This Week in Geek (13-19/11/17)


Need. More. Books. So I got Douglas Coupland's Bit Rot and Tat Wood and Dorothy Ail's About Time 8 (covering Doctor Who Series 3). Plus, Class on DVD, because I'm a Who completist and it was on sale.


In theaters: People loooooooove to say Kenneth Branagh's new adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express "loses steam" or "gets derailed". Maybe the lure of those puns colored their appreciation of what I think is a very entertaining take on both Hercule Poirot as a character and what is most certainly the mystery with the best-known solution of all time. It is not particularly faithful to Agatha Christie's book, which I think is fair, given that the 1974 adaptation is the gold standard. Let's mix things up, let us believe we don't know exactly what's going to happen. Make it about how Poirot will figure it out, rather than the whodunit it was designed to be. Of course, change the pieces of the puzzle, and it doesn't quite fit as well as it should, with Poirot no doubt guessing at things the book version logically pieced together. Putting the focus on Poirot rather than the mechanics of the crime washes away any sins I might hold against it, as Branagh's performance is funny, tragic, cool and complex. This is a character I want to follow to other movies (bring on Death on the Nile!) and I think creating a fresh interpretation of the famous detective was well worth sacrificing a clue here or a deduction there. Turning the climax into an ethical dilemma (which it isn't in the book) also puts more meat on Poirot's bones. Branagh has more or less addressed my general problem with Agatha Christie, which is to say the intellectual coldness of her puzzle-crafting. I've never cared more for the central character who, in many adaptations, well-acted or not, can be a means to an end. He sets up Poirot's bona fides early, charming me in the same way Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock did, if that means anything to you.

At home: Sidney Lumet's 1974 adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, or rather it's third act, should rightfully be considered the high bar of Agatha Christie adaptations, or indeed, of any reveal of how a crime was committed. While the pieces are well laid out before that point, following the novel faithfully in all but a few trivial details, it's the manic and yet precise way Albert Finney's Poirot, despite his horrendous French, solves it in one master scene that makes the film work as well as it does. I don't think all the characters are introduced as well as I would like in the first act, but the steady procedural pace highlights the important clues very neatly, and the confrontations between Poirot and the suspects are electric. Despite a new adaptation having just hit movie screens, it has not been made redundant. Rather, Branagh's 2017 version seems to go out of its way not to repeat it, and two could be seen as complementary rather than rivals.

The utterly-charming Once is a strange bird indeed. The story is simple, but truthful, about a down-on-his-luck busker who, on the streets of Dublin, meets an equally struggling Czech pianist. They make beautiful music together, but will that translate into a romance given their circumstances? With the preponderance of songs, it plays like a musical, but they're all motivated by reality. It's about song writers, so they sing. The feeling and lyrics of each song isn't too on the nose, but does describe the action and emotion of the moment, just like in a proper musical. With the usual heightened reality removed, the film is able to sell this idea with a minimal budget, and to my surprise, achieves a raw, gritty, pseudo-documentary style you never see in the genre. And yes, the songs are quite good!

Doctor Who Titles: Terminus is a 1987 Franco-German production (for English-speaking audiences, with a lot of bad dubbing) that could best be described as Death Race 2000 meets Mad Max Fury Road, but only if you give the metal arm to French rock'n'roller Johnny Hallyday, and switch out the Furiosa role (here played by kung fu trucker Karen Allen) after the first act. "Finish the movie for me," she seems to tell Hallyday. Though on the surface it seems to come out of some Metal Hurlant comic strip, Terminus is a total mess. The weird ideas (the talking truck, the genetically modified kids, the ban on games) are hampered by the arrhythmic pace and crash to an unsatisfactory conclusion. Having gone to the trouble of modifying vehicles and using them in percussive stunts, you'd think more care would have been taken.
#The TARDIS lands in the film... The 7th Doctor and Mel materialize in 2037 and help Gus, then Stump get to the "end of the line". Maybe take down the government while they're at it.

Note that this isn't the only movie called Terminus, but I watched the 2015 one only last year. It had an alien artifact healing war veterans and acting as Trojan horse for aliens. Sounds like a Doctor Who plot all right.
#The TARDIS lands in the film... The 12th Doctor and Clara show up, investigate, time jump ahead, stop the aliens. Just another day at the office.

Enlightenment is a Russian animated short, combining claymation and CG, revealing the possible nature of the universe in less than a minute. It's cute, but insubstantial. Definitely could be expanded to pack more of a punch, either extending the pull-back to the reveal, or continuing the story after the punch line to perhaps get to another twist that might actually be more profound. But as an animator's proof of concept, it works well enough, I suppose.
#The TARDIS lands in the film... The TARDIS malfunctions, sending the 10th Doctor, traveling alone, to the macro universe where he encounters Om and learns the disturbing truth about the universe.

Books: Simon Guerrier's The Slitheen Excursion fits with the companion-less BBC books that are meant to slot into the "year of specials", which is why I'm rather disappointed in the companion du jour, June, who, despite getting some very good moments, is nothing but a generic Doctor Who companion. On TV, the specials all had an unusual companion so they could tell stories you couldn't with a regular assistant. June might as well be Rose or Martha or Amy or Clara. I would be as disappointed if Guerrier hadn't created and developed some great companions in Big Finish's first Doctor audios. Oh well. Each of these books focuses on a recurring monster, and the Slitheen in this hold the Ancient world hostage. An interesting premise, though not without some silly moments (I don't think there's a single writer who's been able to make us take the Slitheen all that seriously). Still, a fair romp with some timey-wimey twists... which come to think of it, is kind of what I said about Guerrier's previous book in the range, The Pirate Loop.


Toby'c said...

My preferred adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express is the 2010 TV version with David Suchet, in part because it also plays up the ethical dilemma more than the book or the 1974 movie.

As for adapting further Poirot books, I'd really rather they focused on the ones that haven't already been satisfactorily adapted. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd immediately comes to mind, easily one of the worst of the Suchet series.

Brendoon said...

Poirot adaptations are well on their way to becoming like Shakespeare... part of the culture, ubiquitous.
Hamlet and "son of"Beth(?) (Mackers, in modern lingo) seem to still be the favourites in spite of the 'normous body of work, I guess Poirot will get the same choosiness onscreen.
If my artless philistine is showing I prefer a crime drama to any of Shakey's stuff. Ol' auntie Aggie Christie was NEVER meted out as punishment at any of my schools...


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