Movie: Murder on the Orient Express

"Murder on the Orient Express"

What starts out as a lavish train ride through Europe quickly unfolds into one of the most stylish, suspenseful and thrilling mysteries ever told. From the novel by best-selling author Agatha Christie, “Murder on the Orient Express” tells the tale of thirteen strangers stranded on a train, where everyone’s a suspect. One man must race against time to solve the puzzle before the murderer strikes again.

First of all, I would like to thank my friend Chris (and 20th Century Fox Philippine) for bringing me along to an advanced screening of Murder on the Orient Express. That said, I was not paid to say good things about the film. Which I feel like I should say, because I will be saying a lot of good things about the film.

Sir Kenneth Branagh is, in my humble opinion, the most entertaining Hercule Poirot I’ve had the pleasure of watching. (Although, I haven’t seen that many.) He is, from the moment he enters the screen, a commanding presence. And I think that’s half of the battle won for this latest adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, having a likeable and funny protagonist.

Another thing I liked about the film is that it didn’t feel the need to add to or update the material to make it harder for viewers to solve. There were a couple of changes to the source material, if I’m not mistaken, but it only makes for a tighter story-telling.

I liked how the film establishes Poirot’s aptitude at solving mysteries quickly in the beginning, wisely introducing the main character to viewers who are not as familiar to the character and his history. And I liked how the film establishes possibilities in who the culprit could be.

I don’t remember how it went in the novel, but in the film, the suspects are introduced and fleshed out one by one. And I love how there is a vulnerability to each character, even as they are shown to be despicable. Dame Judi Dench is most exemplary here, as she bosses her maid around while still showing so much contained emotion.

I also have to commend the writing of the screenplay, as all the clues are spread out in the dialogue and the characters’ actions. Nothing feels planted, even though most of the clues really were planted. The hints dropped fell naturally, and seemingly without thought, that it gives viewers a sense of euphoria when the mystery slowly unravels with callbacks to the clues.

And then there’s the cinematography. Murder on the Orient Express is beautiful. It feels like a film from a different era with the way each character was framed, with the way light is used and infused into certain scenes. It was awe-inspiring.

Don’t get me wrong, there were faults to be found too. It was comically funny that whenever the camera would pan through the train, all the characters seem to be looking out the window. And certain scenes (and lines) seemed to have been included just to make the film funnier. But they’re small nitpicks in comparison to what the film was able to accomplish: which was to present a straightforward murder mystery that didn’t need to twist every which way just to make sure the viewers doesn’t solve the case too quickly.

Murder on the Orient Express opens here, in the Philippines, today.

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Book: Fear Street Super Thriller (Nightmares)

"Fear Street Super Thriller: Nightmares"

In The Dead Boyfriend, Caitlin has never had a real relationship before, so when she sees her boyfriend, Blade, with another girl, she completely loses it. As she regains her senses, she realizes that Blade is dead–and she has killed him. But if Blade is dead, how is he staring at her across a crowded party?

In Give Me a K-I-L-L, there is only one open slot on the cheerleading squad at Shadyside, and Gretchen Page must compete against the only girl who stands in her way–rich, spoiled Devra Dalby. The competition to join the squad is anything but friendly–and ends in murder.

I don’t know if it’s nostalgia, but I remember being a fan of Goosebumps books. This is why, when I saw the Super Thriller that compiles two of R.L. Stine’s most current Fear Street releases, I thought–Why not?

Well, here’s why not:

The Dead Boyfriend and Give Me a K-I-L-L aren’t very good horror stories. Scratch that. They’re not very good stories, period. The plot for both are pretty uninspired, and the horror and twists rely on withholding information from the readers–and deliberately misleading them.

And it doesn’t help that the main characters for both stories are extremely unlikeable. It’s like the author trawled through the internet to find the most abhorrent of teenage personalities, distilled them, and put them into Caitlin and Gretchen.

We’re supposed to root for these characters. But, as their stories progress, you kind of see why bad things happen to them. It’s because they’re not very good people.

Now, had that been the design, I would probably have had a different reaction; but both are treated like victims. Which, on The Dead Boyfriend, I kind of understand the reasoning why. Circumstances happened that were out of her control. Literally. But in Give Me a K-I-L-L, we are presented with the possibility that the main character is also our main villain. And that would have been more interesting. Way more interesting than the cop-out resolution that screams deus-ex-machina.

If I’m not mistaken, Fear Street is supposedly targeted at more advanced readers. Goosebumps, after all, are the books for “children.” But, based purely on what I remember from the Goosebumps novels I had as a kid, the stories in this “super thriller” aren’t more advanced. It’s actually borderline disrespectful to the intelligence of tweens, young adults–and even the children that are targeted by the more kid-friendly Goosebumps.

Book: Career of Evil

"Career of Evil"

When a mysterious package is delivered to Robin Ellacott, she is horrified to discover that it contains a woman’s severed leg.

Her boss, private detective Cormoran Strike, is less surprised but no less alarmed. There are four people from his past who he thinks could be responsible–and Strike knows that any one of them is capable of sustained and unspeakable brutality.

With the police focusing on the one suspect Strike is increasingly sure is not the perpetrator, he and Robin take matters into their own hands and delve into the dark and twisted worlds of the other three men. But as more horrendous acts occur, time is running out…

Career of Evil is the latest novel in the highly acclaimed series featuring private detective Cormoran Strike and his assistant, Robin Ellaccott. This fiendishly clever mystery, with unexpected twists around every corner, is also the gripping story of a man and a woman at a crossroads in their personal and professional lives.

The last time I had forsaken sleep for a book was when I was reading Harry Potter. The Goblet of Fire came out on a Saturday, but I was only able to pick it up on Sunday–and I read it until the wee hours of Monday morning; thanking my lucky stars that the classes were suspended while I was about to get ready for school without sleep.

It’s been more than a decade since I found a book that I would forsake sleep for, and it had to be another one of J K Rowling’s.

Career of Evil is definitely a page-turner, with each new plot development pushing you to keep reading–to keep picking at the clues to find out who the murderer is. So engaging is the mystery that I kind of resented the parts that dealt more with Robin’s and Cormoran’s relationship.

Frankly, I don’t want Cormoran and Robin getting together. I don’t want any of the unnecessary drama that’s bound to bring. The Cormoran Strike series is my one escape where I don’t really have to deal with a romantic subplot between the leads. Not that it hasn’t been alluded to in the first two books, but I liked how Rowling– Excuse me, Galbraith– didn’t really dive into that unwanted detour.

Of course, I didn’t want Robin to end up with a wanker like Matthew Cunliffe either, but that’s drama I can do with. Because it presents a nice dilemma for a character to have her domestic life and career clash. Although… I do want to punch Matthew in the face every single time he appears on page.

But let’s not devote any more time to a love story that’s never going to happen (I hope). Let’s focus instead on the better plotting (and pacing) of the third Cormoran Strike novel:

Unlike with the cases of Lulu Landry and Owen Quine, the third mystery from the series is a bit more personal for our heroes. Which I really like. Mostly because we get to learn more about the mysterious Cormoran who hasn’t revealed much about his person in the first two books. We’ve always known more about Robin. Career of Evil changes that a bit–especially with the roster of suspects we are presented with, who all have connection to who Cormoran was and sort-of shaped who he became.

The best bit about Career of Evil though? Because the suspects are all people Cormoran have already dealt with before, we quickly get insights and assessments about each character–allowing us to play detective better alongside our heroes.

This is the most fun I’ve had reading a detective novel; actively guessing which of the suspects is the real culprit, using the clues and circumstances that Galbraith presents to allow the readers to solve the mystery with or without Cormoran’s or Robin’s help. And you will be able to guess who the culprit is before the book reveals his identity. Because Galbraith doesn’t hold back on the clues and the evidence. He puts them all down on paper.

If you’ve ever dreamed of being a detective, or being an investigative reporter–but want none of the risks that go along with said professions? This is the book for you. It’s exhilarating, enthralling, and most importantly, entertaining.

And I can’t wait to see what Galbraith has in store for us in his next Cormoran Strike novel.

Book: The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had

"The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had"

The last thing Harry ‘Dit’ Sims expects when Emma Walker comes to town is to become friends. Proper-talking, brainy Emma doesn’t play baseball or fish too well; but she sure makes Dit think, especially about the differences between black and white. But soon Dit is thinking about a whole lot more when the town barber, who is black, is put on trial for a terrible crime. Together, Dit and Emma come up with daring plan to save him from the unthinkable.

I’m a little on the fence about this one.

I do like the book. And by that, I mean I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. But now, trying to put down into words why I like the book? I… I can’t. I mean, the characters are standard, the events are commonplace…

Maybe it was the innocence.

The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had is set in a time where racism isn’t politically incorrect. It’s an accepted fact. Although, let’s be real, racism is alive and well today still. Thing is, here, no one looks away when it happens. African-Americans are supposed to take it, look down, and just move away.

But it’s been a couple of generations since the emancipation. The children in this story are no longer aware of what happened in the civil war. Most of them have been raised with Africa-America neighbors, and while racism is unapologetic, the children doesn’t really know where it stems from. They’re slurs. Insults. It’s the adults in the story who are more caught up in the implications of inter-racial friendship, of an African-American girl headlining a school play from the white school.

The book’s main draw is friendship. It’s a simple enough theme that children of all ages can relate to it. But underneath the story of a boy’s realization that girls can be as cool as his male friends, that the girl he thought would become a hindrance is actually teaching him more about himself, is the politically-charged tension between the whites and the African-Americans.

The synopsis tells us that Dit and Emma have to come up with a daring plan to save an African-American from the unthinkable. It’s the why they have to that will surprise you.

Innocence makes one question the whys of the world, but it is also this innocence that gets us into trouble. And author Kristin Levine manages to weave a magical story about the importance of questioning, of crossing boundaries, and of growing up with our childhood innocence intact.

Check out what other people have written about The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had:
Kids Reads
Sprout’s Bookshelf
Rated Reads

Book: Dwellers

"Dwellers"

Rule No. 1: You don’t kill the body you inhabit. Rule No. 2: You should never again mention your previous name. Rule No. 3: You don’t ever talk about your previous life. Ever.

Two young men with the power to take over another body inhabit the bodies and lives of brothers Jonah and Louis. The takeover leads to a car crash, injuring Jonah’s legs and forcing them to stay in the brothers’ house for the time being.

The street is quiet. The neighbors aren’t nosy. Everything is okay.

They are safe, for now.

Until they find a dead body in the basement.

Exciting. That was what I thought when I read the back synopsis. And, well, reading the book was an emotional roller-coaster for me. And not in a good way.

The first few chapters bored me. I understand the need to pace the readers for the mythology of body swapping in a Philippine setting, but I couldn’t stand the main character. He was bordering on whiny, and his woe-is-me act took the pages that should’ve been given to universe-building. And it’s not like I’m looking for an explanation for the ability to swap bodies. I’ve read Every Day. I liked Every Day. What I needed was investment. I needed to invest on the main character, and I couldn’t do it. I preferred the other guy. The quiet one. The one who did things. I probably would’ve liked this book better had it been told from the other guy’s perspective.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

From being bored at the start, I became curious as to what was up with the dead body. A positive change. This was the book’s promise. The premise. To hell with the lack of emotional pull, the mystery might be enough. Except, it’s not. The detective work was done by the other guy, not the main character. Because our main character is stuck in a wheelchair. Yes, he’s in a wheelchair. And it’s one of the main reasons why he can’t be on the move. And while I understand the need for the character to feel trapped, as a reader, I didn’t want to be trapped with him.

I was promised a mystery, and I was getting a whiny narration about being trapped in something I had no control over.

And then, suddenly, there were spells. And there was an extensive back story that, I felt, wasn’t really needed except to push the plot along, to give a sense of urgency to a meandering storyline that was clearly going to end soon.

Curiosity became annoyance. I was annoyed at the digression. I didn’t care for the past lives. It didn’t feel important. It felt tacked on. It was taking time away from what was more important. The dead body. The mystery. And, then, finally, the digression was done. We were back to the main storyline. And from being annoyed, I just became angry.

The mystery wasn’t solved. It was cut. The answers were given without further ado, just so the whole thing can be wrapped up. It felt like an episode of Scooby Doo, except, without the fun factor.

I felt gypped.

And while I think I understood the exercise in futility and the feeling of entrapment, which might be the book’s themes–I still finished that book with a feeling of disgust. The book did not deliver on its promise. The book did not live up to Project 17.

I seem to be the only one who wasn’t a fan though. The Last Girl, in her very short reaction, liked the book enough to gush about it. And Good Reads users have rated the book 3.91 stars out of 5. So this could just be me.

Book: The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line

"The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line"

Ten years after graduating from high school in Neptune, California, Veronica Mars is back in the land of sun, sand, crime, and corruption. She’s traded in her law degree for her old private investigating license, struggling to keep Mars Investigations afloat on the scant cash earned by catching cheating spouses until she can score her first big case.

Now it’s spring break, and college students descend on Neptune, transforming the beaches and boardwalks into a frenzied, week-long rave. When a girl disappearance from a party, Veronica is called in to investigate. But this is no simple missing person’s case. The house the girl vanished from belongs to a man with serious criminal ties, and soon Veronica is plunged into a dangerous underworld of drugs and organized crime. And when a major break in the investigation has a shocking connection to Veronica’s past, the case hits closer to home than she ever imagined.

I’ve been looking for this book for ages! Okay, that’s an exaggeration: the book has only been out for a couple of months. But I was starting to lose hope that I’d find it here in the Philippines. So… Much thanks to National Bookstore in Quezon Avenue for stocking up on books that no one else has heard of… and books that should get more attention. Like this one.

The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line is Veronica Mars’ debut on print form. I was a little scared at first, I admit. Novels based off television franchises tend to not match the show we loved watching. Thankfully, Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas is also a novelist. And he’s co-writing the series of books that follow the events of Veronica Mars the movie. And the book is crackling with the wit and zingers that made me love the television series.

Mystery-wise, the novel follows the format that an episode of Veronica Mars would employ in delivering the clues, the twists, the red herrings, and etcetera. And this is one of the things I really loved while I was reading the book. Rob Thomas and co-writer Jennifer Graham didn’t go crazy with the story-telling just because they’re no longer limited by production budgets. The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line will fit right as an episode of Veronica Mars the TV series because it didn’t go big–it went right back to what fans loved about the show: Veronica being Veronica.

Another things I would like to rave about in A Thousand-Dollar Tan Line is how the writers developed the father-daughter relationship that was central to the television series. How they act around each other felt like a natural progression of where the television series and the movie left off. Veronica’s relationship with friends Wallace and Mac also felt natural, and don’t feel in any way tacked on.

I do have a request though: I hope we get to meet some new people in Veronica’s life too. We meet a Stanford professor in this book, but what about classmates? Friends? Enemies? I would also like to see Duncan and Piz show up again. The former, just to see how much Veronica has grown as a person, and the latter, to help us fill in the missing years in Veronica’s life.

And lastly, and I might be alone in this, I loved how we didn’t have a lot of Logan. Although I preferred Veronica to end up with Piz, I’m not against the Veronica-Logan relationship. But their relationship also tend to take away from the drama of whatever mystery Veronica is solving when they’re together, so I’m glad that Logan took a backseat in this story. Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham are reestablishing the status quo, it’s nice to see that love–however epic–is not their first priority in a female-centric mystery series like this one.

Book: The Silkworm

"The Silkworm"

When novelist Owen Quine goes missing, his wife calls in private detective Cormoran Strike. At first, she just thinks he has gone off by himself for a few days–as he has done before–and she wants Strike to find him and bring him home.

But as Strike investigates, it becomes clear that there is more to Quine’s disappearance than his wife realizes. The novelist has just completed a manuscript featuring poisonous pen-portraits of almost everyone he knows. If the novel is published, it will ruin lives–so there are a lot of people who might want to silence him.

And when Quine is found brutally murdered in bizarre circumstances, it becomes a race against time to understand the motivation of a ruthless killer, a killer unlike any Strike has encountered before…

If I were to sum up my reaction to J.K. Rowling’s first novel as Robert Galbraith in one sentence, it would go something like: “the mystery is simple, but the characters and how the author writes them make the book an enjoyable read.”

I would be lying if I didn’t say that I was expecting a more elaborate mystery in the follow-up novel. But I didn’t want it to be at the expense of the characters we grew to love in the first novel.

Strike and Robin made a great partnership in The Cuckoo’s Calling. But the same cannot be said for The Silkworm because author Rowling decided to put an obstacle between them that readers are not privy to until halfway through the novel. And that’s when their partnership reboots to where it was at the end of the first novel.

Until you get to that point, you have to struggle through a number of chapters where it’s just Strike trying to make sense of things–and Robin being relegated to just a secretary. A set-up that doesn’t work for the budding detective. And it doesn’t work for me, as a reader, too.

This is not to say The Silkworm is bad. If we were to rate it by Harry Potter books, this would rank between Chamber of Secrets and Half-Blood Prince. It is a good enough book, but it’s not going to be a favorite.

Heck, the mystery itself is a lot like the aforementioned Harry Potter books. In which the author has already given the main clue that would unravel the story from the get go. And it’s up to the readers to catch up on the supporting clues before the grand reveal in the end.

Unlike Harry Potter though, or the first Cormoran Strike novel, this installment is devoid of characters you would want to root for. Cormoran is at his hard-headed best, and Robin is mostly in a snitch throughout the novel. And this saddens me because their non-romantic relationship in the first novel was what made me want to pick up a second book.

I’ll still be picking up a third book, I’m sure. I just hope that, with the Cormoran-Robin relationship back to what it was at the end of the first novel, their characters would be growing forward and not going back to what it was when they first met.

Now, these are just my thoughts. Let’s check out what other netizens are saying about the book:
Dark Readers
Mugglenet
London24