Saturday, December 27, 2014

Movies You May Have Missed - We Are The Best! (2013)

Lukas Moodysson is a supreme film director. He charms you, at times while breaking your heart (Show Me Love, Together) and sometimes he just breaks your heart, irreparably (Lilya 4-Ever, which I'm convinced altered my brain chemistry with its tragic human-trafficking story). We Are The Best! is based on his wife Coco's autobiographical graphic novel "Never Goodnight," about her early-teen punk-rock days in 1982 Stockholm. And like a graphic novel, Moodysson sets the story down as if in panels of a comic, with minor beginnings and endings as his three protagonists find one another, form a band and glory in the waning era of punk.

Refusing to believe punk is dying, even as the genre morphs into more commercially viable new wave, punk middle-schoolers, Klara, Bobo and Hedvig don't have any major revelations other than forming a friendship with one another in a world that doesn't understand them. But is anything more revelatory to a 13-year-old? One of Moodysson's great strengths is his understanding and ability to portray the human yearning for connection and acceptance, especially among young people. A satirical humanist with a spiritual, clear-eyed core, Moodysson is a rare artist in today's film world.

And now:

Our alienated teen protagonists: Bobo (Mira Barkhammar):

And her friend in punk, Klara (Mira Grosin):

Bobo's divorced mom is busy with a series of boyfriends and Klara's somewhat eccentric family doesn't take her political posturing seriously. Both girls are not exactly at the top of the popularity pool among their peers. Haircuts and baggy clothes are their outward manifestation of rebellion. But they truly do love punk music, finding comfort in the anger and pathos of musical misfitism.

A vapid schoolmate is not impressed

The local rock band, Iron Fist, who practice at their youth center, are about as disrespectful as you can imagine.

But when Iron Fist forgets to sign in for their regularly scheduled rehearsal night, the girls pounce for their chance to use the center's band room and piss off obnoxious boys at the same time.

Their first truly punk-situationist action

Even though neither has played an instrument in her life.

But that never stopped a punk band from trying and soon Klara has turned their outward humiliation into art. Of sorts. It's a perfect punk-rock feminist moment.

Disdainful of their P.E. teacher's athletic rules and regulations, the girls write their first song, "Hate the Sport" during a basketball-imposed infraction. This is how it all begins, man.

Clear-headed enough to recognize their inability to sing, play, or otherwise get it together music-wise, Bobo and Klara decide to recruit shy, friendless, classically trained Hedvig (Liz Lemoyne) into their new scene.

The angelic Hedvig

The fact that Hedvig is a practicing Christian is a bit of a ideological stumbling block, especially for Klara, who calls God a fascist. But they figure they'll just change Hedvig's mind about her faith and all will be kosher.

In one of the film's lovely surprises, Hedvig turns out to be a true practicing Christian. That is, a good soul. She teaches the girls about chords, harmonies and playing in the same key. She also acts as a mature, even nurturing presence, bridging Bobo's tendency toward self-hating despair and Klara's narcissistic brattiness. Every trio should be so lucky.

The girls reward her with a new peer-sanctioned haircut.

All is not serene within their unnamed band. There are punk-rock boys to contend with.

Ah, memories...

And all the jealousies and rivalries that can occur when girls enter the boys' world of rock music. Also, Bobo has a crush on Klara's older brother, Linus, who Klara despises ever since he gave up punk for all things Joy Division. Moodysson subverts the usual "teen party while the parents are away" scene in surprising, subtle fashion. I love how he allows compassion to come forth from unlikely cinematic sources.

Besides the camaraderie and excitement of expressing themselves musically, punk allows the girls to be themselves—a little pissed off, somewhat alienated, funny, intelligent and feminine on their own terms. We Are The Best! manages all this within its episodic realism. It salutes punk, adolescence and creative self-expression while celebrating friendship and girl power among the idiots. See it.


Hedvig's folk-cover of KSMB's Sex Noll Två (Six Zero Two) that brings her new friends to tears, in its entirety.

The exuberant Vad ska du bli? (What are you going to be?) by Ebba Grön, bookends the movie and expresses the anxiety of growing up ordinary in an workaday world.

An inteview with Lukas Moodysson by Steven Saito in The Moveable Fest.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas Light-Display Freakout!

Greetings from Discovery Way in Concord, California, where holiday house displays are de rigueur for a hillside suburban community full of Christmas Spirit. You can have your HGTV specials and that house down the road with a bunch of twinkly icicle lights dangling from its rain gutters. But nobody's going to out-light Discovery Way within a 50-mile radius. The proof is in the pudding—the Christmas pudding.

Exhibit A: This house is pure lunacy and I love it. It has a tropical palm-tree theme with large-scale illuminated manger, flamingos, butterflies, and a ladder with Santa endlessly making his way to the rooftop. There's just a neon artistry to this that can't be replicated.

This photo is from last year, showing the dedication to theme

Christmas Flamingos

So inspiring, I made a movie of it, featuring the dulcet tones of Mr. Bobby Vinton.

O Holy Night from Miss Lisa on Vimeo.

There's more! Is there one square inch of this house NOT covered in lights? I think not. This is dedication.

This front yard promotes peace between the U.S. and the Middle East. That's my interpretation.

There will be no wreckless driving through the streets of Bethlehem on this Santa's watch. The penguin with the radar gun will see to it.


...but with a delicate touch. The garage of the above house with the gigantor Santa has a facade that shows holiday movies on one side, while housing a tiny diorama of a Christmas village on the other. The family pet within the garage barked hysterically at us while we marveled at this scene. All our Christmas senses were fully engaged in one tableau.

Tiny Christmas village

Have a merry one. See you in 2015.

A side note: Concord's Mr. Christmas is retiring after 36 dedicated years to home decoration. We visited his house last year and I just want to hail his Christmas spirit, which is merry and bright. Thank you, Mr. Christmas, and to all home decorators during the dark winter months. Have a fabulous holiday.

Mr. Christmas' home, 2013

Thank you, Mr. Christmas!

Monday, December 08, 2014

Movies You May Have Missed - Slums of Beverly Hills (1998)

Slums of Beverly Hills is Tamara Jenkins' semi-autobiographical tale of growing up in the mid-70s while living in various rundown "dingbats"—box-like cheap-o apartments with fancy-sounding names like "Casa Bella," that sprouted mushroom-like throughout California during the 50s and 60s. Natasha Lyonne is Vivian Abromowitz, soon-to-be freshman at Beverly Hills High. Alan Arkin is her car salesman dad, Murray, who struggles mightily to keep his three kids within the Beverly Hills school district by renting its cheapest apartments just inside the city limits. When rent is over-due, which is often, Vivian and her two brothers are packed into the family station wagon in the middle of the night, hightailing it to the next available apartment.

Just the combination of Lyonne and Arkin alone makes for supreme casting, but Slums... hosts a ridiculously rich company of comedic actors, including David Krumholtz as would-be thespian pothead brother, Ben, and the always-great Kevin Corrigan as a neighbor who's obsessed with Charles Manson and is something of a love-interest for Vivian. Not a full-on love interest, because Vivian is more interested in exploring her own sexuality than connecting with some guy across the hall who dropped out of high school to become a drug dealer. Vivian's ability to view sex as its own outcome rather than a love connection, is one of this movie's modern conceits. The sexual revolution was in full effect by the mid-seventies and Jenkins doesn't bow to romantic movie tropes about teenage girls and their inner desires. What Vivian desires is to settle down in one place long enough to have an actual home. But since Murray describes his family as Nomads, that's not likely to happen any time soon.

With her tremendous pie-eyes and mounds of red hair, Lyonne could just make facial expressions on-camera and be riveting, but she has so many innate comic gifts going for her. It's  good to see her career pick up again in Orange is the New Black (where she shines once more). As Vivian, who has seemingly developed breasts "overnight," she's forced to go from tomboy to object-of-desire in one summer. Lyonne's galumphing walk and plaintive stare indicate Vivian's humiliation throughout an array of uncomfortable scenarios—forced to wear a bra with a halter top, potential plastic surgery confusion, and the fallout from unexpected menstrual bleeding.

Slums... is a precursor to our current comedy of mortification, but unlike much of today's comedy, Vivian is not the butt of the joke. Although she has no sexual experience or even knowledge of half the things the adults around her refer to, she covers up her ignorance and soldiers on. And she's most often the voice of reason in a world full of dingbats. Jenkins recognizes that young people may be inexperienced, but they're not stupid.

And now:

Vivian has no choice but to surrender to the demands of early puberty. Her dad insists she buy her first bra. What an awful time, puberty.

Vivian's parents are divorced and for reasons unexplained, mom lives on the east coast. A series of maternal and not-so-maternal characters flit in and out of the story to guide Vivian through this awkward phase. The bra saleslady assures us that "breasts are beautiful!"

But Vivian's not buying it.

Ah, Los Angeles. I lived there briefly in 1970 and it looked just like this. One of the great achievements of this little comedy is the set design, and the recognition that families struggled economically throughout the decade. People didn't look "cool." They mostly looked everyone in this movie.

National treasure, Alan Arkin, as Murray—on the pay phone


An upscale dingbat

An Abromowitz family portrait featuring Vivian's iconic blowdryer-halter-first-bra-cutoffs-tube-sock gunslinger look.

Everyone in this cast is so game for anything. How hard you laugh at Ben's rehearsal scene for "Guys and Dolls" is a barometer for how much you'll enjoy the deadpan comedy stylings of this film.

Things get more squirrely when adorable but drug-addled cousin Rita (Marisa Tomei) escapes from rehab and is taken in by her Uncle Murray so the family can afford to live off her wealthy father's allowance. A recipe for disaster? Oh, most assuredly.

Marisa Tomei is always charming and so underrated

Though she's worldly, Rita is not wise. Here she introduces Vivian to her "boyfriend." Another memorable musical scene ensues.

Kevin Corrigan, as Eliot. Corrigan is one of those "where have I seen him before?" character actors who can play oddball or menacing, often both at once. The secret is his excellently modulated voice, and his intense eye-stare.

More greatness—veteran actor Jessica Walter as Doris, Murray's "nice, normal" lady-friend who wants him around as a (paid?) companion.

And check it out, Carl Reiner and Rita Moreno show up as Rita's parents. Jenkins has said that between takes, conversation between Arkin, Reiner and Moreno around this table scene was incredible—all stories of past shoots and movie lore. She wishes she had taped it and so do I. What a dream cast. She also says it was a very stressful shoot, which I can imagine. It was her first feature and look at all these veterans, along with young quirky up-and-coming youngsters (Lyonne was only 18). Plus the weirdness of a period piece from a very weird period.

There's some clunky narrative issues with this film. Murray is supposed to be flawed, but some of his behavior is jarring and makes for darker conflict where conflict isn't needed. Characters find and lose each other rather abruptly, but that's in keeping with the time. It was a coming-apart-at-the-seams era where family boundaries burst and people had to figure out how to keep going without a social template to follow.

A Beverly Hills dream deferred.

One more family portrait. I'll always treasure Vivian's bravery in the face of teenage mortification. I can't think of another movie that faces teen-girl sexuality and oncoming womanhood with such a baleful earthy stare-down.