Who needs Netflix? I’ve got a PBS Passport

Streaming content is getting awfully pricey. It used to be that if you had HBO or Showtime you felt set. But now there are so many streaming options you feel like you need to belong to many of them to get the content you need.

I mean, how can you miss Star Trek: Strange New Worlds? Time to pony up $9.99 per month for Paramount+. And that’s just the beginning. Can I survive without Netflix? How can I survive without Discovery Plus? (I can, but my wife can’t.) Or BritBox? No one streaming service has it all though and most of us aren’t rich enough to subscribe to all of them.

I’ve been trying to keep my streaming bills relatively low. I still have Netflix but at $15.49/month now it’s getting too pricey. I may give it the heave ho after I finish Stranger Things: Season 4 but maybe I’ll hang around for the next season of The Crown. I just don’t need that much entertainment. Considering how much I watch on Netflix (not a whole lot) and how the quality of a lot of their shows seems at least strained if not wholly lacking, it doesn’t seem worth paying for. What I really don’t want though are commercials. And now Netflix is talking about adding commercials for a lower monthly price to keep from bleeding customers.

I often wish I could just stream commercial free for free. That’s doesn’t appear to be an option unless I want to do something illegal, like download pirated videos.

But there are some free or low cost options out there. For me, lately my favorite service is PBS Passport, which I get through donating to New England Public Media.

You don’t need to pay to stream PBS content. Just download the app or watch it on their website. But you only get the recent stuff for free. If you want their full streaming library, they (or rather, your local PBS/NPR station) wants a donation. As a practical matter though, the PBS Passport is something of a steal. With it you get full access to their whole platform for cheap, for as little as a $60/year donation, at least with my local provider, New England Public Media. With it, you can get it all. In addition, you can support arguably great TV, like Masterpiece (formerly Masterpiece Theater).

Don’t laugh because you think PBS is lame! If you haven’t checked out PBS, you’re missing some great stuff. Downton Abbey was originally on Masterpiece and can be found on their service. You can see lots of mostly British dramas on Masterpiece or related shows, most of which are exceptionally well done.

I remember back in the 1970s I could watch I Claudius on PBS, which is where I first encountered this actor named Patrick Stewart, not to mention Derek Jacobi. That’s about the same time Upstairs, Downstairs was broadcast, also on PBS. PBS broadcasted some arguably revolutionary stuff. Not only could you get Sesame Street, but Monty Python’s Flying Circus too. My mom strongly disapproved of the show but we were too old for her to forbid us from watching it. Besides, it must be good for us as it was public TV!

I can’t find these really old shows like Upstairs, Downstairs on their service. Arguably there’s a lot of dreck on PBS too, but some of us like this “dreck”. It’s actually pretty addicting and it has shows you can watch for free that are as good as any on Discovery Plus. I love documentaries. Frontline is always topical and on top of the latest stories with a deep and thoughtful dive into a topic. Nova is the premier science show on TV. You can learn to find your roots on Find Your Roots. The PBS News Hour gives you real, unbiased and in-depth news, which is hard to find elsewhere. For those of us who appreciate the arts, Great Performances is typically great, but if not into classical music or theater you can watch Austin City Limits or a bunch of related shows too.

But PBS’s Masterpiece collection is where I usually end up. Most lately I’ve been watching Poldark. There’s five seasons (so far) of content there to enjoy. Pretty much anything in a Masterpiece series is worth watching, and Poldark sure is.

Before Poldark though I was watching Sanditon, based on Jane Austen’s last unfinished novel. Masterpiece has mostly British produced shows, so it’s a bit like watching BritBox. Just before watching Sanditon, I had been watching Bridgerton on Netflix. It didn’t take more than two episodes of Sanditon before I realized it was just as good as Bridgerton, classily done but with not quite as high a budget. Unlike Bridgerton, you can see horse poop in the streets in Sanditon.

Moreover, Sanditon covers the same time period: the 1810s or so, and it’s principally a romance too. But Sanditon has more of a plot and is more authentic to the time. It also gets into some adult topics you wouldn’t expect from Jane Austen like incest and slavery. Bridgerton gives us a London that never actually existed where somehow Queen Charlotte is a lady of color and a prominent duke is Black. In Sanditon, we also get a prominent Black character, but she’s the only one in town (at least in the first season) and an heiress to boot. Sanditon is much more authentic to the time and the characters are arguably at least as interesting as those in Bridgerton. Yet hardly anyone is watching Sanditon and everyone is watching Bridgerton. It makes no sense.

There are a couple of streaming services that you can often get for free courtesy of your public library. If you live in Massachusetts (I do) you can get a virtual Boston Public Library card and use it to stream Hoopla for free, which has lots of shows and movies you can watch. No, it’s not Netflix and its selection is more literate and artsy, but, hey, it’s free! I can also access similar content through my local public library, which offers Kanopy. It’s funded by my tax dollars. Typically, like a book, you have to virtually check out the video and can’t watch another one until you check it back in. But you can’t beat the price and convenience.

For me though a PBS Passport more than suffices. So maybe it’s time to watch the latest episode of Call the Midwife (also on PBS, and an amazingly well acted show) and spend $60 a year for a PBS Passport instead of $15.49 a month for Netflix. All this and you get to keep public broadcasting on the air too. You’ll probably quickly find you don’t miss all those other streaming services, and it’s quite a bargain.

Waitress vs. Moulin Rouge

We saw two shows during our recent trip to New York City. It was good to enjoy Broadway again, albeit behind a mask. The two shows, both musicals, could hardly be more different. One, Moulin Rouge, won the award for best musical. The other, Waitress, has run sporadically on Broadway since 2016.

Given that Moulin Rouge won best musical, the choice would seem to be obvious. Waitress was nominated for best musical in 2016, but lost. If you were to judge a musical by audience enthusiasm, Moulin Rouge would be the clear choice. It’s relatively new, although it opened on Broadway in 2019 and abruptly closed when the pandemic started. There was a buzz outside the theater as we tried to get in. The lady next to me in row U was hopping with excitement, and she was hardly alone. The dancing was amazing. The songs were familiar and plentiful. The sets and staging were lavish. At the end, people were actually dancing in the aisles. That and the inflated ticket prices should make this an easy call.

We saw Waitress at a Wednesday matinee. It’s based on the 2007 indie film of the same name that was something of a cult hit. Its star, Sara Bareilles, was also the musical’s songwriter and lyricist. There was virtually no dancing, and the sets were rather plain. Perhaps the most interesting item on its set were two arrays of pie plates that went from the stage floor to the top of the curtain.

Moulin Rouge had the virtue of being familiar and comfortable. If you saw the movie, there were virtually no changes except for adding more songs: there was a lot of time to fill. The movie was a surprise hit, fusing modern music with late 19th century Paris. So if you liked the movie, it should be hard not to like the musical. Just don’t expect Ewan McGreggor or Nichole Kidman in the lead parts. In the movie you got Jim Broadbent as Zeigler. Danny Burnstein does a pretty good job as Zeigler, and brings a slightly manic and mischievous energy to the part.

In Waitress, unless you are a Sara Bareilles fan, the music should be unfamiliar and original. Any new music in Moulin Rouge simply wraps the popular tunes you already know. In Moulin Rouge, part of the tension is between the haves and the have nots. In Waitress, the focus is on ordinary people. There is no character like the Duke to loath although lead character Jenna’s husband comes close. In Moulin Rouge, the focus is on love; in Waitress the focus is on good people generally in bad relationships and the mistakes they make. For most of the show the star Jenna is having an affair with her gynecologist.

In the movie Moulin Rouge, Kidman and McGreggor bring a unique energy to their relationship. Sadly, it did not translate well on this Broadway stage. I tried hard to suspend disbelief, but for all the dancing and singing, the characters felt largely emotionally empty. Seeing it on stage made me realize that its plot is just piffle and comes off as extremely unconvincing.

On the other hand, the relationships in Waitress, however dysfunctional, seem grounded in real life and are wholly plausible. So many of us have walked these parts: waitress or waiter, short order cook, frequent diner patron … just ordinary folk. Unless you lived a very privileged life, Waitress is much more relatable. Moreover, at least with the cast I saw, the characters were easy to identify with and the energy on stage between the cast seemed real.

So the result surprised me. I was so excited to see Moulin Rouge as I really enjoyed the movie. The inflated ticket prices we paid and its best musical status made it feel like a sure bet, but it disappointed. Ultimately, it was a lot of glitz and spectacle, but missed the human element.

Waitress, on the other hand, was engaging, endearing, full of life’s complexities, musically enthralling and felt both real and meaningful.

So my take: skip Moulin Rouge‘s high ticket prices and go see a story that’s going to move you instead: Waitress.

Review: The Queen’s Gambit

I used to write various movie reviews. I put that on the back burner for four years because Donald Trump happened. With Trump (I hope) safely neutered, let me return to a more traditional space: occasional art critic. I’ve got a Netflix limited series that you should definitely watch: The Queen’s Gambit.

Certain stories will infect you, in a good way. They have just the right combination of plot, characters, twists and turns. These stories elevate times and people. The movie Selma comes immediately to mind. For us White Americans in particular, it took us into a time and place and inside the minds of Black Americans struggling under oppression that we needed to see and, more importantly, feel.

The Queen’s Gambit, a Netflix exclusive, is a limited series that opens up and elevates its characters in a good way. As an infectious story, it will grab you from the opening minutes. Thanks to a compelling script, excellent directing and an amazing casting, it takes you through a profoundly intimate experience.

It’s probably true that I identified with it because I played chess as a kid. But chess is merely a frame for the fascinating character of Beth Harmon:  an orphan, child chess prodigy and substance abuser. It’s really about her intense and overwhelming struggle to put order into and elevate her deeply dysfunctional life. It’s these latter aspects that make it memorable and infectious, not the chess.

In putting her life together under these improbable circumstances, she rises like as phoenix from the ashes. Like Frodo who has to go to Mount Doom to destroy the one ring that is destroying him, Beth Harmon has the unenviable tasks of rising above the mess that life has thrown her. It includes a mother who kills herself, a weird and repressive orphanage she ends up in, racism, hard knocks and her unexpected interest in chess.

It’s hard to overstate how well Anya Taylor-Joy brings to life Beth Harmon. She is brilliant and believable, but so were the actresses who play younger versions of her. What may be unbelievable to some is the idea of a female chess champion. Chess is not considered to be something that women pursue seriously, who are perceived as not very left-brained by nature. Yet there are quite a few women grandmasters out there, just mostly unknown outside of Russia or China. In Beth’s case, a gruff janitor playing by himself in the basement of the orphanage becomes her unlikely gateway into this world. When Beth’s brilliance is finally realized, she easily wins a state championship that she enters as a complete unknown.

Beth gets adopted as a teenager, but her adopted father is an absentee father who abandons her mother, which leaves her adopted mother popping pills. Beth is familiar with pills too, because all the children in the orphanage get them, mostly to keep them pliable. Beth becomes addicted to them, and she thinks the pills are what makes it possible for her to succeed in chess. She thinks it gives her the edge, particularly against some of the best chess players, to win her games.

Despite her seemingly insurmountable problems, it turns out that help can be found in unlikely places. Her adopted mother may be strung out on pills herself, but there is a kind heart beneath her that rises to the occasion of having a new daughter in her life. And in a chess world full of nerds there are enough people to who can see the deeper woman to rise to support her, even while many of them lust for carnal knowledge of her.

In short, the supporting characters too rise above mere supporting roles too and become complex and fleshed out characters in their own right. There’s not one poorly cast character among them and they all bring just the right touch and complexity to their roles. The world of the 1960s is meticulously rendered for the screen. Aside from the stellar direction, the cinematography is amazing in its own right. The series has a real film noir feel to it, with chess matches in foreign places like Paris, Moscow and Mexico City adding complexity, intrigue and many memorable characters. These include Vasily Borgov, a Russian grandmaster and the world’s highest-ranking player, as well as Beth’s biggest challenge. It all gets perfectly resolved in the final seventh episode. It should leave you, like me, in tears at the end.

It’s just amazing. Go watch it.

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

  • 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)

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

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.

[xrr rating=3.4/4]

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.

[xrr rating=3.4/4]

Two holiday movie reviews

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.

[xrr rating=3.4/4]

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.

[xrr rating=3.3/4]

Two hit movies

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.

[xrr rating=3.4/4]

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.

[xrr rating=3.4/4]

Review: Girl on the Train

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.

[xrr rating=3.2/4]

The meaning of Star Trek

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.