Category: Books, Movies, TV & Web

by Agatha Christie Blue Train


The following sentence is from my 2013 review of Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds:


“My other complaint with Death in the Clouds is that, once again, Christie’s plot hinges on the failure of people to recognize, at close quarters, someone they really ought to recognize.”


I have the same fruitless grouse about The Mystery of the Blue Train. I say fruitless because it’s not as if the author, who died in 1976, might mend her ways. We just have to accept that, in many of her stories, witnesses tend to have poor vision and/or recall.

But it’s a Christie whodunit, and it’s got Hercule Poirot, and the ending fooled me. So there you go.


© 2010-2017 (text only)


Elle Elle


Elle begins with a brutal rape, but in its aftermath the victim does not go to the police, nor does she inform close friends. In fact, middle-aged Michele appears to be borderline blasé about the attack. When her rapist continues to stalk her, she almost seems to welcome it. But why? The answer unfolds gradually, and while it does Elle is a tantalizing mystery with a commanding performance by Isabelle Huppert. But once we learn the reason for her strange behavior – not to mention the identity of the rapist – the suspense of the film begins to lose its power. Release: 2016 Grade: B




Passengers Passengers


Considered a critical and box-office failure, it’s true that Passengers is no science-fiction classic, but if you enjoy big-budget spaceship movies that look cool and keep the plot simple, as I do, you could do a lot worse. Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt play space tourists who get a much longer trip than they bargained for in this essentially simple, old-fashioned romance. Release: 2016 Grade: B




Her Her


At first, I was disinclined to like this drama about technology and our evolving connection to it. Protagonist Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and his privileged pals seemed to embody every negative stereotype about West Coast liberals: living lives of economic ease, self-absorbed, and endlessly seeking emotional safe spaces. But Theodore’s growing relationship with his computer operating system, a husky-voiced charmer dubbed “Samantha,” tapped into some disturbing truths about the modern world. The result is a film that achieves something rare. It makes you think and it makes you feel. Release: 2013 Grade: A-


© 2010-2017 (text only)


Becoming Cary Grant Grant


“Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant.” – Cary Grant


Well, maybe not everyone. Possibly not viewers of Becoming Cary Grant, a mostly cheerless yet spellbinding documentary about the demons haunting Hollywood’s most famous leading man.

The filmmakers use Grant’s own home movies, a melancholy musical score, and excerpts from the actor’s unpublished autobiography to tell the story of a 9-year-old Bristol boy who lost his mother (she was committed to an asylum), then as an adult went through a series of failed marriages, and who gradually invented the persona of “Cary Grant,” the enigmatic, charismatic star we all know from the movies.

It’s a sad — if incomplete — portrait of the man everyone wanted to be. Release: 2017  Grade: B+


© 2010-2017 (text only)


by Joan C. Williams


Since November 8, there have been hundreds – possibly thousands – of published articles about that branch of humanity famously labeled “the deplorables” by Hillary Clinton. Many of these election postmortems are clueless and/or condescending attempts to dissect and explain (to liberals) the strain of American voter that supported and continues to support Donald Trump.

But some of these election analyses are insightful. Joan Williams’s White Working Class expands on a previously published essay and it’s mostly an evenhanded, enlightening study of the social gap between the country’s “Haves” (the elite) and “Have-a-Littles” (what Williams labels the “working class”).

Williams, herself a born-and-bred member of the liberal elite, occasionally slips into full-on Democrat mode (in praise of big government) and takes some unwarranted swipes at Trump (a pure racist, even when his supporters are not), but she also has the balls to lay most of the blame for our current House Divided at the hands of those who hold the most power: the elites.

It’s too bad she doesn’t stick to her strong point, the first two-thirds of the book when she concentrates on the evolution of class division. Toward the end of White Working Class, Williams cannot resist tackling a host of other societal ills: abortion, race relations, illegal immigration, etc., and allows her inner liberal to promote the usual progressive remedies. It’s almost as if, after hammering liberals on their class cluelessness, Williams felt the need to soften the blow.


© 2010-2017 (text only)


by George MacDonald Fraser Flashman


Flashman chronicles the misadventures of a 19th-century cad who, through sheer luck and an uncanny ability to be in the wrong place at the right time, manages to emerge a national military hero in Britain.

Imagine James Bond as a racist, misogynistic coward, and you’ll have the gist of this series (begun in 1969) about Harry Flashman, an unapologetic jerk in 1840s Afghanistan who deflowers dimwitted country girls, fornicates with superior officers’ wives and, when things go badly, as they invariably do, pins the blame on someone – anyone – else. Bottom line: Flashman is amusing, albeit forgettable, fluff.


© 2010-2017 (text only)


by Molly Haskell Spielberg


I’m of two minds about Steven Spielberg. I share the general belief that he’s a brilliant showman. I think that Jaws, for example, might be the best adventure film ever made. On the other hand, I hold Spielberg largely – if indirectly – responsible for the sorry state of Hollywood today, with its glut of “franchise” movies and over-emphasis of special effects. Not to mention studios’ “will teenage boys like it?” marketing mentality.

The publisher was wise to assign this short-but-insightful Spielberg biography to Haskell, a renowned critic who appreciates the filmmaker’s talent and influence but is not, by her own admission, a die-hard fan. Haskell’s chapters are chronological, linking Spielberg’s personal life and evolution to the plots and themes of his movies. I didn’t always agree with her evaluations, but her prose is unfailingly thought-provoking.

To me, the book is most interesting in the chapters about early Spielberg, when the wunderkind was setting the world on fire with energetic, imaginative blockbusters like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Later films like Empire of the Sun, Amistad, and Lincoln might hold more appeal for a serious analyst like Haskell, but I’ve always felt that when it comes to a Steven Spielberg movie, popcorn is more palatable than polemics.


© 2010-2017 (text only)


Manchester by the Sea Manchester


Hollywood bad boy Casey Affleck won a well-deserved Oscar for his performance as a traumatized janitor in this drama about tragedy overwhelming a working-class family in Massachusetts, but man … if there’s a better actress working in film today than Michelle Williams, who in one five-minute scene delivers an emotional knockout punch, I’m not sure who it might be. Release: 2016 Grade: A-


© 2010-2017 (text only)

Share Aesop's Fables 

We can learn something from these ancient stories, which have been handed down from generation to generation since a Greek slave named Aesop supposedly compiled them. What can we learn? Humans have been passing down state-the-obvious drivel for a long, long time.

“The Tortoise and the Hare,” “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” – for every one of those legendary tales, which actually have a point, Aesop delivers ten more pearls of wisdom like this one:


The Gnat and the Bull

A Gnat alighted on one of the horns of a Bull, and remained sitting there for a considerable time. When it had rested sufficiently and was about to fly away, it said to the Bull, “Do you mind if I go now?” The Bull merely raised his eyes and remarked, without interest, “It’s all one to me; I didn’t notice when you came, and I shan’t know when you go away.”


Feel smarter now?


© 2010-2017 (text only)




If Arrival is supposed to be the 2001: A Space Odyssey for today’s generation, I feel sorry for today’s generation. The film plays mind games with us and yearns to be profound, but I found it pretentious and nonsensical. It’s like those time-travel movies that expect to be taken seriously, even though time travel is considered impossible – at least by today’s science.

When aliens land on Earth, star Amy Adams’s linguist is recruited to decipher their message. The “universal truths” she decodes are meant to be hopeful, but I’m thinking most of us would go mad at worst, or be psychologically paralyzed at best, were they our actual reality.

And dare I point out that Arrival’s clichéd plot is sexist? Once again we have a situation in which all the boys want to do is make war, and only a female is intuitive enough to break through to the aliens.  Release: 2016  Grade: C+




Room Room


Room is structured as two movies in one, and both halves are superb. The first half is a harrowing thriller, apparently inspired by the Ariel Castro kidnappings in Cleveland, in which a young woman and her son are imprisoned for years in a small shed. The second half is a gut-wrenching drama about the fallout when the victims (Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay) finally escape and must reintegrate into the real world. Release: 2015  Grade: A




The Love Witch Samantha Robinson


I’m not sure if this colorful but clunky film is intended as parody or homage to 1960s supernatural thrillers (think Hammer Films), but either way it feels forced and flat. Comely Samantha Robinson (above) plays a modern-day witch who uses potions and sex appeal to seduce one hapless male after another, but alas, none of them are up to her retro-feminist standards. If you want to chuckle at genre fare like this, I suggest you check out the real deal. Say, The Brides of Dracula? Release: 2016  Grade: C




The Witch Witch


A Puritan family in 1600s New England, banished to the wilderness for transgressing against village mores, finds life in the wild an unholy nightmare when someone – or something – begins to bedevil them. Mostly, this is an ultra-realistic, atmospheric study of the struggle to survive at that time and place, with religion serving as both a source of comfort and terror to the family as it confronts something wicked in the woods. Release: 2015  Grade:  B+


© 2010-2017 (text only)



Barney Fife in a haunted-house movie – who wouldn’t hand over their last (and only) bullet to see that?

OK, maybe you wouldn’t. But I have a great deal of affection for The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, the 1966 Don Knotts vehicle that might have been the first motion picture I saw all by myself, unfettered by parents or older siblings, in an honest-to-goodness movie house.

I recently re-watched Mr. Chicken, and I am happy to report that I still find it enjoyable. Silly and featherweight, sure, but fun. Is it remotely scary? Not unless you’re about the same age I was when I first saw it 50 years ago. But it’s suitably creepy in that old-dark-house mode that Hollywood does so well.


 A Barney and Otis reunion


The plot:

Luther Heggs (Knotts) is a lowly typesetter at the Rachel (Kansas) Courier Express. Luther dreams of becoming a big-time journalist and of winning the prettiest girl in town, Alma (Joan Staley). Unfortunately for Luther, he is Luther: timid, bumbling, tongue-tied and inept. But opportunity knocks when Luther is tasked with spending the night in the Simmons Mansion, or “murder house,” to commemorate the 20th anniversary of a murder-suicide that might or might not be unsolved.


The “murder house”


What I Like:

1.  Nostalgia, if you were a 1960s kid. The jazzy opening theme reminds me of early James Bond soundtracks. The spooky mansion is straight out of The Munsters (reportedly, some of the same Universal Studios sets were used in both Munsters and Mr. Chicken). The locale is a small town in the Midwest; I was raised in a small town in the Midwest.


Reta Shaw demonstrates small-town flirtation with Dick Sargent


2.  The Don Knotts in this film is the Don Knotts we knew from The Andy Griffith Show. I was never a fan of Knotts’s other famous TV character, Mr. Furley from Three’s Company. Mr. Furley was too lascivious. I preferred naive Barney Fife. Regardless, very few actors did fear and false bravado as well as Knotts.


Don Knotts does his thing


3.  The plot is your basic haunted-house story, nothing you haven’t already seen with Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis, or Bob Hope. But the screenplay is peppered with delightfully quirky throwaway scenes: The elevator that won’t stay put. The picnic speech. The oddball townie who, out of nowhere and seemingly everywhere, keeps hollering “Attaboy Luther!”


 The intrepid reporter


4.  That organ music.


The infamous organ


5.  Joan Staley. Who is Joan Staley? This is Joan Staley (NSFW).


Alma matters to Luther


6.  And finally, for anyone who appreciates vintage 1960s cinema and sitcoms, this movie features the finest collection of comic actors from that era – although if you blink you might miss some of them. Take a look at the rogues gallery of familiar faces who appear in Mr. Chicken in the sidebar at the end of this review.  Grade: B+


 Our hero


Director: Alan Rafkin  Cast: Don Knotts, Joan Staley, Liam Redmond, Dick Sargent, Skip Homeier, Reta Shaw, Lurene Tuttle, Philip Ober, Harry Hickox, Charles Lane  Release: 1966



Watch the Trailer (click here)


Remember These Faces?



                             Hal Smith                               Reta Shaw                           Dick Sargent


                             Burt Mustin                           Lurene Tuttle                       Eddie Quillan


                            Charles Lane                         Harry Hines                         Ellen Corby


                            Herbie Faye                            Jesslyn Fax                        James Millhollin


© 2010-2017 (text only)