FILM: “Murder On The Orient Express”

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“My name is Hercule Poirot, and I am probably the greatest detective in the world.”

Trains. Humans have invented all sorts of ways to move themselves around quicker than by foot, but there is something oddly captivating about a train. In the real world, we have such famous vehicles as the Mallard, and the Flying Scotsman. In fiction, there’s the Hogwarts Express, the Ada Lovelace, and who could forget Thomas the Tank Engine? But there is, to my mind, just one train that hangs large in both the fictional world and our own. And as a Christie fan of the highest order, as regular readers of my blog will know, there was no way I was going to let this film pass without a review. Ladies and gentlemen, please, all aboard, the Orient Express.

For the few who don’t know, this story takes place aboard the Orient Express, a luxurious train that, for over a hundred years, ran travellers – usually wealthy ones – from Istanbul to London across Europe. On this particular journey, Hercule Poirot finds himself aboard with a number of passengers, all of whom seem to be keeping something quiet.

Along the journey, an avalanche derails the train and everyone is stuck in the middle of the mountains until rescue comes. To make matters worse, one of the passengers has been murdered. The stabbed body is surrounded by potential clues, and with Poirot on board, it seems inevitable that the moving finger will soon settle on the killer. But, the eternal question remains – whodunnit?

I’ll start positive. The film perfectly captures the lavishness and wealth of Poirot’s world. Christie almost never put him anywhere unsuitable, and he was forever found only in the most sumptuous surroundings, be they trains, boats or country houses. The Orient Express was the last word in luxury, and the beautiful scenery and set design of this film helps cement that. There are also some interesting directorial decisions made. The discovery and study of the body is filmed entirely from overhead. The film makes great use of the train’s length and the glass panels throughout the carriages. While in the novel, the drama takes place almost exclusively inside the train, here we venture off a couple of times, with each character questioned in different surroundings, leading to everyone lined up at a table in the snow like the Last Supper when the reveal occurs. Since the reveal is one of literature’s worst kept secrets, the real magic here lies in seeing how Poirot will solve it, rather than who is responsible. I will not, however, be revealing the ending here.

The characters are great, too, and while some don’t get quite enough screen time, everyone is pulling out the stops and many chew the scenery like there wasn’t time for lunch. Branagh, as Poirot, is still a decision I’ll never understand. The film industry apparently stopped saying “no” to him a long time ago. I like Branagh, he’s talented, but talent can only go so far and doesn’t mean you can play anyone.

Which leads me nicely onto my few very crucial complaints regarding the plot.

Firstly, Poirot is not an action hero. He does not run after criminals, and he does not engage first-hand in dangerous activities. He has never had a romantic relationship, and if he has, it is none of our concern and has no bearing on the plot. He is not as young as Branagh is playing him, and actually, whatever Christie herself said regarding the moustache, it does not look like that. It’s incredibly distracting.

Perhaps we were spoiled with David Suchet in the role for so long, but he provides, to me and many others, the pinnacle of a Poirot performance. Here, Branagh is not suited to the role. It’s a shame, because around him every single other member of the cast shines. The cream of the acting world is riding this train, including Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley, Derek Jacobi, Olivia Colman, Michelle Pfeiffer and Leslie Odom Jr. I confess that seeing everyone arrive one by one did give me slight goosebumps.

It’s not a terrible film. It’s beautiful, and Christie’s original, wonderful plot is still in place, but it lacks something. I was quite happy to accept it as a one-off, but I shouldn’t have been surprised when the ending provided a sequel hook. Of course this’ll be run into the ground all the while it can make money. But all the luxury of a stunning train and all the wise deductions of a mustachioed Belgian can’t quite save it. I’m sure the film will do well, and I hope it introduces more people to Christie’s amazing novels, but Branagh is not and never will be Poirot, and I’m afraid I’m finding it hard to look past the facial hair.

#NotMyPoirot

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over two-thirds of the way funded – we’re nearly there! – and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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FILM: “Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them”

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fantasticbeastsposter“Witches live among us.”

J. K. Rowling didn’t know what she unleashed when she gave us the Harry Potter books. His story is grand enough, sure, but I’m a sucker for a well-built world, and Rowling builds worlds with the best of them. So much is dropped into the Potter books that makes you want to know more about the wider world, and during those books and since she has teased us with fascinating and exciting information about the world that Harry was born into. But it’s not all about Harry, and so we find ourselves in the same world, but in an entirely different time and place.

It’s 1926 and magizoologist Newt Scamander has just arrived in New York. It’s meant to be a short visit, but when a Niffler escapes from his case, he sets about trying to get it back, although while doing so he accidentally reveals his wizarding status to Jacob, a baker and a No-Maj (American word for Muggle). He is arrested by Tina Goldstein, who works for the magical government for breaching the Statute of Secrecy, and then things go from bad to worse when he realises that he’s misplaced his suitcase. This would be bad enough anywhere, but it’s full of magical beasts, and the American wizarding community is even more secretive than the British one, and they don’t take kindly to a menagerie of magical animals running around New York.

However, there’s some dark magic afoot in the city and it’s believed to be caused by Gellert Grindelwald and his supporters. There’s also the issue of a group called the Second Salemers led by Mary Lou Barebone, a woman who beats her children, including adopted son Credence, and believes that witches are hidden among ordinary people and are causing all the strange events of recent times. Newt must get all his beasts back into his suitcase without causing too much of a disruption, but that’s going to be far easier said than done.

I went to the cinema trying to not have high hopes, but failing miserably. The trailers had looked good, all the reviews had been positive, and the few people I knew who’d already seen it reported back great things. There’s nothing worse than hoping something it going to be great only to then have it stink. Fortunately, this is a piece of sheer cinematic magic. With no original book for us to spend the film going, “But that didn’t happen!” you are able to focus entirely on the story. The new characters all burst with magnetism. Queenie is an amazing young woman who I really loved, and Tina is a fine example of a woman who won’t stand by when she sees injustice, despite being slightly awkward and at times uncertain. Jacob, the token Muggle (I can’t get on board with No-Maj as a term), is an interesting device to be used in the story and serves as the audience surrogate to introduce us to this new world. Eddie Redmayne gives an amazing performance as Newt, a geeky, awkward, eccentric collector who by his own admission annoys people and will stop at nothing to protect animals.

And while they’re all stellar performances, it is the animals that steal the show. If you’ve read the companion book, you’ll recognise everything that turns up here, and the film delights in showing us these amazing new creatures. The Niffler, Bowtruckle and Demiguise are all great and good fun (and also, let’s be honest, an excuse to sell cute merchandise) but for me it’s the Occamy and the Erumpent, my favourite animal from the book, that really shine.

The film is different enough from the Harry Potter stories to ensure we’re not retreading old ground, but similar enough to make them feel like home. It opens with a short burst from Hedwig’s Theme, which is surely the anthem of the Potter generation. A chill ran down my spine upon hearing it. It’s loaded with references to the original books, some more obvious than others, and opens up many more questions about the world. New aspects of the lore are added and work seamlessly, which is more than can be said for parts of the “eighth book“. It seems that the series – for there are planned to be five of these films – will focus almost more on the Wizarding War that culminated in Grindelwald’s downfall as much as if not more than the magical beasts and Newt’s career with them.

Roll on part two – something magical is happening here again, and I’m once again back and raring to go.

“The Princess Bride” by William Golding (1973)

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princess bride“The year Buttercup was born, the most beautiful woman in the world was a French scullery maid named Annette.”

Continuing my apparent theme this year of reading books that are better known as films or musicals, this week I’ve read The Princess Bride. As with Psycho, I’ve never seen the film but thanks to the internet and the cult following the film has, I knew a little about it. As it turned out, I knew none of the plot (I wasn’t even sure it had one) and simply a few of the lines. (“You killed my father, prepare to die!” and so on.) But I was informed that it was funny, so I hoped the book was the same.

The book’s framing device is that the novel The Princess Bride was written by S. Morgenstern, and the author, William Goldman, had it read to him as a child by his father. When he reached adulthood, he read it himself and realised his father had cut out a lot of the stuff he hadn’t deemed suitable for his young son. This version then, is Goldman’s abridged version of the original novel, with narrative dead ends and boring descriptions removed. His notes appear throughout as he explains why he’s made the choices he has.

In a fictional European country in a Renaissance-like setting, Buttercup is a girl who has the potential to be one of the most beautiful women in the world. She falls in love with the farm boy, Westley, who in turn adores her, but declares he has to leave to go and make his fortune elsewhere. When he is rich, he will call for her. Unfortunately, while he’s gone, he is kidnapped and killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts. Distraught by his death, Buttercup vows never to love again.

Prince Humperdinck, the greatest hunter in the world, needs to marry to continue the lineage of his family and give himself an heir for when his elderly father dies and he becomes king. He demands only the most beautiful, so he seeks Buttercup’s hand in marriage. They agree that the marriage will be purely to continue the lineage and that she will never love him, but before the wedding can take place, she is kidnapped by a strange trio: a hunchbacked Sicilian genius, a skinny Spanish swordsman, and a giant, dim Turk. But while they flee, hot on their trail is a man dressed in black who will stop at nothing to get Buttercup safe…

It’s mad, frankly, mad, but I loved it. It’s a fairy tale on steroids that doesn’t forgo the rules of reality. In a fairy tale, the good guy always wins but here, as Goldman/Morgenstern tells us over and over – life isn’t fair. The heroes don’t always win, the villains don’t always die, and there is always someone who will beat you at something. The plot is tight and the characters great fun. Westley and Buttercup are perhaps too perfect, but I assume that’s the point. The real stars though are Fezzik the giant and Ingio the swashbuckling Spaniard, who have a wonderful friendship despite on the surface seeming to have nothing that would bind them. It is sheer loyalty that keeps them together.

There’s a lot going on here, and the final climactic battle is great as it seems to roll through so fast, the narration changing between the characters frequently and showing a minute by minute overview of what’s happening to everyone as they try to achieve their final goals in one final burst. But the novel enjoys playing with the tropes of the genre, and invents wonderful things like the Zoo of Death, Humperdinck’s personal collection of deadly creatures he can hunt, and the R.O.U.S. (Rodents of Unusual Size).

I confess, now, that I skipped over the opening sections in which Goldman tells us about his fictional childhood that led to him loving the original book (to be honest, I hadn’t been sure if it was part of the story or a long-winded introduction from the author), and I also ignored the final chapter, which is supposedly the first chapter of a sequel by Morgenstern that never got published. I hope I haven’t lost too much because of this, but it seems apt to abridge a novel that is already supposedly abridged.

Whether you choose to go for these bits yourself or not, that’s up to you, but the main meat of the novel is brilliant. I’m off to seek out the film. It’s a sharp, witty novel, laced with the one truth of life that we can never ignore: “life isn’t fair”.

“Psycho” by Robert Bloch (1959)

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psycho

Eeek, eeek, eeek!

“Norman Bates heard the noise and a shock went through him.”

The book is always better than the film. Yes, I’m one of those people. Generally though I do experience both, just to confirm that. Most of Hollywood’s greatest films once started out as books – Forrest Gump, Jurassic Park, Cloud Atlas, The Martian are all great films, but the books just edge them out. Sometimes though, I haven’t seen the film. And in this case, I don’t intend to.

Psycho is one of the most famous films of all time, to the point that we are far more likely to associate the story with Alfred Hitchcock than Robert Bloch, the man who actually wrote the story. As noted above, I’ve never seen the film but its fame is such that details of the plot have seeped through to me via cultural osmosis. Still, not all of it has, meaning I went into this book with suspicions as to what was going to happen, but not necessarily knowing all the details. If anything, that made this whole experience much worse.

Norman Bates is a middle-aged man who runs a motel with his domineering mother. She doesn’t let him drink or smoke or socialise with women, and she firmly disapproves of the books that Norman spends his time reading. But with no one else for company, the two are stuck together in their motel in the middle of nowhere, with just occasional guests to break the monotony. One night, Mary Crane arrives, carrying the $40,000 she’s stolen from her boss and intends to take to her lover. Things, however, don’t go to plan. When Norman is caught by his mother spying on this woman in the shower, his mother takes matters into her own hands and … well, I’m sure you all know what happens next.

When Norman finds out what his mother has done, he endeavours to protect her, but he knows that more people will soon arrive at the motel to find out where Mary and the money have gone. Norman is going to have to lie through his teeth to save himself, his mother, and his motel.

OK, so hands down, this is one of the scariest fucking books I have ever read in my life. Although, as I said, some of what was going to happen was known to me, I didn’t know everything, which means the suspense was racked up to eleven. Had I remembered correctly, too? That was another concern. Bloch’s style is painfully atmospheric and in this short novel he manages to create a world and a character so haunting that they will be lodged in my brain for a very long time. I’m already starting to wonder if I’ll ever sleep again. It does however contain one of the best lines and best examples of zeugma in literature: “It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream. And her head.”

If you’re not one with a faint heart or stomach that turns over at horror, then you might have a better time with this than me. By the way, I’m not at any point saying I didn’t like this book. It’s absolutely brilliant, so tightly plotted and able to bring to the forefront true fear and anxiety. It’s not fun to read, but it’s great to have read. Just don’t make me watch the film now.

FILM: “Jurassic World”

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Life, uh, finds a way...

Life, uh, finds a way…

“We have our first genetically modified hybrid.”

This is and, for as long as I keep doing it, will always be primarily a book blog. Books are the main media I consume, so it makes sense to write about them. But believe it or not, I do occasionally experience other things. I’ve already reviewed a show, so now it’s time to bring a film under the spotlight. After all, the blog title says “fiction” – it doesn’t specifically say anything about books. As such, I’m about to review Jurassic World. Before you continue, I’ll just give fair warning that this review will contain spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it yet, maybe wait before reading on.

So we find ourselves on Isla Nublar, which is now running a fully functioning dinosaur theme park. Our main characters include Zach and Gray, two young boys who have come to the island to experience the magic and wonder, their aunt Claire who is one of the park’s directors and very focused on public opinion and the financial running of the park, and Owen, a trainer who appears to have formed a close bond with the Velociraptors, getting them to obey him.

Because dinosaurs no longer supposedly have the “wow factor” that the park’s bosses want, the scientists, including Dr Henry Wu from the first film, have been cooking up stuff in their lab. They have come up with a new creation, the Indominus rex, a creature based on a Tyrannosaurus rex, but with a whole bunch of other classified animal genetics thrown in. Due to the fact that a theme park with real life dinosaurs in it is never a good idea, this all very quickly goes wrong. The Indominus rex breaks out of her enclosure after showing enough intelligence to trick her human captors, and soon she’s on her way to the centre of the park, where twenty thousand human visitors are located, and it seems that nothing is going to stand in her way.

As a big fan of the first films (well, the first and third ones anyway, I never much cared for the second), I was hugely excited about the prospect of a new film, although also very wary. Thankfully, it’s a really great movie. Considered a sequel to the first film, the original two sequels seem to have been forgotten about, although apparently they are canon just not mentioned.

Jurassic World seems to enjoy throwing in references to the original film and it’s fun to try and spot them all. There’s a guy wearing a shirt with the logo of the original park on it, a repeat of the classic Dilophosaurus moment, someone saying that the park “spared no expense”, and also a prolonged scene in the first visitors’ centre, which appears to have been left to the elements after a very quick evacuation. Despite all this, only three characters make an appearance from the first film – the aforementioned Dr Wu and … I won’t say the other two. You’ll see.

Alright, so the characters are basically stereotypes, but they do get deconstructed throughout and it works well, and the action scenes are second to none. It’s such a beautiful film, I’m happy to believe that the dinosaurs are really there. Do I completely get the notion that someone has managed to (almost at least) tame the raptors? Not really, but it’s a fun idea. The Indominus rex is a thing of wonder, and further emphasises the muddy waters we’re playing in when it comes to genetic experimentation. They’ve even managed to get away with ignoring the last twenty years of dinosaur research and discoveries by handwaving that the dinosaurs may look very different if they had a whole genome to work with, rather than having to fill the missing its in with bits of frog, toad or snake.

If you want an all-action, scary, funny and incredibly entertaining film, then go see it, because it may be full of cliches and archetypes, but no one really minds all that much. It’s a film about dinosaurs – is that not enough?

“Miss Wyoming” by Douglas Coupland (2000)

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wyoming“Susan Colgate sat with her agent, Adam Norwitz, on the rocky outdoor patio of the Ivy restaurant at the edge of Beverly Hills.”

In my mission to reread all of Douglas Coupland’s work, I trundle at last into the current century with Miss Wyoming. The first of his novels that is written entirely in third person, the first that was written entirely from his head, rather than being built up in notebooks, and yet despite these changes, Coupland is as on the ball as ever, with a firm understanding of the way the world works. Victoria Glendinning, writer for the Daily Telegraph, reviewed Coupland as follows: “If you find anything about the way we live now disturbing and wrong, he is your man. (He is my man.)” He’s my man, too, and this book is just one of the reasons why.

Coupland’s sixth book tells the stories of Susan Colgate (former beauty queen, failed actress, married to a gay rock star) and John Johnson (drug-addled and lonely former director of action films), both of whom find their lives riddled with fame and desperate for escape. John escapes by selling everything he owns and heading out onto the road without a dime to his name, losing himself in the wilderness. Susan’s chance at anonymity comes slightly more dramatically, when she finds herself as the only survivor of a plane crash. She skips away unharmed and unnoticed and hides for a year, leaving everyone to assume that she has died. When these two characters meet, they see something within one another that they have never found anywhere before, prompting feelings to ignite and the promise of a brighter future to bloom.

The novel jumps back and forth in time, switching point of view of Susan and John (and sometimes others), telling us what happened during their childhoods, their adulthoods, their disappearances and their reintroduction to society. There is no rhyme or reason to the ordering of the story, but by the end a very clear picture has been drawn up and everything is explained. This is a story about loneliness and the perils and pitfalls that come from being famous – in particular, having everything and then losing it.

It’s a strange sort of love story, as the two main characters share a very small number of pages together, the overwhelming majority of the novel being about their individual lives. The supporting cast are all excellent, including Vanessa and Ryan (a woman who knows everything and her Susan-obsessed boyfriend), Eugene (a former pageant judge and artist specialising in trash scupltures), and Marilyn (Susan’s overbearing, selfish mother). They show the intricate world that builds up around anyone touched by fame, whether directly or once-or-twice removed from it. Marilyn, in particular, clings to the fame that Susan has provided, claming that without her, none of it would have happened. She’s a vile person, but a fascinating character and written wonderfully realistically.

As ever with Coupland, it’s simply the writing that shines. He has a way with words, metaphors and expressions that I would give my left arm for, and I daresay I’m not alone in that. In the wrong hands, the story could be stale and tired, but Coupland writes with such fizz and reality that it’s impossible to not find yourself enjoying the tumbling ride alongside the characters.

Like in others of his books, Coupland here delights in writing out a list of truths, this time a list of things about the modern world that would astound someone from one hundred years ago. These include such gems as, “Women do everything men do and it’s not a big deal”, “The universe is a trillion billion million times larger than you ever dreamed it would be”, and my personal favourite, “You pretty well never see or smell shit.”

After Girlfriend In A Coma, which is probably still my favourite of his books, Miss Wyoming seems quite a nice gentle respite. The world doesn’t end, and the whole thing seems fundamentally more normal. It’s a sweet book with a lot of heart and if you like your love stories to be a bit weird, you could do worse than this one.

“Forrest Gump” by Winston Groom (1986)

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forrest

And that’s all I have to say about that.

“Let me say this: bein a idiot is no box of chocolates.”

Books and movies, movies and books. The relationship is a curious one. While Hollywood continues to take hold of someone else’s writing and often destroy it for a quick buck at the box office, very rarely do you see it happen the other way around. Forrest Gump was a book eight years before it was a film, but I’m willing to bet that some of you reading this now didn’t even know it had originally been a book.

The trouble with converting books to films (I’ll get on with the review shortly) is that the mediums are so totally different that it becomes practically an impossibility. An average book can take six to eight hours to read, let’s say. A film has to be over and done with in, generally at most, two. You are going to lose a lot of the plot, a lot of characterisation, perhaps even some entire characters. Granted, any descriptive passages are removed because they can be shown much quicker, but is that really a good thing?

Turning books into films is not an easy task, and that’s not to say that it has never been done well. The adaptation of Never Let Me Go was rather good, for one. However, on the whole I think that you shouldn’t ever try to compare a film to a book. The differences are too great, they will never work out quite right. The Harry Potter movies are masterpieces in their own way, but only if taken as a separate entity to the books. The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Colour of Magic, A Series of Unfortunate Events – all pretty good films but nothing like the source material. Often, the change happens because a lot of stuff has to be cut out but occasionally you get an instance where a lot gets added. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Hobbit, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – all very short books that managed to inspire two or three hour films, or in one case, three whole films.

And now we arrive at Forrest Gump – another book which seems to have been mostly ignored by the filmmakers.

Forrest Gump is one of my favourite films and I’m pretty sure that you’ll have seen it too at some point. I decided to pick up the book and experience the story in a different way. What actually happened was that I experienced an entirely different story. The really famous scenes from the film – Forrest’s leg braces, him running coast to coast, meeting John Lennon, Jenny’s death, the boat in the storm – not one of those things happens here. Sure, he still loves his Jenny, and he still fights in the Vietnam War (although he’s home again by around page 60) and he meets Bubba (who might be white, it’s never made clear), but the Forrest in the book takes a wildly different path to the Forrest of the film.

That’s not a complaint at all. The book has all the same warmth, heart and sweetness that the film did. Forrest here, however, is more an idiot savant, capable of highly advanced mathematics and being a skilled chess player. He just struggles with words and doesn’t always know how to express himself. Still, his IQ is about 70 and so, legally, he is an idiot. It doesn’t, however, stop him from having one hell of a life. He meets several of the Presidents, saves Chairman Mao from drowning, becomes best friends with an orangutan, appears in a play at Harvard, gets put in an lunatic asylum and is even sent into space. In short, this version of events is even more unbelievable than the ones you are probably more familiar with.

For a different – and, more importantly, the original – take on the character, this is a nice, quick read. Do I prefer it to the film? I don’t know. The two are such different creatures that, as usual, I think it’s pretty difficult to compare them, and wouldn’t be fair to either one to do so. And yet, this is a blog about books, so I feel obliged to say that the book is the better of the two, if only because it was the original version and the sequel (yes, there’s a sequel) opens with the line, “Don’t never let nobody make a movie of your life’s story.”

And that’s all I have to say about that.

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