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August 10th, 2010

Praising With Faint Condemnation

You may recall that I recently blasted the David Suchet Murder On the Orient Express — and I stand by that blasting. However, while I was researching that, I found out about a “modernized” 2001 made-for-TV version starring Alfred Molina, mostly by way of people shouting “Stay away! Stay away!”

Well, my curiosity was piqued to the point that I had Netflix shoot it off my way and took a look at it. And given my reaction to the last one, it may surprise you to hear that my verdict is: “It’s not that bad.” Or possibly, “It’s not bad for what it is.”

Is it Hercule Poirot? No. Let’s face it, the character of Poirot doesn’t really work outside of his historical context, and even if he did, Alfred “Throw Me the Idol, I’ll Throw You the Whip” Molina doesn’t really work as Poirot. He’s huge, he’s earthy; he’d make a great Larry Talbot. But a prim and dainty little detective? No. And for what it’s worth, the filmmakers seem aware of this: they downplay the eccentricity of the character, and instead introduce a pointless “exotic love interest” character to try to set up a sort of “Hercule Poirot, International Man of Mystery.” That doesn’t work either, but it’s not any fault of Alfred Molina’s, it’s just a dumb idea.

Made in the dot-com boom, a lot of the modernization revolves around technology: Daisy Armstrong’s father becomes a sort of Steve Jobs-ish software guru (as does his college pal, Arbuthnot), and Poirot finds several clues by looking up the Armstrong case on the internet — much to the outrage of many of the commenters I found about this film. But I didn’t have a problem with that: if you’re going to modernize a story, modernize it! I also think it’s worth giving the filmmakers points for addressing the fact that the “real” Orient Express has been more or less defunct since the ’70s [1], by having M. Bouc talk about his company’s revitalization of the line.

So, why am I more forgiving of this low-budget clunker than I am of the David Suchet version? It’s all about where you set the bar. This version makes no pretense of being a faithful adaptation of Christie’s work. Like the Margaret Rutherford “Miss Marple” movies, it uses Christie’s work as a launching pad to create its own thing. Does it succeed brilliantly? Well, no. There is some seriously clunky exposition and the only character to really make an impression is Ratchett himself. But at the same time, it’s not the slap in the face that the Suchet one was, either, and so I find myself feeling a lot more friendly towards it.

-The Gneech

[1] “The Orient Express” has a complex genealogy. You can still ride “an” Orient Express today, but it’s not the one Agatha Christie was writing about.

Originally published at gneech.com. You can comment here or there.

Time For Some Crunchy Brain Food!

Most of these were gathered from Arts & Letters Daily, although a few were from Twitter or RSS feeds.

The New Yorker: Chan, the Man, by Jill Lepore


Honolulu: ukulele music, ginger blossoms, coconut palms, grass mats, a luau. Miss Minerva Winterslip, a Boston spinster far from home, discovers, on a cot on her veranda, a dead body in white pajamas. A lizard skitters over the corpse, leaving a trail of tiny crimson footprints. The spinster, shaken and trembling, telephones the dead man’s brother, Amos, who promptly summons the authorities. A police captain and a coroner arrive, followed by a third man, of appearance most curious: “He was very fat indeed, yet he walked with the light dainty steps of a woman. His cheeks were as chubby as a baby’s, his skin ivory tinted, his black hair close-cropped, his amber eyes slanting.”

“Amos!” cried Miss Minerva. “That man—why he—”
“Charlie Chan,” Amos explained. “I’m glad they brought him. He’s the best detective on the force.”
“But—he’s Chinese!”


Miss Minerva, overcome, collapses. Chan, despite being as chubby as a baby and as dainty as a woman and being, really, anything but a man, walks away with the chapter, the novel, and Biggers’s career.


The New York Review of Books: Words, by Tony Judt


In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell castigated contemporaries for using language to mystify rather than inform. His critique was directed at bad faith: people wrote poorly because they were trying to say something unclear or else deliberately prevaricating. Our problem, it seems to me, is different. Shoddy prose today bespeaks intellectual insecurity: we speak and write badly because we don’t feel confident in what we think and are reluctant to assert it unambiguously (“It’s only my opinion…”). Rather than suffering from the onset of “newspeak,” we risk the rise of “nospeak.”


First Things: A Perfect Game, by David B. Hart


I know there are those who will accuse me of exaggeration when I say this, but, until baseball appeared, humans were a sad and benighted lot, lost in the labyrinth of matter, dimly and achingly aware of something incandescently beautiful and unattainable, something infinitely desirable shining up above in the empyrean of the ideas; but, throughout most of the history of the race, no culture was able to produce more than a shadowy sketch of whatever glorious mystery prompted those nameless longings.


The New York Times: But Will It Make You Happy? by Stephanie Rosenbloom


Amid weak job and housing markets, consumers are saving more and spending less than they have in decades, and industry professionals expect that trend to continue. Consumers saved 6.4 percent of their after-tax income in June, according to a new government report. Before the recession, the rate was 1 to 2 percent for many years. In June, consumer spending and personal incomes were essentially flat compared with May, suggesting that the American economy, as dependent as it is on shoppers opening their wallets and purses, isn’t likely to rebound anytime soon.

On the bright side, the practices that consumers have adopted in response to the economic crisis ultimately could — as a raft of new research suggests — make them happier. New studies of consumption and happiness show, for instance, that people are happier when they spend money on experiences instead of material objects, when they relish what they plan to buy long before they buy it, and when they stop trying to outdo the Joneses.

If consumers end up sticking with their newfound spending habits, some tactics that retailers and marketers began deploying during the recession could become lasting business strategies. Among those strategies are proffering merchandise that makes being at home more entertaining and trying to make consumers feel special by giving them access to exclusive events and more personal customer service.


Mental Floss: How the Temperance Movement Almost Killed Root Beer, by Ethan Trex


Even though Hires himself didn’t drink, the WCTU theorized that since his root beer was a sweet fermented beverage it must have some booze in it. (Chemistry apparently wasn’t the WCTU’s strong suit.) Thus, having a frosty root beer was no better than pounding back a godforsaken actual beer.

Instead of testing to see if there was actually any alcohol in Hires’ root beer, the WCTU simply called for a nationwide ban on his product, which had become wildly popular in drugstores around the country.

Amazingly, the WCTU’s vicious crusade against a non-alcoholic beverage sold by a teetotaler lasted for three years. Despite its tendency to base its policies on junk science, the WCTU was a pretty powerful national force at the time, and Hires’ sales went into the tank.


-The Gneech

The Goths Discovered Brown!

Snagged from athelind...




One of these days I need to rant about steampunk. I feel sorta like Auntie Mame: "I turned him down so many times when I was rich, I couldn't very well accept him when I was poor." Steampunk and I have been in the same room not talking to each other since I was a kid (see also my deep-seated but rarely-mentioned enthusiasm for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Wild, Wild West) ... and suddenly now it's popular. Does my work on the Technomancer's Toybox count as putting me on the forefront of steampunk? ;)

I fully expect some other thing I've always quietly liked but never much talked about (say, the American Revolutionary period) to suddenly become huge. I just wish I knew which of the many things in that category it was, so I could jump on and be ahead of the curve.

-The Gneech

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