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


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.