Homeless to Harvard: The Liz Murray Story [2003)

Happy Birthday to Thora Birch, my favorite actress of all time!

Yes, I know…I know.

A film critic whose favorite actress is a young 35-year-old whipper snapper???

Yes.

That’s alright.

Laugh at me.

If the question was, “Who was your favorite classic Hollywood actress?,” then I would answer, “Lauren Bacall”.

But I said favorite actress of all time.

You can search my “Thora” category here on my site for why exactly this actress is my favorite.

Because otherwise, we’re going to be here all day.

And I have a movie to review!

One of my favorites:  Homeless to Harvard.

It is, indeed …The Liz Murray Story, but I will be using the shortened title hereafter for brevity’s sake.

It is my contention (and I have made the point elsewhere…probably on this very site of mine) that Thora Birch produced a trilogy of acting performances which are more-or-less analogous to Bob Dylan’s classic trilogy.

Let’s start with Dylan.

The three (at unity from a similarity of intense expression):

Bringing It All Back Home

Highway 61 Revisited 

and

Blonde on Blonde

And now the Thora films which correspond in my mind:

American Beauty

Ghost World

and

Homeless to Harvard

Sure…Birch didn’t direct these films.

But her acting is so strong, she might as well have.

By this point she was no longer a prodigy.

She was a mature actress.  A master of her craft.

And the story here is one to really sink teeth in.

[In which.]

We recently touched on homelessness here in the review of Alicia Vikander’s stellar turn as Katarina from Till det som är vackert.

Pure.

But the esthetics of Homeless to Harvard are different.

This isn’t European arthouse.  It’s a Lifetime made-for-TV film.

But don’t go running anywhere!!!

This is as gritty as any Lou Reed tale.

And it’s all real.

Too pure.

Heroin addict parents.

Mother schizophrenic.

Blindness.

Genetic.

Mother with HIV.

Father with AIDS.

Vice versa ice Ursa.

Father in homeless shelter.

Mother wielding knife.  Vomiting.

Alcoholism.

Really appealing, eh?

But you gotta stick with it.

This isn’t Darren Aronofsky mise-en-scène.

It’t not, “Let’s win an award at Sundance.”  Or, “Let’s sweep at Cannes.”

It’s more like one of Aesop’s fables.

It’s the message, man!

And so first, let’s honor the director.

Peter Levin.

Who knew a television film could be so artful?

Well, when you combine the history of Histoire(s) du cinéma with the precedent of Twin Peaks, you should know by now that television can produce good stuff.

Hell…

Your TV can even WATCH YOU! (as per WikiLeaks Vault7).

But I digress…

The weeper (no masonry) sob story…had me crying in my Junior Mints…we must attribute to the excellent writing of Ronni Kern.

Who the hell is Ronni Kern?!?

Male?  Female?

I’ve had less trouble finding the gender of completely unknown foreign movie people.

But Kern is pretty invisible on the Internet.

And maybe there’s a point here.

  1.  It doesn’t fucking matter.
  2. You should judge someone on their work, not their gender.

Hopefully Ms. Birch will appreciate this flash of liberalism should she read this review.

[I’m not holding my breath]

But we have just celebrated International Women’s Day.

And the fact that Birch’s character here is a “feminist” is a running pseudo-joke.

Which brings us to the performances.

Michael Riley is stellar, stellar (I know…) as Liz’s father Peter.

Kudos to the styling department.

That beard.  And that hair!

Crazy, man, crazy!!

But Riley’s performance is really special.

It touched my heart.

Long ago.

When I first saw this film.

And dare I say, this movie made me appreciate my own family.

It made me miss my folks.

And so I salute Peter Riley and Lifetime and all involved for that effect on my heart.

Jennifer Pisana is really fabulous as the young Liz Murray here.

It’s an unenviable task.

To precede Thora Birch’s entrance.

But Pisana is indispensable to this little masterpiece.

Those sweaters.

And the full pronunciations…”Mommy”…”Daddy”…

Ms. Pisana affects the necessary naïveté to be juxtaposed against the sad schizophrenia of Kelly Lynch (who plays Liz’s mom).

And Lynch is great.

Think Cries and Whispers.

[cris et chuchotements…(( (( ((…et chuchotements]

Robert Bockstael does a fine job as Liz’s teacher David.

Very convincing.  Excellent craftsmanship.

Makyla Smith is piquant in her depiction of Liz’s best friend Chris.

[God…the Magic Marker…and the pine box…fuuuuuuck]

Yes, friends…this is Lifetime Television.

So the brisure (bonjour, monsieur Derrida) is “crap”.

“Crap happens.”

Whoa…watch thy mouth, Kelly Lynch!

So again…Peter Levin does a fantastic job shoehorning a true X-file into PG territory.

We see a syringe here and there.  A tourniquet.

Riley cleaning a spoon.

But the real heartbreak is Wheat Chex with tap water.

Yeah…

Hello Gummo.

Ellen Page has a small role here.

And she’s good.

Fine actress.

But we’ve been waiting to roll out the big gun.

Thora Birch.

On this, her birthday, I am only just now getting towards a handful of reviews honoring her unique thespian gift.

What to say?

That every look is magic?

That every glance is gold?

That she has crafted her microexpressions in solitude…and wielded them like an Arthurian sword for the duration of this flick?

Yes, yes, and yes.

[and an Oxford comma]

Because kids take it for granted.

Rich kids.

Harvard.

Penn.

Princeton.

Maybe…

But even more so the lesser ivied walls.

I won’t name names.

But the spoiled kids.

Not turning in homework.

Bragging about shortcuts.

Those, ultimately, will be life’s losers.

But Liz Murray worked her butt off to get into Harvard.

From sleeping on the B Train.

Four years of high school in two.

And Thora Birch has worked her butt off too.

She hasn’t gotten the roles her talent deserves.

But the roles she has gotten, she has largely smashed out of the park.

Like the Babe Ruth of leading ladies.

And so there are other actresses I admire.

But Thora Birch was the first.

The first to give me that magical feeling which only Neil Young has adequately described:

“I fell in love with the actress/She was playin’ a part that I could understand”.

Happy Birthday, Thora Birch!

And may all your days and films be filled with the joy which you have put into the world through your cinematic brilliance.

-PD

Puppylove [2013)

Everybody likes sex, right?

Well, maybe not priests, but…

Ok.  Bad joke.

But sex is not a subject I’ve ever written about specifically in any of my film reviews.

And perhaps it is only fitting that Puppylove be the movie under the aegis of which I first do so.

There are several ways of situating this film “historically” in the medium of cinema.

One would be to take a recent frame of reference.

Blue.

In a strange example of Zeitgeist, Blue is the Warmest Color beat Puppylove to market by about six months.

Indeed, La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2 might be the best comparison.

But it is not a very historical one.

Which is to say, the two films are more or less contemporaneous.

Were the creators of the latter film influenced by the earlier release?

Because the connection is strong.

From the astounding Adèle Exarchopoulos, we can draw an easy line to the equally-sublime Solène Rigot.

Their characters, Adèle and Diane, are extremely similar.

But let’s take director Delphine Lehericey’s wonderful film back to an actual previous point in film development.

 American Beauty.

1999.

Solène Rigot is an easy comparison to Thora Birch (my favorite actress ever) in that film.

Likewise, Audrey Bastien is an exact overlay (no pun intended) on Mena Suvari’s character Angela Hayes.

[At this point I would like to quote Neil Young (“I fell in love with the actress/She was playing a part that I could understand”) and admit that Solène Rigot really stole my heart with this one.  It took me awhile to fully comprehend…who she looked like…someone who broke my heart…a Beatrice in my Dantean darkness upon a time.]

Back to film criticism, and sticking with 1999’s “Best Picture”, we should also note that Kevin Spacey is well signified by signifier Vincent Perez in Puppylove.

To paraphrase Godard, ever image in every film is a quote.

Which brings us to the fountainhead.

To wit, where does this style of filmmaking which Lehericey is practicing originate?

For me, there is no better answer than Monsieur Godard’s perfect film Je vous salue, Marie.

1985.

Hail Mary‘s most jaw-dropping asset was the inimitable Myriem Roussel.

Solène Rigot is a reincarnation of Roussel’s magic.

Instead of basketball, it’s field hockey.

But Puppylove goes on to quote delicately and successfully.

Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water.

Perhaps even Kubrick’s Lolita (equally applicable to American Beauty…at least in theory).

But I’m the schmuck who wins the prize.

I didn’t care how “hot” Mena Suvari was.

And I don’t give a shit about Audrey Bastien’s skinny little frame either.

[Though Bastien is a much better actress than Suvari.]

I fall for the outcasts.

Jane Burnham (Thora Birch).

And, here, Diane (Solène Rigot).

Puppylove is not as earth-shattering a film as Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color.

But Delphine Lehericey is an extremely gifted director.

And she had the secret weapon to pull it off.

Solène Rigot.

Puppylove will endure because Rigot is the real thing.

I’ve hardly talked about sex yet (like, not at all).

But that’s the way the master of understatement Hitchcock would have done it.

The most sublime moments in highly-sexualized European cinema are when the sex isn’t happening.

Exarchopoulos proved this.

And Rigot confirms it.

-PD

Election [1999)

Life really sucks sometimes.

You try to do the right thing.

You try to do a good thing.

And you mess up somehow.

Films, then, are a great comfort when they can show us lives more fucked up than our own.

I must say early on:  this is a great film!

A great, great film!

Maybe I heard about it long ago.

In one ear and out the other.

And what brought me to visit this piece of cinema at this particular time?

That is a long, complex story which (mercifully) pales in comparison to the misadventures presented in Election.

Alexander Payne turned in a masterpiece here.

He had approximately the resources which a Nicholas Ray would have had.

And, presumably, the same pressures to somehow connect with teen audiences.

But make no mistake (as our woeful president is so wont to repeat):  Election is an extremely smart film.

Matthew Broderick is stellar as high school teacher Jim McAllister.

Reese Witherspoon is really damned good in this flick as well.

It’s a comedy, but there are tears.

There are a couple of actors who really bring this one home with their small roles.

Mark Harelik is essential to the story.

He plays a poor, pathetic bastard who’s hopelessly clueless.  I can relate.

Dave Novotny (Harelik) really sets things in motion.

Truth be told, all of the characters in this film make poor choices.

That’s what makes it real.

It’s hard to judge some of these people.  Any of these people.  All of them.

That’s what director Payne makes so masterfully clear.

What’s the difference between ethics and morals?

The first to answer might have the least idea.

Election is very much a film about America.

Payne uses a trite camera trick to express something truly sublime.

Dolly up.  Way up.  Crane shot.  God perspective.  Hearing the selfish prayers of a motley bunch.

Most lovable is Jessica Campbell.  She is the lesbian rebel whose short-lived student government campaign parallels that of Monty Brewster’s “None of the Above” run in Brewster’s Millions (1985).

Campbell’s character Tammy has a soul.  She is the gem of this picture.

But we see so much true soul from Matthew Broderick as well (and true acting talent).

In case you were wondering, only Chris Klein’s prayer rings true.  It’s hilarious.  But it has heart.

Klein’s initial campaign speech is a coup of non-acting.  Frankly brilliant!

And, as I intimated earlier, even Witherspoon has soul.

Her character might be ostensibly soulless, but it’s there.

Sitting on the school bus.  And crying before a Valium and milk.

Ms. Witherspoon is brilliant as the villain.

But she’s only the villain because the story is told from the perspective of Broderick’s character (more or less).

The narrative voiceover must have really been en vogue in 1999 (the same year as the whisper-happy American Beauty).

And though these films be seemingly ignorant of the master of the medium (whisper king Jean-Luc Godard), they are still cinema.

I would venture to guess that Election is the better of the two films (or at least the one most able to handle the scrutiny of accolades).

Which is to say, Election might not be a terribly well-known film, but it deserves to be widely seen and appreciated.

 

-PD

Skyfall [2012)

If you wait too long, you lose the impression.

I was way behind on trying to support my compatriots.  It is not necessary to agree.  What I champion is freedom of expression.

And so we try to remember the mood…the efficacy of cinema in the hands of Sam Mendes.

Perhaps the first “real” director to approach the Bond franchise after having had success beforehand.

Mendes will always have a place in my heart for his deft touch directing Thora Birch in American Beauty.

Fortunately we can look forward to a second contribution in the forthcoming Bond film Spectre.

But for now we have this.

What of it?

I should dispense with self-congratulatory pomp at this time rather than let it distract me.

Yes, I have now seen all of the Bond films from Eon Productions.  You can access the reviews of all 23 pictures here on my site by clicking the Bond tab.

Now that we have that out of the way…

The first glaring bit of strategic signaling occurs when we learn that our MacGuffin is a hard drive.

Of course, it’s what’s on the hard drive which makes this worth mentioning.

NATO agents embedded in terrorist groups.

For anyone with a knowledge of Operation Gladio this brings up a troubling association.

To wit:  the possibility that the organizations are controlled by NATO for cynical purposes.

This was, and continues to be, a fundamental aspect of geopolitics.  False-flag terror.

Perhaps Mendes (or the writers of the film) knowingly left this bread crumb to add a quasi-credibility to what has often become a propagandistic series for the power elite.

Whatever the case may be, the opening sequence is generally good.

Let’s face it:  it’s getting harder and harder after 23 films to have James Bond do something novel.

His seeming demise before the credits roll make us think of that horribly daft episode from the Connery days:

You Only Live Twice.

Ralph Fiennes is unlikable from the start, but we learn why as the film progresses.

Mendes does a nice job of faking us out on several occasions.  We even suspect Bond as a terrorist briefly.

Another breadcrumb:  the depleted uranium bullet fragments from Bond’s shoulder.

With this we are brought back to that stain upon U.S. military operations over the past 15 years.

Keeping in mind the research of Doug Rokke, we might again be seeing an attempt by the Bond franchise to relate with an increasingly informed viewer base.

Think on your sins?

Well, all cinematic sins are forgiven once director Mendes has occasion to mold and shape the lights of high-rise Shanghai into a sci-fi backdrop for good old fashion ass kicking.

Modigliani.

We are meant to associate the extra-terrestrial eyes with Bérénice Marlohe.  Like the grey-eyed goddess Athena, we will later meet her in the shower (ohh-la-la!).

When all else fails in a film, have the location shift to Macau.

Indeed, the best dialogue comes between Daniel Craig and Mlle. Marlohe at the casino bar.  It reminds us of that fleeting bit of verbal mastery aboard the train in Casino Royale when Craig and Eva Green took turns sizing each other up.

Enter Javier Bardem.

Bardem is certainly among the most convincing villains in the entire Bond pantheon.  Something about that bleached-blond hair gives us a creepy feeling every time his character Raoul Silva is shown.

Bardem’s acting, particularly around the time of his character’s first appearance, is world-class.

Ben Whishaw does a fine job as the new Q (though we miss John Cleese and, of course, Desmond Llewelyn).

Credit Sam Mendes with a deft portrayal of the battle between old ways and new.

New is exemplified by the new Q:  cyber-reliance.

Old is exemplified by the crusty James Bond:  HUMINT.

This film almost telegraphs the Zeitgeist which would spawn Edward Snowden as global hero, but it casts such genius (>145 IQ) as the enemy in Bardem’s character.

[As a side note, I should like to add that Snowden’s story would have to be most ingenious cover ever if found to be inauthentic.  Such iron-clad credibility no doubt came at a steep price for the NSA (see PRISM).  Though farfetched, one never knows to what lengths the Western national security state will go next to try and salvage its tenuous hold on global hegemony.  All things considered, his defection to the public side (in the interest of the general public) seems to be authentic and highly admirable.]

Skyfall becomes less successful when Bardem has Hannibal Lecter lighting cast upon him during the glass-cage treatment later in this film.  This is an unimaginative bit of filmmaking beneath the level of director Mendes.

As trivial as it may seem, Mendes later redeems himself with a simple shot of approaching figures reflected in the chrome of a side-view mirror.   It doesn’t hurt that the mirror in question is attached to an Aston Martin DB5.

Overall, the successes of this film should rightly be attributed to Sam Mendes.  That said, this is not a masterpiece.  It is a very good, yet flawed, film.

Here’s hoping Mendes knocks it out of the park with Spectre.  Cheerio!

-PD

Ghost World [2001)

“I have to admit…things are really looking up for me since my life turned to shit.”  If only.  The consolation?  This is a perfect film.  There’s no use in denying that any longer.

Back in the watershed year of 2001, this film hit me like a bolt out of the blue.  Just how I ended up in that movie theater in Austin, Texas I’m not entirely sure.  The important thing is that this film stood my world on its head.  There was a new tilt to the cosmos after seeing Thora Birch personify everything I was looking for in a girl…everything which I couldn’t articulate.

Brice Parain puts it so simply in Vivre sa vie:  thought cannot be separated from language.  And if we say “goodbye” to language?  That still involves a word.  Perhaps we can simply gesture?

“Waving goodbye…I’m not saying hello.”  Just three years earlier an album had put my world on edge.  I was studying music composition as an undergrad when a rock and roll record called into question everything for which I was striving.  That record was Deserter’s Songs by Mercury Rev.  As I slipped the virgin vinyl onto the turntable in my vacated music lit classroom, I was astounded to hear a noise rock band coming back through the speakers as an autumnal, symphonic opus.  Opus 40…

And so three years later at that little arthouse cinema in north Austin I clamored into an open seat with a couple of friends…  Friends…  It seems so long ago since I had friends.  Some statements are infinitely sad, but others are like old faded pictures.  I don’t really recognize myself anymore.  I’m too young to be old, but…

Ghost World.  It is the world I live in.  Terry Zwigoff made a perfect film.  He learned the nuances from R. Crumb…and then applied the secrets to Daniel Clowes.  The secret is in the power lines…the sprawl…the daydream nation which American Beauty tried to capture but failed in comparison to Ghost World.  If the Palme d’Or was fair, Terry Zwigoff would have one sitting on his mantle.  So would Jean-Luc Godard.  So would Thora Birch.

It’s kinda like the Nobel Prize in Literature.  Where’s Joyce?  Where’s Pynchon?

Enid Coleslaw.  There’s no I in end.  End.  I…is someone else.  So says Nana Kleinfrankenheim.  Thora Birch.  Anna Karina.  The Louise Brooks wig.  Brigitte Bardot.  Initials B.B.  Bertolt Brecht.  B.B. King.  Devil got my woman…

“…since my life turned to shit.”  I’d rather be the devil.  Me and the devil.  Nick Tosches.  Emmett Miller.  Henry “Ragtime” Thomas.

Skip James.  Gossamer-perfect.  Thora stands in a daze…perhaps after a long day of shooting.  We get The Buzzcocks, but then we get D-A-D-F-A-D…that deep, hollow sound from 1931.  Like the high, lonesome Hank Williams.  Somebody’s in a world of hurt.  “Nothin’ but thee devil/change my baby’s mind.”

She is the girl we can’t have.  And you can’t have me either, world.  Not for free.  Few artists got this.  Alex Chilton got it.  Affonso Beato captured its fleeting presence at twilight in his cinematography.  A bus.  Bus stop.  Joshua Logan.  No, Thora Birch.  Yes.  That route was cancelled in 1956.  Cancelled in 1962.  Mensan I.Q.  Cancelled in 1967.  And still, Thora boards the bus and does the impossible in a magic realism which takes her back over the Mississippi at Baton Rouge…back to Appleton, WI…back to Los Angeles.  The nighttime bores the daylights out of me.  We’re in exile with the Radio Shack and the Allstate and the Chevron and the Shell…  R.I.P. Brad Renfro.

-PD

Winter of Frozen Dreams [2009)

What a beautiful title…like Bashō, Li Po, or even François Villon.  In this age of over-medication, we hear of new disorders every day (accompanied by ridiculous commercials we have to endure with relatives at Christmastime).  Of special note in these cold days is seasonal affective disorder.  It’s legend as something independent of general depression lives on as most people do not have the DSM-IV or DSM-5 by their bedside.

And so, “with seasonal pattern” there are many of us who struggle especially in the wintery days of the year…especially if we feel our dreams have been suspended.  Ah, suspended animation…it can be beautiful…like insects caught in amber (that Greek touchstone which lends our word “electricity” an etymology).  Static electricity and ēlektron (the classical name for amber)…  Such irony that flies and gnats would meet their demise drowned in the same substance…and countless days later we wonder at the beauty of their death.  It is one of the few times death can be generally agreed on as beautiful.  In the spider frozen in amber, we marvel at the beauty of the creature.  Their life is preserved.  While they have ceased to exist as a living creature, their form lives on through the sepia light which attests to them having existed.  Grammar becomes difficult in such a state of was/is/will be.

But alas, as they say, this film is not really a poetic tour de force.  It is, however, a time capsule which presents a haunting portrait of the northern U.S. in the late-’70s.  One wonders whether the props department of Boogie Nights was lifted whole-cloth (!) as the action unfolds during this strange movie.  Indeed, it is more strange than haunting.  It is not frightening or repulsive like a Silence of the Lambs, but rather disjunct like a lesser cousin of Mulholland Dr.

I do not want to disparage this film because it is actually quite good, but I must admit that my sole reason for watching was to see Thora Birch act.  Thora was the first actress I ever fell in love with.  We all have our celebrity crushes.  She was/is mine.  Her trio of films American Beauty, Ghost World, and Homeless to Harvard (a Lifetime “joint”) was really an acting triumph which I can only compare to Bob Dylan’s trilogy of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde.  I know it sounds ridiculous to say so, but Birch directed those three films as much as did their auteurs/metteurs en scène.  Call it la politique…in reverse…unlike King Midas…

This film presents a problem in its representation on Wikipedia.  After viewing a film, I like to recall what I’ve just seen.  Wikipedia is good for that, but not in this case.  It’s as if this film was a Falconetti one-reeler from 1916 and not an American feature from 2009.  In this dearth of information, one begins to suspect that Thora’s claims of having been forgotten and overlooked after Ghost World might just be right on the money.  That’s where film critics step in.  Though it be five years late and $991,679 short, I can (with my little voice) once again assert that Thora is an acting genius.

Poor Eric Mandelbaum…his name isn’t even a hypertext link on Wiki, but he did a fine job here painting a snow-drift picture of the not-so-old, weird America.  Dan Moran at least has a dead link (empty page).  The trouble with Harry, that!

All jokes aside, Brandon Sexton III is very convincing as the bearded, lonely Jerry.  His stoic visage becomes as much a motif as Birch’s radiant beauty over the film’s course.  Poor Jerry gets duped into some accessory to murder business…we think.  None of it is very clear.  Based on the true story of Barbara Hoffman, this tale plays with time and the facts like Lynch directing Pynchon.  I can’t help but wonder if PTA’s Inherent Vice might converge with this film in some way…no doubt at a locale with an angry cropduster.

Keith Carradine is good here (resembling Burt Lancaster in Field of Dreams).  Also good is Colleen Camp in the small role as Jerry’s mother.  There are scenes of unspeakable sadness and ennui at the dinner table and near the end as she takes the phone call.  We sense a connection to Ellen Burstyn’s performance in Requiem for a Dream (with the mise-en-scène of a Harmony Korine).

One thing is certain: my little piece of shit website shall always sing the praises of one Miss Thora Birch.

-PD

Daydream Nation [2010)

This film had a lot to live up to by bearing the same name as Sonic Youth’s best album.  I was afraid I would either hate it or love it.  Turns out, my experience with it was much more on the positive end of the spectrum.  The viewer “in on” the title might be, like I was, reassured a bit early upon learning that one character is named Thurston (in honor of Thurston Moore, guitarist/vocalist with previously mentioned band).  This film is a nice try…and I mean that in the most complimentary way.

Around the time of Godard’s film Le Gai savoir (1969), its auteur started to ideate the concept of “essay” in a particularly French way by having his characters go back to a sort of year zero (which, ironically, never occurred in Western calendar chronology).  The etymology of essay (from French essayer) can be described as “to try” or “to attempt.”  It was really even earlier that Godard started to feel this need to “start from the beginning” in order to express ANYTHING true AT ALL…around the time of 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle (1967).

In Daydream Nation we know ostensibly little about Caroline Wexler (Kat Dennings) until she makes explicit late in the movie to let us in on her true personality.  But that’s not really accurate.  The film betrays the script.  It is little wonder then that Godard at age 83 himself no longer uses a script (i.e. Adieu au langage).  “The script can only be written after the film is finished,” he said recently in an interview.  And he even means after editing!

But let’s be clear:  the script under consideration is excellent.  References to Atom Egoyan and the Algonquin Round Table don’t hurt!  Yet, these deft drops of name are merely the spice to what is genuinely a well-written piece of drama.

And let’s be even more clear:  director Michael Goldbach did an excellent, excellent job.  I just feel that his best filmmaking might be ahead of him.  That is not at all a bad thing.  Were there no indications of greatness herein, there would be little upon which to base a future hope.

The Lolita element to this film is not entirely believable…at least not at first.  Something about the mise-en-scène (young adult comedy/drama genre conventions) prevents us from believing that Kat Dennings is really that perversely Machiavellian.  The Monica Lewinsky element, while funny, is frankly ludicrous.  Yet, here the script betrays itself.  We know much more about Caroline Wexler early on than she seems to think we know.  This brings into question the form (literary/dramatic) of the work as well as the tired narrator cliché which has become ubiquitous in its present from since American Beauty.  This enters into the arena of “nice try”…because I am thoroughly convinced that Michael Goldberg can do better.

Josh Lucas does a nice job of going from eliciting our sympathy to creeping us the fuck out.  It is in the latter that director Goldberg excels at casting aspersion on this character’s innocence in the serial killings which are plaguing our film’s small town.  There is an elegance in the thrilling suspense which nicely pays back in homage any debt it might owe to Hitchcock.

Ted Whittall plays Caroline’s icy father.  Poor Thurston, the slacker suitor, can’t even get a foot in the door (literally).  It takes the wonderful Andie MacDowell as Thurston’s mother to break down Mr. Wexler’s curt, cynical exterior.

Reece Thompson really blooms into a strong presence over the course of the movie.  Even as an actor, he seems hopeless early on, but his contribution to this film should not at all be overlooked.

The true star, however, is Kat Dennings.  She deserved to be in a film where she gets to romp around to Sonic Youth.  Her acting is up to the task of sharing an editing table with Lou Reed’s “Lady Day” from his best album Berlin (1973).  An ambulance can only go so fast, but the text message generation (SMS=save my soul, says JLG) can put its highest hopes in this young actress from Bryn Mawr, PA because she is already as timeless as Neil Young’s “Expecting To Fly.”  Writers, director, and actress prove themselves worthy of that Buffalo Springfield song which all but wraps up this film as it ascends to a final high.  After all this doom and gloom, I’m ready to see Kat on the beach.  She deserves it.

-PD

The Lovely Bones [2009)

Somehow, at some point…people forgot how to make films.  This would be considered cinema in today’s Hollywood (which is to say, a great film).  Sadly, this is barely a good film.

Once upon a time there were masters like Murnau and Lang and Dreyer. They worked in an age before sound.  They had less variables to ponder.  And yet, they managed to tell stories in elegant, sophisticated ways.  There was no CGI.

Cut to the present film.  Saoirse Ronan is truly lovely, yet not even she can salvage this schmaltz.  To be sure, this is not a happy story.  I would like to congratulate director Peter Jackson, but I cannot do so without a plethora of caveats.

Let me start by saying that Mark Wahlberg, at least, does an excellent acting job.  I can’t help thinking of Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch every time I see his name.  That was the age I was raised in:  ridiculous, posturing hip-hop.  Don’t get me wrong…some of it was good.  I even remember having a fondness for Wahlberg’s group, but suffice it to say that their oeuvre has not aged particularly well.  I fear the same might be the case with this film.

Stanley Tucci is excellent and creepy as hell as the serial killer George Harvey.  Susan Sarandon, on the other hand, is a caricature of herself…completely ridiculous and superfluous to any of the aims which this film should have had.  Rose McIver is actually quite good as Susie’s younger sister (though the film seems to suggest she is the older sister in the beginning…just one loose end among many, many others).

There are moments when this film touches on the sublime, but they may not be the ones of which you’re thinking.  When director Jackson approaches the realm of Hitchcock, he does so quite capably.  One even gets the sense that a Silence of the Lambs might be developing on screen.  Sadly, we seem to slip into What Dreams May Come.  Much better to emulate Alfred than Vincent Ward.  Yikes!

About these dream sequences–this “In-Between”…it is as if Salvador Dalí’s superb imagination was being hijacked by a third-rate M.C. Escher reproductionist.  It is as if we were watching the music video to Seal’s “Crazy.”  It is horrible.

Nikki SooHoo’s acting is really, really bad.  Poor girl.  She is the Jar Jar Binks of this ill-fated venture.

After all this CGI tomfoolery we finally have another shard of cinema when McIver find’s the murderer’s sketchbook.  The close-ups of her fingernails trying to silently lower the loose floorboard back into place have a gripping suspense worthy of Hitch.  Jackson at least does a good job of making fingernails (you heard me) a significant motif throughout the picture.  Tucci’s neatly manicured nails are pictured in close-up as he disgustingly fondles the dead Susie’s house charm which he ripped off her bracelet.

The story is not bad, but Jackson has not inspired me to read the book any time soon.  The motif of the kiss is a sweet sentiment and it is just one of many touching moments in this train-wreck of a film.  Susie is supposed to be the amateur photographer.  Jackson directs like a 14-year-old.  The film would doubtless have been better had he 1/100th the budget.

The overall narrative (with voiceover by Ronan) is a formulaic, staid, pale imitation of American Beauty.

One last thought:  I can’t believe Brian Eno did the music.  Sadly, the only musical moments which are transcendent come at the hands of Dave Edmunds and The Hollies (though the latter’s is ruined by a Sarandon montage).  Nay, I shan’t be running out to see any Lord of the Rings movies anytime soon.  This is a stinker which won’t soon enough evaporate from my memory.  Jackson could really use a good night in with TCM for starters (and then, perhaps, God forbid…an Ingmar Bergman movie).  Harmony Korine’s Julien Donkey-Boy obliterates The Lovely Bones in every aspect.  Google Dogme 95, Mr. Jackson.  Learning is fun.

 

-PD