Thoughts from belatedly watching the first and most of the second season of Grey’s Anatomy

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  • Interns work crazy long hours
  • In spite of working 100+ hours a week, they are all horny toads
  • Doctors may be doctors but they have no qualms about enjoying unprotected sex and getting VD from each other
  • If you get horny at work, grab a doctor or nurse and go into one of the semi-private rooms with bunk beds and get your rocks off. It’s apparently a perk of the job.
  • It’s okay to have an affair with a married man providing you didn’t know he was married. Also, he’s blameless for not telling you he’s married if he caught his wife cheating and moved to the Left Coast (Seattle) to get away from it all.
  • After working 20 hours a day, doctors get plastered at a bar across the street then rise at 5 AM and start it all over again
  • You want to work at Seattle Grace Hospital because they regularly get the most unusual cases, including a two parter I watched yesterday where ammo from a bazooka ended up in a person’s body cavity causing much of the surgical ward to explode
  • Boy, for the most part doctors sure are skinny and attractive and yet oddly you probably have better morals than they do
  • For the most part, doctors and nurses will date/sleep/screw only each other
  • Seattle Grace Hospital is basically General Hospital but it’s for prime time and done more artfully with pretensious dialog by its star at the beginning and end of each show, with rock tunes that meet the theme of each show
  • The only character I identify with is George, the intern with the wild hair and apparently the only one at Seattle Grace with a lick of common sense
  • The only important doctors are the surgeons and apparently they are the only ones you need to run a hospital
  • Unlike, say, “Scrubs”, at Seattle Grace for the most part the minutia of worrying about things like “am I insured” never come up, so you want to go there if you don’t have health insurance, plus you get the top docs

If this sounds like your cup o’ tea, if you missed the series you can catch it on Netflix.

London, Part 3 (Theater scene)

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Our motivation for going to London was a theater tour arranged by a local theater company. They did all the leg work including selecting shows, buying show tickets, airline tickets, finding a convenient hotel, arranging charter buses to and from the airports and London Underground passes good for the duration of our stay. And it all worked quite well leaving us days to see the city and nights in the theater. The exception was our hotel, the Millennium Gloucester Hotel in South Kensington. The hotel itself is quite upscale, but we were given a small room at the very end of a long hallway where the air conditioning and refrigerator didn’t work. With considerable work we were able to open our window to cool off the room, but when we requested a fix they couldn’t deliver. Thanks to our tour guide we were finally upgraded to a good room on Thursday night and we at least got some chocolates to assuage our discomfort. The free breakfasts though were great!

London has a huge theater scene with more shows than we could possibly take in during one week. What I found curious was the American stamp on London’s theater scene. Most of the stuff we ended up at were American shows or featured American actors. The venues were interesting too, from the massive Olivier Theatre inside the multi-stage National Theatre, to the appropriately named Old Vic to the newish Lyric Theatre hosting more experimental shows. No show was like the one that followed it. It was quite a potpourri of an experience. Brief reviews follow.

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead (The Old Vic Theatre)

It should be pretty exciting to come to London and see Daniel Radcliffe (a.k.a. Harry Potter) on stage, but in this play Radcliffe neither gets naked (like in Equus) nor really has the leading part. Instead, Radcliffe as Rosencrantz plays a supporting role, in this case supporting Joshua McGuire playing Guildenstern. The play by Tom Stoppard will feel familiar if you have ever seen Waiting for Godot. R&G have bit parts in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which is the whole point of this play. We know from Hamlet that they are sent to England and are eventually reported dead. Both R&G are quite confused about who they are, what their mission is and why they are alive. In short it’s part comedy and part an existentialist romp. It doesn’t make much sense, which is the point. It’s about as real as touching cotton candy. It takes a certain type of person to appreciate its “plot” and humor, and that wasn’t me. In 2008, I saw Waiting for Godot and had the same sort of experience. Seeing Radcliffe perform on stage is really nothing special, unless you are devoted fan and there were many in the audience. But it’s really McGuire’s show.

The Kid Stays in the Picture (The Royal Court Theatre)

Who is Robert Evans? He was something of a puppet master who worked for Paramount Studios and helped bring to the screen some of the biggest hits of the last fifty years, most notably The Godfather and Love Story. The play briskly tracks his volatile career including his hits, his marriage to Allie McGraw and Evan’s tenacious ability to stay “in the picture” business despite many missteps including getting involved in a cocaine deal. The show is at once mesmerizing and uninteresting. A handful of actors play a variety of parts with a younger Evans in front of a screen and an older Evans narrating bits in silhouette behind a screen. As an integration of technology with acting it gets top marks and all the actors do a great job in their brisk-paced roles. In that sense it is a tour de force. It’s not until afterward that you will probably realize that Evans is not that interesting as a person and thus a play about his life really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But director Simon McBurney certainly puts the show in this show so you are more likely to feel dazzled by how well he choreographs the whole thing than to notice how emotionally empty Evans and most of the characters in the play are. It’s worth seeing in spite of this major issue for those who love wizardry in their stagecraft.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (The Harold Pinter Theatre)

This play by Edward Albee is now more than fifty years old but it still feels uncomfortably mature. The story about the daughter of a college president and her disappointing “associate professor” of a husband is hard to endure, particularly when a much younger couple they meet at a party come over for late night drinks. Everyone has issues, that’s for sure, and the late hour, the booze and longstanding personality conflicts all emerge in the wee hours of the morning leading toward epic dysfunction. There are so many top tier productions in London but this one is perhaps at the top of the heap at the moment, with stellar acting in all the parts (there are only four of them). The production boasts three Olivier award winners, including Imelda Staunton as Martha and Conleth Hill as George.

Amadeus (National Theatre)

If you’ve seen the 1984 movie that won Best Picture starring F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce, this production won’t be much of a surprise. Even so it’s great entertainment and even in the huge Olivier Theater it still comes across as pretty intimate. This musical gets redone regularly so it’s not surprising that directors keep looking for new ways to stage it. In a way this production tries a little too hard to keep it fresh and interesting. The orchestra is on stage for the performance and is really a character in itself, integrating itself seamlessly into the show. You get court composer Saliari as a black Italian (played by Lucian Msamati), which seems weird at first. Adam Gillen portrays Amadeus Mozart and he’s not quite Tom Hulce but he does a fine eccentric job of portraying the gifted composer. It’s a classy, expensive, top tier production.

Seventeen (Lyric Theatre) 

This last show was the oddest one we saw. It’s the story of five teenagers on the cusp of adulthood after their final exams, but all the actors are age sixty plus portraying teenagers. They do a good job of it on a minimalist playground set but it’s quite weird. I’m not sure what the point of this was other than to show it could be done and maybe give some equity to older actors in the theatre guild. It wasn’t especially memorable or even very good, but it was different.

Two quick movie reviews

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In this better late than never post, here are reviews of two movies I’ve seen lately, although lately means “some weeks ago”.

Fantastic beasts and where to find them

Fantastic beasts and where to find them should delight both those steeped in J.K. Rowling’s imaginary world as well as the rest of us. Count me in the latter camp. Even if you are not a Harry Potter fan, you will enjoy this finely crafted and inventive movie.

“Newt Scamander” (Rowling) published a book of the same name in 2001. It was short and not particularly noteworthy, more of an oddity for the obsessed Harry Potter fan. It discussed some obscure magical beasts unmentioned in other books. Fifteen years later Rowling turned it into a screenplay set in the bustling 1920s. Unsurprisingly, she proves adept writing screenplays. In the movie, Newt Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne) arrives in the Big Apple and is hardly off the boat before some of his magical creatures stuffed in his suitcase begin wreaking mischief in the New World.

This causes considerable consternation because the wizards across the pond are much more buttoned down than their British peers. Thus begins a series of unfortunate events for Newt that quickly involves people he meets along the way. One woman he quickly encounters, Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) has already encountered misfortune from MACUSA (Magical Congress of the USA) and has been demoted, only to encounter more when she tries to muzzle Sean’s escaping magical creatures. The applecart tips even further when Newt accidentally swaps suitcases with an aspiring baker forced to work in a cannery and the muggle gets exposed to their wizardly world. Both Tina and Newt get the ultimate punishment (death) but of course events intervene that keep the execution from executing. These include the release of an Obscurus, a parasite that kills girls that don’t develop their magical talents.

There are many delights in this movie: a fine rendering of New York in the 1920s, understated but authentic-feeling characters, a rich magical ecosystem, a sweet but forbidden romance between wizard and muggle, and a whole new variant of wizardry practiced in the United States for Potter fans to delve into. There are also fine actors like Redmayne, Colin Farrell (playing Percival Graves) and Jon Voight (as a U.S. senator). What’s especially nice is how well the ensemble plays together, thanks to director David Yates. But it is mostly Rowling’s sharp vision of this earlier magical world that works so well. Without Voldemort, it has a lighter feel but it moves along at a happy but brisk pace, resulting in a highly engaging movie even for us muggles.

It’s thoroughly delightful and should push everyone’s buttons. So naturally it has no chance at the upcoming Academy Awards. Alas.

3.4 out of 4 points.

Rating: ★★★½ 

Hidden figures

Speaking of the Academy Awards, Hidden Figures is one of the movies nominated for Best Picture, and deservedly so, unlike the overrated La La Land. But it probably won’t win because it takes place in Virginia and it features black women. So many stories like this never get turned into movies, so perhaps we should be grateful this one did. The bonus is that it is done so well.

In 1962, Virginia was still an officially segregated state, which makes the story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson even more surprising. They were pivotal in the success of America’s space program but they had the double whammy of being both black and women. Working for NASA at Langley Air Force Base, each were well-educated black women hired by NASA to help the USA win the space race. The movie mostly focuses on Katherine Johnson (Taraji Henson), a brilliant mathematician thrown into the white male scientist world of NASA. To say the least, she is a fish out of water. While America is not quite ready for a manned suborbital flight, the Soviets have already put Yuri Gagarin into orbit. The pressure is on the nerds at Langley to figure out an engineering solution to put an American astronaut into space and, the harder question, figure out how to return the astronaut home safely. Here Katherine will prove pivotal.

To say the least it’s awkward for Katherine in this white male domain, and it’s awkward for us viewers to confront the segregation of the time too. It means Kate has to walk half a mile to use a restroom, because she must use one for coloreds only. The Space Task Group’s director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) seems blind to her obstacles that also includes discomfort from the men in the group. For example, they won’t let her drink coffee from their coffee pot. Meanwhile across campus in the colored building, Dorothy (Octavia Spenser) has all the duties of supervisor but neither the title nor its pay as she and her group of black women work at solving various mathematical problems for NASA at a huge discount compared to white women. Her white supervisor Vivian (Kirsten Dunst) seems inured to her issues. Mary (Janelle Monáe) meanwhile wants to get an engineering degree, but finds she can’t. A course she needs is taught only at a whites-only school. They can at least share a car ride together to Langley and commiserate. Katherine, a widow with two daughters at home, finds an attractive officer at Sunday services, who becomes important in her life and heart (Jim Johnson, played by Mahershala Ali).

As someone who grew up during the space race, I do recall the heady feeling of those days. Competition between the Soviet Union and the USA brought out the best. It’s that need to succeed which allows Harrison to eventually put his own prejudices aside, as Kate becomes integral to the success of their mission. To say the least Kate is gifted, but all these women are. Dorothy has the good sense to learn their IBM mainframe, needed for rocket trajectory computations, and figures out how to program it using this language called FORTRAN. The white shirt guys can’t seem to figure it out and she wants to keep her team employed. Ironically, computer programming was considered women’s work back then, beneath men.

This movie has a combination of superb acting and a compelling story plus the thrill of watching some amazing women succeed despite the odds. If you missed the space race, this takes you into its heart. In 1962 the world was rapidly changing. All three women give terrific performances, as do Costner and Dunst. It took 55 years, but Hollywood finally gave these largely unknown black women their due. Of the Oscar nominees I have seen, this is my choice for Best Picture.

3.4 out of four stars.

Rating: ★★★½ 

Two holiday movie reviews

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La La Land

Aside from Disney musicals, the Hollywood musical is a rare thing these days. La La Land proves an even rarer bird because it is an original musical made for the movies. More often, Hollywood musicals begin on Broadway. It aspires and succeeds in recalling the musicals of sixty or more years earlier, with stars like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.

Neither Ryan Gosling (Sebastian) nor Emma Stone (Mia) are quite up to Fred and Ginger’s effortless dancing. In fact, both actors had to be taught how to dance. Neither are particularly good singers either, but this is rarely a problem in Hollywood. With enough voice coaching, pretty much any actor can render an acceptable performance. Nor is there a huge amount of chemistry between Gosling and Stone in this movie, but there is enough to allow you to suspend disbelief. Sebastian is an erstwhile jazz pianist who has dreams of owning his own jazz club, in Los Angeles of all places where old is out. Emma simply wants to land her first professional acting gig and chases debilitating auditions while selling coffee inside a Hollywood movie lot. After six years of trying to make a breakthrough in Hollywood, things are beginning to look bleak for her.

Of course they are fated to meet. Mia hears Sebastian at the piano passing a club where he has a Christmas gig, and is immediately mesmerized. When she tries to compliment him, the just-fired Sebastian literally gives her the cold soldier as he storms out of the café. Of course in the insular world of Hollywood they manage to pass paths again, and begin a somewhat begrudging courtship.

There is a lot of music in La La Land but not a whole lot of dance numbers. It starts out terrifically with an amazingly choreographed scene (“Another Day of Sun”) on a stopped Hollywood expressway. La La Land shines mostly with its peppy and integrated music, the flowing direction by Damien Chazelle and Emma Stone’s performance as Mia. Emma Stone’s huge eyes are kind of mesmerizing, but she’s also quite an accomplished actor. It’s a movie musical with a fair amount of soul, a boy-meets-girl plot where both try to buck up each other’s spirits and potential. In doing so though they will stress their own relationship.

If there is disappointment in this movie, it’s that its ending probably won’t satisfy you. But it is a movie with heart, soul, romance and moments of breathtaking fun. In spots it’s hard to sit in your seat; you’d rather be dancing in the aisles. A scene filmed against the backdrop of a Los Angeles sunset is particularly mesmerizing. It’s definitely worth seeing and it’s nice to know that the talent for doing a first-class Hollywood musical is still around. More please.

3.4 points on my 4-point scale.

Rating: ★★★½ 

Passengers

Between playing Peter Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy movies (the second of which will be released soon), Chris Pratt found time for another science fiction movie now in theaters: Passengers.

Here he plays Jim Preston, one of five thousand or so passengers in deep hibernation on an interstellar voyage between star systems. During this 120-year voyage though he gets an unexpected wakeup call. He awakens thinking he is four months from their destination on this one-way voyage, when in reality they are only thirty years out. Moreover, he is the only human awake. The only companion available is the android kind, a bartender named Arthur (Michael Sheen) who spends his years endlessly cleaning bar glasses for non-existent customers in the ship’s watering hole.

It soon becomes clear that his premature awakening is a mistake. Their ship though is a neat place to hang out, a sort of Hilton on steroids. Indeed this spaceship is something of a character itself, with a fascinating fusion reactor that propels the ship and deflector shields that push obstacles out of its path, all automatically. Eventually the lack of human companionship proves too much for Jim, so he wakens Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) whose biography fascinates him. At least Jim is not a creep. Their relationship develops slowly, with ups and downs, and one big down when Aurora finally learns that Jim had awaken her simply for companionship. For once you go into hibernation, there’s no way to go back. Both are destined to spend their years together and to die long before the ship makes landfall, with only Arthur and each other for company.

If La La Land does not quite follow where the audience wants it to go, Passengers does eventually go where you want it to go. Fortunately both Jim and Aurora find plenty of stuff to do, as the fusion reactor is breaking down, not to mention other systems. This supposedly self-healing spaceship can’t fix itself this time so the only humans awake have to engineer a solution somehow just to survive. It’s fortunate that Jim is something of a mechanic but this task seems well beyond both of them.

What I liked about Passengers was the plausible way it renders travel between star systems. Both Jim and Aurora are likeable, in spite of their differences, and Arthur is great fun as a bartender. Except for a bit part by Laurence Fishburne, it’s basically a three-character movie that manages to sustain itself and our interest through almost two hours. In spite of its outer space setting, it’s really a tight character driven movie with some original plot threads made possible by the unusual premise of interstellar travel. It rates high on my inner satisfaction index, even if the premise wears a bit thin by the end of the movie.

3.3 points on my 4-point scale.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

Two hit movies

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It’s blockbuster season. To make sure we are well entertained and our wallets are emptied Hollywood brings us its best films of the year, which are often subsequently nominated for awards. Here are two films early out of the gate that you will likely enjoy.

Doctor Strange

As a rule I’m not into superhero movies, mainly because I find the egregious use of testosterone (and now with Wonder Woman, estrogen) silly and uninteresting. I made an exception for Doctor Strange, played by Benedict Cumberbatch because this doctor is not your ordinary superhero.

When the movie starts Doctor Stephen Strange is a super-successful brain surgeon and that gives him all the latest toys and a fantastic lifestyle, not to mention the company of his favorite nurse and girlfriend Christine (Rachel McAdams). It also has him hunting for more complex and interesting cases. He is soon brought low by an accident that leaves his memory intact but largely destroys his magical hands that provide the source of his fame and wealth. Stephen is obsessed with getting back his surgical prowess. It looks hopeless until a fellow doctor tells him about the unusual case of a man in a similar condition who succeeded against the odds. Trying to imitate this man’s success, Strange ends up in Katmandu, Nepal and knocking on the door of a nondescript row house. There he hopes to learn these same mystical secrets.

It takes him a while to be taken for a serious pupil. Needless to say Strange is highly motivated and a gifted student. But he finds it hard for his rational mind to accept the mystical powers The Ancient One (a bald and definitely non-Asian Tilda Swinson) says can be projected from the mind. It won’t surprise you (or spoil any plot points) to learn that with her help and the help of Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the keeper of the sacred library Wong (Benedict Wong) he succeeds.

Unfortunately, the knowledge in this special library has been pilfered, or at least a key page of it, by the evil Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) who is a big believer in chaos theory. He has been battling The Ancient One for control of the earth’s destiny, and his latest stolen acquisition from their library is a serious breach. Fortunately Dr. Strange gains proficiency just in time to be paired with a magical cloak (something of a character in itself) to help The Ancient One fight both a real and ethereal battle with Kaecilius’ forces, with humanity’s future being the prize.

In an age of super special effects, these here are both neat and memorable and complement the plot rather than detract from it. Cumberbatch is now a serious A-List actor and manages to infuse Strange with a captivating personality that is both human and fantastic. Director Scott Derrickson seamlessly pulls all of this together, allowing Strange to be a sort of anti-superhero, a superhero with a human face wrestling with unseen forces to help mankind. I hope there are more Strange movies in the future, because I will be happy to invest more time with this sort of superhero.

3.4 out of 4-stars.

Rating: ★★★½ 

Arrival

One of the first science fiction films of note, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1952) tackled what it would be like if aliens landed on our planet. Sixty-four years later we get Arrival with essentially the same plot. When done right, as in Arrival this plot will both entertain and keep you guessing. What makes Arrival somewhat unique is that it plausibly tackles the topic.

Eight huge egg-like alien spacecraft land (well, more accurately hover) at various spots over the earth and sort of sit there, waiting for humanity to investigate. The United States gets one that lands in Montana. The U.S. military of course is all over it, as are militaries elsewhere in the world, but even so it’s tough going. They have to learn how to communicate with these aliens. You can see them if you get under their ships because every 18 hours whoever is there will get swept into an inside chamber where you can view these octopus-like aliens behind a barrier.

Louise Banks (Amy Adams) who already happens to have a Top Secret clearance gets the call, in this case from Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker). Unsurprisingly, Banks is a renowned language expert and has studied how language is learned. It’s a pretty tedious process but with the help of theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) the two plod away at the job, overseen by the hovering and mothering military nearby, which sets up a quarantined base camp. Louise does her best, but is not quite at her best. Even before the plot gets going we learn she is a woman haunted by dreams as real as life, but that have never happened to her.

Viewers can take this as a key to a plot that will slowly unfold. Colonel Weber is anxious to make progress because there is something of a race among the countries with these spacecraft. These aliens that they call heptapods are patient but these militaries are not. It all amounts to whether the aliens are friend or foe. If foe they must be destroyed somehow. If friend, they must glean information for their nation’s advantage before another country does.

With science fiction in the theater these days more often to be space operas like Star Wars sequels, this movie turns out to be genuine science fiction. But it’s also a deeply human story, along with a grand mystery and puzzle. These aliens feel like aliens and their writing is sophisticated and seems impenetrable. It’s exhausting work for both Louise and Ian all while Louise wrestles with inner psychological demons and the military works overtime not to use their itchy trigger finger. Meanwhile the Russians and the Chinese cut off communications and soon no one is sharing information anymore.

This one will surprise you in a good and satisfying way and suck you right into its plot. These heptapods are suitably alien, as are their ovoid spacecraft. The mosaic of clues will come together and should leave you more than a little awed, thanks to terrific acting by Adams, Whitaker and Renner and Denis Villeneuve’s deft but understated directing.

3.4 out of 4-points.

Rating: ★★★½ 

Review: Girl on the Train

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The whodunit is something of a Hollywood staple, something you can release pretty much anytime of year. They make good movie filler outside of the peak summer and holiday movie seasons. Case in point is Girl on the Train, now in theaters and starring Emily Blunt. Blunt plays Rachel Watson, a woman who lives her life in a deeply alcoholic haze. Rachel’s addiction is key to this whodunit because she becomes an unreliable narrator, making it a challenge for the viewer to parse through all the information presented and discern the truth.

One thing that is clear is that Rachel is wholly messed up. She commutes to and from New York on the train. Twice a day the train slowly passes a street where she used to live. She is glued to the window as the train slowly passes her old street. She becomes obsessed with a couple she sees in a house along the tracks and what she sees as their ideal loving relationship on display to passers by. This idealized relationship may be more of a draw than the bottle of spirits she discreetly sips from on the train. It was apparently a life she thought she had before her divorce broke her. She now awkwardly slums with her friend Cathy (Laura Prepon, who plays Alex Vause in Netflix’s series Orange is the New Black) while making a wreck of her post-divorce life.

Rachel is certainly haunted by the breakup of her marriage but also by her inability to have a child that Tom Watson (Justin Theroux) desperately wanted. Her inability to conceive led to the breakup of her marriage to Tom who started hitting on their realtor Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) instead. Rachel can’t seem to help herself and stalks her old neighborhood and her old house, pining for Anna’s new baby with Tom and the life she used to have. The couple two doors down the street seem to have that perfect marriage that because it eluded her now intrigues her. However, one afternoon from her window on the train she observes the woman in the arms of another man. This woman, Megan, inconveniently goes missing one evening after Rachel exits from the train. She sees her and her husband Abdic (Edgar Ramirez) in a tunnel. Megan is eventually found dead in the woods nearby.

Rachel seems pivotal to solving the unfolding mystery. Since she is angry with Megan for her observed infidelity, her being near the scene of the crime and an injury that happened in her deeply intoxicated state, she is under suspicion for the homicide. Even Rachel doesn’t know if she might be the murderer.

Based on the debut book last year by Paula Hawkins, the movie will keep you guessing. Figuring it out when a character is an unreliable narrator is challenging, but made more so by the way director Tate Taylor chooses to move back and forth in time. The movie is sad but compelling. Blunt’s portrayal of a deeply depressed and intoxicated woman is first rate and heartbreaking. Taylor takes us deeply into their intimate worlds, and does this with Steadicams and very intimate close up shots. The dark late autumn days in upstate New York also contribute to the movie’s pervasive gloom.

Still the movie will keep you engaged. You will have your hands full trying to piece together what’s actually going on, so in this sense it’s a very good whodunit. Rest assured that Rachel is not the only person with issues. Pretty much everyone in this story has issues and they are coping badly with them, making the surreal Stepford village Rachel inhabits more human as the movie progresses. Allison Janney has a nice minor part as Detective Riley, who gets to try to figure out who is responsible for Anna’s death. She will have her hands full.

So Girl on the Train is an intriguing filler movie while you wait for Hollywood’s more substantial offerings starting next month. Warning: there is a grisly ending scene that can be hard to stomach.

3.2 out of 4-stars.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

The meaning of Star Trek

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The media is agog over today’s 50th anniversary of Star Trek. Yes, it was fifty years ago tonight that the first episode of Star Trek, “The Man Trap” first aired on NBC. Then a product of Desilu Studios this futuristic show of zipping across the cosmos on starships quickly became a cult classic, but not enough to spare it from being canceled after three seasons. In fact it had been canceled earlier, but was saved for a while from petitions from fans.

What Gene Roddenberry hath roth! Roddenberry had no particular aspirations for the series when he produced it. In fact, he was a pretty inept producer of the series. TV series fifty years ago are going to suck by modern standards, and many of these original episodes badly sucked. For the most part this was due to Roddenberry’s inattention, NBC’s unforgiving cost controls and using a lot of hack writers. Roddenberry was never that much into his creation, at least not its management. His contribution to his phenomenon was mainly inspirational.

Star Trek depicted a far future for humanity that was hopeful, although it was originally badly depicted on screen. Roddenberry also threw in a few characters that caught our imagination: Captain James T. Kirk as an American cowboy in outer space but mostly Mr. Spock. Spock was a wholly aspirational character: a glimpse of not how ideal aliens should be, but how humanity could be. All this was wrapped around 49 minute episodes with five commercial segments, cheesy costumes and generally poor acting.

And yet Star Trek took off, in spite of NBC and in spite of Roddenberry’s inattention. Its meme was hopeful and a few of its characters were interesting enough to get into. The original series was never really reprised again. The movies were binary: either good or bad, with only the even ones being any good. It took twenty plus years for Star Trek: The Next Generation (STTNG) to emerge and a year or two for its shakedown cruise before Trekkies got what they really wanted: real Star Trek without the warts and blemishes of the original series. It got a lot better when Roddenberry stepped back, mostly due to his health, and let professionals manage the franchise. With STTNG, better budgets and independent syndication, the franchise really took off spinning off other shows, most not so memorable.

In 2003 I proclaimed the death of Star Trek, but it’s reimagination in the 2009 movie proved me wrong. Star Trek now sails into its next half century with a planned CBS series reboot, Star Trek: Discovery, apparently only available to paid subscribers. Curiously it’s no longer NBC property: CBS has taken over the franchise, as it owned by National Amusements, which own ViaCom, which owns Paramount.

There is a mystery to its longevity, as there is with Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes and certain other series that manage to become timeless. The original series was not really that good, and it’s third season truly sucked. The same is true with Doctor Who and many of the later Sherlock Holmes stories. Keeping a series feeling fresh is hard.

Star Trek managed it with STTNG by keeping Star Trek’s essence and ejecting its bad parts. The 2009 Star Trek reboot movie succeeded by putting the original series in its own time warp, essentially creating an alternative timeline. Star Trek: DS9 worked by abandoning most of Star Trek’s peaceful premise and going back to Gene Roddenberry’s premise of a western in space. Commander Sisko became the sheriff for his part of the Wild West and tried to keep the peace. It’s clear what didn’t work. Voyager really gave us nothing new except a woman captain; many of its episodes we had seen many times before in other iterations. The short-lived series Enterprise proved even less interesting: its chief character of interest was the captain’s cute dog.

So what is Star Trek’s essence? Why do we find ourselves addicted to it, even when it is often mediocre? For me, I see two prominent memes in the Star Trek experience.

First is that no matter how interesting life is for us humans in the 21st century with its ever-expanding technologies, we crave a quantum leap. Our human potential is boundless, even as our humanity frequently proves that we don’t deserve to trek the stars. Star Trek opened the door to new possibilities: the universe on a grand scale that we could easily zoom around in. There we would find wonders beyond our imagination as well as challenges too. These wonders are its lure, but what really interested us are the challenges it posits. Just like a hacker is never satisfied with his latest cyber break in, we look for ever more challenging puzzles to solve and ultimately master. The universe, at least as depicted in the relativity-free world of Star Trek, offers us this tableau of potential to exploit.

Second, at its core Star Trek is hopeful. It speaks to our potential as an enlightened species, not the depressing reality we’re mired in. We crave utopia, but what we crave more is an enlightened and well-ordered society where we get along well with each other and channel our collective and individual energies in ways that help, not harm, but also enrich us as human beings. In Star Trek we see this reality modeled in a hopeful way. It’s a powerful meme and it — not Star Trek’s warp drive — is what really powers this series and its many spinoffs. There’s a place for all of us in this posited reality. Even conservatives can play in this universe, as evidenced by the many fans out there emulating the Klingon culture.

As I noted before, one of the curious things about Star Trek is how much of it has already been realized in just fifty years. Both the universal translator and the communicator are 21st century realities, albeit in different and less powerful forms than Star Trek depicted. Perhaps because of its warp drive, Star Trek is inspiring engineers to see if a warp drive is feasible. Star Trek’s impulse drive looks like a real possibility, although it is not quite out of the lab. It may get us to the stars, much more slowly than with a warp drive, but enough to be practical. It will leverage the power of solar energy and microwaves, if this research bears fruit.

It turns out there is nothing like a model to stimulate human imagination. Star Trek provided a model, both on a technical and sociological level. Since its appeal is universal, it connects all cultures and provides a common foundation to ponder our place in the universe and how to actually sail these oceans of stars all while inspiring us to live up to our ideals. It’s taking us from imaging a new reality to inspiring us to implement it.

Yes, Star Trek is ultimately just a meme. But it’s a meme for good and a meme that calls us to our potential. It’s often great entertainment but it’s not a waste of our time. Ultimately, Gene Roddenberry’s experiment of a western in outer space may literally help take us to the stars and help mankind reach its most noble purpose. It’s a long shot, but it’s a meme with huge energy behind it. I hope it can sustain our passions for the next half-century.

Review: Orange is the New Black (Seasons 1 and 2)

The Thinker by Rodin

Good news! Hollywood has finally produced a series that represents the full colors of America’s ethnic rainbow! And it’s done very well. The only downside: it depicts life at the fictional Litchfield Penitentiary, run by the “Federal Department of Corrections”, supposedly somewhere in upstate New York. And except for some guards and a couple of administrators, there’s not a man in sight because it’s a women’s penitentiary.

I’ve been avoiding Orange is the New Black, the Netflix series, for a couple of years. It’s always hard to decide if I want to invest the time in a TV drama series. Thanks to the proliferation of cable channels and streaming services, there are an overwhelming amount of them out there. Even being retired, I couldn’t begin to watch them all. I did try a couple of episodes of Breaking Bad, but the level of violence was more than I could stomach.

So it’s surprising that I could get into OITNB because it has plenty of violence, not to mention sex, nudity, cursing and more adult topics than I can enumerate. And truthfully, if these were scheduled for theatrical release, they would warrant somewhere between an R and an X rating. I’ve seen stuff in OITNB I’ve never seen elsewhere outside of X rated sites like xhamster.com, such as an explicit picture of a woman’s vagina.

If the goal of cinema is to take viewers into a whole new world, OITNB succeeds very well. What an interesting, fascinating and disgusting set of characters we get in this minimum-security women’s prison, sometimes all at the same time. You want both the inmates and the guards to be stereotypes but none of these are. The exception is Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling). Piper is something of a lead character, at least at the beginning, a generally goody two shoes blonde white lady in her thirties. She happens to fall in lesbian love with Alex (Laura Prepon), a drug runner. Years afterward she gets ratted on by Alex, and ends up at Litchfield. This does not make her fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs) happy and he awkwardly tries to stay faithful to her while she sits behind bars.

Except there aren’t many iron bars at Litchfield: the “girls” sleep in dorms where they are regularly searched and humiliated. In their internet-free zone they mostly self-segregate by race or age (there is a fascinating group of older characters, including Kate Mulgrew as “Red”, who runs the kitchen). Most of them are pretty messed up (not a surprise), but these include many of the guards and administrators (perhaps a bit of a surprise). Proving that everything is relational, the guards abuse the inmates, some of them screw the inmates and some of them love the inmates. Litchfield is a tangled web of real life: a mixture of characters from the sweet Morella (Yael Stone), to the ultra-butch Big Boo (Carrie Black), to frequently insane Suzanne (Uzo Abuda) to the cold and steely killer Vee (Lorraine Toussant).

I was surprised by how easily I got sucked into this series. I was also surprised by how the characters grew on me, including some surprises like Suzanne, also known as Crazy-Eyes. The producers created a little universe inside a prison and accurately depicted life inside it. Based on a memoir by Piper Kerman and her experiences at FCI Danbury (Connecticut), OITNB feels eerily authentic. It opens windows into the human soul and human experiences you won’t expect. Unlike Breaking Bad, which seems to revel in the worst of us, OITNB gives us a more accurate portrait of mostly good people gone bad, often due to factors outside of their control.

OITNB gives us a dose of real people coping (often badly) with what life has thrown at them. More importantly it gives us an opportunity to see women as people, instead of objects. It also allows seeing correctional officers as people, often flawed and profane, and with their own issues and foibles.

For me one mark of a good series is whether it follows me around. OITNB is like that: it will haunt you when you are not watching it, or follow you in your dreams. I found it hard not to binge on the show but sometimes I would succumb anyhow and watch three episodes in a row. It’s not really titillating; it’s more a grand exposition. While there is plenty of lesbian sex, much of it quite graphic, and shower scenes (pretty much everyone ends up at least partially naked) it’s not so much the individual characters that pulled me in as the exposition of this particular prison system in all its complexity and garishness.

So as long as you are up for a grownup adventure, it’s definitely worth your time. It helps if you are not homophobic, squeamish or racist. It’s a great reason to subscribe to Netflix if you don’t already. I have been watching Netflix’s House of Cards for years. In Season 4 though I find House of Cards is getting not so watchable. OITNB is much more so, perhaps because it feels more real and less Machiavellian.

Kudos to Netflix, creator Jenji Kohan, the series producers, directors and actors for giving us a compelling series worth watching that will take you to new places both inside the human soul and the worlds around it. Now I need to start watching Season 3.

Second viewing: Star Trek: The Next Generation (Season 6)

The Thinker by Rodin

Season 6 of this series emulates Season 5, which means that the overall quality is very good. There are no major clunkers in Season 6 (no Majel Barrett as Deanna’s mom helps) so every episode warrants at least a C grade. There is only one more season left for me to see again. It’s amazing that I forgot all this stuff over the last two decades when I originally watched them on TV.

Anyhow, if you want to scan Season 6 and watch only the good stuff, you can use my mini episode reviews with confidence.

  1. Time’s Arrow II. This is the conclusion from Season 5’s cliffhanger, which was not much of a cliffhanger. In Part I, Data’s head was found in a cave underneath San Francisco, causing certain members of the Enterprise crew to go back to that time to figure out what’s going on. In Part II they succeed and discover that some alien shape shifters are using a cholera outbreak in the bay area at that time to surreptitiously drain the life force out of many San Franciscans. The plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and Data’s jeopardy feels forced, but Mark Twain does get to visit a 24th century Enterprise. B
  2. Realm of Fear. The terminally shy and deeply annoying Enterprise engineer Lt. Barclay is back, this time with a new phobia: transporters. He slowly masters his fear and transports over to the starship Yosemite, where Barclay become pivotal in rescuing the missing crew. One of the stranger parts of this episode is where Transporter Chief O’Brian is talking about how safe transporters are. Transporter malfunctions are a regular feature of STTNG episodes. Of the Lt. Barclay episodes, this is the easiest to stomach. C
  3. Man of the People. Something is weird about the Lumerian ambassador the Enterprise is ferrying. The ambassador maintains his cool so he can excel at his duties through an intimacy ceremony that has the effect of prematurely aging his partner. When his companion “mother” with him dies, an innocent Counselor Troi becomes his next victim. She ages prematurely but no one seems to think this or her overly seductive behavior is that big a deal. Using 24th century magic, of course Troi will revert to her former svelte self by the end of the episode. C
  4. Relics. Pretty much every STTOS actor gets a chance to reprise his or her role aboard the Enterprise D if they wanted to, and in this episode it’s James Doohan’s (Scotty’s) turn. Speaking of transporter accidents (see Episode 2), Scotty’s been in one for 75 years that is why he doesn’t look a day over sixty when La Forge finally pulls him out. Scotty resumes being Scotty, but he’s a bit off his kilter (kilt?) on the Enterprise D. The only thing noteworthy in this episode is the Dyson’s sphere they encounter, making for some neat special effects for 1992. Scotty helps solve the crisis of the day and as a reward (but probably because he is sort of insufferable) he is sent to a more permanent retirement: Picard gives him an extended loan of a shuttlecraft as a going away present. Go study those technical manuals, Scotty. C
  5. Schisms. Apparently one episode using the insomnia meme was not enough in this series. Riker has a bad case of it but this time he is not alone. With the help of a holodeck, various crewmembers remember fragments of creepy “dreams” where they are being examined by aliens. In Riker’s case, he was partially dismembered and put back by curious alien doctors. It’s suitably creepy and well done, however. A-
  6. True Q. A promising intern Amanda is assigned to the Enterprise who soon discovers she has supernatural powers that frighten her. It turns out that she is a new member of the Q Continuum so naturally Q (John de Lancie) shows up to act as something of a sarcastic coach and naturally to spar with Picard too. Amanda must ultimately decide whether to become a Q too or abdicate her powers, which would not be a good idea, as Q must destroy her in that event. Guess which one she picks? C
  7. Rascals. Yikes! Yet another transporter accident! This one rolls back the aging for some Enterprise crewmembers including Picard who revert to 12-year-old children while retaining their adult memories and capabilities. The senior staff finds it hard to take orders from a child Captain Picard and we get to marvel at a young Picard with bountiful hair. O’Brien finds that having his wife Keiko turn into a 12-year-old changes their marriage big time, but if there was ever a case for legitimately having sex with a kid this would be it. (Glad O’Brien is not a creepy child molester!) The actor playing a young Picard though does a great job, and this is simultaneously fun and amusing while we await their eventual “re-aging”. Meanwhile, these child officers get to outwit a rogue Ferengi captain that takes over the Enterprise who has no idea who they are. B
  8. A Fistful of Datas. Speaking of transporter accidents, holodeck accidents are also a recurring theme in STTNG. We get another one in this episode when Worf, his son Alexander and Counselor Troi get caught up in a too-real holodeck simulation of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Worf gets to play sheriff, Marina Sirtis makes an unconvincing deputy and Brent Spiner gets to play a bad guy. They have to find a way to safely end the simulation for the program to end. A mildly amusing waste of time. C+
  9. The Quality of Life. Dr. Farallon is another brilliant, cute but bullheaded Federation scientist. She is working on a “particle fountain” to make mining more efficient on the planet Tyrus 7A. To assist she creates “Exocomps”, intelligent mining machines that prove too intelligent. Data thinks she has created an artificial life form, which naturally Data finds “intriguing” and eventually becomes protective of. This is interesting mostly for Brent Spiner’s acting. A-
  10. Chain of Command, Part I. Figuring there was no reason to wait for an end of season cliffhangers, the writers decided to put them in the middle of a season. Starfleet gets wind of a secret Cardassian biological weapon and covertly sends Picard, Crusher and Worf on a mission to Celtris III to verify then locate and destroy the technology. This illegal weapon is tantamount to war if it exists, so the Federation feels the need to go to war status. They send Captain Edward Jellico to take over Picard’s command, presumably permanently. This abrupt change does not sit well with the crew and Jellico goes out of his way to ruffle feathers, but only because the mission requires it. It turns out that the Cardassians are luring the Federation into a trap. Worf and Crusher escape, but Picard is captured. This and the next episode will press all your favorite Star Trek buttons. A
  11. Chain of Command, Part II. While Jellico continues to ruffle feathers as Enterprise captain, a Cardassian interrogator, Gul Madred, tortures Picard on Celtris III. Both Patrick Stewart and the interrogator played by David Warner give exceptional performances as all sorts of torture tactics are tried to break Picard’s will. Stewart proves yet again that Star Trek producers got the best deal ever when they hired him, as evidenced by his terrific acting in this episode. This is one of the best episodes of the entire series. A+
  12. Ship in a Bottle. After episode 2, you would think they’d give the Lt. Barclay character a rest, but he’s back. Fortunately Barclay is somewhat ancillary in this episode, but he does discover a very persistent Professor Moriarty in a Holodeck simulation, one who has been in memory since Season 2. Picard has been lax in his promise to try to free Moriarty so he can safely explore the real universe, so he takes things into his own hands, so to speak. So there’s yet another bug in the Holodeck software while Moriarity and his lover Countess Regina twist Picard’s arm to allow him to escape to the real world. This is a fun episode because it’s mostly a hall of mirrors episode. Moriarty gets what he wants, sort of. A
  13. Aquiel. Geordi falls in love with Lt. Aquiel Uhnari, a somewhat difficult officer assigned to a subspace communications relay station who lost her crewmates but still has her dog. The plot actually hangs on Aquiel’s devoted dog, which is not quite what it seems. C
  14. Face of the Enemy. In another one of these “you can’t make this shit up” episodes, Deanna wakes up to find she is a major in the Romulan elite. She was captured on orders from Spock, who is trying to bring peace to the Romulans by ferrying three secret passengers to the Federation. Posing as Major Rakal, Troi must bossily assert her dominance over Captain Toreth, who resents her privileged place in Romulan society. There are lots of problems with this episode; the biggest is that Spock would not order something like this. Marina Sirtis though does get to act very bossy and seems to enjoy the change of page. C
  15. Tapestry. Picard dies, or does he not? He seems to be in the afterlife, which is not all that great because who should greet him but Q? Because he’s in the Continuum, Q lets him redo pivotal points in his life. Picard discovers that some of his less than savory youthful aspects were essential to the man he became, so Q lets him and his artificial heart live. B
  16. Birthright, Part I. We get our first glimpse of Deep Space Nine in this episode, in its pre-Sisko era. There Worf encounters an alien who claims that his father was not killed on Khitomer, but is actually isolated on a secret planet with other Klingons and Romulan overlords that he will take him to, for a price. Meanwhile, Data encounters Dr. Julian Bashir (a recurring and annoying DS9 character) who wants to study him. During a test, Data receives an energy surge, which causes him to dream for the first time. Worf takes leave to go to the planet where the Khitomer Klingons and their offspring live. After secretly entering the compound he soon discovers that the Klingons are happy to be there and the younger ones have no memories of or care of Klingon traditions and history, which he finds very disturbing. B
  17. Birthright, Part II. Worf cannot understand why these Klingons don’t want to escape. In fact, the Romulans are benevolent overlords. Worf manages to stir up the blood of some of the Klingons by relating their customs and rituals, which irritates the Romulan commander who wants the status quo. B-
  18. Starship Mine. Everyone on the Enterprise must check out for a barium sweep. To avoid a long-winded colleague, Picard makes an excuse to go back to the ship and encounters some thieves after the ship’s trilithium. Picard must beat these foes while the sweep reduces the survivable space on the ship. B
  19. Lessons. Picard falls in love with the new chief of stellar cartography, when he becomes taken by her musical abilities. After getting an unnecessary okay from Troi to pursue a relationship with Lt. Commander Daren (fraternization is apparently not a problem in the 24th century), they move deeper into love while Picard and Riker struggle through boundary issues with Daren and each other the relationship raises. Most of this episode is blessedly free the usual jeopardy the crew must overcome. However, Daren must eventually lead a team to a planet to protect a crew there from an unusual solar storm, pitting Picard’s personal feelings for Daren with his command duty to be impartial. This is an unusual episode because it’s of the heart, not the head, and Picard fills out more as a human being. A
  20. The Chase. Picard unexpectedly meets an old mentor of his, Professor Galen who tempts him to take an archeological adventure with him. Despite Picard’s great interest, he must decline, which makes the professor angry. The professor’s shuttle gets attacked when he leaves the Enterprise and he dies shortly thereafter. Picard senses Galen’s great discovery is at hand, and directs the Enterprise to a number of planets to chase it rather than attend a conference. His crew puts together part of Galen’s puzzle: that there was a master species from which all humanoid forms evolved billions of years earlier who seeded the galaxy. If they can construct the whole thing they expect to get a message for them from billions of years ago, literally encoded in the DNA. But both the Klingons and the Cardassians are hot on the trail as well, seeking advantage. So a treasure hunt of sorts is underway to get the last genetic material to complete the sequence of understanding. This turns out to be a really interesting episode combining an interesting idea with a lot of action. A
  21. Frame of Mind. Riker is cast in one of Beverly’s plays in a challenging dramatic role where he is a prisoner in a mental asylum. It gets surreal when he has dreams that he is in such a place. Which is real: the asylum or the Enterprise? B
  22. Suspicions. Dr. Crusher finds herself out of a job when she sticks up for a Ferengi scientist who believes he has created metaphasic shielding that would allow spacecraft to enter previously dangerous places, like a sun’s corona. She invites some scientists to the Enterprise to critique his controversial work, one of who dies during an attempt to test the shield using a shuttlecraft. On a second attempt, the Ferengi scientist also dies, and Crusher performs an illegal autopsy to figure out the cause. Someone’s hiding something. B
  23. Rightful Heir. Worf is having a crisis of faith due to his experiences in Episodes 16 and 17. He wants to have a religious experience and get in touch with Kahless, the founder of the Klingon code of honor who died 1500 years earlier and promised to return. Granted leave, he goes to Boreth where devout Klingons go to pray, but has little luck summoning Kahless. On the thirteenth day though he suddenly appears to Worf, who wonders if he is the real Kahless or a fake Kahless. His faith is tested yet again while Gowron (head of the Klingon empire) butts heads with Kahless, thinking he is a phony. Most of these episodes featuring Klingon power plays are good, and this is no exception. A-
  24. Second Chances. In yet another improbable transporter accident (how many is this now?) Riker discovers a clone of himself left on the planet Nervala II. He had been there as a Lieutenant eight years earlier, and only now has a window opened allowing transporters to get down to the planet again, where he literally finds himself. Commander and Lieutenant Riker have sharp words with each other, the Lieutenant is still deeply in love with Deanna and you know before its over will come sort of test of Wills, literally. B
  25. Timescape. Returning from a conference aboard a shuttle, Picard, Geordi, Data and Troi encounter weird pockets in the space-time continuum and arrive at their rendezvous point to find the Enterprise and a Romulan vessel seemingly frozen in time and in the midst of a battle. They must figure out what’s going on because it’s clear a warp core breach is underway on the Enterprise. Can they figure it out and restore the Enterprise? Of course! B
  26. Descent, Part I. Time for a second cliffhanger, which turns out to be the last one of this seven season series. Unsurprisingly, the Borg are involved but it seems they have mutated. They don’t care about the collective, their ship looks different and they just want to kill people, but not Data. Trying to save his crew, Data must kill a Borg, and he experiences his first emotion: anger and finds it instantly addictive. He spends much of the episode on the holodeck trying to recreate the feeling and not succeeding, while Starfleet raises its shields. Picard is put in charge of a fleet of three ships trying to protect some new border colonies from the Borg. The Enterprise goes through a number of vortexes trying to find a shuttlecraft stolen by Data, ending up on a planet where they find Data and a surprise that suggests the Borg are not their real enemy. A

Two movies reviewed

The Thinker by Rodin

Star Trek Beyond

If you like action movies, you will like Star Trek Beyond, the third installment of this latest franchise reboot. It moves crazily fast, so fast you might want to hold onto the arms of your seat for its 122-minute duration. It is visually dense. Director Justin Lin won’t allow your attention to linger for a second. It also looks crazily expensive.

However, because it’s an action movie, it doesn’t really take you to brave new worlds. You’ve seen variants of this plot many times and in many shows and movies. For me the best Star Trek shows, or at least its best episodes, was when I was taken to these new worlds, or at least new thoughts. Here we have a standard villain Krall (Idris Elba) who wants to destroy the Federation. He only respects warriors and wants the universe full of Spartans like himself. In other words, he’s very much a Republican and he has a problem with the whole “let’s peacefully get along” meme. So maybe his real target is the late Gene Roddenberry. Can Kirk, Spock, Bones and the rest stay true to the ideals of the Federation when confronted by such a pathological killing machine?

It won’t spoil too much to let you know that the Enterprise is his first big target and Krall and his fleets of crazy Ginsu knive-shaped ships are going to do more than kick its fenders. Lin seems to be going for what worked in Star Trek’s best movie, The Wrath of Khan. Its plot is not all that dissimilar but at least Lin succeeds in making it not feel like an imitation of that movie.

As for character development, there is a bit of that. Bones (Karl Urban) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) get to spend too much time together in tight quarters causing Spock to sound more human than Vulcan at times. We learn about a minor tiff between Spock and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and that Kirk (Chris Pine) is feeling his age a bit, as his birthday is upon him and he’s older than his father when he died. Frankly though none of these characters need more development and have had their personalities dissected many times. What we need are new characters to care about. With the untimely demise of the actor Anton Yelchin (Chekov) maybe we’ll get some in the next movie.

While not exploring any brave new worlds, you are unlikely to care. You won’t have time to analyze your feelings until sometime after the movie, but you will appreciate being taken for a hell of a roller coaster ride. Lin steps into J.J. Abrams’ big shoes to direct this movie, and he does a great job of it, giving it a fresh look … the warp effects are particularly well done. It’s clear that it cost a bundle and it’s so well done, just not particularly nourishing. Here’s hoping in the next movie we get less action and more inspiration. That would make Gene Roddenberry happy but perhaps not Paramount’s stockholders.

3.4 out of 4 stars, however.

Rating: ★★★½ 

Ghostbusters

Speaking of rebooting a franchise, 32 years after Ghostbusters we get this reboot where four women audaciously play the comedic roles played by Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson and Harold Ramis in 1984. And crazily enough that’s a problem for some people who think casting women in these roles is somehow to cheapen the films. Jeebus, it’s a comedy people and Democrats have just nominated the first woman to be president of the United States! Get out of 1950 already!

I think the real sin of director Paul Feig is to go with “body positive” women. It makes a change to have a few plus sized women for the lead roles in movies, including Melissa McCarthy (Abby) and Leslie Jones (Patty). It makes it harder for men to fat shame women when they are normalized on the screen. One of my complaints about movies is that actors are predominantly thin and pretty. Obviously it’s a successful formula if you are chasing profits but for a comedy the rules can be relaxed. All four women including Kristen Wiig (Erin) and Kate McKinnon (Jillian) will keep you engaged in laughing in this pointlessly silly plot about ghosts taking over Manhattan. It makes no sense whatsoever and adds little in material to the premise, but 32 years have elapsed. Many of those coming to see the movie were not even alive when the original came out.

It’s harmless good fun and if you are old enough to remember the original movie you will see some actors that look familiar, just older and greyer. These include Bill Murray and Sigourney Weaver in bit parts. (Dan Aykroyd stayed behind the scenes as one of the writers.) It certainly captures the spirit of the original movie while of course not being quite the same. The four women develop quite an ensemble, and Chris Hemsworth (probably best known as Thor, but here he plays “Kevin”) proves he has comedic talent too, this time as their receptionist.

A better than average piece of comedic fluff.

3.1 out of four points.

Rating: ★★★☆