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5 Flights Up film poster

“5 Flights Up” Review, with Helen-Gets-a-New-TV Commentary AND Holiday Greeting to My Readers

5 Flights Up Film Review, with Helen-Gets-a-New-TV Commentary AND a Holiday Greeting to my Readers

by Helen Kaplow, as HelenHighly

Diane Keaton and her dog.
Diane Keaton and her dog.

I recently got a new television. My friend helped me set it up but didn’t have patience to go through all the detailed settings with me.

So, one day, the day after Thanksgiving, it was quiet and peaceful, even in my apartment where it is usually busy and stressful. And I took the time to carefully, meticulously yet leisurely, adjust the complex color settings in order to get my ideal picture on my new TV.

I sat in my newly furnished, all-white bedroom, in my TV-watching seat — the sleek white leather-and-chrome chair I have in my “parlor area.” And I put my feet up on my new big furry ottoman – covered in grey-and-white super-long fake-animal hair, standing on lucite legs. That was the first time I’d sat there for more than five minutes. But that day, I sat for hours and watched a whole movie. It just came onto TV while I was flipping channels. I’d never heard of it and had no idea what I was watching at first (and I missed the first few minutes).

The movie was 5 Flights Up, with Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton, and it was shot in New York and is about living in Brooklyn, and maybe moving to Manhattan. So despite not being a commercially well-received film (or I would have heard of it, right?) I thought it was perfect for me, who just moved to New York. It’s a movie about a borderline-elderly couple (where does one draw the line?) who put their apartment up for sale – a classic, old, 5-story walk-up in Brooklyn. (My uncle, who is beyond borderline and is fully elderly, explained to me that long ago there was a law dictating that any residential building over five stories must have an elevator. Thus all those 5-story walk-ups — the max allowed without an expensive elevator.) Morgan and Diane – who, it seemed to me, didn’t bother to play characters and were just themselves – have lived in that apartment all their married lives, from the time they were college kids together. So it’s a sentimental tale about Brooklyn and the idea of “home” and how an apartment itself becomes a member of the family.

“Thanks Diane Keaton for looking beautiful and real.”

I enjoyed the movie, despite it being unambitious  and overly sweet. In addition to the topic that was personally relevant to me, I have always liked both those actors – Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton, and it was good to see that they have both grown old gracefully. They have no visible signs of plastic surgery, and they both have a comfortable calm about them that comes from having lived long, accomplished lives. Now I Googled 5 Flights Up and found these quotes that say what I might have written about the film except that someone else already has:

“5 Flights Up would be nothing without its stars (very true), whose humanity warms up a movie that otherwise portrays New Yorkers as coldblooded, slightly crazy, hypercompetitive sharks.”
Stephen Holden, New York Times. Click for full review.

I agree with Holden about the actors, and my impulse is to also agree about his objection to the portrayal of stereotypical New Yorkers. But a new friend who is a longtime New Yorker keeps telling me how hyper-competitive New York is, and how I better be ready. So I will consider the possibility that he and these filmmakers are correct. Although, of course my friend is intensely competitive himself, and insists he must be in order to “make it” here, so even if the competitive environment is a figment of his imagination, he helps to make it true just by believing it’s true and behaving in a coldblooded manner. But that’s another subject.

“Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton have unexpectedly great chemistry in this warm and funny comedy.”
Lou Lumenick, New York Post. Click for full review.

Yes, they are a pleasure to watch together, and they helped me to calm down and sit quietly and watch this very pleasant movie.

“It weasels its way into your heart and ultimately claims sweet, sentimental victory over your better judgment.
Stephanie Merry, Washington Post. Click for full review.

Yes, normally this is the kind of movie I would dislike on premise. But… right time right place and it worked for me.

BUT… my point – and I do have one (who said that?), is that I used the natural, soft and variable face of Diane Keaton, with her multi-faceted expressions and inconstant, dynamic complexion, to set the picture features of my new Vizio TV. And I like that I got to do that. And I think that now I do indeed have a subtly refined Perfect Picture on my television screen. So, thanks Diane Keaton for looking beautiful and real. And I wanted to point out just how complex and intricate those settings are.

I have outlined a list of each feature about which I was able to individually make a choice (and not just an on-or-off binary choice – usually multiple or full-spectrum choice). The list below has more than 50 lines – 50 options and choices to make about my Vizio television picture. And keep in mind that as you change one option, you need to go back and adjust the previous options, because they now look different. I recall now that a friend of mine once hired a specialist, paying him $150., to come to his home and program his television screen for him. Now this is beginning to make sense to me. Perhaps this concept of a fine-tuned screen picture has become an industry in itself. I wonder if that is intentional.

Anyway. Here is the list of options that I leisurely strolled through, with Diane Keaton’s face on freeze-frame, watching her appearance subtly shift, as she contemplated her existence in New York.

“The better to see you with, my dear Diane.”

Picture:

Mode

Standard

Calibrated (I chose this one.)

Calibrated Dark

Vivid

Game

Computer

Auto-Brightnesss

Off

On (I chose on.)

High

Med (Went with medium.)

Low

Backlight (Number range: I chose 95 out of 100)

Brightness (Number range: 50)

Contrast (80)

Color (50. But when you adjust one option, then all the others look different, and you want to go back and adjust them again.)

Tint (0)

Sharpness (50)

More (Yes of course, more.)

Color Temperature

Normal (I want to be unconventional, but Normal is the only reasonable selection here.)

Color

Computer

Black Detail (Must research what this is and come back.)

Off

On

Low

Medium

High

Active LED Zones

On (Hell yes; this was the reason I selected this Vizio TV – for it’s much-touted “active LED zones.”)

Off

Clear Action

On

Off (I chose off. I’m getting tired, and I think this is a sports thing.)

Reduce Noise (Again, not sure and losing interest.)

Reduce Significant Noise

Low

Medium

High

Reduce Block Noise

Low

Medium

High

Picture Size and Position (It’s fine the way it is.)

Film Mode

Auto (Ok. Whatever.)

Off

Gamma (Really?!)

1.8

2.0

2.1

2.2 (Chose this. Don’t ask me why.)

2.4

So. What a complex ecosystem my TV screen is. The better to see you with, my dear Diane. I hope your real life is as lovely and happy as your life in this movie. And I hope the same for me. My new life in Manhattan (not Brooklyn), among the sharks, should be warm and interesting like Diane Keaton’s, as well as bright and active and clear, with deep blacks and bright whites. This sounds like a holiday wish on a greeting card. So, I say to you, patient reader:

May your new year (and your TV screen) be bright and active and clear, with deep blacks and bright whites. And may you always have the best Gamma value.

Mia Madre movie poster

Nanni Moretti’s “Mia Madre” Review

“Mia Madre” by Nanni Moretti: An Essay (more than a review)

by Helen Kaplow, as HelenHighly

Italians understand Life and Death in "Mia Madre"
Italians understand Life and Death in “Mia Madre”

“Those Italians, they understand Sorrowful Life and Comical Death in ways that Americans just do not.”

When was the last time you heard a great last line in a movie? So great it made you burst into tears? The final line in Nanni Moretti’s “Mia Madre” is not a brilliant sentence in itself. (Then again, is “rosebud” profound in itself?) But in context – the way it references an earlier conversation in the film, as well as sums up the theme of the movie, and most importantly creates a definitive and meaningful end to the story (and endings are always difficult, even for the best filmmakers), in that way, this was an enormously powerful and stirring end – probably the best final line to a movie that anyone heard at the 53rd New York Film Festival. And it literally made me cry out loud.

Basically, this is a story about a woman whose mother is dying. But, don’t imagine grim or depressing. Those Italians, they understand Sorrowful Life and Comical Death in ways that Americans just do not. It’s like writer/director Nanni Moretti (“The Son’s Room”) is tapping into an ancient source of pure emotion. And he does it so gracefully. The film is gently, deeply astute. The lyricism in the language adds to the effect; Italian is such an elegant language. It’s all part of this organic sensation that comes from the film – this gorgeous feeling that grows out of my stomach and blooms in my chest.

“Death is breathing life while life is killing her.”

In conversation after the screening, Moretti actually says that he wants the audience to feel that the movie is digging inside of them. That’s exactly what I felt. Or, I felt the movie carving into me. As I watched, I felt like I was being sculpted. I felt as if a great master, Michelangelo, was carefully cutting, chiseling into me, and so he – the sculptor, the director, the writer – is making us – the audience – into his magnificent carved creation. And in that way, Moretti is elevating us with his talent, his vision. He is making us sublime.

Except it really wasn’t “us.” It was just me alone and that movie. It was so intimate. I start off watching the movie from outside and thinking about it – thinking I will “review” it, and then I am in the movie. I am living it. It is living me. I am not audience observing a film; we are involved in each other in some palpable way. It’s almost physical – like I can literally feel it touching me. It brings me to life in an odd way; I can feel my heart inside my body.

Of course, the death of a parent is a universal experience, but this film manages to make it feel uniquely personal. I feel as if this director has been watching me in my life, with my family, and is now explaining myself to me. Although, I suspect it’s an explanation that will feel relevant or resonant to nearly every adult. Perhaps the film score helps me to feel so fully enthralled – a variety of music from Leonard Cohen, Philip Glass, Nino Rota, and Arvo Part.

Other critics may focus on the story that binds the film’s emotions together, but the movie is more about the emotions than the story. The lead character (played with glorious subtlety by Margherita Buy) is an Italian filmmaker who is shooting a movie while her mother is dying in a hospital. Actually, this is a semi-autobiographical film in that Mortetti had his mother die while he was shooting a previous film. However, I think that fact is more significant to the personal life of Moretti than to the body of this film; having an experience and elevating that experience to an art form are two very different things.

In this movie, the story functions to bring in the outside world and its pressing realities and complexities. The specifics of what job the central character has are mostly inconsequential. Although, it is worth noting that the character’s persistent and diligent return to the stress of her work environment, after each vigil beside her dying mother, shows that life goes on.

John Tuturro provides comic relief in "Mia Madre."
John Tuturro provides comic relief in “Mia Madre.”

The story also serves by bringing smartly implemented humor. John Tuturro plays an American who is a hilariously bad actor in the film that our lead is trying to make. Tuturro’s approach is broad and exuberant, which is startling in this otherwise quiet movie, and ultimately Tuturro’s excited approach not only works but becomes essential to Moretti’s message. I am laughing, I am crying, I am laughing, I am crying… I am exalted.

Another running joke in the film is when our protagonist director repeatedly tells her actors to “be the character you are playing at the same time as you stand outside the character.” No one understands this instruction, and finally the director herself admits that she doesn’t know what she means. But I see this as appropriately consistent with my unusual experience of the film; I am both standing outside it — watching, and in it — experiencing.

Fundamentally, this is a story about emotion. It’s an exploration of humanity. It is life and death – beautiful and heartbreaking, devastating and inspiring. It was excruciating to watch a scene where our lead character is stripped naked and exposed (metaphorically); she’s made vulnerable and cut to shreds – destroyed. Then, she goes and sits silently beside her dying mother, and that gives her new life. It revives her. It saves her. Death is breathing life while life is killing her.

Being in the presence of her dying mother revives Margherita in "Mia Madre"
Being in the presence of her dying mother revives Margherita in “Mia Madre”

In the press conference, Moretti is talking, with his lovely Italian accent, and I hear… “love erupts in solitude.” I don’t even know what that means, but I totally feel it. I leave the theater feeling newly alive.


Update: After playing at the 53rd New York International Film Festival, this movie played at the Chicago International Film Festival, and then virtually disappeared from the U.S. But look for it to return in March 2016, at your local art / indie /foreign-film theater.  The film was nominated for the Palme d’Or prize at Cannes Film Festival and won Best Non-U.S. Release at the Online Film Critics Society Awards.

Click: The New York Times asks Nanni Moretti 5 Questions

Click:  Moretti Film Canceled in Paris Attacks

Heart of a Dog

Laurie Anderson’s “Heart of a Dog” Review

Laurie Anderson and Lolabelle
Laurie Anderson and Lolabelle

by Helen Kaplow, as HelenHighly

In her poetic film collage essay, “Heart of a Dog,” Laurie Anderson is more beautifully and thoughtfully herself than ever.

“It seems the movie is often shedding its own tears… as if life itself is crying.”

Anderson has had a long career, but was most well-known in the 80’s as an experimental performance artist, composer, and musician who especially explored the mix of spoken word and music. Those who know her albums such as “Big Science” and “Home of the Brave” will appreciate the return of the fragmented rhythm and quizzical tone of Anderson’s speech, opening with voice-over sentences such as “This is my dream body – the one I use to walk around in my dreams,” and “It’s like one of those old movies…” It’s like one of Anderson’s old albums, only … Much, Much, Better (to quote Anderson in “Language is a Virus”).

Laurie Anderson with electric violin
Laurie Anderson with electric violin

Despite the film’s seemingly stream-of-conscious, no-plot, hodge-podge approach, Anderson has meaningful ideas to express, and she’s woven together an elegant and smartly structured tone-and-picture poem. The movie combines her personal stories and musings with quotations from renowned philosophers, ink drawings on paper, printed words, animation, scratchy old 8mm home-movie clips, new footage of landscapes, surveillance camera footage with time codes, graphic images such as computer icons, and her ingenious use of music.

As always, Anderson excels at language, and here she combines various types of on-screen text with her own lyrical voice-over. I often leave a movie wanting to run home and download the soundtrack, but in this case I am yearning for a transcript. These are words worthy of reading and contemplating. “Try to learn how to feel sad without being sad,” is just one of the many sentences that could use more time to resonate than one viewing allows.

But one of the surprises of this project may be Anderson’s sophisticated and inventive cinematography. As the film explores a variety of deaths – the death of Anderson’s dog, the death of her mother, the death of her husband (Lou Reed), and the mass deaths of 9/11 in New York, it seems the movie is often shedding its own tears. Many sequences are shot through a pane of glass that is dripping with water, like life itself is crying. And then she turns footage of an ocean upside down, with the foreground still raining, so the sea that has become the sky is weeping too. In front of everything, Anderson seems to be saying, is a gentle, pervasive sadness.

"Heart of a Dog" sheds its own tears.
“Heart of a Dog” sheds its own tears.

And yet, the movie is not even remotely maudlin. It discusses 9/11 in way that actually adds fresh insight, which seems impossible after so many anniversaries full of remembrance ceremonies, and so many other films that have also integrated that tragic event. In fact, this movie would have made a much better selection for the Opening Film of this year’s New York Film Festival than “The Walk,” which is ostensibly about the man who walked a tightrope between the world’s tallest pair of buildings, but is mostly a sentimental homage to the Twin Towers, complete with golden reflected sunset footage of the Towers and seemingly endless talk about their dramatic importance. For all the “The Walk’s” telling us how we should feel, and trying so desperately to rouse emotion, it fails in that regard. Laurie Anderson is a long-time New York resident and artist, and this film speaks so sincerely to New Yorkers in particular, that it would have made an intensely appropriate opening for the New York Film Festival, which took place so close to 9/11. (Of course, the film is also relevant to all Americans, and all human beings, at any time of year.)

Perhaps the strongest moment in Anderson’s film is when she takes her dog outdoors in a big field and enjoys watching her run and play in tall grass and aromatic dirt, as dogs do. And the camera pans up to the bright blue sky; it is such a beautiful day. And then we see pretty white trails in the sky, moving in circles. Anderson tells us they are birds. And then she sees that they are hawks. And she describes the look in the eyes of her dog, Lolabelle, as the dog peers up and realizes that she… is prey. The dog understands that these birds have come for the purpose of killing her. And Anderson bemoans the new reality that now the dog must not only be aware of the ground and the grass and the other earthbound creatures, but also that huge, untouchable expanse of sky. The sky is now a danger. And the dog will never view the sky the same again.

Cut to footage of 9/11 as Anderson compares her dog’s feeling to hers, and ours, when we suddenly understood that “something was wrong with the air”; the sky brought danger and those flying planes were there for the purpose of killing us. And “it would be that way from now on.”

Anderson goes on to talk about the strangeness of living in a post-9/11 surveillance state, where we are always being recorded. But she does not take the obvious path of complaining about the social injustice. Instead, she takes a clever twist and points out that all your actions are now data. And that data is always being collected, but it will not be watched until after you commit a crime. Then your story is pieced together, in reverse – footage of where you went and what you did, being viewed backwards from the most recent moment. And then she throws in a quote from Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood backward but must be lived forward.”

Laurie Anderson drawing
Laurie Anderson drawing

And intermixed with philosophy, Anderson keeps her wry sense of humor. At one point, she talks about a dream in which she gives birth to her dog. She illustrates the tale with bizarre comic drawings, and then she tells us that the dog looks up at her and says, “Thank you so much for having me,” as if it has just been invited to a tea party. Ha.

“This film has heart.”

Later she talks about her own childhood memory of a trauma and reveals how our minds naturally clean up memories, leaving out certain details, and in that way you are holding onto a story and every time you tell the story, you forget it more. Cut to the computer icon of Missing File. The associations keep piling up, and they do indeed add up.

The unfortunate irony is that “Heart of a Dog” will be classified as conceptual filmmaking, and dismissed by those who won’t see it as too cerebral, while it actually uses a complex and intellectual style, very astutely, to access emotional and intimate realities that are difficult to reach through overt methods.

This film does tell a story, in its own subtly layered way. It is sometimes a meditation on how to go on living despite despair – “the purpose of death is the release of love,” but it is also clearly Laurie Anderson’s own personal tale. This is a tender memoir.  It’s Anderson’s love story, about her dog, her mother, her husband, and her city. In the most uncommon and evocative way, this film has heart.


Click: The complete soundtrack recording of “Heart of a Dog” is available from Nonesuch Records. The Nonesuch album is the full audio recording of the film, including all music and spoken text.

Click: “Heart of a Dog” shortlisted for Best Documentary Feature in Oscar Race.

Click: “Heart of a Dog” nominated for a Film Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary.

Click:  Good news: “Heart of a Dog” bought by HBO (Variety)

Click: The New York Times review by Manohla Dargis. It’s a beautifully written review that will give you more reasons to see the film or just to remember it better. The review includes one of my fave lines that didn’t make it into my review: “Every love story is a ghost story.”

Click: An insightful review of “Heart of a Dog by Roberto Friedman. And he’s right: Gotta go get that CD!