four people and how their lives intertwine. The first is Diana Lee (Glenn Close), an Academy Award winning actress who currently teaches at Juliard, stars in a Broadway revival of Macbeth and is directing her own play. The second is her daughter Isabel Lee (Elizabeth Banks), an aspiring photographer who is engaged to our third main character Jonathan Kessler (James Marsden), a high strung professional in the corporate world of New York City. The final character is Alec (Jesse Bradford), a struggling actor who auditions for Diana’s play.

Shortly after the film opens, Diana takes a liking to Alec and invites him to her upcoming birthday party, where she hopes to introduce him to many of the most influential people in New York theatre. Diana learns that Alec lives in the same building as her daughter and her fiancée. Meanwhile, Isabel and Jonathan are making plans for the wedding, and have an appointment with the rabbi. It becomes immediately clear that the two keep secrets from each other, however. Once Isabel leaves their apartment, Jonathan retrieves the cigarettes he had hidden in their flat.

Throw into the mix Peter, an English gentleman who is writing the memoirs of Benjamin Stone, a prolific British photographer whose specialty is taking erotic photos of men. In addition to the photos, Benjamin is known for having relationships (albeit very short relationships) with his male models. Peter is in New York City hoping to interview many of Benjamin’s past photo subjects. He meets Diana (who also knew Benjamin) at her birthday party and Diana becomes enamoured with him. Through the course of the party, Diana learns some past secrets (which are first alluded to and then confirmed earlier in the film) about Jonathan. She calls her daughter to tell her but by the time she goes to actually tell Isabel in person Jonathan and Isabel have already discussed it.

That’s not the biggest secret Jonathan is hiding though. There is a deeper, more immediate confession he has yet to make. It is not too difficult to deduce what the secret is, as there are clues placed throughout, if one knows where to look. The final minutes of the film finds the relationship between Isabel and Jonathan coming to a crashing end. And yet, amid the sorrow and heartbreak for all, there is a ray of hope for all of the characters the following morning.

There are no car chases, gun shots (although there is a stabbing….in which the character does not die), special effects or CGI in this film, and yet, I found it to be completely enthralling and kept my attention the entire ninety-eight minutes. The big lure to the film? The characters themselves and the actors who play them. Each is written very honestly. There are no stereotypes here.

Stylistically, this film is very powerful. Terrio has chosen the symbol of a door as a metaphor for transition. Doors are prevalent throughout. Some doors keep one character away from another, others are there at a point of decision, and whether or not the character opens the door will determine his/her future. In one scene, Isabel meets Ian at her mother’s birthday party. They go to the roof and find a locked door. When Ian asks Isabel what is on the other side, Isabel cannot tell him. He is surprised that although she grew up there, she had never ventured to the other side, and the two break in to see what is there. It is a telling moment. The final images of the film all deal with characters at different doors.  Also, there is much use of not only split screens, but also reducing the images to two smaller boxes on the screen.  Once again, this is representative of the boxes each of the character has either been placed in, been forced into, or chosen to go into.  It is very symbolic.

As mentioned, the actors really rise to the challenge of the screenplay. Of course, one would expect this from someone of the stature of Glenn Close. But when you think of someone like James Marsden, if you only think of X-Men, you will be not only shocked, but pleasantly surprised. As Jonathan, Marsden captures perfectly a driven, sometimes frenetic individual who sees the life he has built for himself slowly slip away from him, and realizes in the end he has no one to blame but himself. Likewise for Jesse Bradford. If your only exposure to Bradford is from Swimfan or Clockstoppers, you will realize that Bradford does have the acting chops. During the commentary, Terrio says that this is Bradford’s true first ‘adult’ role, and he does a superb job. Finally, Banks plays Isabel as a woman who in many ways feels trapped, not only in her relationship, but in her life, and in New York City (not just physically trapped, but emotionally and psychologically).

If you can’t already tell, I cannot heap enough praise on Heights. It hits the right notes on virtually every level. Yes, the bigger secret that Marsden is hiding you will probably figure out, but for me, that did not lessen the experience at all.

Arriving in the 1.78:1 ratio, the video presentation of the film is adequate, if not great. Many of the outdoor scenes seem a little washed out, and although it is shot in New York, you really do not get that big city feel that I think they were shooting for. There is no dust or film grain noticeable and there is little artefacting to be found. The colours themselves, as I have said, are somewhat muted, although the scenes where Glenn Close is rehearsing her Braodway scene with the backlighting is impressively done.

Sporting a 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, there is really little in the way of paces that the audio is put through. In a film of this type, where the acting and story itself are the main draws, there is not much that a high-tech audio score could add to the overall enjoyment of the film. Not to say that the sound itself is not done well, all of the dialogue is clear, even in the sequences shot in the heart of New York City, and the music to the film is very well done.

Not a lot to be found here, but what is present is pretty satisfying. There are two brief featurettes, one of the different New York City locales that were use throughout the film, and a second on how the filmmakers turned a local Broadway theatre (actually the one which houses the long playing Disney show The Lion King) into the one which is showing Glenn Close's characters Shakespeare play.

A photo gallery is also included. Here you will find about ten or so photos, many of which were used for two specific reasons within the film. The first of the sets are those taken of James Marsden, ones which were used to help create the book of the male erotic photos which plays such an integral part in the storyline. The other set of photos are those of Glenn Close, ones done to help promote her Broadway play. They appear on various billboards and bus sides throughout the film.

The final inclusion is the film commentary by Close and the director. Although there are many interesting anecdotes told throughout, there is the requisite fawning over the actors portrayals by both Terrio and Close, and the two really do not seem to have too much of a rapport. As commentaries go, this one left me wanting more. It would have been nice to have more of the actors involved.

I thoroughly enjoyed this film– it is a modest picture that, for me, delivered well more than the time given to view it. It is very well written and directed. Although you may not be fooled by some of the ‘plot twists’ which are advertised by the packaging, I think you find that they way the actors deliver their parts will more than make up for any shortcomings you can find in the story. I doubt it will win any Oscars for any of the cast or crew, but you could certainly do much worse than to devote two hours to this fine piece of moviemaking. Reach for the Heights.