Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Movie Review—Murder on the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express teaser poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster

by Peter J. O'Connell                                                                                                 

Murder on the Orient Express. Released: Nov. 2017. Runtime: 114 mins. MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence and thematic elements.

Sidney Lumet's 1974 film version of Agatha Christie's classic 1934 mystery novel Murder on the Orient Express proved both a popular and a critical success and touched off somewhat of a Christie boom. A number of theatrical and TV films based on her stories and characters, and even her life, followed over the next 20 years or so.

Now Kenneth Branagh directs and co-produces a new version of Murder, with himself as the lead character, Hercule Poirot, the “world's greatest detective,” as the Belgian styles himself. There's a problem with this new version, however—there's not much new about it, and what is new mostly isn't an improvement on the 1974 version. 

An example of the new but not improved material is the grossly overproduced, and irrelevant, opening sequence set in Jerusalem. Other examples are some of the choices that Branagh has made in how scenes are shot. The most blatant example of a bad choice in this regard is the filming from overhead of a key scene involving Johnny Depp's character. And no review can fail to note that one of the new things that is quite annoying is the addition of a new character of sorts: Mr. Mustache. Yes, Branagh has given Poirot a mustache that is so grotesquely large and shaped that it almost becomes a character itself in the movie—another passenger on the train. At least, one can't help fixing eyes on it during the many closeups that Branagh gives himself.

Something new that would be welcome in this version of Murder would be a twist on the story's “surprise ending,” which is actually rather well-known and hence no surprise to many moviegoers. But we don't get any such imaginative approach from screenwriter Michael Green. Nor do we get much approximating stellar performances from Murder's all-star (sort of) cast.

Johnny Depp as a shady art dealer with plenty of enemies is probably the best in the cast, but that's largely because most of the other actors are given little distinctive to do. When the Depp character is murdered while the Express is marooned in the mountains by a snow avalanche, the other characters are suspects. The main ones are the Depp character's henchmen (Derek Jacobi and Josh Gad); a morose missionary (Penelope Cruz); a white supremacist (Willem Dafoe); a Russian noblewoman (Judi Dench); an African-American doctor (Leslie Odom, Jr.); the doctor's clandestine lover, a governess (Daisy Ridley); and a femme fatale type (Michelle Pfeiffer). The point of such a cast is for each of them to have their characters make a strong individual impression but to do so economically. (As Ingrid Bergman did in the 1974 version, for which she received an Oscar.) The current cast—under this director—doesn't. 

Murder's exterior shots can be impressive. It is filmed in 65mm and beautiful color, with a mix of actual scenery, traditional special effects, and computer-generated imagery. But both the costuming and the production design of the interiors fail to convey a strong sense of period or the luxurious experience of traveling on the fabled train. 

Be that as it may, the final scene of Murder is clearly setting up for a sequel. And it has been reported that a biopic of Agatha Christie is in the works, to star either Emma Stone or Alicia Vikander.   

Bill Gates' newest mission: Curing Alzheimer's

Image result for bill gates
(CNN)It's one of the holy grails of science: a cure for Alzheimer's. Currently, there is no treatment to stop the disease, let alone slow its progression. And billionaire Bill Gates thinks he will change that.
"I believe there is a solution," he told me without hesitation.
"Any type of treatment would be a huge advance from where we are today," he said, but "the long-term goal has got to be cure."
I had the chance to sit down with Gates recently to talk about his newest initiative. He sat in front of our cameras exclusively to tell me how he hopes to find a cure to a disease that now steals the memories and other cognitive functions of 47 million people around the world. 
For Gates, the fight is personal. He is investing $50 million of his own money into the Dementia Discovery Fund, a private-public research partnership focused on some of the more novel ideas about what drives the brain disease, such as looking at a brain cell's immune system. It's the first time Gates has made a commitment to a noncommunicable disease. The work done through his foundation has focused primarily on infectious diseases such as HIV, malaria and polio. Click here to continue reading.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Movie Review—Suburbicon

Theatrical release poster
by Peter J. O’Connell 

Suburbicon. Released: Oct. 2017. Runtime: 104 mins. MPAA Rating: R for violence, language, and some sexuality.

George Clooney is a fine actor, including in four films made by the Coen brothers. He also has directed six films, several quite good. And he is a noted advocate for liberal causes. Now we have Suburbicon. Clooney doesn’t appear in this film, but he has directed it himself, co-written it with the Coen brothers and Grant Heslov, and co-produced it.

The movie is a dramedy attempting to weave together three elements: film noir, satirical/semi-surrealistic comedy, and social justice concerns. The first two of these elements are characteristics of Coen brothers’ films. The last reflects Clooney’s own interests. Unfortunately, the attempt to interweave the three elements fails. At best they are only loosely looped together. In fact, we might say that the whole movie is rather loopy. Its exaggerated portrayal of stereotypical characters and its stilted dialogue may, perhaps, be an attempt to “make things clear by overstating,” but that approach here is off-putting rather than clarifying.

The eponymous setting of the movie is a Levittown-like community in 1959. The family-friendly environment in Suburbicon, however, turns distinctly unfriendly when the town’s first blacks—the Mayers family—move in and are subject to violent harassment by mobs of white residents. The family’s only friend is Nicky (Noah Jupe), the young son of Gardner (Matt Damon) and Rose Lodge (Julianne Moore) next-door neighbors of the Mayers family. Nicky plays with young Andy Mayers (Tony Espinosa), despite the ordeal being undergone by Mr. and Mrs. Mayers (Leith M. Burke and Karimah Westbrook).

While Suburbicon’s racist white residents feel invaded by the peaceable black family, the Lodge “lodge” in the suburban “Garden of Eden” undergoes a seeming home invasion by two violent thugs, who kill Rose. Margaret, Rose’s twin sister (also played by Julianne Moore, natch), then moves in with Nicky and Gardner, with whom she has sex, while debt-ridden Gardner attempts to collect an insurance policy on Rose’s life. He also attempts to fend off the demands of the ostensible home invaders (Alex Hassell and Glenn Fleshler) for payment. You see, Gardner actually hired the two to kill Rose. Moreover, Gardner and Margaret also have to deal with a swarmily assertive insurance investigator (Oscar Isaac), who has his own agenda.

In the meantime, poor Nicky, feeling that things are going out of control but not knowing why, starts to seclude himself in his room. Eventually, as events reach a climax in a night of horrendous violence, Nicky begins to see his own father and aunt inside the home as posing an even greater danger to him than the two criminals from outside.

As mentioned earlier, the racist incidents and what’s going on with the Lodges never really mesh. Damon and Moore, usually A-list thesps, rate only a C here. Their attempts to portray their cartoonish characters fall flat. Glenn Fleshler and Oscar Isaac are much better but can’t save the film. Noah Jupe as Nicky is good, but certain aspects of his characterization may make Connecticut audience members somewhat uneasy by their slight resemblance to behavior of Newtown’s Adam Lanza.

Overall, Suburbicon attempts to depict the iconic American dream of the suburbs as, in effect, a nightmarish “con.” Have we seen this concept before? We sure have—in Blue Velvet (1986) and Pleasantville (1998) and American Beauty (1999) and Revolutionary Road (2008), just to name a few out of a multitude. Yo, Hollywood, give it a break! (Remember, people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.)

“Footnote” to the Film: The racist violence directed at the black family may seem one of the most exaggerated aspects of Suburbicon. Sad to say, it is one of the least. The actual historical incident of horrendous harassment reflected in the film occurred in Levittown, Pennsylvania, in 1957.    


Friday, October 27, 2017

Pumpkin Spice Cake

This year the compost pile sprouted a couple of pumpkin vines. One yielded pumpkins big enough for jack-o’lanterns, the other produced seven pie pumpkins. A lucky thing because the two hills of pumpkins I planted on purpose produced only two, still green, struggling to ripen before frost. The compost pile pumpkins, glowing a deep orange, have already proved useful, and the recipe that follows used one of them.
I was hankering for a spice cake that would use pumpkin. I crossed up the oil, butter, sugar, buttermilk, and pulp mixture from a favorite zucchini cake with the flour and spice combination from a favorite spice cake and came up with a sheet cake to frost with lemony cream cheese icing.
One pie pumpkin ought to make one pie, or when cooked produce about two cups of pureed pulp. I ended up with about one and three-quarters of a cup, which is just a tad less than a standard fifteen-ounce can of prepared pumpkin. A couple of tablespoons one way or another makes so little difference that I don’t worry about it.

Movie Review—The Snowman

The Snowman (2017) poster.jpg
British theatrical release poster

by Peter J. O'Connell  

The Snowman. Released (USA): Oct. 2017. Runtime: 119 mins. MPAA Rating: R for grisly images, violence, some language, sexuality and brief nudity.

Scandinavian films had a certain popularity in the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s. Some liked them because they offered more “skin” and sexuality than American films of the time. Others liked them—notably, the films of Ingmar Bergman—because they offered more probing of deep psychological/philosophical/theological issues than did American films. But interest in Scandinavian cinema waned in the last quarter of the 20th century. Over the past two decades, however, there have been several bursts of interest in it, particularly in the type that has come to be known as “Nordic noir.”

Nordic noir doesn't have much philosophical or theological probing. It often, however, has sexual and psychological themes, but usually in the context of a dark and downbeat drama centering around crime. Often the protagonist—whether a cop or a civilian—is a brilliant but emotionally damaged individual, perhaps depressive and/or a substance abuser. In these films both the meteorological weather and the emotional weather are usually bad. There may be considerable quiet brooding but also, usually,  instances of shocking violence.

Perhaps the first burst of American interest in Nordic noir came in 2002 when the Norwegian film Insomnia was remade as a U.S. film of the same name starring an A-list cast of Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hilary Swank. Other NN-influenced works of note followed, particularly The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011), which was a U.S. remake of one of the films in a 2009 trilogy of Swedish films. Both the Swedish trilogy and the American remake attracted attention from moviegoers and 
movie critics. The spreading influence of Nordic noir from Scandinavian films and their remakes led to American and British works along the same lines, but not necessarily based on Scandinavian originals. A number of these works appeared as cable TV and “streaming” movies or series and even as broadcast TV series. 

Now we have The Snowman, a British movie based on a Norwegian novel and filmed in Norway, with all dialogue in English. Tomas Alfredson, a Swede, directed, with an international cast, including Charlotte Gainsbourg, Toby Jones, Chloe Sevigny—as twins, Val Kilmer—with an odd hairdo, J.K. Simmons—with an odd accent. Michael Fassbender stars as Harry Hole, the lead detective of an elite Oslo police unit. He is also depressive, alcoholic, and insomniac. (And both those amused by his name as seen in print—or seeking symbolism in it—should know that it is pronounced “Holy” in Norway but means neither “hole” nor “holy.”)

Harry is tasked with investigating the disappearance of a woman on the first snow of winter. He comes to believe that an elusive serial killer, operating for years, who leaves snowmen as markers of his crimes or threats of murders to come, may strike again. Joined by a bright new recruit (Rebecca Ferguson) who admires him, Harry strives to outwit the killer—whose victims are usually women who have neglected or abused their children or had abortions—before the next snowfall. An effort to obtain an international sports festival for Oslo is also part of the plot. 

The mystery that Harry has to solve is a difficult one. It's also difficult for the audience to understand what's going on in this movie. Many thrillers these days have convoluted plots, but that of The Snowman is beyond convoluted; it's incomprehensible. According to an astonishing confession by director Alfredson, there's a reason for that: “Our shoot time in Norway was way too short, we didn't get the whole story with us and when we started cutting we discovered that a lot was missing. It's like when you're making a big jigsaw puzzle and a few pieces are missing so you don't see the whole picture.” 

So, apparently, the best that a moviegoer trapped in this incomplete cinematic jigsaw puzzle can do is look at The Snowman as a travelogue rather than a story, noir or otherwise. The cinematography of Oslo and Bergen and the surrounding areas, seen from various angles and altitudes, is quite striking. Norway is certainly a beautiful country, and its landscapes, seascapes, architecture, and infrastructure are impressive. Some may feel that the film's makers should jettison The Snowman's ostensible plot and put what's left on the National Geographic TV channel rather than put a film full of holes in a movie theatre.   


Monday, October 23, 2017

Better Business Bureau warns consumers to guard their CHIP card

Image result for CHIP card

The Connecticut Better Business Bureau is alerting people to watch for wear to their CHIP-enabled credit cards. The CHIP on the card could fall off because of repetitive use. as repetitive use can cause the if the CHIP falls off  the card’s owner vulnerable to fraudulent purchases made in their name.
“Unfortunately, if somebody finds a card’s CHIP, all they have to do is glue it onto another card and they can go on a shopping spree at your expense,” said Connecticut Better Business Bureau spokesman Howard Schwartz in a news release. “This is not something that is widely known, and as we approach the holiday retail season, credit cards can take a beating. Unless you check the credit card CHIP’s integrity, it may fail while when you get to the checkout counter.” 
In the event of fraud, cardholders have zero liability, however, it is best to inform the card issuer as soon as possible in the event of a CHIP failure or loss. 
BBB has a checklist to avoid CHIP card damage:
Don’t wait for the CHIP to fail - If a chip begins to peel or come loose, contact your card issuer immediately. They will send you a replacement card and a new account number. 
Inspect your CHIP cards - Check your cards from time to time. It can prevent the inconvenience of having a credit transaction being rejected, and more importantly, prevent fraud.
Limit excessive wear and tear - Credit cards have a limited lifespan and they won’t last as long if they are jammed into point of sale card readers, scraped or carried in a pocket or purse with keys or anything else that may scratch them.
Ask for protective sleeve - Many cards come with them, but if you don't have a protective envelope or sleeve, contact your card issuer.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Movie Review—Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049 poster.png
Theatrical release poster

by Peter J. O'Connell         

Blade Runner 2049. Release date (USA): Oct. 2017. Runtime: 163 mins. MPAA Rating: R for violence, some sexuality, nudity, language. 

For about the past 40 years, science-fiction films generally have fallen into three lines of descent. There have been the Star Trek pictures, which have been, well, Star Trek pictures. Then there have been the Star Wars pictures, war and adventure stories with an overlay (underlay?) of mysticism. And there have been the Ridley Scott pictures, directed and/or produced—sometimes “de facto”--by that British auteur, or influenced by his work. Some of the “Scott pictures”--the Alien franchise, for example—link science-fiction and the horror genre. Others, like Blade Runner (1982), with its enormously influential production design, link sci-fi to film noir and a dystopian vision of the future. Such films also may have convoluted plots that involve abstruse concepts of space and time from post-Newtonian physics and/or recondite philosophical speculations about such things as being and nothingness and what it really means to be human.  

This year has brought forth Blade Runner 2049, a sequel to the 1982 film. The sequel is directed by Denis Villeneuve, with Ridley Scott as eminence grise. Set 30 years after the time of the original, the movie puts us into the teeming, polyglot, polluted, neon-lit Los Angeles of K (Ryan Gosling)—hat tip for that name to a certain Prague author! K is a “replicant” (android). He is also a “blade runner” tasked with hunting down rebel replicants and executing them. K's bleak existence is given some cheer by Joi (Ana de Armas), his lovely “girlfriend,” who is actually a hologram that can instantly change from one type of woman to another.

On one of his assassination assignments, K comes across some items that set him off on a convoluted quest for Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the blade runner from the 1982 movie, who has gone into hiding. The quest eventually becomes one for K's actual identity. Along the way K becomes the hunted as well as the hunter, for the corporation that manufactures replicants pursues him for its own evil ends. 

Much of the movie takes place outside L.A. in the deserted ruins of Las Vegas, where K finds Deckard. One extraordinary sequence there involves an encounter between K and Deckard while giant holograms of  of Elvis and Sinatra perform. The production design of the film doesn't feature the rain of the 1982 film or the heat of global warming projected by many for the future but instead fog, mist, and snow—the objective correlatives, as it were, of the mind of K and the themes of the work. Eventually, however, after much violence, K, well played by Gosling with a kind of stony soulfulness, finds meaning for his existence.

Blade Runner 2049  is an impressive film in its performances and its visuals but rather tedious in its speculations about what memories are real and what aren't, etc., etc. At a certain point, in fact, one may long for the cinematic equivalent of Dr. Johnson's famed refutation of Bishop Berkeley. It seems rather unlikely that there will be a sequel to this sequel. 

“Footnote” to the film: Where does the term “blade runner” come from? It's never explained in either the 1982 movie or the current one. It's origin is as convoluted as the origins of some of the characters in the movies. It never appears in Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the inspiration for the films. Online The Verge of Oct. 4, 2017, explains: “So Blade Runner 2049 is the sequel to a movie [Blade Runner] based on a book [the Dick novel] but named after a completely unrelated film treatment of yet another book [Alan E. Nourse's 1974 novel The Bladerunner, about efforts to secure scalpels in a dystopian future], which was itself published as a third book [William S. Burroughs' Blade Runner] with the subtitle “A Movie.” In case that's not confusing enough, the latest issue of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is also titled Blade Runner. And we won't even get into the three Blade Runner sequel books by K.W. Jeter.”