On TV: 5-sentence review of ‘Doctor Who: Listen’

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Doctor Who” | Series 7, Episode 4 | “Listen” | Sept. 13, 2014

5. Again I find myself at the end of another “Doctor Who” episode wondering when the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is going to do something — anything — interesting.

4. “Listen” finds the Doctor investigating the age-old mystery: What’s that under your bed?

3. The episode was gloriously shot, moody and well-produce, but the plot felt like a slightly darker version of “Monsters, Inc.,” and it again makes Clara (Jenna Coleman) the center of the universe.

2. Coleman is top-notch as Clara, but the series has become entire about how this woman — through the magic of time travel — has essentially created everything good in the Doctor’s character, from which TARDIS the Doctor stole to his heroic nature to curing his childhood fear of the dark.

1. Capaldi is still commanding when he is allowed on screen, but the Clara storyline has essentially wiped out any of the Doctor’s role in choosing his own destiny; every moment in his life seems to have been orchestrated by Clara — either by accident or purpose — and it feels like the Doctor has been hollowed out as a character, a big nothing without Clara’s influence.

On TV: General Tso’s Fall 2014 TV Pick or Pass Preview NBC Edition

September brings a new football season and a slate of new network TV programs. We at General Tso’s Revenge will be watching some of these shows because TV is a drug and we’re addicted. But even we have standards. Here’s our picks and passes for the fall season. Here’s our look at upcoming new NBC series.


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“STATE OF AFFAIRS”

STARS: Katherine HeiglAlfre WoodardAdam KaufmanSheila Vand, Cliff Chamberlain, Tommy Savas and David Harbour.

PREMISE: Heigl stars as a CIA analyst charged with briefing the president (Woodard) on world affairs. Mondays, 9 p.m. Premieres Nov. 17.

PICK OR PASS? I like Heigl, despite her public reputation as being an unpleasant co-worker. I’m willing to try an episode, but a show about a daily briefing feels dull. A very lukewarm pick.


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“MARRY ME”

STARS: Casey WilsonKen MarinoSarah Wright OlsenJohn GemberlingTymberlee Hill and Tim Meadows.

PREMISE: A longtime couple hold off getting engaged over fears of an unhappily e’er after. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Premieres Oct. 14.

PICK OR PASS? Oh, hell no. Pass.


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“THE MYSTERIES OF LAURA”

STARS: Debra MessingJosh LucasJanina GavankarLaz Alonso and Max Jenkins.

PREMISE: Laura (Messing) is a tough homicide detective who balances being a single parent to her two sons and trying to get her estranged husband to sign divorce papers. Wednesdays, 7 p.m. Premieres Sept. 17.

PICK OR PASS? Is this the one where Messing is in love with a gay guy with the whacky gay neighbor and the shrill friend? No? I didn’t like that one either. Pass.


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“BAD JUDGE”

STARS: Kate Walsh, Theodore Barnes, Ryan HansenJohn DuceyTone Bell and Miguel Sandoval.

PREMISE: Walsh plays a tough judge who is hard partier, who comes in care of an 8-year-old boy. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Premieres Oct. 2.

PICK OR PASS: Walsh is another “Grey’s Anatomy” alumna whom I like, but not enough to sit through what is almost certain to be saccharine pap about the joys of parenting. Pass. 


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“A TO Z”

STARS: Ben FeldmanCristin MiliotiHenry ZebrowskiLenora CrichlowChristina Kirk and Hong Chau.

PREMISE: Andrew meets Zelda — “A to Z,” get it? — and they fall in love. The series chronicles their relationship. Thursdays, 8:30 p.m. Premieres Oct. 2.

PICK OR PASS? When the series title is a play on the characters names, I’m ready for a permanent separation. Pass.


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“CONSTANTINE”

STARS: Matt Ryan, Angélica Celaya, Harold Perrineau and Charles Halford.

PREMISE: Based on the DC Comics stories, Constantine (Ryan) unwillingly protects the world from monsters and demons. Fridays, 9 p.m. Premieres Oct. 24.

PICK OR PASS? I’m predisposed to favor comic book shows, but I think this series has just the right tone to be a lot of fun.


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FOX

On TV: General Tso’s Fall 2014 TV Pick or Pass Preview Fox Edition

September brings a new football season and a slate of new network TV programs. We at General Tso’s Revenge will be watching some of these shows because TV is a drug and we’re addicted. But even we have standards. Here’s our picks and passes for the fall season. Here’s our look at upcoming new Fox series.


 

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“MULANEY”

STARS: John MulaneyNasim Pedrad, Seaton Smith, Zack PearlmanElliott Gould and Martin Short.

PREMISE: Mulaney plays a stand-up comic living in New York who gets a big break working for an old pro played by Short. Sunday, 8:30 p.m. Premiers Oct. 5.

PICK OR PASS? Memphis Paul, co-founder of this blog, enjoys Mulaney’s standup comedy. I’ve only sampled a little and also found it strong. I like to see Gould and Short back on TV, but I don’t see it as enough of a draw to make me watch a show about a struggling comic in New York. Pick.


 

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“GOTHAM”

STARS: Ben McKenzieDonal LogueJada Pinkett SmithSean Pertwee, Robin Lord Taylor, Erin RichardsDavid MazouzCamren Bicondova, Zabryna Guevara, Cory Michael SmithVictoria Cartagena, Andrew Stewart Jones and John Doman.

PREMISE: Police Detective James Gordon (McKenzie) fights corruptions and freaks in the violent dystopia of Gotham City. Mondays, 7 p.m. Premieres Sept. 22.

PICK OR PASS? So this is a show about Batman in which Batman never appears. TV tried this with a failure called “Birds of Prey” in 2002. The cast is strong. I’m particularly interested to see Sean Pertwee, the son of former “Doctor Who” title character Jon Pertwee, in the role of Alfred. I don’t think this series will last beyond its initial planned 16 episodes, but I’m a comic book junkie, so I’ll try it. Pick.


 

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“RED BAND SOCIETY”

STARS: Octavia SpencerDave AnnableGriffin GluckNolan SotilloCharlie RoweBrian Bradley, Zoe Levin, Ciara Bravo and Rebecca Rittenhouse.

PREMISE: A group of sick teenagers live together in a pediatric ward of a hospital in this dark comedy. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Premieres Sept. 17.

PICK OR PASS? Sick kids is an atypical place to launch a situation comedy and, hell, I take anything that isn’t about some plucky young couple trying to make a go of it in New York City. Pick.


 

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“GRACEPOINT”

STARS: David TennantAnna GunnMichael PeñaKevin ZegersNick NolteJacki WeaverKevin Rankin, Jack Irvine, Virginia Kull, Sarah-Jane PottsJosh Hamilton, Kendrick Sampson, Madalyn Horcher, Darcy Laurie and Karyn Mott.

PREMISE: A child is murdered and two detectives (Tennant and Gunn) unravel the mystery and a few secrets in this 10-episode crime drama that’s a remake of the popular British series “Broadchurch,” which also starred Tennant. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Premieres Oct. 2.

PICK OR PASS? Of all the shows set to premiere on any network this fall, “Gracepoint” has my highest anticipation. I’ve not seen “Broadchurch,” but Tennant played the 10th incarnation of “Doctor Who” and is a highly regarded actor. This series has the best chance to capture the TV mojo of “True Detective” on network. Pick.


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On Movies: 5-sentence review of ‘The One I Love’

 

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“The One I Love” | Rated R | 2014 | 1 hour, 31 minutes | Director: Charlie McDowell | Cast: Mark DuplassElisabeth Moss and Ted Danson.


5. “The One I Love” is many movies in one package: relationship drama and psychological thriller with a science fiction twist.

4. Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass play a couple struggling to keep their marriage together after Duplass’ character cheated on her.

3. The go off to a mysterious house and confront their problems — and seemingly themselves — in a series of bizarre twists worth of “The Twilight Zone.”

2. Moss and Duplass are terrific and they play off one another very well in what were reportedly a series of ad-libbed interactions.

1. To describe the plot and its many twists is to take a bit of the fun of discovery away from this film and cliche though it might be, the journey is well-worth it in this fine, fun and baffling story.

 

On TV: ‘Doctor Who: Robot of Sherwood’

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“Doctor Who” | Series 8, Episode 3: “Robot of Sherwood” | Date: Sept. 6, 2014

I was predisposed against the subject matter of “Robot of Sherwood,” the third episode of the eight series of “Doctor Who.” I just don’t go in for all that Robin Hood stuff. I’ve never much cared for knights, medieval claptrap and whatnot.

And so with that baggage, it’s little surprise the episode did little for me. I continue to enjoy Peter Capaldi’s dour take on the Doctor, but he seemed a bit player in what is becoming the Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) show.

Coleman was excellent for her part. And guest Ben Miller, who played the Sheriff of Nottingham, reminded me of Anthony Ainley as the Master.

But the Doctor spent most of the episode squabbling with Robin Hood (Tom Riley), which began amusing and quickly moved to tedious and repetitive.

There was another reference to “the Promised Land,” the ongoing mystery of Series 8. And yet again, the Doctor denied he was a hero, which may explain his grim demeanor.

Still, I await a kapow moment from the new Doctor — that moment when he stands up and becomes the hero, saves the day and makes us all glad we took a ride with the madman in his box.

Nothing yet. But I keep watching and, by and large, I am entertained.

On TV: General Tso’s Fall 2014 TV Pick or Pass Preview The CW Edition

September brings a new football season and a slate of new network TV programs. We at General Tso’s Revenge will be watching some of these shows because TV is a drug and we’re addicted. But even we have standards. Here’s our picks and passes for the fall season. Here’s our look at upcoming new CW series.


 

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“JANE THE VIRGIN”

STARS: Gina RodriguezJustin BaldoniBrett DierAndrea NavedoYael GrobglasIvonne Coll and Jaime Camil.

PREMISE: Rodriguez plays a devoutly religious woman who saved her virginity for marriage only to be accidentally artificially inseminated during a routine checkup. To make matters worse, the baby is a cancer survivor and her former teenage crush. Mondays, 8:30 p.m. Premieres Oct. 13.

PICK OR PASS? This premise is so stupid and far-fetched it’s not good enough to be a subplot on an 1980s soap opera. Further consideration of it might actually make a person dumber. Pass.


 

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“THE FLASH”

STARS: Grant GustinCandice Patton, Rick Cosnett, Danielle Panabaker, Carlos Valdes, Tom Cavanagh and Jesse L. Martin.

PREMISE: The CW brings to life the DC Comics superhero the Flash, a costumed crimefighter who can run very fast. Tuesdays, 7 p.m. Premieres Oct. 7.

PICK OR PASS? The CW has had successful turns with turning comic book heroes into series. They inherited “Smallville” from the defunct WB network, but “Arrow,” which is a show about a guy who shoots arrows, is a cult hit for the network. I liked the short-lived 1990 “The Flash” series on CBS, even the Flash as a character strikes me as silly. I’ll try it. Pick.


 

NOTE: Two new CW series, “iZombie” and “The Messengers,” both of supernatural flavor, are not yet scheduled.

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On TV: General Tso’s Fall TV 2014 Pick or Pass Preview CBS Edition

September brings a new football season and a slate of new network TV programs. We at General Tso’s Revenge will be watching some of these shows because TV is a drug and we’re addicted. But even we have standards. Here’s our picks and passes for the fall season. Here’s our look at upcoming new CBS series.

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“MADAM SECRETARY”

STARS: Téa LeoniTim DalyBebe NeuwirthŽeljko IvanekGeoffrey ArendPatina Miller and Erich Bergen.

PREMISE: Leoni plays a former CIA analyst now a university professor becomes Secretary of State after her predecessor dies in a plane crash. Sundays, 7 p.m. Premiers Sept. 21.

PICK OR PASS? It’s good to see the talented and underappreciated Leoni again and her performance is strong in the previews. Her character is sarcastic, tough and smart. Keith Carradine is in a supporting role as the president, also a smart choice. Nobody really pays attention to international news in the papers or online. I don’t know if it can sustain an audience — especially against NBC Sunday Night Football, but it looks worthy of a watch. Pick.


 

 

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“CSI: CYBER”

STARS: Patricia ArquetteJames Van Der BeekCharley KoontzPeter MacNicol and Shad “Bow Wow” Moss.

PREMISE: Cops use computers to solve crimes. Works every time. Sundays, 9 p.m. Midseason premiere.

PICK OR PASS? Oh, look. Another flavor of CSI. This one has the guy from “Dawson’s Creek” and Lil’ Bow Wow. The formula works for CBS. It doesn’t work for me. Pass.


 

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“SCORPION”

STARS: Elyes GabelKatharine McPheeRobert PatrickEddie Kaye Thomas, Jaydn Wong and Ari Stidham.

PREMISE: A group of computer geniuses solve global problems. Mondays, 8 p.m. Premieres Sept. 22.

PICK OR PASS? If I wanted to watch a bunch of kids on computers, I would go to the coffee shop across the street from my house. Pass.


 

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“NCIS: NEW ORLEANS”

STARS: Scott BakulaLucas BlackZoe McLellanC. C. H. Pounder and Rob Kerkovich.

PREMISE: It’s just like “NCIS” and “NCIS: Los Angeles,” except it’s in New Orleans. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Premieres Sept. 23.

PICK OR PASS? Scroll up and see what I said about “CSI: Cyber.” Replace “CSI: Cyber” with “NCIS: New Orleans.” But it’s nice to see Scott Bakula back on TV. Pass.


 

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“STALKER”

STARS: Maggie QDylan McDermottVictor Rasuk and Mariana Klaveno.

PREMISE: The series focuses on Los Angeles police detectives who investigate stalking, voyeurism, cyber harassment and romantic fixation. Wednesdays, 9 p.m. Premieres Oct. 1.

PICK OR PASS? I’ll give CBS credit for finding a different angle on the exhausted police procedural theme, but leads Q and McDermott leave me disinterested. Pass.


 

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“THE McCARTHYS”

STARS: Tyler RitterLaurie MetcalfJack McGeeJimmy DunnJoey McIntyre and Kelen Coleman.

PREMISE: An athletically challenged openly gay man (Ritter) moves to Rhode Island to become assistant basketball coach for his father’s high school team. Thursdays, 8:30 p.m. Premieres Oct. 30.

PICK OR PASS? CBS uses the words “working class” to describe this family, but TV hasn’t gotten working class families right since “Roseanne.” The premise feels flimsy and grossly stereotyped. The gay guy is bad at sports but now he’s coaching basketball. Didn’t Michael Sam get us past this much, at least? This is my pick for the first cancellation of the new season. Pass.


 

Previous previews:

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On TV: General Tso’s Fall 2014 TV Pick or Pass ABC Edition

September brings a new football season and a slate of new network TV programs. We at General Tso’s Revenge will be watching some of these shows because TV is a drug and we’re addicted. But even we have standards. Here’s our picks and passes for the fall season. Here’s our look at upcoming ABC series.

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GALLIVANT

STARS: Joshua Sasse, Mallory JansenKaren DavidTimothy Omundson, Genevieve Allenbury, Vinnie Jones and Luke Youngblood.

PREMISE: Galavant (Sasse) seeks to reclaim his lost love, Madalena (Jansen), by taking on evil King Richard (Omundson). There are musical numbers. Sunday, midseason.

PICK OR PASS? It’s like the worst of the unwatchable and inexplicably popular “Once Upon A Time” and “Glee.” We miss the high point of musical television, “Cop Rock.” Pass.


 

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AMERICAN CRIME

STARS: Felicity HuffmanTimothy HuttonW. Earl BrownRichard CabralCaitlin GerardBenito MartinezPenelope Ann MillerElvis Nolasco and Johnny Ortiz.

PREMISE: ABC promise a crime drama that will examine a racially charged murder and the subsequent trial that will examine race, class and gender politics. Sunday, midseason.

PICK OR PASS? If you want to watch racially charged crime drama, turn on the news about Ferguson. If you want excellent television about that, binge watch “The Wire.” ABC does not have the guts to broadcast a show that will do these weighty topics justice. Pass. 


 

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SELFIE

STARS: Karen GillanJohn ChoTim PeperDa’Vine Joy RandolphAllyn Rachel and David Harewood.

PREMISE: A modern reimagining of “My Fair Lady,” Henry (Cho) tries to get self-obsessed Eliza (Gillan) to see there’s more to life than social media. Tuesdays, 7 p.m. Premieres Sept. 30.

PICK OR PASS? If you want to watch “My Fair Lady,” see Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison do it right in the 1964 film. The premise is impossible. There’s no way you can convince a millennial to get off social media. Can’t. Be. Done. We love Gillan from her time as the fearless Amy Pond on “Doctor Who,” but not enough to watch this show. Pass.


 

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MANHATTAN LOVE STORY

STARS: Analeigh TiptonJake McDormanNicolas WrightJade Catta-PretaChloe Wepper and Kurt Fuller.

PREMISE: Series looks at the questions two young lovers have at the beginning of a relationship. Tuesdays, 7:30 p.m. Premieres Sept. 30.

PICK OR PASS? You lost me at “Manhattan.” Everything on TV is set in New York or Los Angeles. Set your love story somewhere else, just for kicks. Pass.


 

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AGENT CARTER

STARS: Hayley AtwellDominic CooperEnver GjokajChad Michael Murray and Edwin Jarvis.

PREMISE: Atwell reprises her role from the first “Captain America” movie as a pioneering agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Set after World War II. Tuesdays, midseason.

PICK OR PASS? “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” quickly became tedious and dull, but the spin-off shows more premise focusing on Atwell’s Peggy Carter and having a period spy thriller. If it teeters too much into the Marvel Comics superhero minutia, it could quickly become another lukewarm DVD extra rather than good weekly TV. Pick.


 

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FOREVER

STARSIoan GruffuddAlana de la GarzaLorraine ToussaintDonnie KeshawarzJoel David Moore and Judd Hirsch.

PREMISE: Gruffudd stars as an immortal medical examiner seeking clues as to why he can’t do. Tuesdays, 9 p.m. Two-night premiere begins Monday, Sept. 22.

PICK OR PASS? Gruffudd lacked the charisma to carry two bad “Fantastic Four” movies and the Sarah Michelle Gellar CW show “Ringer.” Nothing suggests this premise, which feels like a rehashed “Tru Calling,” will benefit from him as lead. Pass.


 

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BLACK-ISH

STARS: Anthony AndersonTracee Ellis RossYara Shahidi, Marcus Scribner, Miles Brown, Marsai Martin and Laurence Fishburne.

PREMISE: A successful black man worries his family is losing its culture in the white suburbs. Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. Premieres Sept. 24.

PICK OR PASS? I’m white, so I feel like I’m going to spend every episode wondering if it’s OK for me to laugh at this? But then if I don’t watch, it makes me racist, right? What to do? What. To. Do. I know. Pass.


 

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HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER

STARS: Viola DavisBilly BrownAlfred EnochJack FalaheeKatie FindlayAja Naomi KingMatt McGorryKarla SouzaCharlie Weber and Liza Weil.

PREMISE: Davis plays a Philadelphia law professor who helps her students when they become entwined in a murder plot. Thursdays, 9 p.m. Premieres Sept. 25.

PICK OR PASS? I live by a simple rule: Produced by Shonda Rhimes. Not watched by me. Pass.


 

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SECRETS & LIES

STARS: Ryan PhillippeJuliette LewisKaDee StricklandNatalie MartinezDan FoglerIndiana Evans and Belle Shouse. Midseason premiere.

PREMISE: A body is found. The wrong man is accused. There are secrets. There are lies.

PICK OR PASS? It’s nice to see Lewis getting work, but let’s face it, I’m thinking about her from “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” and “Strange Days,” rather than her current work. I haven’t paid much attention to her since she became a musician. It’s always a bad idea to watch a show on a nostalgia trip for one of the stars. Pass.


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CRISTELA

STARS: Cristela AlonzoCarlos Ponce, Terri Hoyos, Andrew LeedsSam McMurray, Jacob Guenther and Isabella Day.

PREMISE: A Latino law school graduate balances the needs of her career against the needs of her family. Fridays, 8:30 p.m. Premieres Oct. 10.

PICK OR PASS? Alonzo is a stand-up comedian that’s been making the rounds of the late-night TV circuit. Her stuff is solid, with a few of those racial jokes that I’m not sure if I’m allowed to laugh at, what with all my guilt over white privilege. I hope she does well, but I’m not big on family comedies. Pass.

 

 

On TV: ‘Doctor Who: Into the Dalek’

 

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Into the Dalek” was weaker than the season opener of “Doctor Who.”

The Daleks are headline bad guys in the fiction of “Doctor Who,” but there hasn’t been a good Dalek story since “The Stolen Earth” and “Journey’s End,” the two-part capper to Series 4. There they were scary and deadly, nearly indestructible.

But in the era of show runner Steven Moffat, the Daleks blow up like Christmas crackers. Sometimes they serve tea to Winston Churchill during World War II (“Victory of the Daleks“) and often they’re getting run over by a flying TARDIS (“Day of the Doctor.”)

This time, a Dalek has gotten sick. And now it’s a good guy. It sees its own race as a terrible, destructive force that must be stopped. The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) arrives. He’s miniaturized with a couple soldiers and Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) and they journey inside the Dalek, a direct rip off of “Fantastic Voyage,” which the Doctor references either in homage or apology.

Capaldi is still a master craftsman. He renders his Doctor as harsh, detached and rude. He delivers sharp, staccato and sometimes ruthlessly funny dialogue as if the episode were written by Aaron Sorkin.

But the Doctor is the hero of this piece. Much of the time, though, he’s an ass. He’s so much of an ass that Clara properly slaps him.

The Doctor and crew repair the Dalek, which promptly turns evil and starts killing all the regular-sized people in the spaceship. Clara convinces the Doctor to try and get the Dalek to be good. He tries, but the Dalek, whom the Doctor calls “Rusty,” looks into the Doctor’s soul and sees beauty, divinity and hatred — especially for the Daleks.

Rusty murders his Dalek compatriots and pledges to return to the Dalek ship to do more murdering. The Doctor is sullen, realizing his own hatred has fueled more killing.

One character whom we scarcely meet, sacrifices herself to aid Clara and the Doctor inside the Dalek. The woman, Gretchen, reappears in the mysterious “heaven” — the same spot where the Two-Headed Man popped up at the end of the season opener — in time for tea with the equally baffling, Missy, a plot thread to be picked up later, one supposes.

Another character, Journey Blue (Zawe Ashton), asks to join the Doctor in his travels. He says no, because she’s a soldier and apparently he doesn’t like soldiers anymore. He spent years working with the Brigadier, but he’s dead now. So it is a mystery for another episode, too.

We also meet Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson). He teaches at the school with Clara. He was a soldier and the experience has made him very sad. He and Clara decide to go out for drinks.

The special effects, which have generally been very strong in the revived series, were dodgy in this. When the Doctor confronts the one-eyed biological mass at the heart of Rusty, it looks like the kind of rubbish green screen work one would expect from “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” and not one of the most successful programs on BBC.

I’m still enjoying Capaldi’s Doctor, even if he is cruel and distant. And even a below-average episode of “Doctor Who” is still better than most of the dreck on my idiot box.

But it was disappointing. For having a new Doctor in only his second full episode, it felt very much like I had seen most of this before.

Rental Review: ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape’

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What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” | 1993 | DirectorLasse Hallström | CastJohnny DeppJuliette LewisDarlene Cates and Leonardo DiCaprio.


 

I hated “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.” Oh, it’s not all bad. It’s a well-made movie. Leonardo DiCaprio is excellent as mentally challenged Arnie Grape, the kid brother to Johnny Depp’s Gilbert. But I hated it nonetheless.

Depp plays Gilbert, a small-town kid forced to look after his family after his father hanged himself, with warmth and depth.

936full-whats-eating-gilbert-grape-posterBut I found the film mercilessly depressing. The small-town grocery where Gilbert works is being run into the ground by the bigger, more impressive Foodland on the edge of town — a clear metaphor for the encroachment of Wal-Mart on smalltown America.

Gilbert’s mother, Bonnie, is morbidly obese and housebound since her husband’s suicide. Her family dotes on her, but Gilbert also mocks her. He uses all the classics. “Beached whale” is used a couple of times, I think. He lets the neighborhood kids, curious to see the fat woman like she was a freakshow display, look through the windows of their rundown farmhouse.

I’m morbidly obese and I guess I’m more sensitive about it than I thought. I found it all rather cruel, though Darlene Cates, who played Bonnie, is very strong in her performance.

My big gripe is the ending. Bonnie climbs the stairs to go to bed for the first time in years. She has a heart attack and dies. Mentally challenged Arnie discovers her. At first he thinks his mom is playing possum. But then he slowly realizes she is dead.

That’s some good acting by DiCaprio, who would go on to be a master of his trade.

But what happens next is an absurdity. Bonnie is fat. They say she’s 500 pounds. The local sheriff says he’ll have to get some extra men to get her out of the upstairs of the house. That seems reasonable.

Somehow Gilbert decides they’ll need a crane. And then all the town will show up to laugh at her. This is, of course, something he actively participated in earlier in the film. But now his mother is dead and his morality is resurrected. Or something.

The logical solution, of course, is to burn the house down. Which they do.

It’s a metaphor for starting over, getting rid of past baggage. I get it.

It’s also painfully stupid.

Nobody thought about a tarp, maybe some pulleys and rope to slide Mom’s body down the stairs. No. The only way was to turn the house into a Viking funeral pyre. Why not?

What the hell.

This film brings to end a long running joke between myself and my friend Andrew. While we were both unemployed back in 2008, we would often walk down to a neighborhood video store to pick out films to watch.

One of us would always say to the other, “Hey, I hear ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape’ is good?” This struck as very funny. We may have been drinking beforehand.

Every visit to the store, which is long closed, one of us loudly ask this question about “Gilbert Grape” and suggest we’d heard it was good. Neither of us had seen the film until now.

Sadly, Andrew, I am here to report that, no, it actually isn’t good.

Rental Review: ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’

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Fast Times at Ridgemont High” | Rated R | 1982 | DirectorAmy Heckerling | CastJennifer Jason LeighBrian BackerPhoebe CatesRobert RomanusSean Penn and Judge Reinhold.


 

“Fast Times at Ridgemont High” is one of those oft-quoted, seemingly beloved movies that I never bothered to see.

The film debut in January 1982, when I was 6. I was more interested in “Star Wars” than the bare breasts of Phoebe Cates and Jennifer Jason Leigh. I didn’t understand stoner comedy and suffer talk.

15071-thumbAn edited version of the movie, with profanity overdubbed and nudity chopped out, was on basic cable and Saturday afternoon UHF movies nearly all my life. I never bothered to watch it for more than few minutes before I changed the channel.

But while it was a series of accidents or oversights rather than a direct slight, I can see now I was absolutely correct to snub this very stupid picture for 32 years.

“Fast Times” doesn’t have much plot. It’s story structure feels like randomly thumbing through the diary of sex and stoner fantasies written by a smartass in English class instead of the day’s assignment.

The fact that the film was written by Cameron Crowe, who would go on to do excellent work with “Say Anything” and “Almost Famous.” All great writers produce bombs once in a while. This was his.

Leigh plays a high school sophomore curious about sex. Cates is her more experienced pal, a senior who is engaged to some guy who lives in Chicago. Cates gives Leigh graphic details on how to perform oral sex while using carrots in the school lunchroom. This scene could have been sexy or funny, perhaps both, but managed to be embarrassing.

I wasn’t embarrassed for me. I was embarrassed for what appeared to be two fine, young actresses having to muddle through this terrible material. Everybody starts somewhere, but I feel for those women. That was some real garbage.

Leigh’s character, who is supposed to be 15, loses her virginity to a 26-year-old man. Leigh lied and said she was 19. They have sex on what appears to be a dugout bench in a rundown park. It’s the first of Leigh’s several gratuitous shots of her breasts. I’m all for gratuitous breast shots, but it’s a joyless love scene, as they all are in this film.

This scene, though, begs other questions. If the guy is 26, doesn’t he have an apartment or house? Why are they having sex in a park like a couple of teenagers? Spring for a room at the Super 8 for crying out loud.

There’s a shy movie usher played by Brian Backer. He has eyes for Leigh, but he’s busy receiving terrible advice from his friend Mike Damone, played by Robert Romanus. Damone is a cartoonish high school hood. He scalps tickets to concerts and wears clothes that make him look like a kid hawking newspaper on a street corner in 1937.

Backer chases Leigh, who likes him and wants to go to bed with him. But he’s shy and runs away. So Damone has comically short intercourse with her a poolhouse. This results in pregnancy. Damone agrees to pay for half, but can’t come up with the money so Leigh has to go it on her own.

Her brother, played by the affable Judge Reinhold, sees her at the clinic and offers something akin to sibling support by promising not to tell their parents about the abortion. I’m not sure what any of this means or why it is awkwardly jammed into a teen sex comedy, but at this point I really don’t care what happens to anybody.

Reinhold has some good moments. He wears a silly pirate hat at one point. He also stops a convenience store robber by throwing scalding hot coffee in his face. This doesn’t sound very funny. It isn’t. But that follows the central theme of the film.

The most-beloved scene in the movie involves the curvey Cates getting out of the pool in a red bikini and walking over to Reinhold, opening the top of her bikini and making out with him. This doesn’t even happen in the reality of the film. It’s just a masterbational fantasy of Reinhold’s character.

Even this is ruined when Cates, who got water in her ear from actually diving into the pool, goes into the house to look for some ear drops to clear the blockage. Instead, she finds Reinhold having at himself, who is suitably shamed for his sexual desires.

The most-quoted character is surfer and stoner Jeff Spicoli, played by Sean Penn in likely one of his most cheerful screen appearances ever. Spicoli is a clown who shows up to class late, doesn’t like to wear a shirt and frustrates Mr. Hand, played by the great character actor Ray Walston.

Frankly, I don’t see the appeal. He calls his teacher a “dick” at one point. He has pizza delivered to class one day. It’s cute, I suppose, maybe even amusing. But it doesn’t make me laugh.

Perhaps I’m too old to appreciate this movie. The appeal of sex in cars or stoner surfers was never that great for me and non-existent today. But I think this is simply a very bad movie and I doubt I would have enjoyed it regardless of when I saw it.

I always cringed when I heard those Spicoli quotes. Now, at least, I’m cringing with context.

On Movies: ‘Sin City: A Dame To Kill For’ reveals everything we’ve already seen

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Sin City: A Dame To Kill For” | Rated R | 1 hour, 42 minutes | DirectorsFrank Miller and Robert Rodriguez | CastMickey RourkeJessica AlbaJosh BrolinJoseph Gordon-LevittRosario DawsonBruce WillisEva GreenPowers Boothe and Dennis Haysbert.


“Sin City: A Dame To Kill For” is beautiful from the stylized hyper-noir aesthetic to the nude breasts of sultry femme fatale played by Eva Green to making it appear as if Bruce Willis still has hair. In fact, from an effects point of view, it may be more beautiful than the original “Sin City” from 2009.

The beauty is worth a lot. It’s fun to look at, whether Jessica Alba’s depressed Nancy is cavorting and boozing at a strip club or Marv (Mickey Rourke) is meting out back-alley justice to boozed up fratboys emulsifying bums in lighter fluid and flames. And the dialogue, for the most part, is snappy and staccato, echoing the best of Spilane, Chandler and Westlake.

But the sense of having already seen this before — and if you saw the first “Sin City,” you truly did — is overwhelming. “A Dame To Kill For” is a sequel without surprises that improves in every aspect of production save perhaps the most important one: story.

A “Sin City” movie can’t be a character study. This is not “True Detective.” These characters are wafer-thin, ghosts of stronger, better-written and more fully realized people from the best of film noir and hardboiled fiction.

“A Dame To Kill For” seems to know this and turns to excessive violence — more decapitations, dismemberments, murders, suicides and gruesome finger breaking. But it seems more like a distraction, a cringe to take your mind off the fact there’s nothing new happening here.

The doomed hubris plays out in long, dull monologues played as narration from the male characters. Life sucks. Then you die. And it’s tough to tell the difference between life and death in a town as lousy as Basin City.

The women do most of their talking in the movie. And for the most part they’re tougher than the men. Green’s Ava manipulates men toward murder with such ease and menacing wimsey, she’s easily the most powerful character in the film. Even with bruisers Marve and Dwight (Josh Brolin) wandering around.

The prostitutes of Old Town are still around with more guns than clothes, fighting off everyone from the cops to mobsters. Rosario Dawson plays Gail, who is in love with Dwight who is in turn in love with Ava. Dawson seems wasted in a role in which she primarily cavorts in bondage fantasy clothes and rescues her man from Ava’s goons.

The best part of “A Dame To Kill For,” as with “Sin City” before it, is that it does not ask you to take it seriously. It presents itself as what it is, a strange mix of post-World War II male fantasy magazines, edgy comic books written by Frank Miller before his descent into hackery and the elegant malevolence of American noir in the 1940s and 50s.

It accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do: titillate, tease and occasionally go “boom.” But while “Sin City” produced “booms” that shoot the room, “A Dame To Kill For” delivers its payload and leaves the audience shrugging, “Are you done?”

On Movies: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ left me cold and bored

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Guardians of the Galaxy” | Rated PG 13 | Time: 2 hours, 2 minutes | DirectorJames Gunn | CastChris PrattZoe SaldanaDave BautistaLee PaceMichael RookerKaren GillanJohn C. ReillyBenicio Del Toro and the voices of Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper.


“Guardians of the Galaxy” makes a better 2-minute music video than a 2-hour movie.

The Marvel Studios movie is what the advertisements promised it would be: things blowing up, occasionally amusing one-liners and enough old music to plan a block of your local classic rock station.

What it isn’t, I dare say, is good. Oh, it’s fine. But it never quite hits “11” the way other Marvel Movies have. It’s no “Avengers.” And it’s certainly not the terrific pleasure that was “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” It’s better than, say, the two “Iron Man” sequels.

This movie is mildly more fun than “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” which I found tedious and dull. “Guardians of the Galaxy” is just average, OK, fair, not bad enough to be mediocre, but not good enough to be interesting.

The movie begins with a blizzard of alien names and planets. If you didn’t read comics, which I do, you would have no idea what any of it meant. Having read the comics, I can assure you that, in fact, it meant nothing.

The story is pretty straightforward: Ronan, an angry blue guy with a sledgehammer, wants to destroy the galaxy. A group of plucky misfits, including a talking raccoon and an animated tree, band together to stop him.

Ronan isn’t all that interesting as a villain. He’s not scary. His superpower appears to be being able to work in a spaceship with almost no lights. The guy may be able to smash people’s heads with his sledgehammer, but there isn’t a 75-watt bulb to be found on his big, twisty space rig.

He has a couple minions. One is named Nebula. She’s blue, like him. The other is Gamora. She’s green. They’re both the (sort of) daughters of Thanos, who is purple. The minions are both played by beautiful women in form-fitting clothing that highlight their rearends. It’s not really acting or character depth, but it’s something that kept my attention when the story got muddled or dull, which it did a lot.

This Thanos guy is described as “the mad Titan.” We meet Thanos. He sits on a chair kept afloat by rockets on some rocks in space. He’s played by Josh Brolin. He doesn’t do anything that’s even remotely scary or powerful, either. But he is supposed to be some sort of big bad. Perhaps he’ll do something interesting in the third Avengers movie. For “Guardians of the Galaxy,” however, he’s just a red — well, purple — herring.

There’s another green guy. His name is Drax. He’s angry and doesn’t understand metaphors. This is supposed to be amusing, but I think it is just to cover up for the fact that the professional wrestler who portrays him isn’t big on acting.

Chris Pratt is charismatic as Peter Quill, the group’s leader, but he was much better as a different kind of action figure: Emmet, the Lego guy.

There are a lot of winking references in the film for late Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, from nods to the Space Invaders video game to “Footloose.” There’s so much of this stuff, one might think this was an episode of “Family Guy,” where imitation is used as comedy. But in the case of both the Fox cartoon and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” imitation is just copying in hopes no one notices what is actually going on isn’t compelling enough to sustain your attention.

Then there’s all that classic rock music, worn-out songs such as “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede and “Escape (The Pina Colada Song).” They’re fine songs. But they’ve been played so much on the radio, TV and movies that one doesn’t hear them anymore. They’re just background music, filler. If the filmmakers are trying to evoke nostalgia with these songs, all they really serve to do is make something meant to be spectacular quite mundane.

This isn’t a complaint that’s specific to “Guardians of the Galaxy,” but the visual effects are overwhelming. This isn’t a good thing. In some of the space battles, the action moves so quickly and is so chaotic, I really didn’t know what I was looking at. This happens a lot in movies this days. Computers have given filmmakers the ability to do anything. Too often they choose to do everything all at once.

There is also the the rather large matter of exposition: There’s way too much of it. All the characters are sad. Their parents are dead. They’re weird. They don’t have any friends. The galaxy doesn’t love them. But they find kinship and common purpose in … blah, blah, blah.

The writers work far too hard to give emotional depth to characters that are obvious and without a hint of edge or mystery. Everything is spelled out a little too clearly when it comes the heroes’ purity of motives. This isn’t an ABC Afterschool Special. It’s fine if some people to good things for bad reasons. That’s even interesting. These characters are not interesting. They’re quirky.

Michael Rooker is in the film. He plays the same character he played on “The Walking Dead,” except he’s got a red mohawk, a whistle-controlled arrow and blue skin. Apparently blue is the new orange, which was previously the new black.

My biggest gripe against “Guardians of the Galaxy” is that not one thing happens that is surprising. The heroes who don’t like each other end up being BFFs. They come through in the nick of time because, by golly, they’re pure of heart. You just knew the talking tree was going to say something other than “I am Groot.” Nobody important dies. And if you can’t guess what’s inside the present given to Quill by his dying mother, you’re just not paying attention.

Then again, this isn’t really a movie that requires you to pay attention.

 

On Movies: ‘Life Itself’ hurts to watch in a very good way

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Live Itself” | Rated R | Time: 2 hours | DirectorSteve James | SubjectsRoger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Gene SiskelWerner HerzogMartin Scorsese and Errol Morris.


 

The story of a man — his triumphs, failings, passions and weaknesses  — is difficult to capture, but documentarian Steve James offers a remarkable survey course in the fantastic life of the late film critic Roger Ebert.

LIFE ITSELF - FINAL SUNDANCE POSTER-page-001We meet Ebert near the end of his life, in 2012, when cancer that took his jaw and his ability to speak, eat or drink, advanced on his spinal column. He is in a Chicago hospital rehabilitating from a fractured hip.

He is, frankly, hard to watch at first. His lower jaw is gone. The skin remains. It hangs in an odd, clumsy loop of flesh from the top of his face. It wags when Ebert makes expressions, but, of course, no words come out.

The first thing one notes about Ebert is he is loved, by his wife, Chaz, and his stepchildren and step-grandchildren. The dote on him and delight at his quips delivered by typing messages into a computer and playing them in a mechanical voice similar in sound to that of Stephen Hawking, the great physics professor.

The movie takes us back to the beginning, to Ebert’s life in Urbana, Ill., where he read three newspapers a day and wrote, edited and printed a neighborhood newspaper when he was an elementary school student.

Ebert went to the University of Illinois in Urbana, became a towering and imposing editor of the campus newspaper. He landed his first and only job as film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times.

He joined with his rival, Gene Siskel, to produce a public TV show about movies called “At the Movies.” It was a hit coast to coast and their “thumbs up, thumbs down” routine brought film criticism out of the stuffy air of highbrow circles down to everyday people who stood in line and bought tickets.

The just wanted to know if somebody thought it was any good or not and Siskel and Ebert gave that to them. The best moments of the film come in showing the tenuous, adversarial and downright hostile attitude the two men had toward one another.

They sparred verbally and Ebert came off as pugnacious and petulant at times, but it is a credit to both Ebert and director James that those clips that show Ebert on less than his finest behavior are such an important part of the narrative.

The film is rich in newspaper lore, the stories of drunken Chicago newsmen stumbling from bar to bar, loudly telling stories about life in the Second City. Some of them were probably even true. Ebert became an alcoholic, but dried out and stayed that way for the rest of his life.

His mercurial nature mellowed when he married Chaz, where he found romance and an outlet for dormant paternal feelings toward Chaz’s children and grandchildren.

Ebert’s cancer stole his physical voice, but his voice as a writer only fell silent when he died.

I did not know Roger Ebert. I did not live in his beloved Chicago. But I read his reviews, even though sometimes I thought he was wrong or perhaps too high-falluting for me, a lover of action movies where things blow up and the good guys win.

But I loved him for his writing: his bare, straightforward prose that struck at the truth of the subject and read with such effortlessness that even now I find myself jealous of his beautiful mind and sweet style.

I left the film very sad, I must admit. Ebert died, of course, and I knew that going in. And I won’t bore you with cliches about his bravery in the face of the challenge. What I will say is that if I face terminal illness, I hope that I do it with his grace and attitude. He was realistic — he was dying and he knew it — but he treated his days as precious commodities and never turned away from the keyboard.

I was sad not so much because Ebert died. I was sad because he was a true titan of newspapers and there aren’t very many of those kind of people anymore. In the last year at my paragraph factory, we lost two of our very best titans.

The first was retired managing editor Rick Tapscott, the cigarette-smoking man from Missouri with the voice like Adam West and an attitude of a barroom brawler when it came to hunting the truth.

The second was another managing editor, our friend Randy Brubaker, who died of a heart attack just four months after his wife died. Brubaker was our big brother, the one we trusted, the gentleman newsman who fought the good fight for open government, good writing and decent humility.

They’re all gone now. And we’re less because of it. I suppose these recollections aren’t much in the way of a review of “Life Itself.” It’s a fine documentary. You should watch it.

Because good movies, and “Life Itself” is one, are like the good people from my life I mentioned above: If they make you feel something, you’re probably going to remember them.

 

On TV: ’24: Live Another Day’ finale was brutally depressing

The networks warn viewers when content might be too graphic for youngsters or the faint-hearted. They’re usually worried about cursing, sex and violence.

24_LAD_PosterBut the finale to “24: Live Another Day” should have come with a viewer discretion alert for those of us with permanently jangled nerves and brains bent toward downers.

Because the final was terribly depressing. Audrey (Kim Raver) is killed. It appears Kate (Yvonne Strahovski) saves her in the final moments from Cheng’s (Tzi Ma) snipers. But there was a second shooter. This one kills her. Kate is so distraught by her failure to protect Audrey, she quits.

Kate tells Jack (Kiefer Sutherland). Jack appears to ponder suicide but then takes his rage out on Cheng’s men. He gets to Cheng and proves to the Chinese government that it was Cheng and not the United States who sunk the Chinese aircraft carrier.

President Heller (William Devane) backs down the Chinese prime minister from World War III. The day is saved. Then his staff tells him: Audrey is dead. He passes out. Next we seem him with the British prime minister.

He notes he won’t remember he had a daughter who died in such a terrible way. He won’t remember anything. He gently places his hand atop the flag-drapped coffin as it is led to Air Force One.

Devany shreds viewers’ hearts here. He’s been good throughout the series. It’s his finest moment — and his saddest.

Jack, of course, has one more mission. The Russians grabbed Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub) in the fight at Cheng’s hideout. He trades himself for her freedom. He’s taken off to Moscow to be tortured and probably executed.

I can be a snob about the “Hollywood ending,” you know, where the good guys win and everything wraps neatly. My friend Memphis Paul, the co-founder of this blog, thought it was a flaw in both finales for “Breaking Bad” and “True Detective.” The closers were too perfect, too orderly, he argued.

Well, I could have used some of that tidiness in the “Live Another Day” finale. Everybody died or suffered. I suppose that’s the way of the grim “24.” But damn, man, I’m going to need an extra antidepressant tonight.