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

Till det som är vackert [2009)

This is a perfect, imperfect film.

Like Russell’s paradox.

And I hope director Lisa Langseth won’t go all Frege on me and jump out a window.

Ah!

You know…

I have spoiled nothing.

And my words are almost completely inconsequential.

But similar things have been said about La Règle du jeu.

And I disagree with that.

In 1939, Jean Renoir made an unqualified (perfect) masterpiece with that film.

I qualified it only to distinguish from my initial example.

And so Pure (the title of this Swedish film which is currently on Netflix in the U.S.) is much like Asia Argento’s almost-masterpiece Incompresa.

I will be quite blunt.

Lisa Langseth stretches in almost the exact same dimension that Argento did with her fine film.

But the real similarity is acting perfection.

For a young child, Giulia Salerno was magnificent (really!) in Argento’s film.

And so Ms. Argento had the secret weapon.

A (very young) actress capable of cine-magic.

Ms. Langseth was blessed with more-or-less the same thing.

But even better.

[perhaps because the actress was a little older and more experienced]

Alicia Vikander makes Till det som är vackert go.

I mean, really…this is an acting performance unlike any other.

And so my only gripe with Ms. Langseth, the director, is that she stretched the story TOO FAR.

But that’s ok.

Because, you know what?  Maybe I’m wrong.

Langseth and Argento both seem to be trying to tell every story they’ve ever lived…IN ONE FILM.

Argento is the guiltier party.

For most of Pure, Langseth sticks to a taut plot.

Buttressed by Vikander’s exquisite acting, the sum total is ecstasy.

And so, I find myself reacting against the Hitchcock tendency in two films.

Some directors NEED a good dose of Hitchcock.

Wes Anderson, for example.

That guy is so saccharine…that when the fingers come off in Grand Budapest, we finally have a filmmaker.

But Langseth and Argento are telling GRUELING stories throughout (in Pure and Misunderstood, respectively).

And so the heavy bass note…the one which when slammed births the 9th harmonic…it doesn’t work here.

Because the tritone.

To progress through the harmonic series.

And resolve on a tritone.

It takes a special auteur to do such.

And these two ladies are not the dodecaphonists to do so.

They have not worked out a coherent system to justify their heart-ripping atonality.

But fear not.

Pure is so, so, so worth watching!

This is as close as a film can get to masterpiece while still being flawed.

And it’s so very close, I’m wondering whether the flawed one is me.

[no doubt]

Let me correct the record (ouch…David “Scumbag” Brock)…

We get noodles with ketchup.

I mean, this film is Gummo real.

So I want to give some BIG compliments.

Till det som är vackert is the best Swedish film ever made by anyone not named Ingmar Bergman.

In fact, it’s BETTER than several of Bergman’s films.

Shall I name names?

Pure is worlds (WORLDS) better than Fanny and Alexander.

Bergman was in poseur mode.

That flick is so overrated.

And Lisa Langseth totally smokes (eats the lunch of) Bergman.

Further, Till det som är vackert is (in my humble, masculine opinion) the greatest feminist film since 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days…and in some ways EVEN BETTER than that timeless masterpiece.

And so, in general, I bow down in worship to Pure.

We have homelessness.

We have mental illness.

We have resilience.

Naturalism.  Grit.  The bird-soul of music…

The only thing we needed was an editor.

To say.

Cut.

About 20 minutes before the end.

Because Ms. Langseth wants to give us redemption.

She just seems to have her Raskolnikov in the wrong pocket.

It’s ok.

I’m the daftest son of a bitch on the planet.

One last thing…

This movie moved me so much.

The bulk of this film.

Did something to me.

Therapeutic.

And sublimely enlightening.

And so I thank God for Lisa Langseth and Alicia Vikander.

God bless you.

Thank you for making this kind of art.

As Nick Cave sang,

“It’s beauty that’s gonna save the world now”.

-PD

Modern Times [1936)

We who have nothing implore you who have much.

I think this might be the message.

And yet, whatever the message, there is no denying the beauty of the department store scene.

The breathtaking Paulette Goddard, a grease-stained child of the streets, asleep beneath a fur coat on a feather bed.

Tucked in by The Little Tramp…only to be ripped from the bedrooms of the rich by that opening whistle.

It was a valiant stand.

At the lunch counter.

Ravenously eating tomorrow’s sandwiches.  A piece of cake.  Eat up!

It is sad.  It brings me back.  To art.  To a time when a meal was a religious experience.

A moment of companionship shared by artists on the run.

But as Neil Young so wisely sings in the song “Ambulance Blues,”…”It’s easy to get buried in the past/when you try and make a good thing last.”

And so The Little Tramp would probably say, “Buck up, cowgirl!”

Indeed, it’s not the end of the world.

It ain’t over till Yogi Berra sings.

And Chaplin sings too.

It’s true!

Up till now he had no voice.

Pantomime.

The purest artist going.

So entrenched that he continued with silent films well after their demise.

Yet this is really a sound film.

And, it really is (also), a silent film.

Most of all, it is a brilliant film!

She sleeps so cozy.  Perhaps.  In Denmark they would comment thusly.  Hyggeligt.

Denmark…where amber washes up on the beach.  Not ambergris…but that too.

No.  Electrum.

And the sheer magnetism of Chaplin.  All a’flurry on his rollerskates.

We “oooh” and we “ahhh” as he rides a wave of serendipity.

It’s not all smooth sailing for The Little Tramp, but it’s always interesting.

And so we can laugh with him.

And we can dream with the auteur Chaplin behind the camera…what vision to concoct such consolation for so many.

I can’t put it any better than that.

-PD

The Great Dictator [1940)

The light of the mind is in truth not revenge.

I’ll say it again.

The light of the mind is in truth not revenge.

And so with a stark wisdom Charlie Chaplin stepped into a new realm with this film…a bit like John Lennon on his first solo album Plastic Ono Band.

You think the comparison is daft.  Perhaps.

God is a concept…by which we measure, our, pain?

It’s just a maxim.  Boiled down.

Axiomatic.

And for me…from Chaplin…it is:

the light of the mind is in truth not revenge.

The “unofficial” motto of the Central Intelligence Agency:

“And you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”

I’m trying to up my game.  As a human being.

Today.  A small miracle.  A secret.

The secret of the beehive.

Swarming with celluloid transferred to digital information.

1s and 0s.  So that a particular defect in the print (a scratch on the surface) will always appear the same.  Forever.

The Great Dictator.

I know.  I should italicize.  Like Benzino Napaloni.  In the heel of Bacteria.

[That would be somewhere between the Hindu Kush and the Amu Darya river.]

But I digresseth…

The light of the mind is truth not revenge.

In truth.

And so before God and all people I verbally bow down and prostrate myself as a mere blob of unworthiness.

Day in, day out.

But today especially.

Maybe…

My spaces will be removed.

Poetry is inefficient.

And cryptic writing is so tedious.

Truth not revenge.

Which is to say.

Diametrically opposed to–

untruth and revenge.

[at the very least].

There’s nothing difficult to say anymore.

I used to consider the French and the Jews my favorite people.

And there is no reason to alter that.

Truth sans revenge.

A mind of reason.

Forever and a day you could read histories and become an expert.

On anything.

Any topic.

Matchboxes.

Bread baking in 14th-century Sweden.

I chose movies because they were young.

It was possible.

The breadth seemed traversable.

But the emotions in film can never be belted.

We cannot bale these emotions.

We cannot stack them and inventory them.

To side with a talking head is not evolved.

From David Duke to Louis Farrakhan.

And to gag every time we see Netanyahu.

Let us examine.

No.  You are right.

People are dying.

But if we have the luxury to think,

then let us examine.

What Charlie Chaplin might have been saying.

Don’t watch the final speech on YouTube.

It will seem forced.

It is out of context.

You don’t see the psychic sweat.

Watch the whole damn film and then decide.

Muslims protecting Jews.

Jews protecting Muslims.

Bodily.

Stepping in front.

Yes.

It is not fair.

The jet planes.

Truth without revenge.

My son.

Daughter.

The great sobbing of the earth.

African-Americans protecting white people.

White people protecting African-Americans.

Fully.

You can never recover from slavery.

No people can.

And the best and brightest.  The inventors of jazz.  The marginalized intellectuals.

Truth not revenge.

Get the truth.

Know it.

Evolve.

Transcend.

Easy to say sitting in a little comfy house.

Not so easy homeless.

Words are so easy.

It is a crossroads.

Anti-Semitism is on the rise, they say.

And anti-Muslim fervor is also strong.

We overcompensate.

We err.

And so I say love the Jew.

Love the Muslim.

Love the black man.

Love the white man.

Listen to the women.

Love the man and the woman equally.  As humans.

And the Jew and the Gentile equally.  Equally.  As humans.

Let the imagination of your heart run wild with love.

Feel what it might feel like.

When all those variables guide your life.

That you wake up each day in a category.

Russians and Americans in a moment.

Every nation which has previously spilled blood.

Every nation.

First nations and last nations.

Don’t be cynical.

My friend.

Myself.

A humble understanding of a few things and an openness.

To approach the new day with a more pure ambition.

-PD

Aaltra [2004)

Everything happens for a goddamned reason.  I wanted to type.  So I did.

It leaves me uneasy.  It’s the start of a faux writer.

But it fits this film.  If ever a film was accursed (like the archetypal poète maudit), then it is this immortal piece of cinema.

Long ago…in a messy room not so far away…I took a gamble on this Belgian film.  Because it was Belgian.

Belgium.

What is Belgium?  It’s not France.  It’s not Netherlands.  For the world of art, it exists as a sort of other Switzerland.

(At least that’s how I had it in my mind.)

I think of the great César Franck.  The great Symphony in D minor.

And I think of René Magritte.  [particularly L’Assassin menacé]

And so I jumped into this film as blindly as anyone.

What I could not have predicted was the sheer perfection which followed upon rolling tape.

There is strictly zero plot outlined on Wikipedia for this film.

Thus, you needs must only remember two names:  Gustave de Kervern and Benoît Delépine.

These two directors blessed the world with a film equal to any of the nouvelle vague triumphs (not least because they chose to shoot in grainy black and white).

These two writers concocted a story which only Louis-Ferdinand Céline could have dreamt up.

And finally, these two actors (the same two gentlemen) schooled thespians the world over on how drama should be approached in the 21st century.

We must trust the images.

There are two handicapped spaces for rent, but a veteran from the Belgian Congo pushes them aside.

“Bwana, bwana”…like he’s in his Popemobile.

When you have lost the function of your legs, a bottle of rum is not begrudged.

The tide is high.  Now that we’ve fallen asleep.

Two heads bobbing in the water.  Wheelchairs in wet sand.

But it is sad as anything.  Two grown men.  A level of breakdown sobbing which is painful to watch.

Why me?

I can’t believe this.

The gags in this sob story (juxtaposition intended) modulate ad nauseam like Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny” sung in Finnish.

Ah, Finland…

From Belgium to Finland.

Beware of pity (warned Stephan Zweig).

Maybe it’s best just to suck on the tailpipe of your Motocross dreams in Brazil.

Two crippled chaps on their way home.  Ambulance blues.  Drivers stop at a pub to shoot the shit (out in the agricultural boonies).  Two extra pints grasped at intervals by disembodied, transient hands.

Have you ever been cold and hungry?

Think about it (Jerry Lee implores).  Next time you see a beggar.  They may have the most unbelievable backstory imaginable.

Because people are nice and charitable (on average) for a maximum of about 10 minutes (if at all).  Usually nothing.

Must be a drug addict.  Doesn’t really need that wheelchair.  Probably got it at Homeless-Props-Are-Us.

When you’ve just been fired and you come home to find your wife fucking another man.  And he doesn’t even stop.

When you live in a barn and cook your miserable meals on a hotplate.

I’ve slept on that cot.  That’s why this film might be unbearable (and absolutely necessary).

Did I mention that this is a comedy?

Two blokes paralyzed and the doctor a paragon of efficiency (drumming for reflexes as they lay ridiculously side-by-side on parallel provincial hospital beds).

Meet me in my office in 30 minutes or you’re fired.

Nothing is more awkward.  Crammed in the same room to convalesce.  Enemies whose childish fight has left them forever outcasts.

Adding insult…(mugged…no money…no IDs…no passports)…to injury.

Bloody jawdropping genius.

-PD