Murder on the Orient Express

November 11, 2017

Kenneth Branagh established his career making film adaptations of very traditional Shakespeare interpretations with very impressive production values. The idea of making Henry V and including a massive recreation of Agincourt, with all the blood, mud, grit, and horror, was revolutionary and amazing. I love that film.

So I’m not sure why I’m surprised that his Agatha Christie adaptation is very traditional, with impressive production values — the train is nearly its own character. But I confess I expected a bit more. An approach with some zing. The trailer had so much energy, with fast cuts and an impressive pounding modern rock song. I think I wanted that to carry through to the  movie. Something stylized and anachronistic and startling — given that this is very probably the most famous murder mystery in the world and we all know how it ends. But I think this movie mostly exists because Branagh really wanted to play Poirot. And that’s okay.

That might have been my most startling takeaway:  Branagh handles Christie the same way he handles Shakespeare, and that maybe Christie really does deserve to be on a level with Shakespeare, at least in terms of her impact on popular culture — she didn’t invent mystery, but she laid the foundations for its modern popularity.

I should add that I’m suspicious of my own reaction to this movie, because only a couple months ago I binged the last six seasons of David Suchet’s Poirot while massively revising my own murder mystery novel (The Wild Dead, due out July ’18!) and because of that sort of emotionally clung to the character. He was comforting. And the Suchet version of Murder on the Orient Express is extraordinary. The show saved it for near the end of the whole run, and they use it to advance and develop a character arc:  this is the case that breaks Poirot, that irrevocably damages his sense that there is such a thing as concrete justice and that he will always be able to separate out the murderers from the innocent. He’s very angry here. At the end, he walks away from the train with his faith in tatters. It’s powerful, and it sets up stuff that happens right up to the last episode.

Granted, the show was able to do this because Suchet had been playing the role for decades and that’s a long time to develop a character. Branagh’s version is a safe version, a traditional version, and that’s okay, and I suspect I would have liked it more had I not just seen Suchet’s a couple months before.

 

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Thor: Ragnarok

November 3, 2017

Well, that was completely gonzo in all the best ways.

I don’t have all that much more to say, because I can’t really without giving things away. It’s great how this totally feels like it’s set in the same universe as Guardians of the Galaxy, with a ton of callbacks to a bunch of other Marvel movies. (I’m remembering the question in Civil War, “Do even you know where Thor and Dr. Banner are?”  They’re on another planet, mofos.)  I’m kind of sort of wishing the Doctor Strange movie didn’t exist (it doesn’t stand up to rewatching) and that this was our first introduction to the character, because whew would that be a kick. But it’s all the same universe without being forced, and that’s why I love the MCU.

What really impressed me is how it’s brushed with this 70’s sci-fi patina, like it came from the cover of an ELO album or Heavy Metal outtakes, and Mark Mothersbaugh (of Devo) did the score, so the whole movie is this really self-conscious, self-referential synth-disco thing that is  weird and out there and shouldn’t work but does.

Mostly, it’s an absolute joy watching Thor and Loki work together. I love them.

Marvel still has the villain problem. The monochromatic alien baddy, the villain who is an evil version of the hero, with all the same powers but just bad. Hela is visually wonderful (unlike poor Malakeith) but she literally comes out of nowhere.  It doesn’t detract from any of the rest of the movie. But it does get me thinking about how to build a better villain in these things.

 

Wednesday post & Voltron

October 25, 2017

Reminder:  This weekend is MileHi Con!  I’ll be there with elf ears on. No joke.

I’m writing a review of Geostorm for Lightspeed. Also no joke.  It was like a really bad episode of G.I. Joe. Which still makes it better than Prometheus.

And I’m all caught up on Netflix’s Voltron. Now isn’t that a trip?  The thing I think I like best:  what they’ve done with Pidge. Specifically, that Pidge is a girl. We don’t know that until partway through the first season — she’s in hiding while she searches for her lost family members. But once she’s outed, she doesn’t change. Usually the way this trope works is we find out that unassuming guy is really a girl in hiding, and then she suddenly grows her hair out and puts a dress on and everyone is so amazed that she’s actually so pretty, surprise!  Not here. Pidge doesn’t change at all. She looks, sounds, acts, exactly the same. She’s still the nerdy tech genius. Definitely not a token girl character because that was always Allura. And now we have two girls, which I think is great.

 

This is a movie about William Moulton Marston, the psychologist who created Wonder Woman, and the two women he made an unconventional family with. Spoiler:  Marston, was married to Elizabeth, but later started a relationship with a student, Olive Byrne.  Eventually they all lived together and both women had children fathered by Marston. They were all raging feminists.

I have to confess, I would have liked the movie a lot more if I hadn’t already read the definitive biography of the family, The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore. To be fair, the movie isn’t based on the book, which isn’t at all mentioned in the credits. So I can’t really complain. But the movie basically took these people who really did exist and really did invent Wonder Woman, and used them to tell an entirely different story, a more conventional romance narrative, that isn’t at all accurate to what really happened, based on what I read in the book. I got annoyed. But people who hadn’t read the book first liked it just fine.

In my own opinion, the book is way more interesting. Read it.

 

Friday update

October 13, 2017

I’m finishing things up so of course I’m feeling even busier than ever. Finished the Heihei costume (OMG). Finished the Blade Runner 2049 review, and I have to be honest, the more I think about it the more the story falls apart. It’s frustrating. I haven’t talked about it hardly at all because I don’t want to argue with people. But I imagine once the review goes live I’ll certainly hear about it. I still think it’s worth seeing. It’s just not as cohesive as the first one was.

For now I’m 12k words into a new writing project, working on a bunch of odds and ends, still trying to figure out next year’s travel. Knitting. Hugging my full spectrum lamp because it’s that time of year.

Argh. Yeah. I should clean house.

 

This is another set of reviews of movies I watched on airplanes, with bad sound and too many little bottles of wine.

Kong: Skull Island

This may be a perfect movie for bad sound and too many little bottles of wine because this doesn’t have a single original thing in it — but it knows it. Is there a reason this needs to exactly replicate the aesthetics of a 1980’s Vietnam War movie? Did Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” really get played on U.S. bases in Vietnam as much as it does in these movies? Why the hell did they bring a record player to Skull Island? I probably wasn’t supposed to laugh when that one guy handed over the pile of dog tags to Samuel L. Jackson but I totally did. “Sir, here are the tags of our fallen comrades, some of whom were swallowed whole by a giant gorilla. Please don’t ask.”

But really, this film is an object lesson in how very good actors can sell something ridiculous by sheer force of will.

The Accountant

This was really good. I mean, it wasn’t art, it was super trope-y, and had just about everything you expect from a one-man-army revenge thriller story. (We have twenty years of CSI to thank for those endless scenes of agents sitting in front of computer screens while whatever suspenseful information scrolls up ever so conveniently. Macguffin screens, lets call them.) But what sold me on this were the characters. Like five characters, all played by really solid actors, who all had interesting arcs that intersected in plausible ways and I liked them and liked that things ended well for most of them. Good work, movie!  And this is all before I even get to the part where it’s superheroes and accounting, which is kind of my thing. I’m telling you, it’s a great untapped genre.  I told my CPA mom to watch this one.

 

I know some of you are eagerly awaiting what I have to say about this film. I’ve been really looking forward to it, since 1) I loved The Fifth Element and have wanted Luc Besson to return to the genre, and 2) Gonzo space opera is one of my favorite things.

It’s getting slammed in reviews, which doesn’t surprise me. Nobody liked The Fifth Element, either. I suspect they didn’t know what they were looking at and weren’t willing to learn. I wondered if Valerian was going to be the same.

So what’s the verdict?  Well.  What’s good in it is really really good. What’s bad is pretty terrible.  But there’s more good than bad. If you’re a fan of big gonzo science fiction — and especially if you want to support SF that isn’t sequels or remakes or reboots — I think this is worth seeing.

Here’s what I liked and what I didn’t:

This may be the closest we ever get to an adaptation of an Iain M. Banks novel. It’s quite Banksian, and I liked that. (In fact, I’m pretending the ship’s name, Alex, is actually short for Why Do I Even Listen To You People?)  It’s a huge world with a lot going on that is presented as being everyday and ordinary.  There’s a big sequence involving a tourist market that exists in another dimension, requiring operating on two different levels of reality, and the film makes it work and it’s super interesting. Stuff like that! Yes!

There’s a level at which this is a story of the heroism of ethical bureaucrats, and I liked that too.  The general who’s just trying to figure out what the hell is going on and who is lying to him and why, and then he fixes everything, is my favorite character in the whole thing. In most movies, he’d have been shot by the villain in act two, but not here.

The worst:  the two main characters are totally unconvincing and epically uninteresting. They’re stock characters, standard bantering action heroes, which would have been okay with engaging and charismatic actors playing them.  But these are woefully, dreadfully miscast.  They’re clearly attempting deadpan banter and it just comes off flat.  Both of them look way too young, especially when they’re supposed to be arguing authoratatively with Clive Owen, who is phoning it in and still acting circles around them.  I simply didn’t believe they were amazing galactic secret agents, and that was a huge problem.  The relationship between them is even more problematic, of the “If the guy harasses his beautiful coworker enough, eventually she’ll say yes!” variety.  I find myself recasting these two in my mind:  right now I’m on 1990 Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, which I sort of think would have been amazing.

But back to the good, the first five minutes or so are some of my favorite five minutes I’ve ever seen in an SF movie. It’s a compressed history of the ISS from now to five hundred years in the future as it becomes a meeting place for different nationalities, and then for aliens, and it expands and expands right out of Earth orbit to become a galactic center for trade and diplomacy. It’s freaking gorgeous and so juicy and science fictional and beautiful and hopeful and I loved it.

I just wish, so much, that they’d gotten other actors for the leads. Actors with the charisma to match the setting. Alas.