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

Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain [2001)

Today is my 40th birthday.

And it gives me pause to reflect.

On the many wonderful things I have done and seen.

And on the mistakes I have made.

This film, in particular, brings to my heart a specific apology.

And yet, I know not how to find the wonderful young woman who first showed me this film.

I doubt she is reading.

But I pray that my thoughts will bounce off the moon…and find her happy in Paris…or Aix-en-Provence.

But Amélie, as we call it in America…is full of beaming positivity.

And so we shall push on.

As much as we wouldst remain in this quicksand, we push on.

Perhaps it’s loneliness.

And certainly an overactive imagination.

But some of it is the absurdity we found in that Québécois masterpiece Léolo (1992) by director Jean-Claude Lauzon.

We can stay at home.

Far from the maddening crowd.

The crowd.

Vidor.

Irving Thalberg.

Thomas Hardy.

But we yearn for excitement.

We yearn to feel the blood pulse in our veins.

To “lose the fear” as The Boo Radleys sang.

Best,

how many waitresses we have fallen in love with.

Hard-boiled eggs in the highlands.

Robert Burns.

Don’t close your heart.

Leave open.

Rube Goldberg might dislodge a wall tile.  And a world beyond…

Éclairs sur l’au-delà…

Do good things.

As if you were an angel.

A spy for God.

Making miracles.

Ellen Andrée…the girl drinking the water…in Renoir’s painting.

Pierre-Auguste.

Must clarify, not Jean…extolling Bazin.

Everything secretly.

One hand not knowing what the other is doing.

QWERTY.

X.

You have a mission to bring happiness to those around you.

Hippie bumper stickers call it “random acts of kindness”.

And I wholeheartedly approve.

Send the gnome to Nome.

Ponder jurassic orgasms from far afield or near (15+1).

And let out some steam for modesty’s sake.

Stratagems befitting Technical Services in thrall to love…forgery for romance.

Time machine.

Nothing some Twinings tea can’t age.

And the gaslighting which is currently being employed straight from Alinsky’s Rules against pizzagate researchers…turn the beat around.

Knowing John Podesta founded the Center for American Progress…under the aegis of which Mind Wars was written by Jonathan D. Moreno.

We have on good faith that US spec-ops use this very book.

So that Mr. Podesta should not be at all surprised by a little blowback.

Neuroscience neuroscience neuroscience.

And the funding and methodology of trolls suddenly makes sense.

Yes, Amélie is an expert in psychological warfare.

But only as a last resort.

AND, most importantly, she is sticking up for the undefended.

Jamel Debbouze.

It’s impressionist binoculars vs. covert telescope.

Good-natured.

But only she holds the key.

To Ellen Andrée.

And to the ghost.

Who seeks to repair the collective memory.

“Don’t forget my face”, she posits.

But love is the ultimate job.

The ultimate reward.

To find another like yourself.

To be accepted.

To find the lock for your key.

And vice versa.

It is cat and mouse.

And Zorro.

And Audrey Tautou is magnificent.

She is a jewel in a world created by director Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

So tender.

So halting.

We feel “the time-image” of which Deleuze wrote.

Love is too strong.

Like staring into the sun.

Too forceful.

Like a full moon.

But luckily Mathieu Kassovitz knows his proverbs.

And that “made all the difference”.

Early on one frosty morn’.

Simply put, Amélie is an undeniable masterpiece.

That only the hard-hearted could look down upon.

 

-PD

#2 The Return of Mr. Bean [1990)

As we enter into the second chapter of Mr. Bean’s television life, it is worth noting a particularly prevalent-yet-understated theme of the show:  loneliness.

For instance, Mr. Bean takes himself out for a birthday dinner.  He writes a birthday card for himself which, a short time after signing it, he discovers with naïve surprise and is heartened that he remembered his own birthday.

Yes, Mr. Bean is the surreal loner.

But there is another theme here:  optimism.

Bean doesn’t seem bothered by shopping alone (as long as he has his shiny, new American Express card…and his potato…and his fish).

No, he revels in the wonder of life.

Everything is an adventure.

If Seinfeld is a show about nothing, then Mr. Bean is a show about less than nothing.

Atkinson is wielding a sort of comedic antimatter weapon.

And the effect is devastatingly funny.

It’s funnier if you’ve had steak tartare, but it’s still funny if you haven’t.

Also present is that English (as in England) preoccupation with courtesy and politeness…manners, if you will.

Bean wants to save a man from the ignominy of embarrassment.  The bloke has picked up the wrong charge card.  So Bean surreptitiously picks the man’s pocket just to put the right card back in.  But his hand becomes stuck at the end of the act.  And so Rowan Atkinson is dragged all the way to the toilet with this man.  Silently following.

It brings to mind the famous Pink Floyd lyric:  “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way.”

I’ve many times thought that applies to me (as I am mostly of English descent…though a bit French…and Italian [Venetian]).

Few things in this world are more antiquated than the British monarchy and (not completely unrelated) “manners”.

I don’t have any particular fondness for Queen Elizabeth or any other royal (of any nation) who’s ever lived.  It’s a bunch of poppycock, if you ask me.

But manners are worth something.

Yes, I do respect the common man and the common woman…who remind us of a different time.  Common courtesy.  THAT is the true royalty of the planet.

 

-PD

Smultronstället [1957)

At some point during the viewing of this film I turned 39 years old.  That is significant because there is a moment in this masterpiece by Ingmar Bergman at which a character is described precisely as 38 years old.

And so a mostly unimportant question arises:  was I 38 or 39 when I heard that line?

To be sure, this isn’t the first time I’ve seen Wild Strawberries, but seeing it on the cusp of my birthday as the world spits me back into the cosmic cuspidor makes a poignant movie absolutely devastating.

You must understand, by “devastating”…I don’t necessarily mean bad.  In my film lexicon I reserve the word devastating for films which reduce me to a weeping mess.  This, now, is one such film.

My memory of it was as a sweet film…wild strawberries…youthful love…summertime.  And indeed, all of those things are there.  But this film is more than just naïveté.  This film is about aging.  Old age.

I would never have made the connection, but Smultronstället bridges the gap (somewhat) between its comrades in simpatico:  Umberto D. (1952) and The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu (2005).  In the former, Carlo Battisti set the gold standard for this micro-genre.  He was 69 when he portrayed the titular Umberto Domenico Ferrari.  In the latter, Ioan Fiscuteanu brought a razor-sharp accuracy to the likewise titular character Dante Remus Lăzărescu while being, himself, 68 years old.

And that brings us to the famed silent-film director Victor Sjöström.  For Bergman’s Smultronstället, Sjöström was invited aboard as an actor (in the lead role of Isak Borg).  Sjöström was, almost exactly with the two previous actors mentioned, 68 years old when he assumed this immortal role.

But there is something which Ingmar Bergman did (thanks to the magic of Sjöström’s performance) which is unique in this film.  Beyond the surrealism befitting of de Chirico, beyond the hint of road movie panache which predated À Bout de souffle, Bergman keyed in on an absolutely defining characteristic of old age (for many):  loneliness.

I recognize it because it is an absolutely defining characteristic of my own life.  Sometimes I wonder if anyone out there is as lonely as me.  I send out my signal.  I comb through the tags.  “Lonely” is a young person’s emotion.  “Loneliness” is a lifelong complex.  An articulate, stark reality.

And how does it happen?

Well, you will just have to see this film.  Really, there are few movies I could more strongly recommend than Wild Strawberries.  Everyone will see it differently.  For me it brings back memories of Sweden (and even Denmark [though I should probably wait for Dreyer before admitting that]).  Girls named Kaaren and Anna and Saaarah (ok, maybe not that many As).

That is the route of this unlikely road movie.  What could have been…  What might have been~~

Sometimes a dream rights our ship.  But these bad dreams…we are one credit hour short, she doesn’t remember us, we’ve forgotten the first rule of being a doctor…

In our wisdom we will think of the good times.  For me, it is as hard as breathing.  I don’t breathe well.  I think too much.  About it.  Everything.

Wisdom lets us go back to our old neighborhood…our old play friends…some ball in the street.  We must have some good memories somewhere.  Psychology urges this.  A safe place.  A mental image.  A way to calm down.

In the fray of life this often isn’t practical.  Indeed, we forget everything.  Is there or isn’t there a God?  I would say yes, but I’m not going to arm-wrestle you over it.

That is a bit of wisdom.  You can go home again.

 

-PD