Monday, November 13, 2017

Murder On The Orient Express

Last night I went to see the new film version of Agatha Christie's Murder On The Orient Express and several of my friends have asked for my thoughts.  So this is my non-spoilery (for the three people in the English-speaking world who don't know the solution) review.

I've seen and enjoyed both previous versions, the 1974 Albert Finney movie as well as the more recent Poirot television version with the inimitable David Suchet.  And I have read the book several times so all of this colors anything I say.  Also, I should state from the start that the Finney version is still my favorite.  With that out of the way I've got to say that overall I liked Kenneth Branagh's take on both the book and the role.

Firstly, visually it is stunning.  The cinematography is very lush and Branagh experimented with some very interesting camera angles.  The costuming is gorgeous and hope the costumer gets an Oscar nomination.  All other considerations of story or acting aside, if you enjoy film as a visual art form you will like this film.

As for the story, Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green have made some unusual changes from the book.  While the bones of the story remain the same - while traveling by train in the Balkans, a man who is not who he claims to be is murdered and Poirot must determine who did it and why - several of the character details were changed.  The biggest is turning the very proper English Colonel Arbuthnot into the black Dr. Arbuthnot without in the end changing his motivations but still making him an interesting and unique.

Indeed the result of making Agatha Christie's lily white cast of characters more diverse by switching some out for a black and two Hispanic characters adds an element of modern race relations that is good commentary without getting highhanded or preachy with several characters betraying their own prejudices as they are interrogated by Poirot.  Ironically from my point of view, where this element falls down is fairly late in the film where - since this is Europe in the mid 1930s - some anti-Semitism is added to the race relations.  This felt both forced and unnecessary.

Branagh's interpretation of Hercule Poirot fascinating.  Early in the film he admits outright to being what we would call obsessive-compulsive without using those words and explains the way he interprets sensory input as something we would call high-functioning Asperger's.  But he also has something of a sense of humor about it and himself, at least until the situation turns serious.  His motivation in a desire to seek justice at all costs because crime is taint on his obsessive-compulsive worldview is better than some other portrayals of Poirot as a fussy, funny Belgian man who just happens to solve mysteries.

The rest of the cast does a very good job, in some cases rising to excellent in both Leslie Odom as Arbuthnot and Daisy Ridley as Mary Debenham.  Of course, Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi can do no wrong in their roles, as usual. As a director Branagh manages to keep a tight enough leash on Johnny Depp as the vile Ratchett that Depp provides an emotive performance without falling over into self-parody.  I've said before that when he's working with a strong director, Depp is a very good actor.  It's only when he's let loose that he goes off the tracks.

I do have a couple issues with some characterizations though.  The conductor, Pierre Michel, is turned into a very minor character in this version where he is far more important in both the book and previous adaptations.  I can live with that though as it is a sometimes necessary evil of screen adaptation that some characters get slighted.  But the one change I do not get and straight out do not like is turning Count Andrenyi from a Hungarian diplomat to a ballet dancer!  And a hyper-violent ninja ballet dancer at that.  Firstly the idea of a pre-war noble Hungarian family allowing one of its members to become a dancer instead of doing something respectable is absurd on the face of it.  Secondly, it creates a plot hole in that if Andrenyi is not a diplomat why are he and his wife traveling on diplomatic passports, a key element of the story?  Overall most of the changes I either liked or can accept, this one is just stupid and pointless.

The film has added a couple action sequences because apparently Hollywood feels modern audiences need some in their mystery movies rather than just people talking on a train as Poirot tries to put together all the pieces of the puzzle.  That said, they weren't overdone or overly intrusive and in the case of the fight between Poirot and Arbuthnot provides some good characterization too.

Overall this version of Murder is less typical crime procedural in which we follow the sleuth as he discovers every minor clue to put together a whole and more of a character study in which we look at the motivations of both the suspects and Poirot himself.  If you prefer the former type of murder mystery stick with the 1974 Finney adaptation.  Otherwise it is a very enjoyable film.

One final note: The film opens with Poirot in Mandatory Jerusalem solving a case of the theft of a relic from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  The main clue is a crack in a "well-maintained fresco".  I've been to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and there is nothing in that building that was been well-maintained since the Crusades!

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

On Porgs

I am, not surprisingly, a huge Star Wars fan.  Like most right thinking Star Wars fans I was disappointed by the prequels and hate the remade Greedo shot first scene.  But I save my particular ire for the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi.  I think they are too cute by half and really detest the idea that a bunch of teddy bears managed to dispatch a legion of stormtroopers with only stone age technology.

That said, I just don't get all the hate for the porgs that has been endemic on the interwebz since the new trailer for The Last Jedi dropped on Monday.  Okay, I get it.  Folks are worried about excessively cutesy critters again.  But really what are they basing this hatred on?

We've known for months that porgs would be in the new film.  There have been pictures of them, usually in the background of other shots taking place on Ahch-To.  In the trailer we see exactly one porg for maybe a second in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon and all it does is scream.  On this basis there are fanboys* who are already declaring the film a failure.  Guys, wait and see.  Please. 

First of all, Lucas has nothing to do with the films any more and excessive cuteness is one of his particular obsessions.  Secondly we really don't know what part, if any, porgs play in the actual plot.  If this one particular one is just there as a sort of pet/mascot that's fine.  If the whole plot revolves around it saving the heroes ("What's that girl? Chewbacca has fallen down the well?") then that is a point of complaint.  If they somehow manage to single-handedly defeat a First Order army, that is a large problem.

My point, guys, is give it a chance.  Nothing else we have seen or heard so far gives the impression that porgs are a major plot element.  Both extant trailers look too dark for that to be the case.  I'm willing to bet porgs are nothing more than a minor adjunct to the story and a great chance to sell more merchandise to those fans who don't mind cute.  Heck, right now I wouldn't mind having a plush porg.

* Used as an inclusive non-sexist term of derision.  I am sure there are women who don't like porgs either.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

In which I am internet famous

I have just returned from a trip back to Ohio to see family and friends.  While I was there I had a chance to visit Leeman Kessler and record an episode of his web series Ask Lovecraft.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Gaming Quotes V

During last night's Pathfinder game we had encounters with a "helpful" dragon, magic yetis from beyond space and time, and a ginormous crab.

"It tastes like Wednesday." --Me

"I know we're playing but stop playing." --Candice

Regarding the miniature of the dragon:
"It's not a toy." --Eric
"Well it  is actually a toy." --Stephen
"No! No! No!" -- Everyone else

"A freckled yeti?" --Ashley
"That's a good name for a pub." --Me

After Susan kills the second yeti of the combat:
"You're the closer." --Fred
"New player is supposed to die, not do all the kill steals." --Candice

Val's half-orc barbarian bites the head off the last yeti:
"So the head is in one hand and the body is in the other and blood is spurting all over the place." --Candice
"Tastes good." --Val

After Val bites the head off a second yeti and holds it up:
"I name thee Maude Yetibiter." --Me
"Mine!" --Val

During the fight with the giant crab:
"It's spiky and hard." --Candice
"That's what she said." --Me

After killing the giant crab:
"We feast tonight" --Eric and me

"Ford [Eric's character] got the crab."  --Candice
"There's medicine for that now.  --Fred

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Random Tolkien Thought

I am reading a history of the Northern Crusades against the Baltic pagan tribes in the 12th through 15th centuries and I was interested to discover that the Wends, a Slavic tribe that lived in what is now eastern Germany, worshiped a forest god named Radigost.

Now considering J.R.R. Tolkien had more than a passing interest in the Baltic region, especially the Finns and Finnish language and literature, I wonder if Radigost is the source for the wizard Radagast the Brown?  After all Tolkien was not above stealing names wholesale from medieval literature.  Gandalf and all the dwarves' names from The Hobbit can be found in the Icelandic Prose Edda.  And  Radigost was a forest god it makes and Radagast was a wizard who lived in Mirkwood, so there is that similarity.

I can't prove any of it, but it makes sense to me.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Gaming Quotes IV

Last night my gaming group started a new campaign.  This time we are playing Pathfinder.  Here are a few choice quotes from the evening.

Val (introducing her half-orc barbarian character): "Don't make me angry.  You wouldn't like me when I'm angry."
Me: "She turns into a scientist."

Eric: "It may only be an inch long but it's as thick as a tuna can."

Val: "We should go find the man with no arms and no legs."
Me: "His name is Matt."

Candice (The GM, as an NPC looking down at the severely hungover player characters): "I see you have been enjoying the local moonshine.
Ashley: "The Old Chaotic Neutral!"

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Exalted and Sexuality

I recently bought a copy of the fantasy role-playing game Exalted 3rd Edition. Exalted is a game in which you play demigods in a fantasy world and can do things physically, intellectually and emotionally beyond the abilities of normal men and while I plan a fuller post about it later some things about it have jumped out at me that I want write about now, namely how the game takes a very positive view of sex and sexuality, both in the setting and the rule mechanics.

First off throughout the description of Creation (Exalted's default setting) it is obvious that same sex relationships are an accepted and normal part of life. More importantly it made obvious in the descriptive text itself rather than some special side-bar box.  The RPG industry in general has been making great efforts in positively portraying same sex relationships and differing gender roles but it is usually in the form of some special section lecturing the reader.  Rather than this though Exalted just portrays it in the descriptions and bits of fiction that intersperse the rules.  This is an even healthier view, in my opinion, in that the authors feel they don't need to draw special attention to it but just treat same sex relationships merely as something that is.

Moving from sexuality to gender roles one of the cultures of Creation are the Delzahn, a desert nomad people.  Unlike most Creation's other society's the Delzahn have very strict gender roles with the men being the classic warriors/hunters/herdsmen while the women take care of the home and related activities.  But even the Delzahn have a concept called "taking the gray" where a person can decide that they aren't suited for the role of their birth gender and can choose to act in the opposite role.  The cultural description then goes on that couples wherein one or both parties have "taken the grey" often seem to be emotionally healthier than the norm.  One could argue, with some justification, that this just emphasizes the gender binary but I still think it provides a better example of simple acceptance that some people do not have to conform to the norm if they feel it is wrong for them.

All of the above however is in the end just background description fluff.  Very positive and admirable but still fluff.  Where Exalted needs be really praised is in dealing with issues of consent in role-playing games.

Exalted has very interesting rules dealing with social interaction and being able to convince characters to act in your interest.  I will go into details at a later date but I find their social rules to both simple and unique.  Part of it involves being able to create emotional connections with other characters to get them to do what you want.  I'm sure you can see how that could potentially be abused by some people and to their credit the game creators saw the implications as well.  Unlike the issues of sexuality they went out of their way to draw attention to this with a special sidebar section of the rules that states explicitly that attempts to seduce a character can only succeed if that character's player actively consents to the seduction.  If the player doesn't want the character to be seduced because they feel that it is against the character concept or that they personally as a player are uncomfortable with the attempt than it simply does not succeed! That way the would be seducer can't hide behind "the dice said I seduced you" as an excuse and the player maintains their complete control over their own characters choices and must actively consent to any sort of seduction.  This is something that is truly admirable and I would like to see more often in other games, even ones without such specific social interaction rules.