Film

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS by Agatha Christie –and– MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017)

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The bottom line: the film is good, but the book is better.

Renowned Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is traveling on the Orient Express when a murder occurs. He quickly determines that the victim, an American, was traveling under an assumed name and was really the infamous gangster Cassetti, responsible for the murder of an infant in America years earlier. With the train stopped due to an avalanche, Poirot has a captive group of suspects–each more suspicious than the last–and begins to interview them, methodically as is his custom, to determine which among them is the murderer.

While enjoyable, the film was not a stand-out. The cast is star-studded (and it’s convenient to have Johnny Depp in a role where you’re supposed to hate him) but ultimately, the film stepped a bit too far over the line toward melodrama. I blame Branagh. What I love from an Agatha Christie mystery is the suspense drawn out through carefully plotted revelations, perfectly dropped clues, and an overabundance of sinister characters to suspect. This was all certainly present in the film, and the acting was good. But we really didn’t need a gunfight. Just sayin’.

GOOD OMENS: THE NICE AND ACCURATE PROPHECIES OF AGNES NUTTER, WITCH by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman –and– “GOOD OMENS” (2019)

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When the Anti-Christ arrives in the unassuming Oxfordshire village of Tadfield, and the countdown to the apocalypse begins. Although most of the Earth’s inhabitants are unaware of the Anti-Christ’s presence, the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley are more than a little unhappy that the Earth will be ending so soon. After 6,000 years or so, they’ve gotten attached to certain Earthly comforts and the humans they live with. And although they’d never admit it to their respective Head Offices, they’ve gotten more than a little attached to each other as well. So they decide to do what they can to influence the Anti-Christ’s upbringing and avert the apocalypse altogether. But due to a mix-up, partly due to chance, and partly the incompetence of certain Satanic nuns in the Chattering Order of St. Beryl, the Anti-Christ does not end up in the family of an American diplomat as Satan intended, but rather grows up in a typical English family in Tadfield. Of course all of this was predicted by Agnes Nutter, witch, centuries ago, before she exploded at the stake, and her own ancestor, Anathema Device, is searching for the Anti-Christ as well. With the end of days only days away, Aziraphale, Crowley, Anathema, and a couple of barely-competent witch-finders scramble to find the boy who may be bringing about the end of the world.

If you’re a Pratchett or Gaiman fan, you’ve probably already read this one, and you know it is a hilarious, witty, occasionally poignant work of pure genius. I am reviewing it now due to the recent Amazon mini-series adaptation. Could it possibly be as good as the book, you ask? Yes. Incredibly, yes. I did not like the adaptation of Stardust nearly as much as the book, but somehow with this quirky, insane, erratic novel, Neil Gaiman has produced an equally brilliant screen adaptation. Through use of a narrator, it mimics the style of the book beautifully. The characters are perfectly cast, the dialogue in most cases taken directly from the text to preserve each character’s personality. The somewhat scattered writing style in the book actually works perfectly for cross-cut scenes in the series.  Obviously some changes are made to bring the book into the 21st century. Added characters (such as Jon Hamm’s Gabriel) and added scenes tracking Aziraphale and Crowley through the centuries are incorporated so authentically that they merely enhance the satire of the celestial war and the characterization of Aziraphale and Crowley.

In short, the screen adaptation is as perfect as the book. Loved it!

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS (2014)

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Director: Josh Boone
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 126 min

Hazel does not particularly enjoy support group.  It consists of sitting in a church with a bunch of other teenagers with cancer of various kinds at various stages, all in the process of dying.  It is really just one of those things she does to make her parents happy, since her greatest fear is the knowledge that someday soon, she will die and leave them alone and in grief.  But it is at support group that Hazel first meets Augustus Waters, an attractive and witty guy with an affinity for metaphorical cigarettes.  Their friendship forms quickly after Gus reads Hazel’s favorite book–a philosophical novel by a reclusive author.  Peter Van Houten’s novel has had a profound influence on Hazel and her worldview, but there is one problem.  It ends mid-sentence with the main character’s death.  Not a very satisfying conclusion.  As Hazel tries to balance her feelings for Augustus with her reluctance to begin a relationship that must inevitably soon end with her death, Augustus tries to track down Van Houten to find out how the novel ends.

This was everything a film adaptation should be.  It was true to the book and true to the characters.  The dialogue was taken directly from the book.  The writers decided to go with voice over and committed to that decision consistently; in this film it was a very effective technique.  Cuts to the content and the text were judicious.  Flashbacks were incorporated smoothly and artistically.  And the story arc of the film tied the introduction and conclusion together beautifully.  Some of the complexity of the book was lost, such as Gus’s ex-girlfriend and a number of Isaac scenes, including his second funeral speech which happens to contain my favorite line.  But some losses were inevitable and the writers were very conscientious about preserving the major themes from the book, the contemplation of infinity, the beautiful scene in the Anne Frank house, etc.  I was very impressed, and I highly recommend it.

Marvel’s Avengers Movies Ranked: Update

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I’m back from a trip overseas, and you know what that means:  hours and hours of airplane movies!  In the wake of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Thor: The Dark World, I rewatched a bunch of the Marvel movies and added the new ones to my ranking.  So check it out!  And stay tuned for more movie posts this week.

In other news, Orphan Black comes back on Saturday night.  I won’t get to watch the premier in real time because it’s Easter (so no spoilers!) but I’m excited for the new season!  Sci-fi fans, if you haven’t checked it out yet, do it.  It’s awesome.

Marvel’s Avengers Origin Movies Ranked

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UPDATE: As of April 2014, I’ve plugged Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier into the line up!

 

Thor: The Dark World comes out this week; who’s excited?!  In preparation, I’ve rewatched the Avengers origin story movies these past couple of months.  So for those of you who are wondering which to watch and which to skip, here’s my countdown!

9. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Directed by Louis Leterrier
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 113 min.

As much as I like Edward Norton, this Hulk movie easily comes in last place for the recent origin stories.  The film has very little momentum.  Basically, Bruce Banner runs away from some people.  He does this in various cities.  At some point an incredibly underdeveloped supervillain is introduced.  In the end the Hulk fights him because he is the only one who can, but hero and villain really had no personal grudge.  In fact, we aren’t sure what motivated the villain to experiment with the gamma radiation in the first place, except for the cliché and shallow reasoning that he wanted to be stronger.  There were a few good lines, but overall this movie is totally skippable.  There is no information that you gain in this film that you need in any of the others—even The Avengers. 

8. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Directed by Alan Taylor
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 112 min.

This film is much, much better than the 2008 Hulk.  But falls short of its predecessor, the first Thor.  The good in this film is (unsurprisingly) Tom Hiddleston’s Loki.  The villain of Marvel’s Avengers and Thor gets a chance to bare his soul a bit in this one and we see some development in his relationship with his brother (although it is often hard to distinguish sincere Loki from manipulative Loki…).  But the Thor-Jane relationship is still boring (see below) and the film’s villain is also one-dimensional.  Combine that with large chunks of awkward dialogue and explication, and even the amazing cameo of Chris O’Dowd (Roy from the IT Crowd) is not enough to place this one higher on the list.

7. Thor (2011)
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 114 min.

This film is a bit better than its sequel, and essential to watch before The Avengers or Thor: The Dark World .  The immature, prideful, moody hero we see at the beginning of this film is straight out of the comic book, and his transformation is believable.  Other highlights of the film include an awesome villain (Tom Hiddleston’s Loki who will return in Avengers and Thor 2) and some great comic moments.  What stops Thor from ranking up with everything ahead of on the list for me is the ridiculously underdeveloped romance.  Jane the scientist somehow falls deeply—life-sacrificingly—in love with Thor the minute she meets him.  And while Thor undergoes quite a transformation over the course of the film, their relationship really doesn’t seem to evolve at all.  And since they haven’t known each other that long and their attachment seems purely physical (contrast with Captain America), the sacrifices that are made in the end do not seem as dramatic or impactful.  An entertaining movie and essential to the plot development of the subsequent films, but low on this list.

6. Iron Man 2 (2010)
Directed by Jon Favreau
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 124 min.

Pretty universally agreed to be the least of the Iron Mans, in this adventure Tony Stark must atone for the sins of his father—not nearly as compelling as when he faces his own past idiocy in 1 & 3.  We also lack the underdog effect that made Iron Man 1 (and arguably also 3) so fantastic.  Natasha Romanoff/The Black Widow will be an interesting character in The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but in this film she has zero character depth and not even that much action.  Still, a fun action movie and good to watch before the superior Iron Man 3.

 Here’s where it starts getting tough to rank. . .

5. Iron Man 3 (2013)
Directed by Shane Black
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 130 min.

There are many people who would put The Avengers in 4th place and others who would rank Iron Man 3 higher than Iron Man 1.   I can see making both of these choices, but here’s why I’ve got Iron Man 3 down at number 4.  The premise of this film is great.  Coming off of the Avengers mission, Stark has PTSD from his nearly fatal trip into the vortex.  Meanwhile, although he has grown so much as a person during his stint as a superhero, mistakes he made earlier in his life and career still have dire consequences.  Unlike in Iron Man 2, Stark becomes an underdog again—forced to go back to the root of his superhero “power”: his skill as a mechanic.  Ben Kingsley is an absolutely fantastic villainous figure.  And like all of the Iron Mans, the film has a great balance of humor and action.  So what knocks it down to number 4?  Deus ex machina at the end.  There is a fine line between awesome sci-fi concept and over-the-top ridiculousness.  But it is still a must-see!

4. Iron Man (2008)
Directed by Jon Favreau
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 125 min.

After much deliberation, I’m going to put Iron Man below The Avengers, but I don’t know that I can really make the argument that The Avengers is a better film.  I just like all the inside jokes…

Iron Man is your classic underdog-becomes-superhero set up.  Stark’s arrogance gets him into a situation where his own weapons are being used against him—and with all of his body guards taken away, he must draw on his skills as an inventor to save himself.  This film is action-packed and hilarious, and the lack of a prominent romance plot in this particular Iron Man leaves all of the focus on Stark’s transformation from irresponsible jerk-face to superhero.

3. Marvel’s Avengers (2012)
Directed by Joss Whedon
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 145 min.

It is probably unfair to put The Avengers quite this high on the list, because it is definitely less self-contained than Iron Man.  You can watch Iron Man with no prior comic book knowledge and the film will give you everything you need.  For The Avengers, in order to get all the jokes and truly appreciate what is going on, you must not only have seen Thor and Iron Man, but you also need to know your comic book characters.  The Black Widow/Hawkeye dynamic is great, but if you don’t know their backstory, you aren’t going to get enough of it in the film to know what’s going on.  That said, if you do know some of the backstory of these characters, this movie is fantastic.  Loki is even more compelling and interesting on Earth than he was in Asgard.  And the way the heroes clash with one another while trying to unite into a team—in a script written by Joss Whedon—is both hilarious and suspenseful.  Also, giant, alien-spewing space whales.  Just saying. 

2. Captain America (2011)
Directed by Joe Johnston
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 123 min.

Although it doesn’t have the humor that comes from combining all of the heroes in The Avengers, Captain America’s structure and character-driven plot are so cohesive and self-sufficient that I have to put it on top.  We start with a scrawny kid who just wants to go fight Nazis.  His moral integrity and work ethic earn him a spot as an experimental super soldier, but still no one takes him seriously.  So he has to prove his worth by facing impossible odds and saving a bunch of lives—and then later fighting a Nazi supervillain.  The plot is a classic, but it was perfectly executed, keeping us invested in the character development while also maintaining momentum in the action of the plot.  And—a bit shocking in a superhero action movie—Captain America has a believable romance where the hero and leading lady actually know one another over a period of time and fall in love with each other not as superhero and damsel in distress, but as teammates.  And because of this, the sacrifice Captain Rogers must make in the end is genuinely heart-breaking—and yet the only believable choice his character would ever make.  Captain America has fewer of the hilarious superhero inside jokes that make me love The Avengers and less of the character charisma of Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, but this movie is just solid on all levels.  And unlike The Avengers, it can stand on its own without prior knowledge or even the need for a sequel (although they clearly intend one).  It ends by closing the door on Captain America’s past life and love.

1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 136 min

I didn’t think the new Captain America could possibly outdo its sequel.  But I was wrong.  The story writing is again flawless–again a typical trope, this time hero-turned-fugitive, but executed well.  The balance between humor and action are great, and the major characters develop throughout the story.  There is some prior knowledge required.  You must have seen Captain America and The Avengers.  But it is a sequel, so that is to be expected.  It does not require any knowledge that is unavailable in those previous films (the way that The Avengers requires some comic book knowledge).  But what gives this sequel the edge over its predecessor is a more nuanced and compelling villain/challenge for the hero.  Now in the modern day, we have a modern version of the former Nazi villian’s vision.  The evil is less black-and-white, and the best solutions to problems are unclear and a source of dissent among the heroes.

So while The Avengers is probably still my personal favorite, the Captain Americas continue to dominate as the most cohesive, well-structured, character-driven films in the franchise.

 

GONE WITH THE WIND by Margaret Mitchell

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When the Civil War tears through Margaret Mitchell’s romanticized vision of the Old South, a noble civilization is burned to ash and swept away by the Yankee army.  The weak whither and fade in the dust of their lost world, but the strong rise from the ashes and reclaim the land that was their own.

Before the war, Scarlett O’Hara is the belle of the county, desperately in love with Ashley who—despite his love for Scarlett—has chosen to marry the more practical Melanie.  Scarlett marries his cousin to spite him, but the war leaves her a widowed mother, impoverished, and compelled by her love of Ashley to help support his wife and child.  Realizing that money is the only thing that matters, Scarlett is prepared to lie, cheat, steal, and kill to build her fortune again.  The only person that she can’t seem to dominate is the infamous blockade runner, Rhett Butler, whose ego, sarcasm, and impropriety make him both attractive and infuriating.

Although I grew up watching the film, every time I eyed the 1,000 page tome on which it was based, I balked.  I don’t usually enjoy long books; I often spend half the time slogging through painfully verbose descriptions, wondering when the action will.  Additionally, I don’t usually enjoy romance novels, and romance certainly features prominently in Gone With the Wind. But when a fourteen year old boy told me that Gone With the Wind was one of the best books he had ever read, I was so intrigued that I picked it up.  And from that moment, I could not put it down.

Gone With the Wind is the most problematic book I have ever read. It would be easy to decry it if it were all racist manifesto and easy to praise it if it were all enthralling love story. Unfortunately, it is both.

As much as it is a romance between Scarlett and Rhett, Gone With the Wind is a romance between Margaret Mitchell and the Old South.  She wrote the book in the 1920s and 1930s based on stories told to her by her grandparents’ generation, and her romanticized fiction should not be mistaken for historical fact.  Deeply entrenched, lingering racism and classism is present not only in the thoughts of the characters but also in Mitchell’s omniscient narration. Long passages expound up on the “virtue” of slavery and the “inferiority” of all people of African descent. Although is easy to see how the audience that read Mitchell’s book when it was released in 1936—people who had lost so many loved ones and sacrificed so much in a Great War of their own and were then living through a horrible period of economic uncertainty—found the mythology of the courage, pride, and survival so compelling, it is deeply troubling that the racist arguments she makes shaped society then and even today. I was horrified to realize that some of the racist ideas she encompasses in her pro-slavery thesis were taught to me in school in the 1990s and are echoed by white nationalists today. In that sense, this book is beyond bad. It is evil.

And yet … the love story is one of the most well-crafted, engaging stories I have ever read. It is a story of contradictions. Scarlett’s self-interested passion and determination is a foil to Melanie’s quiet, selfless, and commanding strength. Far more than in the movie, Captain Butler’s deep goodness shines through the mask of his weaknesses and vices. It is difficult not to both hate and pity Scarlett for failing to see through his studied nonchalance to the love he conceals out of fear that she will manipulate him, as she does all other men.

If you love the movie, you will love the book. The movie is a good adaptation, but even 4 hours of film cannot capture the depth and nuance of this 959 page novel.  Additionally, Hollywood’s added “I love yous” and eliminated references to sex and pregnancy cause subtle yet important changes to the Rhett-Scarlett-Ashley love triangle. BUT–and this is critical–be prepared to face the racism of the Old South (and the 1930s South). Do not go into this book blindly. I believe that reading this level of racism can be eye-opening and informative, illuminating racism we didn’t realize we had internalized ourselves, but only if we READ CRITICALLY. If not, this book will continue to perpetuate the racism that has permeated our country since its foundation.

If you liked Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

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I’m still working my way through Gone with the Wind (which is excellent, but long), so in lieu of a review, today I’ve posted a recommendation list.

Whether you like the Game of Thrones books or the miniseries (or both!), check out some of these books, movies, and miniseries you may enjoy.

 

 

BABE: THE GALLANT PIG by Dick King Smith

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When Farmer Hogget wins a piglet at the fair, he isn’t quite sure what to do with it.  Mrs. Hogget is excited for the prospect of a nice ham at Christmas.  But the piglet, Babe, has other ideas.  After watching his adopted mother, the sheepdog, do her work and befriending one of the sheep himself, Babe discovers that he has a talent as a sheep pig.  When Farmer Hogget notices the same talent, he begins to get new ideas for the pig’s future.

This classic story is short and sweet, with a touch of humor.  Readers who enjoy animal stories will love reading about Babe and his friends on the farm.  Babe would also make a great family read aloud. 

If you liked Babe, you might like I, Freddy, Mousenet, or The Incredible Journey.

(Also, the 1995 film adaptation of the same name is truly excellent–very close to the book with just a bit of added drama.)

SERENITY (2005)

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Director: Joss Whedon
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 119 min.

Science fiction fans everywhere wept when Joss Whedon’s phenomenal television series “Firefly” (2002) was canceled after just one season.  The 2005 film Serenity picks up roughly where the show left off and ties up some of the most frustrating loose ends of the plot.

When the Earth’s environment began to die out, the human race colonized other planets, terraforming them to support human life.  When the governments of the wealthy central planets decided to unite all planets under one Alliance, the “less civilized” border planets fought back.  Among the Independent soldiers were Mal Reynolds and Zoe Washburn.  After their crushing defeat at the Battle of Serenity Valley which ended the war, Mal and Zoe got themselves a ship (a Firefly class ship that Mal named Serenity) and a crew and began to travel, picking up any jobs they could get, most of them illegal.  Among the crew members that they assembled over time were Simon, a former Alliance doctor, and his little sister, River, who he had rescued from some sort of Alliance medical testing facility where she had been the victim of experimental brain surgery.  No one knows exactly what the Alliance had been trying to do to River, but she seems to have lost her sanity.  It also quickly becomes clear that she has special abilities, in martial arts and possibly mind-reading.  As Alliance officials try to hunt Simon and River down, Mal has to decide whether protecting the fugitives puts the rest of his crew at risk.  Complicating Mal’s loyalties, it seems that River subconsciously remembers a secret that could bring the downfall of the hated Alliance. The only catch is that in order to uncover the secret, the crew will have to face the bloodthirsty Reavers.

Although intended for both devoted “Firefly” fans and newcomers, Serenity is likely to fall flat if you haven’t seen the series first. Important plot details are conveyed, but the relationships in the film are less meaningful without knowledge of the depth and nuance of the character development in the series. That said, I highly recommend both the series and this film.  “Firefly”/Serenity is character-driven sci-fi at its best, building on conventions of the genre but with new twists (a series set in outer space, but with no aliens, the feel of a Western, and an emphasis on social and political conflict in addition to traditional gun fights and spaceship chases).  The characters are realistic and complicated, the scripts filled with a blend of hilarious comedy, romance, action, and heartache.  Joss Whedon is well-loved for a reason, and “Firefly”/Serenity is his masterpiece.

But watch “Firefly” first . . .

HUGO (2011)

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Director: Martin Scorsese
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 126 min.

Twelve-year-old orphan Hugo Cabret lives in the walls of a Paris train station where he minds the clocks.  Always trying to avoid the clutches of the zealous but mildly incompetent Station Inspector, Hugo steals what he needs to survive, as well as little clockwork toys from the station toy shop which he uses to repair the mysterious automaton that he and his late father had been fixing.  But the old toy shop owner catches Hugo stealing and confiscates the notebook with his father’s instructions and drawings.  The shop owner seems to have a strong emotional connection to the drawings, but he will not explain himself to Hugo.  In order to earn the notebook back, Hugo takes a job at the toy shop and befriends the shop owner’s goddaughter, Isabelle.  Together they embark on the adventure of uncovering the automaton’s secrets and the old man’s past.

Scorsese and John Logan, the screenwriter, truly hit the mark in this adaptation of Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret.  This was a story that needed to be made into a film.  The cinematography was simply beautiful and tried to capture the original drawings from the novel (which were supposed to imitate camera shots themselves).  The beginning of the film is slow and the “mysteriousness” of the plot will drag on if you have not read the book.  But the beginning of the book is actually much slower and more mysterious, and the film is very pretty to look at even if you are confused.  I also loved how Scorsese and Logan created the milieu of the 1920s Parisian train station and wove the vignettes of the shop owners into Hugo’s story.  Of course it is when film history begins to figure prominently in the story that the true power of the film begins to come through.  Full marks to Brian Selznick for the creativity of this story and his innovation in weaving films into his book through illustrations, but this aspect of the story was especially powerful in the film adaptation.  Scorsese’s and Logan’s “moral of the story” angle was a bit heavy-handed, but otherwise a truly great adaptation.

If you liked the book, go see the movie!  If you didn’t like the book, but found the concept/story interesting, go see the movie!  If you have no idea what I’m talking about with this book but like artsy, visually stunning films, go see the movie!  It’s a good one.