Monthly Archives: June 2011



There are three good reasons to check out Brian De Palma’s 1973 thriller, Sisters.  You are rewarded with 1) the fun of spotting allusions to Alfred Hitchcock movies;  2) a killer performance by Margot Kidder; and  3) one knock-your-socks-off murder – you can pretty much see it coming, but when it does, it punches you in the gut, anyway.

Kidder is all fluttery innocence as Danielle, a French-Canadian model/actress who recently, uh, parted ways with her twin sister, Dominique.  Or so it seems.  When Danielle’s apparently jealous ex-husband intrudes on her date with a handsome black acquaintance, things turn nasty.  A nosy neighbor (Jennifer Salt) sees a murder through Danielle’s apartment window.  Or does she?

De Palma has great fun weaving elements of Psycho, Rear Window, and even North by Northwest into the murder and subsequent investigation.  The first thing you notice when the credits begin for Sisters is the dramatic musical score by legendary Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann.  Nobody did “disturbing music” better than Herrmann (he came up with the shrieking strings in Psycho), and his contribution to the mayhem in Sisters is a reminder of his value to Hitchcock.

Sisters’s low budget does come with a few drawbacks.  Some of the acting is less than stellar, some of the dialogue is less than sharp, and the final 15 minutes of the film, although visually engrossing, is narratively weak.  De Palma’s 38-year-old script also includes some rather dubious psychology regarding the nature of Siamese twins.  But, hey – get ready to be punched in the gut.          Grade:  B




Director:  Brian De Palma  Cast:  Margot Kidder, Jennifer Salt, Charles Durning, William Finley, Lisle Wilson, Barnard Hughes, Mary Davenport, Dolph Sweet, Olympia Dukakis  Release:  1973


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                                       Watch the Trailer (click here)




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“One of the great American films, and a landmark in the maturing of the Western.” “Here … is a movie of the grand old school, a genuine rib-thumper and a beautiful sight to see.”

Thus wrote Leonard Maltin and the New York Times, raving about John Ford’s Stagecoach.  To me, the movie is just another old John Wayne flick.  But damn, who am I to argue with Maltin and the New York Times?  Watch it for free by clicking here.


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The anti-smoker police are at it again, using their Big Brother bully pulpit to place revolting pictures on cigarette packages.  Fine.  I think I have a small but potentially effective way to fight back.

First, I recommend that all smokers purchase a good old-fashioned cigarette case, like the iPod model pictured above.  Second, every time you empty out one of these new, anti-constitutional packages (free speech, anyone?), leave it somewhere very public, such as on a library shelf, a restaurant table, or a park bench. 

My hunch is that if enough mothers realize that little Johnny and Susie are being exposed to the repulsive illustrations on empty packages, they will react the same way they would if the object in question was a discarded Playboy magazine — with anger.  Quite possibly, these furious mothers will make the politicians back down.






Roger Ebert caught hell for his possibly insensitive, definitely ill-timed Twitter post about the death of Jackass star Ryan Dunn.  I thought that Ebert caved to public pressure, and so I called him out on his blog.  Much to my surprise, the Big Man actually replied to my lecture:








Summertime television used to suck.  Not anymore.  The second season of Louie premiered the other night.  It was just a so-so episode, but if last year was any indication, there should be more flashes of comic brilliance on this FX series.  The second season of The Big C premieres Monday on Showtime.  Laura Linney, as a soccer mom with cancer, is a sight to behold in this comedy-drama.  And on July 13 the final year of Rescue Me kicks off, also on FX.  Last year was a sub-par season for this once-great Denis Leary series.  Let’s hope it goes out with a bang.





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    by Shirley MacLaine



It’s tough to critique a book like this because, as a reviewer, you can’t really be “objective.”  You must commit yourself:  Do you buy into the author’s theories of astral planes, UFOs, and reincarnation?  Or do you think it’s a bunch of superstitious nonsense?  If you pooh-pooh the material, you can be accused of being closed-minded.  If you agree with the author’s claims, then you might be as loopy as she is. I happen to think there is something to this “higher power” business.

Out on a Limb is structured in two parts:  Part of the book details movie star MacLaine’s love affair with a married politician; the second and larger portion of the memoir depicts her journeys around the world, meeting with like-minded people in search of deeper meanings to life.  The love affair grows tiresome to follow, but MacLaine’s discoveries about past lives, karma, and yes, UFOs, are sometimes fascinating, sometimes annoying.

Did she convert me to her beliefs?  Not entirely.  But I won’t dismiss her concepts as groundless, either.  As a friend of MacLaine’s says of her spiritual quest, “It can drive a guy nuts, but it made me look deeper, too.”


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The Double Hour falls squarely into my favorite genre, the romantic suspense film.  Alfred Hitchcock, of course, was the master of this type of movie, but now and then someone else produces a good one.  The Double Hour, from Italian director Giuseppe Capotondi, is more typical of what fans of this genre usually get:  a nice try, but no threat to Hitchcock.

I’m going to summarize the plot, but keep in mind that everything I describe might or might not be true.  (Yes, it’s that kind of movie.)  A hotel maid (Kseniya Rappoport) meets a handsome ex-cop (Filippo Timi) at a speed-dating event.  They seem to hit it off, but quickly find themselves in the middle of an art heist in which someone is shot.  But is the maid who she says she is?  Is the ex-cop who he claims to be?

I can’t say more about the plot without either lying or revealing too much.  The problem with The Double Hour is that when you have a story this convoluted – with twists and turns pummeling the audience – your movie needs a lead character or two who are well-grounded, someone the audience can cling to when things get loopy.  Alas, the two lovers are both rather cold, distant characters, and the chemistry between them is underwhelming.  Russian actress Rappoport, especially, is attractive but doesn’t display much range.

I’m not sure that director Capotondi plays entirely fair with the audience.  There’s a fine line between “Oh, I get it now” and “Hey, that’s cheating!”  Still, if you enjoy this kind of movie, like I do, and if you are into solving puzzles, The Double Hour will keep you guessing.  But it’s no Vertigo.       Grade:  B-




Director:  Giuseppe Capotondi   Cast:  Kseniya Rappoport, Filippo Timi, Antonia Truppo, Gaetano Bruno, Fausto Russo Alesi, Michele Di Mauro, Lorenzo Gioielli, Lidia Vitale   Release:  2009


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                                     Watch Trailers and Clips (click here)




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It was a dark and spooky night.  On a lonely highway in the middle of nowhere, a man and a woman make the mistake of stopping for the night at an ominous motel.  And that’s the point where all similarities between Psycho and Vacancy disappear.  But Vacancy is surprisingly good, mindless fun – until it degenerates into all-too-familiar horror-movie hokum in its second half.  But did I mention that much of the film is good, mindless fun?  Watch it for free by clicking here.


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 Hefner     Crystal


Beer Goggles For Her

I have mixed feelings about Gollum-like Hugh Hefner and his trophy babes.  On the one hand, every guy likes to think that he can snare a young hottie — even when he’s decrepit and wearing Depends, like Hef.  On the other hand, is there any better example of the term “gold digger” than these girls who move in with him (and eventually scram, like “runaway bride” Crystal Harris, above right)?




Beer Goggles For Him

If you were as rich, powerful, and famous as Arnold Schwarzenegger, and presumably had your pick of the litter, would you pursue carnal knowledge with housemaid Mildred Baena?  Some media blowhard, I forget who, has a theory that makes sense:  Men crave variety, and so even if you’ve enjoyed a lifetime of gorgeous women throwing themselves at you, sooner or later you want something, uh, “different.”






This video of the Dalai Lama and an Australian reporter is hilarious.  If you haven’t seen it yet, click here.






Weiner has finally been eaten, so why is David Vitter still in Congress?

Multimillionaire Mitt Romney thinks unemployment is funny.  His party, led by Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan, wants me to shrug off 30 years of payroll taxes and then watch passively as the Republicans eliminate Medicare.  Meanwhile, Romney, Ryan, and the other Rs demand more tax cuts for the rich.  God help all of us.






I see London, I see France ….


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You are walking down the street and you suddenly catch sight of the most morbidly obese woman you have ever seen.  She must weigh 600 pounds.  As you pass by her, how do you react?  Do you snicker at the fat lady?  Are you filled with compassion, thinking:  “There but for the grace of God …”?  Or maybe you feel disgust, wondering how many of your tax dollars, through this woman’s welfare check, went to McDonald’s.

Now let’s say you are deformed yourself; you have lost your arms.  When you pass by the fat lady, how do you react this time?  According to people who know and have worked with sideshow “freaks,” your reaction, whatever it might have been when you were “normal,” would be unchanged.  We are all of us curious about the unusual.

Tod Browning’s Freaks might be the most curious movie ever made.  It is a study in contradictions.  The plot, about a circus midget who is used and abused by a wicked, physically beautiful aerialist, is old-hat soap opera – but it’s absorbing stuff.  The actual sideshow performers Browning imported for his movie – Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, “Half Boy” Johnny Eck, et al – reportedly enjoyed their brief flirtation with the Hollywood lifestyle, circa 1932 – but nearly all of them were upset with the final film.  Browning’s script seems to exploit the freaks for sordid thrills, especially near the end – but the movie’s message of tolerance resonates 80 years later.  The climactic shot in Freaks is preposterous – but it’s a visual you won’t soon forget.

Freaks was made just before the Hays Code was introduced in Hollywood, during a brief period when the “talkies” dared to be different.  The story is simple, some of the acting is amateurish, and the film quality leaves much to be desired.  But it’s an astounding movie; there’s never been anything else quite like it.      Grade:  A-




Director:  Tod Browning   Cast:  Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Henry Victor, Harry Earles, Daisy Earles, Roscoe Ates, Rose Dione, Daisy Hilton, Violet Hilton, Johnny Eck   Release:  1932


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                                      Watch the Trailer  (click here)




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   by Victor Hugo



As a rule, I avoid abridged versions of the classics.  If Tolstoy or Melville wanted me to read a 900-page novel, why on earth should I trust some modern-day editor who’s pared the thing down to 550 pages?  However … after slogging through 1,200 pages of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, I’m changing my mind – a bit.  That’s because Hugo pauses – often – in his engrossing tale of the cursed ex-convict Jean Valjean for interminable digressions about 1) the history of the Paris sewer system; 2) the origins of French slang; 3) convents; 4) the battle of Waterloo.  At times, I wondered if Hugo concocted the story of Jean Valjean and company merely as a pretext to interject his own musings on politics, religion, and philosophy.

But there’s a reason we call certain books “classics,” and Les Miserables certainly has memorable characters and a powerful story.  Hugo does resort to narrative cheats – unlikely coincidences, characters who suffer convenient memory lapses – but his writing is so sincere and heartfelt that when I got to the final pages I experienced something rare for me:  goose bumps.


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Poirot1    Brett


The persnickety little man is back — and not a moment too soon.

I’m referring to Hercule Poirot, as personified by British thespian David Suchet, the actor who has been absolutely nailing Agatha Christie’s fictional detective for 22 years.  PBS will broadcast the first of three new Poirot mysteries, “Three Act Tragedy,” this Sunday.

New episodes of almost any British detective show are always welcome.  I think that’s because in America we are fed a steady diet of car chases, gunfights, explosions, and special effects.  In Britain, the TV-crime aficionado is fed “little grey cells.”

All of these great shows from “across the pond” have this in common:  They are based on popular books that feature quirky, flawed, and brilliant protagonists.  Sure, in America we have our oddball sleuths, our Monks and Houses and Columbos.  But none of them have the literary pedigree of a Poirot or a Sherlock Holmes.


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And so we have a new Poirot this week.  I have just one complaint.  Since 2002, Poirot has dispensed with a trio of supporting actors who lent much-appreciated humor to the series:  (above, clockwise from top right) Hugh Fraser (Hastings), Pauline Moran (Miss Lemon), and Philip Jackson (Chief Inspector Japp).

I’ve missed out on some of these delightful British imports, including the acclaimed Prime Suspect with Helen Mirren, but here’s a rundown of my favorites:




Inspector Morse    I love this cantankerous old coot.  Maybe that’s because Morse and I have so much in common:  same age, a weakness for beer, a bachelor lifestyle, a love of opera and poetry — well, maybe not that last.  Morse, as played by John Thaw, is forever irritable, forever single, and forever perplexed by the modern world.  But the bad guys don’t fool him, and he’s at home while prowling the halls of Oxford, where he and sidekick Sgt. Lewis (Kevin Whately) bump heads with stuffy professors, insecure students — and murder on a regular basis.




Wallander    Technically, this is a British series that isn’t all that British.  It’s based on a series of Swedish novels set in Sweden.  But Wallander meets most British mystery requirements:  a flawed, interesting hero; clever plotting; moody atmosphere; and a first-rate actor (Kenneth Branagh) in the lead role.  Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has been grabbing a lot of attention lately, but author Henning Mankell’s protagonist, the glum, middle-aged Inspector Wallander, is a more nuanced character than anyone found in Larsson’s Girl trilogy.




Sherlock     When this update of Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation premiered last year, my expectations were low.  Contemporizing the 19th-century stories had been done before, with decidedly mixed results.  And who the hell were these upstart actors playing Holmes and Watson?  Not to worry.  Benedict Cumberbatch (Holmes) and Martin Freeman (Watson) have traded in gaslight and The Times for computers and texting, but the magic is still there.




The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes    If you mention Sherlock Holmes, I tend to visualize actor Basil Rathbone, pipe in hand, prowling the artificial mists of what passed for London on a Universal Studios back lot in the 1940s.  But ask me which actor has given us the definitive Holmes, and I have to go with Jeremy Brett, who starred as the iconic cocaine addict in 41 television episodes from 1984 to 1994.




Midsomer Murders    Midsomer is a fictional English county, home to charming villages and nice families like that of DCI Tom Barnaby (John Nettles), a pleasant man who shares a close bond with his wife and his daughter.  Midsomer would seem idyllic were it not for one nagging little problem:  It seems to be the murder capital of the world.




To see the Masterpiece Mystery! schedule, click here.


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