Pop Culture Happy Hour: Star Trek: Lower Decks

It’s been nine months since last I joined a PCHH panel, and they’ve been dog months. In that span I’ve bought myself a pricey new microphone, had knee surgery, run zero point zero miles, and watched in impotent rage as a global pandemic has slain hundreds of thousands of Americans who might still be with us had responsible adults been in charge when the plague hit. Police officers murdered George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, millions took to the streets (I was still too weak to do that back in May and June) to protest police violence against persons of color, and my beloved hometown of Washington, DC was invaded by the U.S. military.

Dog months. And all without the outlets of running or boxing, the strategies I have relied upon to exorcize corrosive feelings since I was a kid. (OK, I never tried to box until I was 27, but I’ve been a runner since I was 14.) I got a bicycle at the end of June, and the increasingly long rides to which I’ve been treating myself have helped.

Anyway, Pop Culture Happy Hour! And a new Star Trek series, which is both animated and fluid-rich (blood, bile… alien vomit).


Lower Decks is set in the Next Generation era, aboard the U.S.S. Cerritos, a California-class vessel. The first shuttlecraft we see parked in its shuttle bay is the Joshua Tree, a naked play for my affection. The shuttle Yosemite gets more airtime in the early episodes.

I was delighted to dissect the show with Stephen Thompson, Glen Weldon, and Petra Mayer. You can hear the episode here if the embedded player above isn’t working.

Talking “Life on Mars” (the song) on the National Air and Space Museum’s Instagram Feed

It’s been an uncharacteristically un-prolific several months for me—I’ve been busy recuperating from / dealing with complications of knee surgery while trying not to contract COVID-19 during any of my frequent in-person visits to various medical facilities. But I did get asked by my friends at the National Air and Space Museum to talk for a few minutes about departed legend David Bowie’s association with Mars on the Museum’s Instagram feed on Friday, part of an evening of Mars-themed programming they’d assembled in anticipation of the Mars 2020 rover launch—now set for sometime between July 30 and August 15. The launch has been delayed a few times, but it’s certainly going to happen before Tenet is released in theaters.

Anyway, you can watch the video here if so inclined.

Vin Diagram: “Bloodshot,” reviewed.

Memento and Iron Man 3 star Guy Pearce with Vin Diesel in a comic book adaptation that shamelessly rips off Memento and Iron Man 3, among other films. (Sony)

If the last movie I ever get to see in the theater is a goddamn Vin Diesel vehicle, I’m gonna die very angry. My review of Bloodshot is here.

Bovine Intervention: “First Cow,” reviewed.

Orion Lee and John Magaro play friends and business partners in 1820s Oregon. (A24)

Full disclosure: I saw First Cow, the new 19th century-set frontier drama from cowriter/director Kelly Reichardt last night at a screening that was followed by a Q&A with the filmmaker herself. At the end of the evening, she saw me crutching along—I had arthroscopic surgery to repair my meniscus two weeks ago today—and she held the door for me.

That decent gesture did not in any way influence my NPR review of First Cow, which is here.

The 58-Year Mission: “Nobody Does It Better,” reviewed for The Washington Post

DR NO briefing

I was a big fan of Mark A. Altman and Edward Gross’s two-volume Star Trek oral history The Fifty-Year Mission, so I fairly leapt at the chance to review Nobody Does It Better, their new oral history of the James Bond movies, for the Paper of Record. It’s not as illuminating or contradictory as their Trek books, though I was delighted to find some comments from my pal Matt Gourley within its (seven! hundred!) pages.

Love, American Style: Folger’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” reviewed.

The cast of Aaron Posner’s ERA-era Merry Wives dances the night away. (Cameron Whitman)

The new bellbottoms-era Merry Wives is your last chance to see Aaron Posner direct some of his (and my) favorite actors—and some welcome new faces—at the scheduled-for-renovation Folger Theater for two years. Would’ve been even groovier sans intermission, but it’s fun. Here’s my Washington City Paper review.

Toff Guys: “The Gentlemen,” reviewed.

Colin Farrell and Charlie Hunnam are no gentlemen. (Christopher Raphael)

An hour after my review of Guy Ritchie’s last crime comedy posted, someone from Rotten Tomatoes wrote me to ask if I deemed the movie, in my professional opinion as a botanist, Fresh or Rotten. They couldn’t tell! And it was good of them to follow-up. They don’t have an option for Fresh With Reservations, which is where I’m at on this one, as I am compelled to explain in the last paragraphs of my NPR review.

Trenchant Warfare: “1917,” reviewed.

Here’s my review of Sam Mendes’ 1917. I guess it doesn’t mean much to say it’s the best war movie since Dunkirk (whose Oscar-winning editor, Lee Smith, cut 1917 too) but it is, and it’s first film Mendes has made that I’ve found fully satisfying.

Talking Christmas Songwriting on All Things Considered

With Rhett Miller at Rams Head Live in Baltimore, Dec. 2018

Christmas music has been an interest of mine for long time, obviously. My yulemix project is in its unfathomable 14th year, I wrote a Slate piece six years ago asking where the follow-ups to “All I Want For Christmas Is You” were (several complicated answers), and now that that last of the breakthrough secular holiday hits is 25 years old, I have at last gotten to bring this passion of mine to its natural habitat: The radio!

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The Ballad of “Richard Jewell”

Sam Rockwell and Paul Walter Hauser are good actors in a bad-faith movie. (Warner Bros.)

Billy Ray, the screenwriter of Richard Jewell—director Clint Eastwood’s disingenuous dramatization of the 1996 case of a security guard falsely accused of a horrific crime—spoke to my screenwriting class at UCLA in 2002 or 2003. I hope that if he’s still doing this some student will ask him how can justify defaming deceased Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs in his new movie while giving the (also deceased) FBI agent he has depicted as tipping her off in exchange for sex the dignity of a pseudonym. That malicious act undermines everything in the movie that’s any good. My NPR review is here.

Yulemixed Messages: And now, Side B of my 2019 yulemix, still entitled “Let’s Talk About Christmas!”

Comprising fifty (50) more minutes of buoyant-if-occasionally-baffling yuletunes to obfuscate and illuminate your holiday season. It’s all so fresh, and I have so many other deadlines that’ve languished unmet while I’ve been making this, that I can’t think of one doggone thing to say about it. Just press Play.

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Pop Culture Happy Hour: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and What’s Making Us Happy

Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers. (Lacey Terrell)

I sure hope my friends Linda Holmes, Stephen Thompson, Glen Weldon, Jess Reedy, and Emmanuel Johnson aren’t suffering today from the head cold that audibly ailed me on Monday during the recording of today’s Pop Culture Happy Hour. Our subject is A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the Tom Hanks-IS-Fred Rogers movie directed by Marielle (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) Heller, loosely fashioned after Tom Junod’s 1998 profile of Rogers for Esquire magazine. As I say in the show, this movie’s depiction of the life of a magazine journalist reflects the circa 1998 expectations on which I based career choices that I have, over the last 20 years, had more than one occasion to lament.





Thanks to all of them for allowing me once again to plug my yulemix. You can hear the show right here or via whatever podfeeder brings you your NPR.

Yulemixed Messages: Announcing Side A of my 2019 yulemix, Let’s Talk About Christmas!

It’s quarter ‘til eight p.m. Eastern on Thanksgiving Day, so let’s talk turkey: The first side of the fourteenth mighty installment in my indefatigable Yuletunes Eclectic & Inexplicable series is now available to provide a seasonal, tuneful, treacle-free, and generally baffling soundtrack to your Record Store Day cratedigging and any attendant treetrimming and/or halldecking. I believe this is the earliest in the season I’ve ever dropped one of these, and I expect you, the listener, to give your own merrymaking operations a commensurate boost.

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A Moon For the Mediocre: Amadeus, reviewed.

Samuel Adams as “the creature” Wolfgang A. Mozart. (C. Stanley Photography)

To be clear: Antonio Salieri, as self-assessed in the imagination of Peter Shaffer, is mediocre. The Folger’s new production of Amadeus is quite good.

Jaws 3-D: Roland Emmerich’s Midway, reviewed.

Ed Skrein and Luke Kleintank as real-life WWII veterans Dick Best and Clarence Dickinson.

Just in time for Veterans Day, disaster artist Roland Emmerich has made a bid to improve upon 1976’s Technicolor / Sensurround-sound sensation Midway with a more historically-focused (but also more heavily-animated) dramatization of the three-day battle that turned the tide of the war in the Pacific. My NPR review of the movie is here.

In Terminator: Dark Fate, SkyNet Is History But U.S. Customs and Border Protection Remains

Gabriel Luna as the Rev-9 Terminator, which can divide itself in two. (Kerry Brown/Paramount)

No amount of Terminator scholarship is too much if you’re me. So just as the new Terminator: Dark Fate (which bombed over the weekend, but you people keep buying tickets for those The Fast & The Furious movies, so there’s no accounting for taste) is a follow-up to 2015’s Terminator: Genisys (sic) that’s really a sequel to Terminator 2: Judgment Day,

…the piece that I published on Slate tonight is a sequel to my Terminator: Dark Fate review from last week that’s really a sequel to a longish T2 essay I wrote five summers ago for The Dissolve, may it rest in power. When I observed in my review of Dark Fate that the series finally got some of its old zeitgeist-surfing mojo back, this is what I meant.

The Future Is Female: Terminator: Dark Fate, reviewed.

Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor, the cyborg-hunter whom it turns out did not die of cancer in the late 90s.

As in every Terminator movie, the new Dark Fate offers no explanation for why the A.I.—SkyWho? It’s called LEGION now—dispatched only a single cyborg assassin to this time period, or why the human resistance sent only one bodyguard. The answer, of course, is that the one-on-one conceit is just more compelling and dramatic than a platoon representing each faction would be.

My NPR review of Terminator: Dark Fate, a these-were-canon-those-were-not half-reboot in the tradition of Superman Returns and Halloween (2018) is here.

Deleted Scenes: Edward Norton on Motherless Brooklyn and the Ghosts of New York

Cinematographer Dick Pope and director/star Edward Norton on the set of Motherless Brooklyn in 2018. (Glen Wilson/Warner Bros.)

Here are some outtakes from the interview Edward Norton I had on Smithsonian this week, where we talked about his long-gestating adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel, Motherless Brooklyn , out this week. The book is set in the present of when it was published, but Norton has, with Lethem’s blessing, set his version of it in 1957 in an attempt to make something like New York City’s answer to Chinatown. Anyway, I was sorry to see these exchanges go, so I clipped ‘em out and saved ‘em.

I was trying to remember if there are any signposts in the book that mark it as taking place in the present, or in the present of when it was published 20 years ago. I don’t think there are any until we get to the passage where Lionel is talking about how much he loves Prince, and he hears in extended remixes of Prince songs a sort of reflection of how his condition makes him play with language in a way he can’t control. 

You do a version of that in the movie in a jazz club scene where Michael K. Williams’ character is performing, and Lionel can’t stop himself from trying to contribute verbally to the music.

Yes, that’s a very intentional transposition of a part of Jonathan’s book that I loved. The idea of music being a beautiful expression of compulsion. And I thought we could have a lot of fun with jazz and especially Bop, in that era, because if you were ever to say, “What is the Tourretic impulse writ into music?”, it’s Bop. It sounds Tourretic to me, in that it’s impulsive, it’s improvisational, and it loops on itself. It takes things and, just as Lionel says about his brain, it twists them around and reforms them. 

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Act Naturally: Western Stars, reviewed.

The Boss in Western Stars, filmed back when he was still a vital young man of sixty-nine.

From the Dept. of Straight Talk for My Heroes: Western Stars, the new motion picture from 1st-timer auteur Bruce Springsteen, is only the 4th or 5th most exciting filmed record of The Boss in performance, & it doesn’t really work as an essay film, either.

My NPR review is here.

Zeke, a Mouse: Zombieland: Double Tap, reviewed.

Rosario Dawson (second from left) joins Breslin, Eisenberg, Stone, and Harrelson for the decade-later sequel. (Sony)

PREPARE YOURSELVES for the long-unawaited, hotly unanticipated sequel to the zombie road movie you’re pretty sure you saw on a plane a decade ago! I didn’t mind watching it one bit. My NPR review is here.