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

Pumpkin [2002)

This is almost a perfect film.

Because it’s better than perfect.

Like Napoleon Dynamite, what should have been a larf was generally a sobfest for me throughout.

If you’re having problems in life, you need to see this movie.

Hollywood is so denigrated these days because the vast majority of popular cinema is utter shite.

From the very beginning, Pumpkin is different.

We should thank American Zoetrope.

And for that we have to thank Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas.

Do you even know what a zoetrope is?

Well, I do.

And they did.

And it was le mot juste.

A zoetrope is special.

Let’s call it retarded cinema.

A more pure form.  Slowed down.

Pumpkin grossed $308,552 at the box office.

No, I didn’t forget a comma and an additional three digits.

But the Bureau of Labor Statistics has no way of predicting the sort of inflation Pumpkin will experience in the annals of cinema history.

For any who have ever doubted Christina Ricci:  this is her masterpiece.

As lead actress and coproducer, she gives a performance which goes deeper than even the esteemed Thora Birch in Ghost World.

Yes, this is that sort of film.

Indispensable.

I have overused it of late.

But there is no other word.  Pumpkin and Ghost World and Napoleon Dynamite are not second-class films to such as I fidanzati.  No.  They are equals with Ermanno Olmi’s masterpiece.

But don’t get confused.

Pumpkin goes in a direction completely “other” than any film I’ve ever seen.

Sure…it starts out tongue-in-cheek.

It is perhaps a dystopia which is best summed up by the saccharine mise-en-scène of The Truman Show.  But where The Truman Show fails (and that is in many places), Pumpkin succeeds at telling a timeless story.

The story is the cast.

[Thank you Marshall McLuhan.]

Ricci is a thespian goddess here.  Real skill.  Real goddamn skill!

But neck-and-neck is Hank Harris.

I can’t nail it.

It’s something I saw long ago.

At my college orientation.

A bit of Sam Shepard and some other playwrights.

Sure.  It is Steinbeck.  Of Mice and Men.

But it’s more.

Sweeter.  More optimistic.  More frothing with disgust.

All three.

A concoction.

Frozen yogurt and 1400 on the SAT.

Harry Lennix is indispensable to the story.  [start counting]

He is the angry poet.  Not a college professor.  And this is not a class.

This is a poetry workshop, motherfucker!

Even Julio Oscar Mechoso is indispensable in his short role as Dr. Frederico Cruz.  [where we at?]

But let’s talk about some buttresses.

Melissa McCarthy is indispensable (truly) as Julie.

It’s not an easy role.

And yet, she’s not as bad off as Pumpkin.

Who’s Pumpkin?

Is it Christina Ricci with her jack-o’-lantern-perfect bob–her Chantal Goya -meets- David Bowie Low surf perm?  That one little curl…so perfect…all the way ’round?

No.

It’s Hank Harris.

He’s Pumpkin.  Napoleon.  Lothario.

But Sam Ball is especially indispensable here.  [Ugh…]

He is Ken (actually Kent) to Ricci’s Barbie.

Tennis pro.

Spitting image of Ryan Reynolds.

Or Whitney Houston…

Anyway.

This cast brings it together.

Bringing it all back home are directors Anthony Abrams and Adam Larson Broder (neither of whom have a Wikipedia page).

BLOODY HELL, HOLLYWOOD!  HOW COULD YOU CHURN OUT SO MANY FILMS AND NOT SEE THE BRILLIANCE OF THESE TWO BLOKES!?!?!?!?!

But in the end it’s just Ricci and Hank Harris.

The brilliance of a duo.

A truly timeless film.

I’m inclined to agree with many (including Dr. Steve Pieczenik) that Adam Lanza did not exist.

But Pumpkin Romanoff (a nod to Michael Romanoff, the storied Lithuanian restaurateur of 1940s/50s Hollywood?) most certainly did exist.  For me.  Tonight.  When I needed him most.

This is immortality.

 

-PD