On TV: ‘Doctor Who: Into the Dalek’


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.

doctor_who_series_8_ep2___into_the_dalek_poster_by_umbridge1986-d7wlzogBut 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’


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’


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.

Great Paragraphs: On whether we know each other

Peter Joshua (Cary Grant): Do we know each other?

Reggie Lampert (Audrey Hepburn): Why, do you think we’re going to?

Peter Joshua: How would I know?

Reggie Lampert: Because I already know an awful lot of people, so until one of them dies I couldn’t possibly meet anyone else.

Peter Joshua: Well, if anyone goes on the critical list, let me know.

— “Charade” (1963)

Great Paragraphs: On eyebrows and Scots

It’s all right up until the eyebrows. Then it goes haywire. Look at the eyebrows! These are attack eyebrows. You could take bottle tops off with these. They’re cross! They’re crosser than the rest of my face. They’re independently cross! They probably want to cede from the rest of my face and set up their own state of eyebrows! … That’s Scot! I’m Scottish. I’ve gone Scottish. Oh, no, that’s good. Oh. It’s good I’m Scottish. I’m Scottish. I can complain about things. I can really complain about things now.

The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), “Deep Breath

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


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 TV: David Letterman pays tribute to Robin Williams

David Letterman downplays his contribution to late night television. He was not as cool as Johnny Carson, people say. And that’s probably true. Still, Dave, now in his final year, remains funny and relevant. He speaks from the heart with a decency that is all too absent in these times. Here is his kind tribute to his longtime friend Robin Williams.

Moments: On Robin Williams and the daily struggle


Robin Williams died Monday. Authorities said took his own life. He was 63.

Williams struggled with alcoholism and other addictions. He also struggled with mental health issues. His publicist told the Los Angeles Times that Williams was suffering from depression in recent weeks. It appears the depression took his life.

robin-williamsI never met Williams. I knew him through his work, which was often terrific. But I feel for him and his family, especially because he carried the burden of depression.

Twice in my 39 years, I’ve been to an emergency room with suicidal thoughts. I could have very easily taken my own life on both occasions. For whatever reason — blind luck or divine inspiration — I reached out for help instead of killing myself.

My late mother struggled with mental health issues in her life. My dad tried to get her help, but he always felt guilty. He grew up on an Iowa farm during the Great Depression and loaded ships as a Navy seaman during World War II. To him, psychiatry was akin to witchcraft and asking a therapist to talk to his wife meant she would be confined to a room with padded walls and straightjackets for the remainder of her days.

I want to believe we as a society are more enlightened about mental health than we were when I was a boy. But I worry that people still think padded asylum cells and violent criminals when mental illness is discussed. We are not far removed from a time when Tom Eagleton was shamed out of being a vice presidential nominee because he sought treatment for depression.

Mental illness is a broad spectrum of ailments, but it is all rooted in one thing: The brain is an organ — just like the heart or liver — and sometimes it malfunctions. In exceptionally rare cases, it means people cannot function at all. But in most mental health cases, the disease is simply something that we live with day to day.

I am diagnosed with persistent depressive disorder and general anxiety disorder. The clinical words simply mean I sometimes get very sad or very scared, sometimes both, for long periods and greater intensities than I find tolerable. I control it with medication and therapy. Most days, that’s enough. But sometimes my brain doesn’t work right.

I get very depressed. I work every idea out to its ultimate outcome, which is usually slow, painful death. I feel disgusting and loathsome, even though I have a wealth of family and friends who would tell and show me otherwise, I am unable to feel anything but misery. Panic attacks feel as if my skin is itching on the inside. Everything is an emergency and I can only focus on negative thoughts.

Sometimes, not often and certainly not every day, those thoughts turn suicidal. I am in pain and the only way I can get out of it is to die. The times that I have seriously considered suicide, I don’t really want to die. I want relief. Of course one can’t feel relief when one is dead. But when your brain isn’t working right, it becomes all too easy to forget that.

Robin Williams apparently lost sight of that sometime Monday. The world lost a great entertainer to a disease that affects about one in 10 Americans, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control.

My second set of parents, the retired east Des Moines hairdresser and printer, would be hesitant about me writing publicly about my mental health problems. They would worry, rightly so, that people would look at me differently or treat me as lesser or perhaps a dangerous nut who will run amok at any moment.

People do react differently to you when you struggle and are open about it. But I talk openly about it amongst my colleagues, on my blog and with my friends, family and sometimes my sources when reporting stories where the revelation is relevant. I talk about it not to brag about it or complain in a “woe is me” kind of way.

I talk about it because mental illnesses are really no different than high blood pressure or diabetes – other health problems that can be fatal. And that’s what suicide really is: the fatal heart attack or liver failure of depression and anxiety.

I talk about it because people who suffer, my fellow travelers, need to know they are not alone. As my friend Bill McClelland, the great St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist, once told me: “We are all walking on the thin ice.”

I talk about it because people need to hear from those of us who suffer from the illness that sometimes it is a daily struggle, but most of the time we survive and even thrive. But it is a scary thing. Because I have been to that place Williams visited, with the instrument of my death in my hand, and thought there was no way out.

I found another way out. Williams didn’t.

That Williams lost his fight and I’m still fighting isn’t a measure of character, strength or determination. My cancer just went into remission. Williams’ got stronger.

Mental illness is often a brutal, cruel fight against your own thoughts. And one gets so tired, so very damned tired.

I don’t have any more answers or magic solutions.

But I have a bit of advice: Put as much kindness into the world as possible.

If one measures kindness by laughs inspired, Williams left one heck of a legacy for us to follow.

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Moments: On the burdens of books


My back is sore. My legs hurt. I’m tired of carrying this heavy load.

The burden I refer to is books. I have too many of them. The shelves of my overstuffed (and very cheap) bookcases sag beneath the weight of my books. Nearly every surface in my home serves as a holding space for books.

Paperbacks are jammed into the entertainment center behind the TV. Books pile up on the coffee table. There are a few in the closet and a few more in the nightstand. I bet if I looked real close, I’d find a few under the bed.

But I’m too scared to look under there. I saw “Monsters, Inc.” Nobody wants to be surprised in bed by John Goodman and Billy Crystal.

This book problem becomes particularly acute when one moves, which I’m doing this week.

Confession: I have not read all the books I own. I have not read most of the books I own.

I have, for example, a Christian Bible. I keep it out of respect for my parents, particularly my late father, who went to a great deal of hassle to make sure I passed confirmation at the First United Methodist Church in Winterset when I was a boy.

I’ve looked up things in it. There are lots of Biblical references in society, especially made by politicians. I like to look them up and see if they say what I’m told they say. But most of the time the language is very dense and often vague. So, no, I haven’t read it cover to cover.

I watched “The Ten Commandments,” “The Greatest Story Ever Told” and “The Bible” on TV around Easter every year when I was a boy. I know it’s not the same, but I understood those.

A very nice Methodist minister I knew gave me a guide to prayer when I graduated. I picked through it once in a while when I’m feeling desperate, but I didn’t understand the supplementary materials any more than I did the main text. But I keep both, just in case.

I have a very nice hardback collection of Plato’s dialogues. I haven’t read it, either. It makes less sense to me than the Bible. It was given to me by a philosophy professor I had at Drake University. He and his wife, who was the provost at the time, wrote a very kind dedication upon my graduation.

I briefly considered cutting out that page and putting the book in the pile to sell to the used bookstore. But that seemed uncouth. So the book went in a box.

Other books, however, were less fortunate. “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens, three books by James Joyce and a collection of Ernest Hemingway short stories were all sold. These are books I bought because I thought it was important to have them. I thought writers had to read these kinds of books to be writers of any promise or ability.

But I never read them. I’m not sure Joyce is even written in English. I bought those books because I wanted to impress a girl in St. Louis. Her former boyfriend quoted Joyce. She’s married now, not to me of course.

And, well, most of the people I know who regularly quote Joyce are kind of snobs. I can’t become a snob if I don’t read him and, thus, don’t quote him. So I got rid of those books to improve my character.

My apologies to Dickens and Hemingway, whom are often regarded as canon by people who call a writer “a man of letters.” I get more out of the collections of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Anyway, I like those books.

I could never really get into the machismo Hemingway or the Victorian-era Dickens. I loved, however, the “Doctor Who” episode in which the Doctor and Rose meets Dickens. I have that on DVD. I’ll probably watch it before I read a page of “Great Expectation.”

People often give me books by Bill Bryson, the Des Moines, Iowa, native who moved to England and writes books admired by nearly everyone, save me, who prefers Ross MacDonald and Joseph Wambaugh. So a couple Bryson books, both gifts, were sold off, hopefully to land in a home where they’ll be read by an admirer rather than an ignorer.

My bookshelves are heavy with good intentions. There’s an acclaimed book about the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. I bought it at the suggestion of a colleague, who said it was excellent and showed everything the public thinks about that day is a lie. I bought the book used. It was sold with no additional mileage. It struck me as too depressing a topic to want to scratch through while relaxing at bedtime.

I always meant to read “Ball Four” by Jim Bouton. It was the classic insider tell-all about life in the majors. Mickey Mantle reportedly wouldn’t talk to Bouton for years because Bouton revealed Mantle as a drunk. It seems kind of innocent in retrospect, doesn’t it? Entire books are written about all kinds of horrible things done by baseball players and other athletes these days. Being a drunk wouldn’t even rate an item in the celebrity news.

A copy of James Clavell’s “Shogun” won’t make it to my new home. I’ve never been one for epics, but I have the NBC-TV miniseries based on the novel on DVD. I think that’s probably enough feudal Japan for me.

I kept “Summer of ’49” by David Halberstam, which I bought as a paperback from the racks at Montross Pharmacy in Winterset. I read it on long baseball road trips from Winterset to Nevada. I felt the hot sun on my arms and fell in love with the New York Yankees as they beat back the Boston Red Sox on the final game of the 1949 season.

I had several books by Charles Finney, who writes about time travel. I was impressed by the title of one book collection: “3 By Finney.” The guy had the same last name as me. Maybe I could write three novels. But its doubtful. I never read “3 By Finney” or any of the others.

For years, I owned a guide to being an action hero. I bought it one night after a writing class I took with my friend Syd Spink. We laughed uncontrollably under the section that advised what to do if you’re wrongly convicted of a crime and sent to prison. Advice included: “Take a lover if you need to. Do whatever it takes to survive.” But I never really read it more than that.

Of course, there are books that will always be with me. “Nobody Asked Me But … The World of Jimmy Cannon,” by the great columnist Jimmy Cannon, was given to me by the best teacher I ever had, a journalism professor at Drake. I was struggling to come up with a column idea one week. He picked up the book at a used sale. It was a revelation. I keep it close, a reminder of the great teacher and the great writer. That’s the book I save in case of fire.

Collections of columns by Mary McGrory, Mike Royko, Roger Ebert and Andy Rooney all made the cut. Most of my comic books and graphic novels make the trip. Yeah, I know they’re books with more pictures than words, but people who say that have never enjoyed the sublime pleasure of Jack Kirby’s kinetic art with Stan Lee’s prose in something as perfect as “Captain America No. 105.”

So I culled the collection, not as much as I probably should have and certainly not as much as my movers would have wished I had. But there are fewer books headed to the new apartment.

I would like to believe I’ll be content to enjoy the books I have — especially those gone too long unread. But I ordered a collection of Hunter S. Thompson works just this morning. I don’t think that cleared shelf space will stay vacant long.

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