The ability to write about different art forms is essential to making a living as an arts critic, so we wanted to encourage our students to write about whatever non-theatre art caught their interest. The following are reviews of Murder on the Orient Express, The Daily, and My Life As a Zucchini. The viewpoints of the authors are entirely their own. Edited by Oliver Sava and Regina Victor.
Murder on the Orient Express (Film)
by Corbett Baratta
On its face, Murder on the Orient Express seems like it could be great. We have a great Shakespearean actor/director in Kenneth Branagh. An all-star cast including Dame Judi Dench (her holiness), Daisy Ridley straight outta Star Wars, and my favorite actress of all time Michelle Pfeiffer. Michael Green, the writer of this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic novel, co-wrote the movies Logan and Blade Runner 2049 this year, which probably makes him one of this generation’s best screenwriters (let’s just forget about Green Lantern ever existing).
As for Agatha Christie, I can see why Hollywood executives might greenlight a Hercule Poirot movie or even a series. Christie is the best selling author right behind Shakespeare and the Abrahamic God (and Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, etc.). And while Hercule Poirot might not be a household name in the vein of Spider-Man or the Geico Cavemen, he’s a notable literary figure at the very least.
However…let’s just say this movie wants to overcompensate. A lot. For one thing, it’s shot on 65mm film, and if you thought Tarantino was weird to shoot The Hateful Eight on such a big format, Kenny Boy has managed to find an even smaller set to shoot with it. This is probably why the film finds just about every excuse to stage things on top of the train, on the side of the train, and don’t forget right outside the train in the snow. You didn’t know how many landscape shots could be used for a movie that takes place on a train.
Thinking of things added, apparently finding a murderer wasn’t enough ACTION and EXCITEMENT for the average audience, so we get some nice additions. New fight scenes, including one where Poirot comes with a cane to a gunfight, feel out of place, almost like they snuck here from Justice League.
For Hercule Poirot himself, Kenneth Branagh would have you believe the dude is a superhero. It seems every character in the movie knows of Poirot’s detective work and is treated like a royal diplomat rather than the abrasive man he actually is. Ken isn’t helping himself here, he’s mastered the runway walk in every step he takes in the role, and this entire exercise can at times feel like an excuse for the dude to stroke his own ego.
Despite all of this, I have to say I love this movie. It’s cheesy and trying way too hard, but that gives it charm.
Plus there are genuinely great things about this movie too. Even if a bit fanciful, the cinematography from Haris Zambarloukos is gorgeous. I could stare at those shots of Hercule walking next to a train in the snowy mountains all day. There’s a shot near the end where all the suspects are lined up exactly like “The Last Supper” and it works great as a set-piece.
While the movie has indulgences, there are deeper themes touched on occasion. Poirot balancing his need for justice with newfound thoughts on morality, the treatment of people of color in the 1930s, the pain that grief brings to all those surrounding a death. Some of it does get lost in the WOWZA, but it’s present and can strike a chord in more idle moments.
Overall, Murder on the Orient Express is a good film trying like an excited child to be a great one. At moments it’s laughable but it’s always a good time. If you have two hours and want to just sit through a fun, inoffensive film, take a ride on the Orient Express. It will take you to some devious places.
My Life As A Zucchini (French Claymation)
by Logan McCullom
I often find myself compelled to watch animated projects with strange titles that give away nothing of the plot, and usually don’t have anything to do with it. This instance was no different. It is for this reason that sometime during the well deserved Thanksgiving break I sat down (or laid down, rather) and let My Life as A Zucchini (MLAZ) unfold before me. The title, naturally, was the first thing that drove me to this endearing tale, and upon further inspection I came to learn MLAZ was claymation! My favorite kind of “-mation”! By now you must be thinking, “Can it get any better?” It can. It’s in French! The whole thing! With English subtitles for you uncultured goons, of course.
The story follows nine-year-old Courgette (French for “zucchini”) to an orphanage where he meets several other… “others” like himself. At first glance it looks like your typical run-of-the-mill Annie in French without the singing, but I gathered more from it than that. This movie didn’t shake my world, but in the hour-and-six-minute-long moment it had me, it had me well. The band of kids could altogether be no more than 8-10 years old, yet they were so clever and so in tune with the world around them that they could’ve very well been older.
When we first see Courgette getting acquainted with the orphanage we quickly meet Simon. Simon falls perfectly into the Bully-projecting-all-their-insecurities-on-you Alpha trope, but that facade soon fades as we discover the other dimensions to him. Later on Simon and Courgette become good friends, and might I dare say, family?
On the other side of this coin we have Jujube. We don’t see as much of a character arc or focus on him, but he too is another classic trope. One I see quite frequently in French films: the Fat Boy. Now I see nothing wrong with this character type, but each time I have seen him (and it usually is a him), he’s not just big, but he’s a pig, always eating, literally always. Only stops to chew and sometimes not even that. Thankfully, it didn’t take my attention away too much but I feel I’ve seen enough films with this trope now that I may call B.S. It’s perfectly fine to have a heavyset character, delightful even as we don’t see these folks on screen nearly as much as we do our Angular Actors. But when we do see them, it’s about their weight. They are on screen to talk about their bodies, or call attention to them, or to avoid calling attention to them, which incidentally calls more attention to them.
One thing MLAZ does well is address heavy topics such as death and pedophilia. The story opens with the death of Zucchini’s mother and from that point there is only more to come. These topics don’t faze the children; it is what makes them so intuitive and “other”. Despite the weightiness of their circumstances, they still manage to have fun, and even fall in love a little. It wouldn’t be a children’s movie if some naive little kid didn’t “fall in love”. Which brings me to my final qualm. Shortly after Zucchini arrives, a newcomer takes his place as The Big News. Her name is Camille and she is witty, charming and friendly. So naturally this must be Zucchini’s love interest, and he, hers. So blah blah blah all is well we’re having a jolly old time and–
Camille’s got an evil aunt! Who woulda thunk it??? (Please note the sarcasm.) So now her evil aunt that beats her—again with the heavy topics—is trying to steal her back from the orphanage so she can make money off her. It’s the classic evil stepmom move. But (!) there’s this cop that comes to visit Zucchini from time to time, the same cop that befriended him after his mother’s sudden death. This cop, Raymond, offers to adopt Zucchini (classic) and what’s more, Camille! Yay! Happy ending right? Well… yes, you would be right but then I have a question. What happens now? Can Zucchini and Camille still love each other in this seemingly big way or will they have to stifle their young love in exchange for a shot at a real family? Or maybe they do it differently in France and life and love can resume as usual. If so, then bonne chance, mes amis!
The Daily (New York Times Podcast)
It’s important to be informed. It’s vital. As uncomfortable as it is, we don’t really have a choice. To willfully choose ignorance because turning on the news makes you upset is cowardly and unfair. This is the world you live in. Real shit goes down here, whether you like it or not. But sometimes it’s difficult to keep up. There is so much going on, all the time. Everything is constantly shifting and it seems as though every week there is a fresh tragedy we must devote our sympathy towards. It’s easy to feel left behind.
The New York Times’ podcast The Daily, spearheaded by Michael Barbaros, is a thought-provoking and emotion-inducing breakdown to begin each day. At a slim 20 minutes, it is not a difficult commitment to make. A quick and thorough breakdown gives me everything I need to know, bringing to my attention to news that I have somehow missed. In a time where breaking news comes from your aunt’s status updates, it’s nice to have a level head to explain all of the insanity.
As a devoted listener from the very first episode, I have never grown tired of Barbaros’ soothing voice and insight into current events. I truly do learn something new everyday. Because it is about so much more than saying there is a leadership quarrel occurring in the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. It is about going back and covering relevant past information, and working the way up to the new story so that the listener has a thorough understanding of the problem at hand, and managing to contain it all within half an hour or less. When names and fancy jargon are introduced and never explained, it can be difficult to ask for a definition for fear of sounding dumb. I never have to worry about that with The Daily. Barbaros is very much aware of the questions his listeners are going to have and answers them before you have a chance to realize you didn’t understand. Explaining these complex topics without making listeners feel condescended to is a difficult task to achieve, but he manages it every day.
Barbaros is simply a sublime interviewer. The emotional substance of some of these episodes is so profound they stick with you long past the morning. A two-part interview of a man living in Mosul, whose entire family was killed in an American drone strike for suspected involvement in ISIS, is presented simultaneously with statistics regarding the amount of civilian casualties that have gone dangerously unreported, going past the point of negligence and entering willful endangerment. Peppering this interview with overlapping snippets of assurances and pats on the back that this is the most precise air campaign in history made me absolutely sick to my stomach. As it should.
A special episode for kids details the story of twin sisters in Girl Scouts, and one who chose to join Boy Scouts instead. Hearing Barbaros converse with these kids generated a whole new level of respect for this man. He somehow manages to only interview the people who have the most fascinating insights. Hearing about gender inequality and the heavy-handed influence of the media’s flawed depiction of gender from two preteen girls was eye-opening.
I remember being fifteen, and sitting at dinner with my father and family friends. It’s during the Ferguson riots and I have spent the past couple days watching destruction on television and discussing decorum in the halls. The lead-up is fuzzy, but then my father turns to me and asks, “What do I have to say about it?” My response is something along the lines of, “Sure, you have the right to be upset but I don’t see the point in looting from your neighbors and tearing down homes.” My father, beaming, expresses his pride in me. At the time, inconsequential. But this sits with me. Because as I move farther away it, it was not me speaking my beliefs that evokes that expression, but rather trying to express beliefs that aligned with his.
I have always had difficulty recognizing my opinions as my own, rather than those of the people around me. This is true for news outlets too, as I am always worried and only sometimes aware of bias affecting my sources. I want all of my opinions to be grounded in a place of strictly personal decision. Of balancing the facts and choosing my side based on nobody’s input but my own. Listening to The Daily I have very rarely felt that I am being presented a skewed description of events in order to paint any one specific party in the right. Despite the occasional slightly biased diction that is impossible to avoid, I am always given explanation for current happenings without the sympathy for one side infiltrating the honesty/integrity of the story. When each episode ends with Barbaros’ promise that he will, “See you tomorrow,” I am alert and aware of what my world looks like, and ready to begin the day.