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

Incompresa [2014)

This is the longest movie I’ve ever watched.

Not really.

But at one hour and 46 minutes, that’s not a good thing.

To feel like it’s taking forever.

Which is not to say this is a bad film.

It’s not.

It’s a very good film.

With a very disturbing ending.

Yes, I’m warning you.

Don’t (like me) get sucked in by all the cuteness and expect our still-mediocre filmmaker to give you a good ending.

But maybe I’m wrong…

Let’s investigate.

First, Asia Argento is a very talented filmmaker.

But she’s still mediocre.

There are two main problems with this film.

The editing (as in cut some of this superfluous shit out) and the ending.

My guess is that Argento could not bear to see any of her precious footage cut (to any significant degree).

So I am not complaining about the découpage (editor Filippo Barbieri does a fantastic job…especially in the palimpsest intro), but rather the montage (in the French sense).

The ending is a cheap stunt.

David Bowie predicted such excess on Ziggy Stardust…

I will leave it at that.

But suffice it to say that Asia Argento put her heart and soul into this film.

And much of it (most of it) is magical.

This was in spite of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s overwrought, tacky performance.

Charlotte is a wonderful musician.

One of the best alive.

I adore her music.

But she is a terrible actress.

Even so, Argento should have reined in Gainsbourg’s diva performance considerably.

Yet nothing can take away from the true magic contained in Misunderstood (this film’s title on Netflix).

Maybe it’s not Gainsbourg’s fault.

Maybe the role called for a soulless bitch.

But we’ve seen Charlotte in other dire films (like Melancholia).

For all of Asia Argento’s imperfections as a filmmaker (and there are a few), she is like Orson Welles compared to the utter shite that Lars von Trier churns out.

Not to mince words, but “von” Trier has to be one of the worst filmmakers working today.

And so let’s get to why Argento marginally succeeds with this film.

The answer is so very simple:  Giulia Salerno.

Salerno must have been about 13 (or younger) when this film was shot [though she is ostensibly nine years old…in the context of the story].

Her acting, really, is a revelation.

The entire movie revolves around her.

She and her cat Dac.

It’s a sad story.

But Aria [Salerno] makes everything joyful.

Ah, the resilience of kids!

I was blessed with wonderful parents growing up.

Aria’s parents in this film are reprehensible in just about every way imaginable.

There is something of a Les Quatre Cents Coups to this tale.

Aria wanders back and forth.

With her little pet carrier (for the cat).

She has no stability.

Indeed, she ultimately has very little love at all.

I don’t want to spoil the story for you.

But here are the takeaways.

Asia Argento has the talent to become a world-class filmmaker.

This was an admirable and artful first effort.

It is a very special film.

Now it’s time for her to stop surrounding herself with ass kissers.

She’s not an auteur yet.

[I don’t care who her father was!]

Giulia Salerno has the brigtest future imaginable as an actress.

She is now about 15 years old.

And she’s already put a performance like this under her belt.

I hope that Hollywood and the cinema of her home country Italy take notice of her incredible thespian gift.

And I will give Argento one more compliment:  she sure shocked the shit out of me with that ending.

And though it was trite and tasteless, it didn’t completely ruin what was a very fine film.

Indeed, the editor needed for the bulk of this film would have lopped it off forthwith (if they were at all worth their salt).

-PD

Amadeus [1984)

In these waning hours of Christmas, I give you…

a fucking masterpiece.

Indeed, I regret that I cannot express myself at this time without resort to expletive, but this film by Miloš Forman is truly bone-chilling.

And it is especially so for me:  a former composer.

Oh, there is always still time.

To set pencil to paper (or pen, if [like Mozart], you make no mistakes).

And so we shall take under consideration the director’s cut of Amadeus as our subject.

This later, R-rated version is from 2002 and adds 20 minutes to this magnum opus.

Yes, dear friends…we shall consider many things.

The uncanny embodiment of Tom Hulce.

The deft, dastardly thespian skills of F. Murray Abraham.

And even the indispensably aghast facial expressions of Richard Frank.

You might wonder why I have chosen this film to honor God on this day rather than a movie like Ernest Saves Christmas.

I will let you ponder that one for a moment.

But in the meanwhile, we shall press onwards with the young Salieri.

Please remember the pious of Western classical music.

J.S. Bach.

Antonio Vivaldi.

Haydn.  Handel.

Ok, perhaps not so much the latter.

Because he too, like Mozart, was a man of the world.

Of the earth.

A joyful sinner.

A composer with a dirty mouth.

Yes, there are miracles in this film.

Too many to count.

Salieri’s father choking on a fishbone.

For starters.

But let us consider the whole city of Vienna a miracle on assumption.

Wien.

A city in which one could dial the number 1507 and receive an A (435 Hz) with which to tune an instrument.

We have long appreciated this bit of trivia from scholar Norman Lloyd.

It has always endeared Vienna to our hearts.

A place where [it must] music flows through every pipe and connects the city in divine harmony.

But that time period for which we yearn…that “common practice” period is just the era in which Mozart is plopped down with his hilarious little giggle.

Jeffrey Jones is magnificent as the judicious statesman the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II.

Which brings us back to Christmas.

A child was born.  To a woman by the Holy Spirit.

Yet the child had an earthly father:  Joseph II (not to be confused with the Old Testament Joseph).

Mozart was a child.

Childish.

A hellion.

Yet I would choose him over Shakespeare and Einstein when it comes to true genius.

I had heard it.

With my own ears.

In my days of getting my bachelor’s of music in music theory and composition.

I had heard that Symphony #39.  I played it.

I was inside the music.

And it is like none other.

I had discovered the ingenious counterpoint in Mozart’s Symphony #41.

What lightness!  What architecture!

What a vision of the beyond…

It takes memory to succeed.

And we guard our memories.

But it takes observation to create memories.

An eye.  An ear (in the case of Mozart).

Yes, Mozart’s prowess for hearing something once and then playing it back or either writing out all the parts (if a mixed ensemble) is legendary.

His fame grew with these stunts.

His novelty tours with father Leopold and sister Nannerl (not pictured).

I had at least one Harvard/Stanford-trained Dr. of music warn me about the historical inaccuracies in this film.

But this is Hollywood.

Of course there will be changes.

And yet, it is an incredibly moving picture.

To borrow a programmatic description from Richard Strauss, this film becomes (for much of it) a symphonia domestica.

Which, let me just say, happens to grace us with the presence of genius beauty:  Elizabeth Berridge.

But always in life (even into the bubble of music) creeps in business.

Economics.

Finances.

Debt.

Mozart was gifted with a once-in-humanity talent, yet he did not have the self-marketing skills to always position his talent at the best place in the market.

Meanwhile, Signor Salieri activates a little psychological warfare (captured by Forman’s camera lit by little gaslights all around…).

And so it is machinations versus manifestations of God’s glory.

The story is rich.

That a composer might write his own Requiem mass…and that the writing of that mass might just kill him.

We know how cursed the 9th symphony became after Beethoven (Bruckner, Dvořák, Mahler, Schubert…).

Musicians are subject to powerful forces which attack their necessary imaginations.

Superstitions.

Salieri’s character proves that those closest to us are not necessarily to be trusted.  His disingenuous psyop has Mozart working himself to death.

And that is a scary thing.

To push and push and push.

And yet, who will be remembered?

The expert in psychological warfare?

Or the symphonist?

Times have changed, but it is still the creator who has the benefit of creating goods.

Super-warriors aren’t even creating bads.  They are creating nothing.

But, it might be argued, that they are doing the most good in this world which no longer appreciates the music of its heritage.

Yes, European classical music is on life-support.

But we return to Mozart, who is in not-much-better condition.

Part of me longs for the treatment of Ingmar Bergman in his underappreciated film version of Trollflöjten (The Magic Flute in Swedish).

But Miloš Forman does everything else right.

The scene in which Mozart and Salieri are working on the Requiem is masterful!

And still…Mozart doesn’t realize that his greatest enemy is posing as a friend to help him compose his own death from exhaustion.

It’s only when they’re throwing the lime on you that you get real perspective.

But by that point, you’re wrapped up.

It is thus a fitting Christmas story…that hatred and jealously are futile.

And that a naive genius had the keys to the musical kingdom.

For his 35 short years on Earth.

Perhaps Mozart was not a pious man, but Salieri (who burned his own crucifix in the fireplace) consistently recognized the voice of God in Mozart’s music.

I hope you are all having a wonderful holiday season and that your hearts will be filled with melodies which could make the heavens weep.

-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

Limelight [1952)

I didn’t know movies could be this good.

Where have they been keeping this all of our lives?

Us.

When I was young I stumbled into The Gold Rush.  25/52.

And I lived at the end of a flower in City Lights.

So I knew.

But I forgot.

That Charlie Chaplin was the most vivid outcast—the great romantic on rollerskates.

And the miracle?

Claire Bloom lives.

No Sylvia Plath ending.

And Charles Chaplin lives.

As much as Baudelaire’s vieux saltimbanque.

It was her first film.  Bloom.

Age 21.

And now she is 84 years young.

//////////////////////////////////////////////////

No one told me films could be miracles.

It’s kinda like Thora Birch.

Buster Keaton.

People thought she stopped working.

But it wasn’t true.

////////////////////////////////////////////////////

No greater love have I seen for an art.

Like Pierre-Auguste kissing the canvas…and then painting.

You can’t simply say Renoir in film and let it linger…

////////////////////////////////////////////////////////

Tell Tchaikovsky the news.

The first chord.  In Moscow perhaps.  And all 122 pages fall onto the keyboard.

A thunderous vibration like Chaliapin.

Фёдор Ива́нович Шаля́пин

Boris Godunov.

///////////////////////////////////////////////////////

A drinking problem.

Stage fright.

Torn and frayed.

At the edges.

In the wings.

Wings.

Ah yes…I haven’t heard that name in a long time.

/////////////////////////////////////////////////////////

The piano was unprepared.

A cage of equal temperament.

And so we removed the great nest

of cosmic dissonance.

/////////////////////////////////////////////////////////

Don’t get me wrong.

I love a good cluster chord.

An honest, flawed note.

Take your dissonance like a man…someone said…maybe Henry Cowell.

On second thought, ’twas Ives.

//////////////////////////////////////////////////////

I’ve spent my life in a drum.

Like Keith Moon.

A human projectile.

///////////////////////////////////////////////////////

88 ways to look at a blackbird.

I’ve never seen one person leave it all on the stage quite like that.

A lifetime’s work.  Painted.

//////////////////////////////////////////////////////

The film was in black and white?

I didn’t happen to notice.

Because behind my eyes the colours were bursting.

U.

///////////////////////////////////////////////////////

And so like those little speckles in the concrete which the moon caught.

As I dreamt of being a composer.

And I too dove headfirst into the void like Yves Klein.

///////////////////////////////////////////////////////

And for us it was no sleight of hand.

There was no airbrushed net.

And I landed hard.

///////////////////////////////////////////////////////

Gandhi is smiling and that’s all that matters.

////////////////////////////////////////////////////////

between yell and Yale

bell strut feet dill old pod loot.  Look!

88 ways to be a composer and an itch ain’t one (bite me!)

/////////////////////////////////////////////////////////

Film is completely unimportant when writing about film.

Take Hubert’s Flea Circus on 42nd St.

I would never have known were it not for Nick Tosches.

And my favorite book:

Where Dead Voices Gather.

/////////////////////////////////////////////////////////

Yeah, but it’s like Picasso’s musicians.

You think I’ve really cracked up.  Craquelure.

“Any fish bite if you got good bait.”

They tell us in economics there’s only one Mona Lisa.

Because the painter is dead.

Only one…

///////////////////////////////////////////////////////

Because he’s not alive to paint another.

Another Mona Lisa.

Unlimited supply.  EMI.

//////////////////////////////////////////////////////

You’re driving at something.

I just know it.

Because the film was too long.  And too good.

Not possible, Likert.

//////////////////////////////////////////////////////

Many aw-kward moments of perfection.

Where Chaplin hit too close to home.

Was it Dave Davies?

“Death of a Clown”

Yes, precisely.

//////////////////////////////////////////////////////

It can’t be described conventionally.

You can’t just go to the Grand Canyon and say, “Vast.”

Was ist das?

Ja!

That is what I’m trying to say.

-PD