11.15.2017

Television: The Orville, "Majority Rule"

You remember that episode of ST:TNG where Wesley is sentenced to death while visiting a foreign planet because he didn't Keep Off the Grass? Yeah, this is that episode.

Except instead an inept away team goes looking for a couple missing anthropologists on a planet where everything is determined by popular vote. Literally. Everyone wears a badge with a green "up" arrow and a red "down" arrow and basically goes through life being defined by how many Likes and Dislikes they have. As a person. And apparently there is a threshold wherein, if you reach a certain number of down votes, you are "corrected" by basically having your brain scrambled.

How could this ever go wrong?

Look, Star Trek (the chassis upon which The Orville is constructed) has a long, strong history of social commentary. And it's never been particularly subtle. So this isn't either. But . . . While I'm moderately entertained, I'm wondering what it says—either about me or the show—that I only watch The Orville when I'm looking for mindless entertainment. Like, at least it's entertaining, I guess? But some of the novelty is wearing off for me, and I find myself looking elsewhere while the episodes stack up on my DVR.

Besides the on-the-noseness of it all, I'm annoyed that every reference made is to 20th and 21st century television and culture. They watch Seinfeld, they talk about American Idol and mention Justin Bieber. REALLY? Did culture just stop when and where we now live and that's all the future has to go on? They have NOTHING ELSE? Nothing older, nothing more current? I suppose that would require the writing team to, you know, actually come up with stuff rather than grab the low-hanging fruit.

Maybe that's what I'm really railing against here. Laziness. They don't have the cleverness to be more subtle or to build a world populated by new cultural references. Well, sure, they give the Krill a religion, and they gave Bortus' people a poet, but apparently humans stopped short at Taylor Swift and have been coasting on that for hundreds of years.

Sigh. Whatever. It's an okay show. I'll keep in on my DVR for the rare occasions I may actually feel like watching it.

11.12.2017

Movies: Murder on the Orient Express

Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Tom Bateman, Olivia Colman, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Holy S*** How Many People Are In This Movie
Directed By: Kenneth Branagh
Written By: Michael Green (screenplay) from the novel by Agatha Christie
20th Century Fox, 2017
PG-13; 114 minutes
4.25 stars (out of 5)


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The obligatory history: I read my first Hercule Poirot book when I was thirteen years old. It was, in fact, Murder on the Orient Express. I remember this distinctly because I was nearly finished with the book when Dad called me down to take me to Lethal Weapon 2 (my first R-rated movie in the cinema). Mom was out of town, and Dad always gave me more credit for being able to tolerate things like violence and language. I'd loved the first Lethal Weapon when I'd seen . . . either the VHS tape or TV edit? So of course I wanted to see the next one.

I digress. Let's say that Murder on the Orient Express drove me to read many more Poirot novels. It was also the first Agatha Christie book I shared with my now 12-year-old son. And so I hold it very close to my heart. And my son and I were very excited to see the movie.

This is a lovely movie. In particular, the skies and the way the train is framed in certain shots—just gorgeous. I also enjoyed the subtle humor at certain moments. Wit, really. So quick and brief I think many in the cinema missed the jokes entirely.

There are flaws, however. MOTOE has a huge cast. This is not unusual for Poirot novels, or a certain genre of mysteries in general. After all, the more people involved, the harder it is for the reader to figure out the solution to the crime. But when condensing things to the screen, the number of characters can be confusing, and no one gets full development. Backstories zip by. For someone who has read the book, this may not be a problem. (It wasn't for me or my son.) But I would think anyone unfamiliar with the story might be a bit confused.

My only other quibble is the insertion of a backstory for Poirot—a lost love named Katherine. WHY???? Was it done to make Poirot more sympathetic somehow? It really added nothing to the story and actually detracted from the established character for me. This need to make Poirot into something he never was in the novel: a brilliant mind grieving for what has been lost or denied him. They also make him fastidious to the point of near OCD. Like, yes, Poirot has very high standards, but this is beyond what I remember from the books. And while it contributes to his character's "eye for details" it is also somewhat played for laughs. If Poirot has a problem—like, actual OCD—that's not funny.

The movie does deviate from the novel on a number of points, but overall it is very enjoyable. One hopes they'll do another. Though—again, just to quibble—to namecheck Death on the Nile as though to set it up as the next film is ridiculous. That murder occurs while Poirot is present, not before. He's in Egypt when Linnet is murdered is what I mean. Poirot wouldn't be getting information about the murder before he's even gone to Egypt. That's just dumb.

Well, whatever. I'd watch it anyway, so I guess my fuss is for naught. Here's hoping it gets a green light.

11.11.2017

Movies: The Big Sick

I'd been hearing about this movie on various podcasts for a while, but I'd never been in the right mood or frame of mind to watch it. Until last night.

There's a certain kind of movie—almost always indie or small studio pics—that bill themselves as "comedy" but aren't really that funny. I think they're using an older definition of "comedy," the one that says things end happy rather than sad. In other words, if it's not an all-out tragedy, it's a comedy. Kind of. Like, if you have to pick between the two masks, this movie is the laughing one more than the crying one, right?

Still, while it definitely has its funny moments, this isn't, you know, what some people think of as comedy. It tends toward melodrama. It's what some call "dramedy." And that's fine, but it's not the same as a comedy.

All this may make it sound like I didn't like the movie. But I did! I actually liked it quite a lot. It's one of the few I've seen that lives up to all the hype I've heard. Kumail Nanjiani is incredibly personable (both in this movie and in interviews); it's impossible not to like him, even when he's being a jerk in the film. You honestly want him to do well. You cringe for him when [mild spoiler] his comedy set bombs. You feel for him when he finds himself caught between his family and the girl he's fallen in love with. His interactions with everyone—his family, his girlfriend's family, his fellow comedians—it's all so natural and unaffected, very enjoyable to watch.

Okay, so for those who don't know, the movie is about Kumail falling in love with a girl named Emily. Meanwhile, his Pakistani family keeps trying to set him up with a good Muslim girl to marry. When Emily finds out Kumail hasn't even told his family about her, and when he can't commit to a future with her, she breaks up with him. Next thing Kumail knows, he's receiving a call to say Emily is in the hospital. He goes there and meets her parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, both in fabulous form). Hilarity doesn't exactly ensue, though there are definite pulses of it.

If anything, the character of Emily is the weak link. Maybe because she's in a coma for a big chunk of the movie, but honestly, when she was awake I found her a tad annoying. I didn't 100% buy the attraction between her and Kumail. But that's a small thing in the overall scheme. That may sound strange considering this is, in some aspect, a romantic movie. And I think if Emily had been conscious for the entire film, it wouldn't have worked because her shrillness would have ruined things. But as things stand, it's livable.

In short, this is a really cute movie. It's drama punctuated with laughter. There's a little bit of tragedy, too. The whole thing is a stew, really—a tasty one.

11.06.2017

Free Story Today!

You can read my brand new story for free for a very limited time. Click here (US link).

11.05.2017

Movies: The Beguiled

I usually really enjoy moody period dramas, and I had high hopes for this one. What I guess I'd forgotten is that, of the few Sofia Coppola movies I've seen, I haven't much enjoyed any of them. And The Beguiled is very much a Sofia Coppola movie despite being based on a novel.

The story is very simple. In 1864 Virginia, a wounded Union soldier named John McBurney (Colin Farrell) is taken in by a houseful of women—Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) and her charges, the remaining pupils of her girls' school. A man in their midst upsets the placid setting. That's pretty much the story, really. The women become beguiled by the strange man.

One of the major problems with this movie, besides the fact that it is glacially paced and not a whole lot happens, is that none of the characters are given thorough development. A few get more than others, but overall the young ladies feel somewhat interchangeable. And where tension should be building, it just never does. We all know that, in the words of Bartok the Bat, "this can only end in tears," but we don't really feel any dread.

The movie is beautiful to look at, mind. It's gorgeously shot. And I do honestly believe the actors did the best they could with the material they were given. It was a valiant effort.

But the bottom line is that the movie was slow and pretty boring. I'm somewhat curious about the novel now; I only found out about the whitewashing scandal after looking stuff up for this post. So I do wonder about ways the book is different. I feel there could definitely be more depth of character in a novel than was portrayed on the screen. Some books just don't translate to film very well. (Then again, apparently the Clint Eastwood version of this movie is much better. Not that I'm keen to try it again so soon. Not beguiled enough for that.)

11.04.2017

Movies: Thor: Ragnarok

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Idris Elba
Directed By: Taika Waititi
Written By: Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, Christopher Yost
Marvel, 2017
PG-13; 130 minutes
4.5 stars (out of 5)


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A couple of caveats: (1) the sound in our cinema kept going out, which may have influenced my overall sense of the film, even though they did fix it and rewind the scenes for us; (2) I've literally just come home from this movie, which means that I'm on that bit of a film high that one sometimes gets. I considered giving this movie just a 4/5 for a few things, but the fact is, despite the niggling issues, it was highly entertaining. And that's all it's really required to be, right?

On the plus side of this film: lots of comedy and more of the Loki-as-pseudo-hero that we all sort of seem to want. We know Loki is a villain, but we like him so much we want him to win a little, and I feel the franchise is trying to do that for us. It's a very difficult line to walk, though. We don't want him to, you know, go the way of Drax and become base comic relief. We want him to stay smart and wily, and we want him and Thor not to get too close and happy because that won't work either. Anyway, this film balances very carefully on that line, though it does teeter a bit toward Loki as goofy. We're going to want to nudge that a bit in the other direction in the next film. Loki should be darker than this is all I'm saying.

The story in a nutshell: Thor heads home to Asgard after attempting to stop Ragnarok from happening only to find Loki pretending to be Odin. So then they go find Odin (in Norway, cuz where else would he be?), and—stop reading if you don't want to know—Odin dies, which means Thor's and Loki's older sister Hela is released from her prison. Being the oldest, she assumes the throne of Asgard. She's also the goddess of death so, you know, things in Asgard go to Hel . . . a . . .

Meanwhile, the part the trailers all showed: Thor gets captured by a scraper (Thompson) who brings The Grandmaster (Goldblum) fighters for his big Tournament of Champions or whatever it was called. Thor's goal: get away and go save Asgard.

This movie is crowded with cameos and clever casting, and it mostly works. At the same time, it does pull viewers out of the moment sometimes.

My main problem with Thor: Ragnarok is that it tries to subvert expectations and yet the audience is too smart for it. An example: Bruce Banner jumps off a spaceship to face a threat. We're supposed to expect him to land as the Hulk. But he just falls face first and then, moments later, emerges as the Hulk. It's a funny moment but not as much of a cute surprise as I think the writers and filmmakers thought it would be. We as viewers are ahead of the story, and that's not always a good thing. We know Skurge (Urban) is going to have to make a choice, and we know what the choice is going to be and how it's going to end for him. What I'm saying is, this movie hits all the beats, and they're fun ones, but they're also super predictable. The story ends up tied in a neat little bow, and that's weirdly unsatisfying.

Still, this is a largely lighthearted chapter in the ongoing Marvel thread. (Too lighthearted perhaps given the gravitas that the ending needs but lacks.) It seems someone took notes from Guardian of the Galaxy's success and decided to lean in—but not as far in as GOTG Vol. 2, which was a smidge too far. Thor: Ragnarok knows not to take itself too seriously, which is a good thing. As I said, it's highly entertaining, which is all it really needs to be. If the next one could maybe be a little bit more clever or subversive or something, though, I'd appreciate it.

11.03.2017

Story: "Professor Moriarty & the Demented Detective"

Now available on Amazon. You can even read it for free if you have Kindle Unlimited.

What if the famously evil Professor Moriarty wasn't as evil as Holmes made him out to be? Hear his side in this new short story that revisits the Reichenbach Falls.

11.01.2017

IWSG Reminder

If you stumbled across this blog in search of my IWSG entry, well, you're digging in the wrong place. Hop over to PepperWords for my post.

Books: Fairy Tales and Folklore Re-imagined

You can now preorder the anthology I contributed to:

Click for link

No, I'm not sure why they put a hyphen there, either, but whatever. The book comes out on 11/10.