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

Filmistaan [2013)

I consider it an auspicious sign that my survey of Indian cinema begins in earnest with the masterpiece Filmistaan.

Do not mistake this piece of cinema for a half-baked idea.

Do not even attempt to lower it by calling it a comedy.

And not least, do not think only of India.

I wanted to come up with a catchy pigeonhole.

Indian Subcontinent.

The Subcontinent.

But I have too much respect for the great traditions of Bollywood (and Lollywood) to do such a thing.

And so this is very much an Indian film.

India.

And it is very much a comedy.

So funny!

But it is touching in a way to which few films can ever aspire.

Filmistaan, like Roberto Benigni’s magnum opus La vita è bella, takes on a very serious subject with the best weapon of all:  humor.

But instead of the Holocaust, we get the Partition.

And yet, Filmistaan is not some laborious period piece.

[leave that to the artless Spielbergs]

No, our film addresses the tension between India and Pakistan in the most deft, feather-light manner imaginable.

And for this we have to thank a new auteur on the world stage:  Nitin Kakkar.

I say “new” because Mr. Kakkar has not been graced with the honor of his own Wikipedia page in English yet.

Well, he is wholly deserving of that honor (based on Filmistaan alone).

But Mr. Kakkar had to have magical actors to pull this off.

Luckily for him, he did!

Sharib Hashmi is undoubtedly the star of this picture.

His performance as Sunny goes from the highest highs of emotion to the lowest lows.

It is truly remarkable.

Mr. Hashmi is about one month older than me.

40 years old.

Perhaps that’s why I identified with his youthful optimism and passionate devotion to cinema.

But to understand our film, we must first locate Rajasthan on a map.

It is the biggest state in India.

It is northwest.

And it borders Pakistan.

To understand Rajasthan, we must comprehend the Thar Desert.

Most of the Thar Desert is in Rajasthan, but it extends somewhat into Pakistan.

These are all important details in understanding our film.

Rajasthan is arid.

Like the American Southwest, it’s a good place to get lost…or kidnapped.

But friends are to be found in the most unlikely places.

And the friendship of shared interest, such as two cinema devotees, knows no borders.

For Mr. Hashmi, the brilliance of his performance depends on the artful support he receives from fellow-actor Inaamulhaq.

But let’s examine the divide between India and Pakistan for a moment.

It is a fact that a man from Peshawar (if he speaks Urdu) can communicate with a man from Delhi (if he speaks Hindi).

Peshawar, of course, is in Pakistan.

Indeed, it’s so far into Pakistan that it’s almost in Afghanistan.

Delhi, of course, is in India.

It is in the north-central part of the country.

It is, further, not essential that the two talkers hypothesized above be men.

The salient detail is that Hindi and Urdu are essentially the same language (in their spoken forms).

This is vital to understanding Filmistaan.

But continuing, the two languages could not look more different once they are written down.

[Which is to say, the two hypothesized men might be at loggerheads were they forced to communicate with pen and paper]

Urdu looks similar to its written forebear Farsi (the language of Iran) [which is itself a descendent of Arabic script].

To put it quite simply, a neophyte like myself would probably have a difficult time telling the difference between Urdu, Persian (Farsi), and Arabic.

Hindi is in the wholly different Devanagari script.

You will not confuse written Urdu and Hindi.

It’s at least as obvious as Picasso to Pollock (if not Warhol to Rembrandt).

But enough analogies.

Why should you watch Filmistaan?

Well, for one…it’s currently on Netflix.

Yes, ever since I have joined the streaming service, I have ventured to be a more “worthwhile” film critic by giving you relatively-spoiler-free reviews of current titles to be found on the U.S. version of the site.

But that’s only the beginning.

Yes, there are wonderful performances from Kumud Mishra and Gopal Dutt (as well as a plethora of fine supporting actors).

But the real reason is that Filmistaan expresses the sublime.

The context is terrorism.

The context is border tension.

Indeed, on the Indian Subcontinent, the context is two nuclear states.

Pakistan and India.

But the context goes back.

To Jinnah and Nehru.

And the threads bind.

Cricket.  Cinema.  Music.

There is an excellent example in Filmistaan which illustrates the situation.

Dilip Kumar.

Now 94 years old.

Like my hypothetical man from earlier, born in Peshawar.

Then a part of “Pre-Independence India”.

Now a part of Pakistan.

Bordering Afghanistan.

In Filmistaan, Inaamulhaq knows him as Sir Yusuf.

Sunny knows him as Dilip.

Dilip Kumar was born Muhammad Yusuf Khan in Peshawar in 1922.

Sir Yusuf.

Dilip Kumar.

Same person.

It’s like the World Wars.

fenêtre in French

das Fenster in German

window.

/\

fenêtre /\ Fenster

But when you look through a window (or a border), everything can look backwards.

You’re so close, in reality.

But you’re reading the word as if in a mirror.

Nitin Kakkar directed a masterpiece with Filmistaan because he put his heart and soul into evoking peace.

There are no winners in a nuclear war.

And peace is a rare commodity on the world stage.

Geopolitics…

But we must reach out that hand.

And shake it.

I congratulate Nitin Kakkar and Sharib Hashmi for their dedication.

It is evident.

Though I speak neither Hindi nor Urdu, I was able to watch.

And understand.

I needed the subtitles.

But sublime emotions may be mutually intelligible across cultures.

What a film!

-PD

Vi är bäst! [2013)

IF you want to see a bogus, bollocks feminist film, watch Free the Nipple.

But if you want to see the real thing…a really empowering, touching story, then check out We Are the Best!

IT’s in Swedish.

So you’ll have to use your brain.

And your eyes.

Unless you speak Swedish.

But it will be well worth your time.

Vi är bäst! isn’t trite acting from a bunch of pseudo-provocateurs who just want to take their shirts off.

Nej.

This is the story of three 13-year-old girls.

None of them fit in.

Everyone tells them they’re ugly.

One of them is ostracized for being a Christian.

[now THAT’S punk!]

But it’s the story of three girls who come together and do the greatest thing possible:  form a band.

Music!!!

And let me just say this:  the acting is fucking fantastic!

Mira Barkhammer plays Bobo.

For me, she is the star of the film.

She is the outcast of the outcasts.

No make up.

No cool haircut.

She’s searching for her identity.

But she’s so smart.  So truly unique!

She wears these little wire-rim glasses.

From one perspective, this film is her search for what’s behind the mirror.

Director Lukas Moodysson made a masterpiece here.

Bobo…

The name…

I think of Boris Diaw.

The whole scenario is aw-kward.

But so beautifully so!

And yet Bobo is not perfect.

Far from it.

It’s a team effort.

And teams, especially when they are ad hoc and organic, are inherently dysfunctional.

The actress who puts the dys in dysfunction here is Mira Grosin.

But she too is so wonderful in this film!

She is the inspiration.

The first one out on the limb.

The rebel.

The loudmouth.

She inspires her other two bandmates to fly their freak flags high.

But the most enigmatic is Liv LeMoyne:  the Christian.

Director Moodysson is so deft in his handling of this dynamic.

LeMoyne’s character [Hedvig] has long, beautiful blond hair.

[At this point it is appropriate to address a strange form of class relations in Sweden:  hair color.]

When I used to think of Sweden (which I did rarely), I would imagine everyone as a blond.

Perhaps the American vision of Sweden is a socialist paradise of blond bikini models.

At the very least, blondness seems to be the defining characteristic in the American popular imagination regarding Sweden (as far as I can tell).

This isn’t a scientific study, you understand…

But it is important to point this out.

The snottiest (in the stuck up, snobbish sense) characters in this film are mostly blonds.

The little girls who call Bobo and Klara [Grosin] ugly.

It is really heartbreaking.

These two BRUNETTE girls endure such humiliation throughout this film.

And so it’s no wonder that they want to start a PUNK BAND!

But they can’t play.

Like, not at all…

Their first halting efforts are in the vein of The Shaggs.

No, worse.

And that’s where the Christian comes in.

Hedvig is an accomplished classical guitarist.

It is, indeed, much like the story of Garth Hudson’s joining The Band.

Lessons.

So to speak.

Bobo and Klara are astounded at Hedvig’s talent.

They lament that they’ll never be as good as their gifted new friend.

But Hedvig is all encouragement.

It is [pardon the expression] a match made in heaven.

And so three misfits (for different reasons) band together (literally) and take on the cock rock ridiculousness of bullies like youth-center-rehearsal-room-“stars” Iron Fist.

The message is astounding.

I haven’t seen a film which does such honor to the idea of feminism since 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.

But there’s no ulterior motive here.

This isn’t a George Soros production.

This is the real thing.

Just three young people (who happen to be female) wanting to make some noise in their world.

And we see how beautiful punk music is.

IT’s a catharsis.

Like Sonic Youth.

And we remember the true geniuses of the genre (like my hero, the late Alan Vega).

But we also remember the maxim:  “three chords and the truth”.

Hedvig’s got the chords.

[Ah…harmony!  What a concept!!!]

But Klara has the attitude.

And Bobo has the intellect.

They learn from each other.

“Here.  Stay on this note.  Good.  Now move to this note.”

“Punk is about rebellion.  It’s not about the school talent show.  We’ve got to keep going.  It’s a fight.”

“You really need to change your hair.  Do something fun!  Express yourself!  Cut loose!”

Those are my translations of action, not dialogue.

But I can’t stress enough how great these three actresses are in this film.

Mira Barkhammer in particular is a prodigy.

But, as in the story, the trio is inseparable.

And for this kind of cohesion, we have but one place to look in thanks:  the auteur.

-PD

True Grit [1969)

To get through life, you need grit.

Toughness.

I know of no tougher people than my parents.

And they have been an infinite inspiration to me.

So it is a pleasure to review what is one of my dad’s favorite films.

He always told me to watch this, but I guess I had some subliminal aversion to Westerns.

Well, dear friends, this here is a masterpiece.

I haven’t written much about Westerns (aside from the three Clint Eastwood spaghetti Westerns I reviewed long ago).

I know the genre is not everyone’s cup of tea.

Jean-Luc Godard commented once that his soulmate Anne-Marie Miéville really couldn’t stand this genre, whereas Monsieur Godard has been open about his admiration for John Ford and other directors of the American Western.

But here we have a film by Henry Hathaway.

Sure, John Wayne is in the movie (big league!), but it was Hathaway behind the camera ostensibly calling the shots.

You might know Hathaway from the film noir Call Northside 777.

Or perhaps The Desert Fox:  The Story of Rommel (starring the inimitable James Mason).

But he also directed Rawhide and The Sons of Katie Elder (another flick starring The Duke).

But let’s bring out the big gun.

John Wayne was born Marion (!) Robert Morrison in Winterset, Iowa.

That’s right.  Not Texas.  Not Oklahoma.

Iowa.

So how did John Wayne become such a badass?

Much of it might be attributable to his attention to detail.

And just what (or who) was he paying attention to?

Wyatt Earp.

That’s right.

Deputy sheriff of Tombstone, Arizona.

But let’s get on to this fantastic film, shall we?

The real surprise is Kim Darby.

Sure, Glen Campbell is great here, but Darby is sensational!

And though this might be thought of as Kim Darby’s only significant film role of her career, it is timeless.

She knocked it out of the park as Mattie Ross.

All our actors are gritty, but the real toss-up is between Kim Darby (who was 22 at the time) and John Wayne (who was 62).

Toughness is the theme of the movie.

He or she who is toughest will overcome.

Sure, some obstacles are insurmountable.

But GRIT will get you through some harrowing situations.

It’s almost funny when a film (like this one) includes minor roles for the likes of Dennis Hopper and Robert Duvall.  Duvall’s role is a bit more substantial, but the main focus is on the troika of Campbell, Darby, and Wayne (particularly the latter two).

Fans of the recent film Sicario will notice precursors to “rough justice” present all throughout True Grit.

But director Hathaway manages to make a G-rated film.

For that and other reasons, I am recommending this as a family film (though it may be unsuitable for particularly young ones).

The narrative device which keeps the film “all ages” is that Mattie is supposed to be 14 years old (though, as stated, Kim Darby [Mattie] was actually 22).

The action of our film centers around Fort Smith, Arkansas (at first) and later in the “Indian Territory” around McAlester, Oklahoma.

The film features prominently a Colt Model 1848 Percussion Army Revolver a.k.a. Colt Dragoon Revolver (.44 caliber).

Firearms aside, John Wayne is magnificent in the denouement when he takes on four armed horsemen.

That said, a Sharps rifle comes in particular handy for Wayne in a near-death imbroglio.

Glen Campbell’s greatest moment is just getting on the horse and setting the beast in motion.

It is this scene in which Campbell proves himself to be just as gritty as Darby and Wayne.

But the film is not over yet.

And we see John Wayne take action:  as a leader!

Doing what needs to be done!

But the scene which brought tears to my eyes was when John Wayne bet on the toughness of Kim Darby.

And that is the message.

What great encouragement it is when people have faith in us!

When they say, “I know you can do it!”

We may not believe it ourselves, but their faith lifts us up.

We think, “Maybe they know something I don’t.”

When we’re at our lowest point.

Those who stand beside us with compassion are displaying that priceless characteristic of true grit.

The very end of the film is quite touching as well.

We see an actor 40 years younger than her leading man offer a hand of friendship with an act of love.

It’s not even romantic.

It’s just classy.

Humane.

In truth, very poetic.

I wholeheartedly recommend this film for all doubters of John Wayne and the Western genre in general.

Yee-Haw!

-PD

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory [2005)

I was very apprehensive.

Because I loved the original so much.

1971.

Trying to remake one of the best films ever.

An unenviable task.

But Tim Burton was bringing it all back home.

1964.  Roald Dahl.

But let’s take a step further back.

Camp X.  Ontario.

“Established” December 6, 1941.

Yes.  You read that right.

The day before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

It was established by the “real” James Bond:  a Canadian by the name of William Stephenson.

His codename?  Intrepid.

He oversaw British intelligence, MI6, for the entire Western hemisphere during WWII.

(!)

Roald Dahl, the author of the children’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, was one of the men trained at Camp X (today known as Intrepid Park).

So it should go without saying that we are not dealing with just any children’s author.

And herein lies the secret of Tim Burton’s success.

He reimagined.

I fully expected full-on ball-tripping excess in homage to Mel Stuart’s “wondrous boat ride” of 1971, but Burton managed to restrain himself.

Indeed, the psychedelia of this film (and weirdness in general) is evident throughout almost every part of the film…EXCEPT THERE.

And so I must hesitantly call 2005’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory a masterpiece.

Against all odds.

It’s only fitting that the lead child actor who plays Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore) was born on Valentine’s Day.

Yes Virginia, perhaps some things are fated.

Highmore is fantastic in a role created by Peter Ostrum.

And though we miss Diana Sowle and her priceless rendition of “Cheer Up, Charlie”, Helena Bonham Carter is quite magnificent in her limited scenes as the cabbage-cutting Mrs. Bucket.

But Tim Burton updates our story considerably to make it more relatable to the Harry Potter generation (and the service-industry pipe dream known as the “third industrial revolution”…for the “adults” in the crowd).

Yes, we needs must only revisit Eliyahu Goldratt’s “business novel” The Goal to remember the shortsighted “local efficiencies” which factory robots can produce.

By the way:  there’s a father Bucket.  And he runs into a patch of robot trouble.

Updated.

But Tim Burton does not stop there.  Whereas the original film focused tentatively on child  spies (remember the purloined Everlasting Gobstopper?), the film under review seems to situate itself amidst the full-scale industrial espionage (and, in particular, intellectual property theft) which the United States attributes to China.

But let us pay our respects here.

David Kelly was fantastic as Grandpa Joe.  Truly a wonderful performance!  And we are sad to have lost his talents in 2012.

Reading from back to front:

-our Augustus Gloop is somewhat forgettable (save for his Lowera Bowie hair tint)

-AnnaSophia Robb is appropriately snotty as the overachieving brat Violet Beauregarde  [How did Tarantino not hire this girl for his next refried kung-fu film?!?]

-Julia Winter (who strangely has no Wikipedia page) is really special as the mouthy tart Veruca Salt

-and Jordan Fry plays Mike Teevee (though they might as well have gone with “Hacker” Mike Xbox or some such first-person shooter sobriquet).

And that leaves us with the big dog himself:  Johnny Depp.

Stepping into some very big shoes.

Gene Wilder.  Taken from us just months ago.  A truly magical being.

And so Depp and Burton needed a strategy.

And it appears it was something like, “Ok, let’s make him weirder.  Like, lots weirder.  Remember those sunglasses Keith Richards wore on Between the Buttons?  And the hair like Brian Jones.  Prim.  Proper.  Rocker.  Ok, ok…but we want the Salinger recluse thing with some Prince or Michael Jackson oddity.  Purple velvet.  Ok, yes…we’re getting somewhere.”

Most striking, however, is Depp’s accent.  Very Ned Flanders…but possessed by the thoughts of Salvador Dalí.

But the Burton touch shows through.  That macabre glee.

A little cannibalism joke here.  “Which half of your child would you prefer?”

Oddities.

Though tempered by quick-tongued childlike wonder, Depp is still a rather darker Wonka than Wilder’s fatherly archetype.

Yes, Depp could fit fairly well into Kraftwerk (especially germane had Augustus from Düsseldorf won the grand prize).

Johnny and his purple latex gloves.

Not a touchy-feely Wonka.

Doesn’t even bother to learn the kids names.  [there’s only five]

Totally off his rocker.

Makes Gene Wilder’s Wonka seem like Mister Rogers in comparison.

But this is mostly secondary to the success of this film.

Tim Burton evidently didn’t feel making a true family film was beneath him.

And so, perhaps with a bit of inspiration from Wes Anderson, he made an immensely touching picture here.

Charlie Bucket is the kid we need in the world.

The chosen one.

The needle in the haystack.

And it is Wonka’s quest to find such a unique child.

Charlie almost gives up the ticket (sells it) to help his desperately poor family, but one of his four bedridden grandparents must have read Hunter S. Thompson at some point.  And so Charlie is convinced to “buy the ticket, take the ride” so to speak.

It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Enter Deep Roy (Mohinder Purba) as ALL (and I mean all) of the Oompa-Loompas.

It is in the short (!) song sequences where Burton’s debt to David Lynch emerges.

Kind of like Danny Elfman’s debt to Tom Waits.

Comes and goes.

Burton, being the mischievous connoisseur of all things dark, manages to make Veruca’s exit an homage to Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren (albeit with squirrels).

Very inventive!

Sure, there’s some crap CGI in this film (not to be confused with the even more insidious Clinton Global Initiative), but it is generally restrained.

At a few points, it gets off the rails and threatens to damage an otherwise fine film.

But I tell you this…there are plot twists here which for someone who has merely seen the first film (like myself) truly baffle and surprise.

And they are touching.

So it is with no reservations that I call this a family film.

Sure, some of the jokes are a bit obtuse.

But the framing story (the Bucket family’s existence) is indescribably magical.

It is then, only fitting, that Christopher Lee be the one to welcome the prodigal oddball Depp.

Which is to say, this film has a sort of false ending…which is inexplicable…and genius.

It is at that moment where the film finds its soul.

Family.

Love.

Humility.

Sacrifice.

Happily, Burton gives us a fairy tale ending in which the young mind can work with the eccentric master…and the eccentric master can once again know what home is like.

Home.

Wow…

-PD

Perličky na dně [1966)

I’ve never been much a fan of the omnibus film (or anthology film) genre.

Several directors.

One product.

But this one serves a very interesting purpose.

So far, we have only considered the work of Jiří Menzel (among Czech directors).

So now we will get to branch out a bit.

A sampler of sorts.

Funny enough, Menzel leads this whole thing off.

Start with your best speaker, they say.

Menzel’s contribution is fairly good.

It is closer in spirit to Capricious Summer than it is to the masterpiece Closely Watched Trains

Which is to say, it is largely “meh”.

But a true auteur is still engaging even when he or she is meh, and Menzel is interesting…even when he’s boring (as in Rozmarné léto).

If we want to know where the Belgian juggernaut Aaltra comes from, then we should look no further than Menzel’s short contribution on motorcycle racing.

As with all the stories in this omnibus, the author (in the literary sense) is Bohumil Hrabal.

We get our first bit of the “aging” theme in this installment.

The old man with his stories of Smetana and Dvořák.

The weird harpsichord music courtesy of Jan Klusák (or perhaps Jiří Šust).

It’s baroque, but just slightly off.  Anachronistic.  Neobaroque.  Like Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments (and just as rococonutty).

But the “aging” theme really comes to the fore in the next section which is directed by Jan Němec.  Němec sadly passed away but four months ago.

In this scene we meet two old men in a hospital.  It is a very touching piece of cinema.

They try to keep each other’s spirits up.

We also start to sense another theme in Hrabal’s writing:  lies.

Lies notwithstanding, Němec’s segment is perhaps the most poignant thing about this film.

In the middle we get a splash of color (the rest of the film being in black and white) courtesy of the radical Evald Schorm.

What makes Schorm’s segment so beautifully jarring is the music (extremely reminiscent of Olivier Messiaen):  organ dissonance ostensibly courtesy of the aforementioned Klusák and/or Šust.

We are presented with outsider art in its purest form.  A painter who paints every wall in his house.  It is certainly reminiscent of the one-of-a-kind Henry Darger.

Incidentally, the scene is deliciously dark humor directed at not only the bureaucracy of the Czechoslovak state but also at the legitimacy of the insurance industry.

Věra Chytilová contributes a dark-yet-dreamy vignette suffused with desperation throughout.  Her use of slow-motion photography captures some very special emotions and is reminiscent of Jean Vigo’s use of the same in Zéro de conduite.

Finally, we encounter gypsies for the first time thanks to the loving depiction of Jaromil Jireš.

A Czech boy does his best Jean-Paul Belmondo before the cracked mirror near the lobby cards.

Dana Valtová might be the most convincing actress in this entire feature.  Her role of the dark-skinned gypsy (who remains nameless) is quite astonishing.

And so we learn a bit more about the Czech people thanks to this defining mosaic from the Czech New Wave:  Pearls of the Deep.

And little by little we learn a new culture.

 

-PD

Benny & Joon [1993)

I’ve had this feeling before.

It’s almost a great movie, but I’m not even sure it’s a good movie.

That is the mystery of cinema.

How easy it is to miss the mark.

Sure, there are performances within which are genuinely touching.

Mary Stuart Masterson on the bus is convincing.

It’s art.

But Johnny Depp’s a little blah here.

It’s not his best work.

The concept for this film was fantastic.

Somehow director Jeremiah Chechik didn’t or couldn’t get the performances out of his leading actors which would have made this a truly special film.

I watched the whole thing.

I’d always been curious.

It’s an almost.  A very touching story not quite brought to fruition.

It’s strange because Chechik had previously directed the masterpiece National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

Maybe the shitter was full.

Depp needed to be weirder here.  Between Scissorhands and Hunter S. Thompson.  Somehow his performance just seemed a little bland.

It must have been difficult.

The trick was probably trying not to overpower Masterson’s performance.

In that respect, he does a nice job.  He shows restraint.

But it just doesn’t translate as a film.

The subplot between Benny (Aidan Quinn) and Ruthie (Julianne Moore) is frankly boring.

This film either needed to go into hyperrealist Harmony Korine mode or needed to be a whole hell of a lot more magical and creative in the Depp-centric trajectory I delineated previously.

Too late now.  Too.  Late.  Now.

Now we all have our own lives to live.

Our own films to make.

Learn the lessons.

Honor the mystery.

 

-PD

Viskningar och rop [1972)

Cris et Chuchotements.

…et Chuchotements.

This horribly powerful film.

No light reading.

From the lips.

Fumbling big-hand thoughts.

Like Brice Parain said, inseparable from language.

We can see this fount at which Godard drank.

We can see the borrowing of von Trier.

We can see the fealty of Wes Anderson.

It is Cries and Whispers of Ingmar Bergman.

Tired, aging Bergman.

Clear as a bell.

Static shots which must be achieved through moving pictures.

Just stop moving for a moment.

And be quiet.

That microphone.

Just out of sight.

No B-movie swoop-downs.

But absolute perfection throughout.

And yet the message is dark.

No hope.

Cathartic, maybe.

Always fade to red.

And reemerge through the color spectrum.

Yellow to white light.

Four women.

Three sisters and a zaftig maid.

Someone’s crying Lord…

Come by here.  In a dream.  See their lips move.

We should love the coquette.  The redhead.  Liv Ullmann.

She should dominate us like a Renoir painting.

A madder rose cinema has known not.

But is she not a fake, Maria?

Is she not just a color palette towards which we gravitate?

What worth in the façade when the heart is empty?

It had been a long time since Summer with Monika, but Harriet Andersson was here.

And yet, it is Liv Ullmann who gets the plastic surgeon insults of the doctor (Erland Josephson).

But Harriet Andersson has enough grief with which to deal.

No no, I have gotten mixed up with all these actresses of Bergman.  And don’t even mention Ingrid!

We will come back to poor, sweet Harriet.

But we must first deal with the witch:  Ingrid Thulin.

What kind of misery makes such a witch?

A tissue of lies (reads the subtitles).

I believe Thierry Meyssan had to deal with such proclamations (though I read them in translation).

What kind of lies here, though…specifically?

Loveless marriage.

Probably even more empty than simply.

Loveless.

No creative punctuation.  No flirtatious commas or semicolons.

But simply poetry written like a telegraph dispatch.

Full stop.

Desperate.

Depression unto madness.  That is Ingrid Thulin here as Karin.

But then we must come back to our sickness.

A true physical ailment.

A patient.

Bedridden.

Patience.

It is Agnes.  Painful.  Wheezing.  Horrible.  Ghastly.

A high-water mark of art films.

Top that, motherfucker.

Jerry Lee to Chuck Berry.  Worse than an expletive.

But what brings this whole film together?  Who holds this house against her bosom?

It is none other than Kari Sylwan.

Yes, there are no important male characters within.

Georg Årlin chews his fish like someone in the diplomatic service should.

And expects “a little consensual rape in the evening” (to quote the Nick Cave of Grinderman).

But such petty existence boils the madness.

The glass.

Shards of light.

Smeared with lunacy.

Against all this is Kari Sylwan as Anna.

The maid.

The help.

Priceless.

Humanist.

A believer.  As the sick believed more than the priest.

No real important male characters here.

But Anders Ek is the voice of reason.  The voice of poetry.  For a moment.  Touching.

Don’t touch me.

Don’t touch me.

Such damage in the world.

And Anna bears it all.

The only true hero.

Meek.

Equally tormented.

But strong.

Annas make the world go round.  Deliver the medicine.  Keep the world from splitting open.  Make sure the trains are on time.  Hugs.

The history of cinema is littered with sad brilliance.

Strewn with fictional corpses.

Troubled directors trying to come to terms with their own fears of death.

And in the end, such creations loom large because they closest resemble the art of the ancient world and the itch of the Renaissance.

Storm on!  And write all night long!!

Someone has stolen my beard, but my mustache is plenty weird.

We shall live to see Nietzsche bitch-slap Hitler.

And Tarantino will again work at a video store.  Where he belongs.  A very able clerk.  Like me.

 

-PD

Les Misérables: Une tempête sous un crâne [1934)

Often when I watch films I am totally drained of energy even at the beginning.

Going into it.

And then a cinematic miracle will occasionally make me forget all about my exhaustion.

This is one of those times.

Thanks to director Raymond Bernard.

And thanks to the lead actor Harry Baur.

This is one of those films which can slip under the radar.

Mercifully, its four-hour-and-forty-minute running time is broken up into three parts.

That was, incidentally, also the mode of release in 1934.

The three parts apparently were shown in theaters by way of staggered releases (in the incredibly short time span of three weeks).

It is somewhat of an ingenious device.  I’m not familiar with another film to have received such a treatment.

This first section of Hugo’s novel is titled here Une tempête sous un crâne.

As you might expect, it is a particularly touching story.

It is certainly worth revisiting Les Misérables after seeing this first film.

The story is very heroic.  Harry Baur instills pride.  Proud to be human.

Few characters in life or fiction make such an impression.

The initial meeting with the priest is awe-inspiring.

As Jean Valjean says (in amazement), “I haven’t slept in a bed in 19 years.”

A real bed.  With sheets.  Like normal people.

Having been in jail.

His statement is a stunner.

I know that feeling.

As an artist.

I slept on a couch for years.

I slept on the floor.

We must remember that Valjean’s crime was stealing a loaf of bread.

Five years.

His four attempts to break out of jail extended his sentence by 14 years.

19 in total.

Hard labor.

All from stealing a loaf of bread.

And wanting to be free.

And then there is dear Fantine (played by Florelle).

A mother reduced to prostitution.

Sells her hair.  Sells her teeth.

All for her daughter Cosette.

It is reification in overdrive.

Finally, Fantine has nothing to sell but her body.

She has sold parts.

She stayed pure as long as she could.

She was tricked.

And an orphan to begin with.

So she ends up in a factory…playing the glass bead game…stringing cheap necklaces to keep her daughter alive.

And another pair of vultures (the Thénardiers) trick her more.

They rip her off.

Always more and more.

Just like modern life.

Modern times.

Les Temps modernes.

So we must remember Victor Hugo as an artist of conscience.

And Sartre…conscience.

Perhaps less artful.

And Barack Obama.

Completely artless, but still perhaps some conscience.

Let’s not underestimate the humanism of the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) program.

Sure, “the Guidance” was issued by Jeh Johnson (of Homeland Security).

Yes, the program is unlawful.

It is a new law.

That’s not the purview of the executive branch.

Yes, the plaintiffs are right in their invocation of the Take Care clause of the U.S. constitution.

But we must make sure to not misquote former Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark by omitting the final words of his famous quote:

“Nothing can destroy a government more quickly than its failure to observe its own laws…”  Which is to say, yes:  Judge Hanen…you are right.  Greg Abbott…you are right.  Republican states…you are right.  [I am speaking, of course, about the forthcoming Supreme Court decision on immigration…United States v. Texas.]

BUT…there’s more to Tom Clark’s quote…and it is often left out.  As Paul Harvey would have said, THAT’S the rest of the story.

Nothing can destroy a government more quickly than its failure to observe its own laws, OR WORSE, ITS DISREGARD OF THE CHARACTER OF ITS OWN EXISTENCE.

Which is to say:  the Democrats have the high moral ground here.

Let me clarify.

I hate Obama.  He’s a fake and a phony.

He had the opportunity to bring to real perpetrators of 9/11 to justice.

He didn’t.

That should have been job #1 after having wrested the White House from the maniacal neocon Bush junta.

Unfortunately, at the very deepest levels it seems that cabal never left.

Obama merely carried on the War on Terror charade (even going so far as to kill a dead man…the bogus bogeyman…Osama bin Laden).

But Obama and Jeh Johnson are right about DAPA.  MORALLY right.  Which doesn’t make their actions legal.  But I applaud the current administration for OSTENSIBLY caring about the people affected…the human beings…our illegal alien brothers and sisters.  They are, first of all, humans.  If they entered this country illegally, that is a secondary consideration.  They must always remain, first and foremost, HUMANS.

Yeah, Obama and friends most likely pulled off the Sandy Hook false flag.  That’s because the administration is, in general, a bunch of scumbags.

Speaking of presidents, Donald Trump is the only real candidate left.

Sure, he needs to slap himself in the face a few times and realize that Mexicans (among other immigrants from the south) and Muslims are people.  That’s a big hurdle for the Donald.

That’s the stumbling block.

Trump is winning because he’s the only one willing to admit that he’s a jerk.

His actions say it.

Hillary?  Secret jerk.

Cruz?  Thinly-veiled jerk.

Sanders?  Well-meaning jerk.

And then there’s the other jerk.  We’ll call him nice jerk.

Trump has won the rhetoric battle.

Now he needs to dial it back a little bit and find a soul.

I know he has one…deep down in there…somewhere.

Sanders is right about Snowden.  Trump has fumbled that one a bit.

But Trump is still the only one to address 9/11 with any sort of credibility.

That is priceless.

Can Donald “Jean Valjean” Trump turn it around and really make a positive difference?

I think he can, but he has to learn the lesson of the candlesticks…the silver…and the 40 sous.

It will be a tightrope.  The master bigot will have to convince a country of bigots that our humanity impels us to a higher moral standard.

That is Victor Hugo here…applied to the here and now.

 

-PD

 

 

Amarcord [1973)

This film contains everything.

As in, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

It is truly vast like the sky full of pebble stars.

There is no translation for Federico Fellini’s masterpiece Amarcord other than “I remember”.

Ah, good God:  memory!

I immediately think of George Stevens’ paean to family I Remember Mama (1948) and, of course, the king of memory Marcel Proust.

But this is Italy, not France.  And Remembrance of Things Past is a “bad” translation.  More accurate is In Search of Lost Time.

And that is exactly what Fellini is doing here.

Trying to reclaim the past.

Remember this?  Remember that?

It is, I am guessing, a conversation with himself.

A rumination.

It is a small town (or at least it feels that way).

And we have everything.

A blind accordionist straight out of Tom Waits’ dreams.

A femme fatale by the name of Gradisca (“take what you want”).  [Played by Magali Noël.]

We miss the translation now and then.  Perhaps the Romagnol dialect?

That explains our title Amarcord.

I remember.

“Jadis, si je me souviens bien…”

A season in hell.

From hell.

And yet a season of beauty as well.

Uncle Teo (Uncle Uncle) says it best…up a tree…over and over and over and over again:

Voglio una donna!

Voglio una donna!

[like John Lennon writhing in pain on “Mother” or “Cold Turkey”]

Voglio una donna!

“I want a woman!”

Each incantation different.

The 42-year-old Teo up a tree…on a day out in the country…on leave from the asylum.

And a dwarf nun makes it all better.

It’s not what you think.

When you look at the cover for the film, is says SEX SEX SEX.

Sure, there’s sex.

But it’s very matter-of-fact.

This isn’t a film with gratuitous nudity (only one brief nude scene).

Sex is woven into the film.

It’s alright to talk about sex.  1973.  Italy.

Fellini is a big shot by now.

It is art.  It is life.  It is artistic expression.

Everyone is portrayed lovingly.  Everyone is subjected to the same pimple-precise criticism.

Films don’t get any more real than this.

HOWEVER…

Fellini introduces an element of magical realism here and there.  [The magic is due in no small part to Nino Rota’s shimmering soundtrack.]

Sure, it serves as a bit of a distancing technique (Brecht?)…a defense mechanism, perhaps.

This material is too raw; too personal.

It is TOO sad!  One has to laugh because of how sad it is.

And that is the tragicomedy which lived on in the great Roberto Benigni’s comedies and the grand-slam of naïveté:  Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso.

And so, to understand these latter-day…saints(?)…we must examine the old masters.  We must get used to saying Nuovo Cinema Paradiso (the real title)…because cinema is barely a hundred years old, really.  And so, we must look to Fellini as akin to Giotto.

Pros-pet-ti-va!

We get so many perspectives here…

It’s one of the few times AMPAS has gotten something right.  This film.  Oscar for Best Foreign Language.  1974.  Look at the list.  Lots of misses.

Back to Amarcord.

Beauty goes away.  The big fish in the small pond.

But the blind accordion player endures.

Vulpina (Josiane Tanzilli) the nymphomaniac fleshes out the family portrait.

Ah ah ah…

It’s no use.

This film is all about detail.

There is no use recounting the endless assortment of fascinating characters who make this thing go.

You will just have to see it for yourself.

For all of its pithy naturalism, it is really a touching film.

Fellini gets every little detail right.  Such a formidable picture!

 

-PD