The Writer's Life: Film & Book Reviews, Observations, and Stories
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Category — Film Reviews

Mystery Caller Number 9

Who is this poor sod and why is his wife so unhappy? Why did the Bush administration spend so much time trying to bring him down? What did he know that the rest of us did not? What does it say about American politics? Anyone know?

January 28, 2011   Comments Off on Mystery Caller Number 9

True Grit

The Coen brothers have struck silver again, though perhaps not gold, with their latest film, True Grit. It successfully brings together the distinguishing characteristics of their other films—dark, brooding humor, characters stretched to the point of incredulity, a whacky plot, gorgeous cinematography, and gratuitous violence. This combination should not work, of course, but it does, because the Coens make a hard, pure alloy of it that we cannot get enough of. In my opinion, the whole catalog of Coen brothers films should go into the National Registry. It is quintessentially American.

Why does True Grit work? Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, and Matt Damon for one. Each is perfect, though Bridges as Rooster Cogburn is perhaps the most amusing. Corrupt and alcoholic to the point of not being able to speak without a slur, he responds to the girl’s plea for help and demonstrates the quality on which the story is premised, true grit. I love that Bridges is about as far away from John Wayne as you can get. There is nothing folksy about him, no fakery, nothing heroic, just a mean son-of-a-bitch who shoots first and covers his tracks in any way he can before reaching for another bottle. This, of course, is pure Coen brothers, who seem to be on a mission to show us who we really are (not who we imagine ourselves to be)—nasty, conniving, provincial, violent, humorous, doggedly determined, and, now and then, actually heroic.

January 1, 2011   Comments Off on True Grit


When Karol Karol is ripped from his luggage trunk as a stow away after a flight from Paris and finds half-unconscious with a bloody lip in a valley of garbage in a Warsaw dump, he says, “Jesus, home at last.” For the viewer, it is another funny line in an almost perfect film. Karol Karol is a beautiful creation, a man who seemingly cannot do anything right, particularly, in love. Of course, having Julie Delpy as his lover doesn’t hurt in the least. She is ruthless and will not settle for anything less than what she needs.

White is Krzysztof Kieslowski’s masterpiece, more interesting (in my opinion) than either of the other two films in the Three Colors trilogy, Blue and Red. Here the pacing is perfect. There are no gaps, no empty spaces, snippets of meaning merge into other snippets, there is never a pause except to laugh. It is how life is supposed to be.

I love this film. It is full of lessons, a worthy object of study. How can Kieslowski know so much about holding a viewer’s attention? What techniques does he use? How can one use them oneself?

There was a price to pay for this knowledge, however. The great Polish director died at 54 of exhaustion. No doubt he would say it was worth it, having produced masterpieces of such quality with the last vestiges of his strength. To me, it is ironic that his films were created in France and are considered French, though they were written and directed by a Pole, for they are much better than anything the French themselves have ever produced.

January 1, 2011   1 Comment


Ingmar Bergman was, of course, a force of nature. His power over actors and actresses was legendary. So were his visions. Perhaps that’s what real genius is—dreaming dreams that have the power to mold and influence others in profound ways.

Bergman foreshadowed many of the psychic changes that took place in the 60’s and 70’s, although we did not see the connection, just felt it as a premonition. He was the first to have a vision of being human without sin, guilt, and fear and tried to let us know. This telling reached a crescendo in the film, Persona, in which he demonstrated that our boundaries are leaky, that our personalities are much more fluid than we imagine, and that under the right circumstances even core identities can be passed between persons like playing cards.

This is an uncomfortable truth, and perhaps it is this—dimly felt but greatly feared by conservative personalities—that created the huge backlash against hippies and led directly to the Bush years and the oligarchy we now have for a government. The reason is simple. It wasn’t so much that hippies challenged the boundaries of accepted values in politics and personal relationships, as that the idea of love, real love, strikes at the heart of the fascistic soul, sending out shockwaves of terror that can only be stilled through complete domination.

December 21, 2010   Comments Off on Ingmar

The Good Wife

One of our favorite television series is The Good Wife, in which the poker-faced Julianna Margulies, always made up in stark black and grey tones, plays a long-suffering political wife who is, herself, a lawyer. With her unique perception and logic, she solves impossibly difficult cases with the help of Archana Punjabi, a female investigator with few scruples, all the while fending off one of the principals of her law firm, who is in love with her. It’s all very formulaic, but never fails to deliver intrigue, romance, and a steady look into the mind and character of a strong woman. Highly recommend, but not for anyone having marital difficulties themselves.

December 20, 2010   Comments Off on The Good Wife


Inception is a cool film, but not at first. You have to stay with it until it begins to affect you. I almost didn’t. The premise is one used by shamans—that we can travel in our dreams, explore another person’s mind, and implant thoughts (though this is more difficult). Part of the reason we begin to believe the premise is that the protagonist (DiCaprio) has been so shaken by his experiences that he no longer knows whether he’s waking or dreaming. His only clue is a talisman he carries (a small top) that only topples when he’s awake. Because the visual cues are imaginatively manipulated in the film, we, as viewers, also begin to question the line between the two realities. It’s a neat movie, but not an important one, because it spends too much time in the world of Hollywood cliches. But now and again, I must admit, it’s thought-provoking and approaches a true work of art. What’s a true work of art? Why, one that changes your perception of reality, of course.

December 6, 2010   Comments Off on Inception

Meth in the Ozarks

Winter’s Bone, the indie sleeper of the year, is about a young woman’s determination to hold her family together within a community devastated by meth. About this culture, the director Debra Granik said, “There is not one aspect of looking at meth that is mellow or benign: what it does to a human being’s body, their faces, their teeth. Everything about it is so vicious, and so dramatic and so relentless.” Her film illustrates this almost like a horror film. Winter’s Bone is grisly and grusome, and must viewing for anyone wondering where isolated, poorer sections of American society are headed.

December 5, 2010   Comments Off on Meth in the Ozarks

Poor Lech

In Ireland one night I happened to watch a Michael Palin travelogue that included parts of Poland (I think it had a river theme). It ended with an interview with Lech Walesa.

The great man sat behind his desk and talked about his three loves—wine, women, and something else I’ve forgotten. His face brightened when he described his passion for women, and I thought, well, why not old man? cash in on your fame if that’s really what you want. I found it faintly amusing. Here was one of the greatest men in modern history acting like a lecher, as if he were trolling on screen for more lovers. My wife made a face of disgust at the television set.

Although I do not share Walesa’s passion for women, I share his love of wine, though I’m certain I could not follow any of his personal recommendations. My guess is that the old lothario has expensive tastes. Mine are much more limited. Anything by Robert Parker at 90 points or above under $20. Mostly Spanish wines, though I prefer the understated qualities of French blends, and Napa and Wilhamette Valley reds when I can afford them. It is better this way, don’t you think? How unhappy I’d be if I had everything I wanted. Though I must admit, poor Lech did not seem unhappy in the least .

December 3, 2010   Comments Off on Poor Lech

Radio On

Dann sind wir Helden nur diesen Tag (the line from the David Bowie song) just about sums it up: heroes for just one day. The end of a decade. The dream dead and long forgotten. Especially in England where Margaret Thatcher had recently taken office and begun systematically gutting British society. Gorgeously shot in black and white by Wim Wender’s cameraman in a slow dreamy mood reminiscent of the 40’s, but, ultimately, signifying nothing, Radio On captures the first wave of digital tyranny that would rob us of our lives. It is an important film because it helps us remember (those born before the 70’s) what it was like to have minds not solely formed by the media. Think I’m kidding? Look around you. See the mechanical droids incessantly checking their cell phones. Observe college students with attention spans of less than a minute trying to listen to a lecture. Watch the brain-dead trolls slumped in their chairs gaping at television sets from morning to night. Yeah, the film is boring, but then so is much of life. OMG, I’m having a panic attack. OMG. Maybe it’s a litmus test to separate the zombie wankers from the rest of us. OMG! OMG!

November 30, 2010   Comments Off on Radio On

Look Where You Want To Go and the Horse Will Follow

Red Hill is a lovely, perverted Aussie horror film, something David Lynch might have written and directed if he were in a literal mood and fond of westerns. It’s about the day in a life of a rookie cop, his first day out in the sticks, where he finds himself dealing with smartass associates, an ogre for a boss, horses, half-eaten cows, and an escaped convict intent on raising the town and burying it. I swear this film has the best villain of all time, an aboriginal killer with a half burned face, who efficiently blasts everything in sight, particularly if it’s part of the constabulary. I know this sounds too campy to be anything but schlock, but it’s not. It’s really good! Trust me on this one!

November 16, 2010   Comments Off on Look Where You Want To Go and the Horse Will Follow