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

Top Secret! [1984)

And so we come full-circle.

As in the olden days.

When we first started.

Writing about spy spoofs.

And this is a doozy!

Val Kilmer’s first film.

As Nick Rivers.

Very much Elvis, but equally Beach Boys (at least on the opening number “Skeet Surfing”).

I would call this style of filmmaking “kitchen sink”.

It was a particular type of American comedy in the 1980s.

Fast jokes.

Set pieces.

Elaborate puns.

General silliness.

The setting is East Germany.

In the time of Markus Wolf and the Stasi.

Wolf retired in 1986.

The year after this film (1985), Vladimir Putin started his KGB career in East Germany.

But let’s talk about more important stuff…like how beautiful Lucy Gutteridge is!

A girl and a gun, said Godard.

And for a sequel, another girl and another gun…

Said I.

Port Said.

Fuad II.

Yes, Ms. Gutteridge plays the stunning Hillary.

Which roughly translates to “she whose breasts defy gravity”.

That’s a direct paraphrase.

What?

We almost get the Lawrence Welk Orchestra doing “Sister Ray”, but Nick Rivers and “Tutti Frutti” is close enough to alienate the visiting Russian operatic singer and his caricature faux-Nazi patron.

General Streck.

Not to be confused with Colonel Sturm or Sergeant Drang.

Jim Abrahams and the Zucker brothers (David and Jerry) strung us along the whole time.

And they directed a fairly decent film here…the triumvirate.

The Nutcracker turns out to be a ballet of literal protrusions.

The prop room is equally literal.

It’s both Joycean and daft.

But I had some genuine chuckles during this film.

They execute a priest as a demonstration.

And his Latin is a knee-slapping litany.

A greatest hits of that dead language.

Legal.  Medical.  String it together.  Make it flow.

Pig Latin.  Cow Latin.  Pidgin Latin.

Yes Elvis.  Yes Beach Boys.  And yes Beatlemania.

Sullivan.  Hysteria.  Hip sway.  Swooning.

Is it a bit of Fritz Lang with the magnifying glass?

Certainly prefigures the backmasking of Twin Peaks.

Swedish as a backwards language.

Like those hidden messages on (back to the) Beatles records.

I want to live in that loft of that Swedish bookstore…

clutching a volume of Strindberg and holding a Ms. Gutteridge.

How could anyone dream of more than two fireplaces at the top of a firehouse pole?

Many references.  The Blue Lagoon.  When Brooke Shields was just 14.

Like the Podestas, we end up next in the script at a pizza restaurant.

(!)

“Straighten Out the Rug” pulls out all the stops…and all the rugs…like Pejman Nozad on vitamins.

An incredibly detailed mock-up of the prison grounds complete with a toy train.

Bovine infiltration.

Eggs Benedict Arnold.

When instead of hollandaise, they’ve secretly replaced the sauce with Folger’s crystal gravy (on loan from the struggling PepsiCo).

While Trump protestors boycott every snack and cranny of this MNE.

But the dénouement is the underwater saloon brawl.

It is actually artful.  Postmodern.  High art in spite of itself.  Dodoism.

We must not forget the yeoman efforts of the great Omar Sharif in this film.

Sadly, Mr. Sharif passed away just this past year in his home country of Egypt.

At least he did not (presumably) need two hours of surgery to wipe the smile off his face.

“Who do you root for in the Virginia Slims tournament?”

“I always root against the heterosexual.”

“Do you know any good, white basketball players?”

“There are no good, white basketball players.”

All of this from the “Match?  Lighter.  Better still.” line which Robert Shaw sweated out of someone to fool his way into James Bond’s presence and trust for a short time…before he chose fish with red wine.

One wonders whether the East Berliners had the jelly-faced joy of seeing this arrogant Hollywood slap at the time of its release?

Most importantly, “kitchen sink” was the style of the ZAZ directors mentioned previously:  Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker.

Kentucky Fried Movie.  Airplane!  The Naked Gun films (with the exception of the last).

This really is a cute film.

And while most of it would have pushed the envelope for 1984, it would almost be a G-rated movie by today’s standards.

Still, there are some jawdropping moments…such as The Anal Intruder (with the Cuisinart on the shelf [in the jailhouse now]).

Turns out the Christopher Atkins character (played by Christopher Villiers) had gotten all the joys of the Russian sailors who rescued him…including sodomy, Karl Marx, Lenin, L. Ron Hubbard, and one more bloke.

And so we wonder…couldn’t the Butthole Surfers have made it into this film?

Just barely.

Three years later they would drop the masterpiece Locust Abortion Technician.

Ah, the Reagan era…

 

-PD

The Addams Family [1991)

Hello, dear friends 🙂

I was in the hospital last weekend for an appendectomy.

And I am trying to make the final push for my master’s degree.

Seventeen more days.

But the big story, nationally, internationally, is that Donald Trump won the U.S. Presidency.

I made no secrets about my desire for him to achieve this goal.

Which brings us to The Addams Family.

Released during the latter half of the George H.W. Bush administration.

Not quite an “80s comedy”, but close.

And a premonition of sorts for that crime family that would rule the majority of the 1990s:  the Clinton family.

Director Barry Sonnenfeld turns in a fairly decent picture here.

It’s no masterpiece, but it’s certainly watchable.

But at the center of this tale is Uncle Fester.

Christopher Lloyd’s depiction of Fester (pre-shave…Gordon Craven) is a spitting image of the Tony Podesta to whom we were introduced by way of WikiLeaks.

The less-hirsute Fester (still craven) could well be brother John Podesta.

But Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman could also well be the Gomez Addams of this story.

Ms. Clinton, then, would be the diabolical (though far less camera-friendly) Morticia Addams.

Dan Hedaya does an excellent job as the Addams’ lawyer.

There’s plenty to pass for “spirit cooking” in this family film.

Indeed, The Addams Family is a bit racy for young minds (in my opinion).

The “family” operates on fairly simple principles:  good is bad.  And bad is good.

Happiness is sadness.

A bit like Tim Buckley’s album Happy Sad (1969).

The Addams family abides by a code of vengeance against all who betray them.

Vince Foster.

Christina Ricci is cute as she is chilling in this early performance as daughter Wednesday Addams.

The most charming aspect of this film may well be Thing:  the disembodied hand/family pet.

We learn a few things.

You can’t successfully torture a masochist (Morticia).

Which begs the question…who is the real ghoul behind Hillary?

The most prominent of the “deep state” (not deep enough) is George Soros.

And so even stars like Hillary have craven masters.

Puerto Rican actor Raúl Juliá is excellent as Gomez.

Carel Struycken (Twin Peaks) is very strong as Lurch.

This film would have been better with more Cousin Itt and less MC Hammer.

Unfortunately, Cousin Itt was staged in a particularly Jar Jar Binks sort of way.

Most importantly, there will be no Bill Clinton sequel anytime soon.

 

-PD

Groundhog Day [1993)

Same day.  Really feels surreal.

Disorienting.

Wake up.  Some food.

Tired.  Moving slowly.

Pull yourself together.

And you’re off to see Punxsutawney Phil.

Cassavetes Shadows.

Same day.  But different content.

Learning the subtleties and dimensionality of situations.

You feel dreaming.

Heavy.

And you do your job.  Same as previous.  And the next day.

Will be a carbon copy.

For instance.

You need to do the same thing the next four days in a row.

And maybe, just maybe, it will all work out alright.

And that’s starting from complete mental exhaustion.

Well, that’s how I feel.

About Groundhog Day. 

It’s a damn fine film.

Harold Ramis as director.

But Bill Murray is the star.

He just doesn’t give a fuck.

Starts off as a cross between Ron Burgundy and Dick Tremayne from Twin Peaks.

But he settles into a surly sarcasm which melts faces.

It’s endearing.

Very few can pull it off.

Thora Birch in Ghost World.

Bill Murray here.

And then there’s the lovely Andie MacDowell.

I used to be so in love with her when I was a little kid.

My first celebrity crush (if I remember correctly).

I was just fascinated with her hair.

A perfumed jungle.

Certainly some Baudelaire in there.

Maybe I can’t say anything really enlightening here.

Because I’m really tired.

But I wanted to write.  Needed to write.

And needed the laugh that great comedy provides.

Thank you Bill Murray!

Bill gives freaks like me hope 🙂

 

-PD

 

 

Spalovač mrtvol [1969)

This is one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen.

The Cremator.

Directed by Juraj Herz.

Even if you are familiar with the Czechoslovak New Wave, this film will still take you by surprise.

It is a mélange of times and themes.

And truly a horror story.

But there is a Brechtian detachment at work.

This would explain labels such as “comedy horror”.

It’s perhaps more absurd and surreal than it is funny.

But it is certainly frightening.

A very creepy piece of cinema.

Everything revolves around a crematory official/director named Kopfrkingl.

That name alone is enough to jar the most languid viewer at each pronunciation.

Historically speaking, this was not a successful film upon release.

No, it was too weird to be incorporated into the Czechoslovak communist pantheon moving forward.  And so the world would have to wait until 1989 to get a look at this thing.

The whole film feels like a dream.

A bad dream.  With some particularly vivid violence.  [Or vintage violence.]

Mr. Kopfrkingl is a truly, outrageously delusional man.

And he only becomes more so as the film goes on.

Modern viewers might notice a bit of Eric Cartman in Rudolf Hrušínský’s performance as Kopfrkingl.

Seen behind an iconic ribbon microphone, Kopfrkingl invokes the manic strains of Hitler and we feel the sick surge of idiocy grab hold of our dear cremator.

The strangest part of Kopfrkingl’s delusion is his obsession with Tibet.

It makes me wonder whether David Lynch saw this prior to Twin Peaks?

Thubten Gyatso dies, and Hitler comes to power.

1933.

Based on a novel by Ladislav Fuks, this tale must be seen to be believed.

There are short-circuit edits akin to Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker. 

Indeed, director Herz is himself Jewish.

Truth be told, there have been few films which deal with the Holocaust as effectively (if obliquely) as The Cremator

Every shot of Hrušínský from the back evokes the Peter Lorre of M. 

This is a thoroughly fascinating cinematic experience.

 

-PD

Twin Peaks “Beyond Life and Death” [1991)

Epic failure.

Success of self-sabotage.

Keep cryptic the pearls before swine.

The end.

In 25 years.

Mona Lisa with more than a mustache.

L.H.O.O.Q.

Completely smeared to oblivion.

Lackluster.

Groping for meaning.

Strobe transcendence momentarily.

Largely garbage.

A big “fuck you” to the system which let it fail.

A sign off…a kiss off.

A dead mall of shoehorned narrative.

Masterpiece of world literature ending with the word “poop”.

It is Dodoism.

Bathos.

But there is redemption.

The most awkward dead air ever.

Shuffling bank manager.

Savings and loan.

A painful gait.  No edit.

No cutaway.

John Cage in primetime.

And in that redemption, mystery.

A most perverse incursion of prime time real estate.

There’s a différance.

A memetic virus.  A viral meme.  Scorched motor oil.  And coffee rainbows.

At such a time, you admit defeat.

You show the process.

You rage.

Falling well short of the mark.

Fire walk with me.

 

-PD

Twin Peaks “Miss Twin Peaks” [1991)

Exploding plastic inevitable.

Factory strobo seizure.

A day.

Cross-dressing horror.

Bates.  Hoover.

A Bundy log.

A slick exterior.  Petrified.

We hold out hope.

Umbrellas.

Craven (brisure).

A strange look and a mystery.

 

-PD

Twin Peaks “The Path to the Black Lodge” [1991)

Scumbag rockroll kranky man.

Mirror man.

Love, got my hooks in you.

Paternity.

Casablanca.

The day it arrived.

Shaky.

Red right hand.

Johnny Stecchino.

Not at liberty.

Pentothal.

Barbiturate.

Jupiter and Saturn.

They will receive you.

 

-PD

Twin Peaks “Variations on Relations” [1991)

The war is not won by logic alone.

Nor solely by florid creativity.

Weaponized love.

Crowbar.

Hearing “where dead voices gather”.

I believe it came out as “oenophiliac”.

Footprints.

Monograph on cigarette butts.

Woody?

No, not really…

With hints of pencil lead.

My favorite.

Carrots for cigars.

King of flowers.

Anecdotal Guam.

A puzzle box.

Die Büchse.

Symbology and petroglyph.

The moral actions of extremely intelligent military personnel.

To prevent loss of life.

The birth of conscience.

Extreme frankness borne of Boy Scout precision.

And yet tact.

Of course.

Gentlemanly.

Palimpsests in cache.

No erasure.

Sous rature.

Under the paving stones, the beach.

Ian Buchanan comes to the fore.

All Cary Grant through and through.

Dear friends, exhaustion.

I beg of you, patience.

This is my therapy.

To watch.

And write for pleasure.

Thank you.

 

-PD

The Silence of the Lambs [1991)

Wouldn’t it be neat if the FBI actually did things?

Good things.

When’s the last time the FBI actually caught a criminal?

A real criminal.

They had a lovely chance to save America.

By investigating 9/11.

And so we have been investigating the investigators.

Special Agent.

So special…

I was wrong about Twin Peaks.

Because you have to add to the propagandistic litany The X-Files.

And finally this hulking slab of mind control.

Lies can be so beautiful.

Perhaps…once upon a time…the FBI did something.

After Hoover…and before OKC.

A small window.

But let me pause for a minute and admit.

That I love this film.

It is one of the few true masterpieces of American cinema.

It stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Rosemary’s Baby.

The only real heirs to the legacy of Hitchcock.

1991.  1991.  Nineteen-ninety-one.

Does America have any honor left?

Do American troops read books?

Do military officers ever avoid the most grave corruption?

Where is the genius to save our country?

What can we learn from serial killers?

Which animals are the most clever?

At the bottom and into the middle are good men and women.

Like Clarice Starling.

Mozart’s pet bird.

A requiem.

Apocryphal.

Lachrymal vases.

My intellect is miniscule.

Our computers would have picked it up.

Desperately random.

How far can you push an old body.

How much fear can you handle?

How much panic can be breathed!

Such genius to personify.

The pathetic fallacy.  They all fawn.

But it is rather reverse reification.

Humanizing.

It.

The way of no way.

Swing hovering to deal with ambush predators.

That’s a quote.

When life mattered.

Isolation savors detail.

Real, not fake.

Hans Selye will never know.

Everything you need to know is here.

The dossier.

Two acting masterpieces.

Jodie Foster.

And Anthony Hopkins.

Once in a lifetime.

The auteurist glue?  Jonathan Demme.

What kind of game is this?

It is the biggest test.

 

-PD