I’m struggling to think of the last Pixar movie that was this good. I’m not sure any of them have been this good.
You know what? They haven’t. This is my favorite Pixar movie! And it isn’t particularly close!
Like, where do I even start? This movie is gorgeous. And it looks so different from any movie Pixar has ever made before? It’s apparently somewhat autobiographical on director and co-writer Domee Shi’s part, and, you know, wow shocking that we get really great, original ideas when a studio doesn’t just keep giving the same three or four white guys the director’s chair and keep making sequels of all of their preexisting properties. I’m sure a certain Mouse has a lot to do with those problems, but from what I hear Lasseter’s departure has also opened a lot of doors so hopefully this is the kind of thing we can look forward to more of in the future!!
One… not-so-great representation note: apparently Pixar had a ton of blatantly queer representation in this movie but Disney cut basically all of it. Coming on the heels of their refusal to condemn Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, it’s… just not a great look.
What survives is rather clear romantic tension between the protagonist Mei and her tomboy friend Ava, but that apparently wasn’t even the explicit relationship that was meant to be shown onscreen? There seems to be a lot of fan speculation (and possibly even confirmation from one of the film’s creative team) that Priya was meant to explicitly have a crush on a goth girl side character. And then there’s Tyler, who starts out as a bully but ends up showing up at the boy band concert and being embraced by the girls!
So, yeah, what we’re left with in the finished product of the movie is nothing more than queerbaiting, and that’s a damn shame. I would love to see what the filmmakers originally intended at some point. But like… I don’t know, guys, what did survive might be crumbs, but you can see enough of it that we were enthusiastically reacting to all the obvious gay stuff while watching the movie. It wasn’t until afterwards when I was doing some research that I found out that it had originally been much more explicitly gay and that all of it had been cut. Sigh.
I’ve already hinted at it a bit, but the characters and their relationships are really the movie’s not-so-secret weapon. Mei’s friend group is incredible, Mei herself is a wonderful protagonist and it’s incredible seeing her balance the things that are important to her. And while this movie has come under fire from conservatives for encouraging children to rebel, what I love about it is that Mei actually values both her family’s traditions and her desire to explore things outside of those traditions. And while her family is an obstacle at times, when the chips are down they’ve got her back!
Oh, and, I love the role of the boy band in this! Like, it feels very culturally authentic to my experience growing up in the 90s, and having them join in with the ceremony to help Mei’s mother at the end was simultaneously funny and genuinely heartwarming.
Wait how have I not talked about the elephant-sized red panda in the room.
I love, love, love that Mei is so determined that her being basically a were-red panda is a good thing, and that she doesn’t want to let go of it like her family has been for literally centuries! And although she has to fight her family’s disapproval at first, as previously mentioned they eventually make space for her and the resolution to the film is harmony, not a zero sum game.
Now release the Gay Cut so I can give this thing the full marks it deserves, Disney you fucking cowards.
I’m gonna want to rewatch this one a few times, in fact I’m already kinda itching to do so despite it being 3 hours long, so that’s immediately a great sign. I feel like this is one of those movies I’m going to get something new out of each time I rewatch it. What I can safely say after one viewing is that this is my third favorite Batman movie, behind Returns and Mask of the Phantasm.
This is basically a weird, lurid murder mystery, and I’m super here for it? And populating that weird, lurid murder mystery with a kinky serial killer version of the Riddler (seriously there’s so much bondage and sadism in this), an explicitly bisexual Catwoman who’s walking around in fucking goth domme boots, and one of the least annoying versions of the Penguin this side of The Animated Series who runs a seedy, loud EDM club is… yeah! Yeah, that’ll work!
And then you throw a goth twink version of Batman at them. A goth twink version of Batman who answers one of my biggest criticisms of the live-action movies by still fucking having his eye makeup on when he takes his mask off, thank you!! And you have him doing actual, y’know, detective work!! Which works really well with the slow, deliberate pace and long runtime of the movie. This thing is three hours long and I still kinda wish it were longer!!
This is a Batman movie so, y’know. It’s got its downsides. I was willing to let the usual copaganda slide but then it goes to a hella aggressive copaganda place when a huge army of cops is waiting to arrest that mobster and one of them says something like, “I guess some of us don’t work for you.” Puke. Also the movie seems like it’s doing something hella badass by having Bruce find out his father was actually corrupt and likely involved in the murder of a journalist. I mean, he’s a billionaire! That’s just being realistic. But Alfred reveals to Bruce that the mobster exaggerated and Thomas only actually wanted them to scare the reporter.
I mean… A) WHATEVER, B) glad we resolved that, like, immediately, and C) WHO GIVES A FUCK, he still went to an organized crime boss to try to intimidate a reporter. Why are we acting like that’s Fine, Actually???
But, yeah, I think the things I enjoyed about this movie outweighed the things that made me roll my eyes. I mean, again… it’s a Batman movie. There’s gonna be some of those.
But I love this grimy city. I love this slow-paced murder mystery. And I love that we finally did the hella obvious thing and made Batman a fucking goth.
This one grew on me the longer I read it as the case became more and more complicated. It was an uphill battle, but it got there. I know getting into mystery novels is going to involve putting up with some pretty juvenile notions of what justice is, which is why Murder on the Orient Express was such a pleasant surprise for its comparative lack of those. Death on the Nile was, regrettably, not nearly so obliging.
It’s some patently awful opinions expressed by Poirot and supported by the narrative that get me. Early in the book, Linnet confides in Poirot that she’s being stalked by her husband’s ex and he not only tells her there is no legal remedy (which was probably true at the time), but even goes on to suggest that it’s her fault, so that’s lovely. And after solving the case he, knowing full well that Jackie has a second pistol, stands by and does nothing as she shoots both Simon and herself. Because murder is wrong, but murder-suicide is fine, I guess.
There’s also a ton of racism (for flavor!). I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of it in Murder on the Orient Express and rolled my eyes when it was added in most of the film adaptations, but here we don’t have to wait for the adaptations!
One of our colorful cast of potential suspects is someone I’d like to call a straw socialist, but there certainly are some people who totally miss the point of socialism and call themselves socialists. But, yeah. Please do not take stock in this idiot’s using a perverted understanding of socialism to excuse his misanthropy and misogyny, both of which are wholly incompatible with genuine socialist ideas and practices.
I did love the structure of the end of the case, where they run through like three obvious suspects in a row and it seems like it’s going to be them but Poirot instead dramatically reveals that they were guilty of something completely different that he’s going to ignore on account of all the murders that need solving. One of my favorite bits of the novel that I don’t think any of the adaptations did justice to was Poirot covering up the theft of the necklace and clearing the way for Tim Allerton and Rosalie Otterbourne to be married. Poirot begged indulgence from his co-investigators, “It is irregular–I know it is irregular, yes–but I have a high regard for human happiness.” Dude has a lot of bad opinions in this, but this almost makes up for it. This also leads to probably my favorite exchange in the book, when they’re interrogating Cordelia:
Race sighed. “That’s all right,” he said. “This is Hush Hush House.” “I beg your pardon, Colonel Race?” “What I was endeavoring to say was that anything short of murder is being hushed up.”
Oh and last of all, I was super fond of the ridiculously subby girl Cordelia. I know it wasn’t meant this way, but I giggled a little every time she was explicitly described as submissive and obedient, especially when Jackie was bullying her. More overt sub representation in fiction, dang it!
Death on the Nile (1978)
This took way more liberties with the text than the studio’s 1974 adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, and oftentimes the small changes made actually made less sense. It was also missing some of my favorite parts of the book both in the form of wholly omitted characters (justice for subby girl Cordelia!) and the twists and turns of the case were largely smoothed over which is just a strange choice in my opinion.
One thing I actually liked a lot better in the movie version, though, is that Poirot doesn’t know Jackie is planning on doing a murder/suicide at the end, and actually tries to stop it. I found his actions in the book indefensible, so I much preferred this turn of events.
I am much less high on the 1974 Murder on the Orient Express adaptation than most seem to be, so I think I liked them about the same. This at least lacked the overbearing score undermining everything. There were also some patently hilarious choices, like whenever Jackie popped up unexpectedly she started reciting facts about whatever historical landmark they were near like some kind of deranged tour guide. It was a pretty terrible choice if it was meant to be taken seriously, but I got a good laugh about it so I’m gonna call it a net win.
Despite the book having plenty of overt racism (for flavor!), the movie actually decided to ditch most of what the book brought to the table in that department and concentrate all its racism in a single character. One of those “comic relief” characters where the entire joke is just that they aren’t white. So, that was fun.
But what really stands out as the film’s worst feature is its Hercule Poirot. I actually found Finney’s portrayal in Murder on the Orient Express quite a bit more annoying, but Ustinov’s portrayal is just kind of… nothing? And “annoying” is quite a bit closer to the mark when it comes to the famously fussy detective than basically being a nonentity.
He was also just written horribly here? Instead of the subtle detective constantly goading people into underestimating him and giving all their secrets away, we get this angry oaf straightforwardly accusing literally everyone of the murder with no grace or art whatsoever. It’s just bizarre.
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: “Death on the Nile” (2004)
It’s hard to believe this is the same series as the 2010 Murder on the Orient Express adaptation, but I guess that’s bound to happen when a series is on the air from 1989 to 2013.
The difference really is quite jarring, though! This adaptation is extremely book loyal in basically every respect, and it’s also just quite good. There kind of isn’t even anything else to say? After the experience I’ve had watching all these other adaptations, I wasn’t really prepared for one of them to just be straightforwardly good and a good adaptation. What a pleasant surprise.
Even this one is missing my favorite scene from the book, though, instead having Tim gently let Rosalie down by telling her she’s “barking up the wrong tree,” heavily implying either that he is gay or that he’s too hot for mommy to love another girl. Not the worst change in a vacuum, but obviously given how I felt about that plot point in the novel I was a bit disappointed.
Death on the Nile (2022)
If you delete the first scene and the last scene I actually kind of love this!
This one actually changes a lot more tangible details than Branagh’s previous stab (sorry) at a Christie adaptation, 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express. Nevertheless, I think it’s actually a more faithful adaptation on the whole. That is, with one major exception, it’s more true to the spirit of the novel’s story regardless of the details it changes.
When I saw the trailers I thought I was going to hate that instead of the Karnak’s passengers being a group of strangers they were going to be Linnet’s wedding party. But I actually think that worked quite well in this version of the story!
The other big change I mostly approved of were several alterations made to the suspects and their relationships. The Otterbournes are changed from a secretly alcoholic romance novelist and her longsuffering daughter to a sultry blues singer and her badass manager daughter. We’re introduced to Rosalie telling off a club owner and she later gets to tell off Poirot himself, and what’s more the narrative largely vindicates her even in the latter case. I also highly approve of how flustered Poirot gets when Salome flirts with him.
I also emphatically approved of this film deleting the character of Mr. Ferguson and sliding his outspoken communism over to Marie Van Schuler and and and having Miss (curiously “Mrs.” in this version?) Bowers’ role as her nurse companion serving as a cover for her real role as Marie’s lesbian lover. Although there would’ve been a more natural fit for this change (we’ll circle back to that later) and Poirot does have one annoying line about Marie’s economic beliefs being a fairy tale or something like that, the narrative has adequately demonstrated that Poirot is far from infallible and regardless Marie is a far less outwardly awful representation of a socialist than Ferguson’s misanthropic, misogynistic ass ever could be.
And despite their prevalence in real life, how fucking often do you get communist lesbians in mainstream entertainment?
It is certainly regrettable that this also deleted very good subby girl Cordelia, but we can’t win ‘em all. Poor thing, though. She gets deleted in two of the three adaptations! She’s so subby she just gets bullied out of existence, I guess.
Before we get into what I didn’t like, I have to add that I really am enjoying these films’ patterns of (inadvertently, I assume) casting deeply problematic actors as their murder victims. And there’s an extra layer of irony on this one since Gal Gadot clearly didn’t even think a little bit about the optics of an outspokenly pro-apartheid former IDF soldier playing a character whose entire deal in this movie aside from getting murdered is just being a Westerner flaunting her wealth in British-occupied Egypt. I mean, damn.
… it is unintentional, right?
Lastly in the positives column, the cinematography is once again just gorgeous, but this time it’s set loose on the incredible intrinsic beauty of the pyramids, the Sahara Desert, the Nile River… just breathtaking stuff.
Alright so here’s all the stuff I had to ignore to mostly enjoy this (and mostly enjoy it I did).
In the nitpicky department, while Marie is a much better representation of socialism than Ferguson was, the fact that we didn’t hear a peep out of her about the blatant imperialism on display throughout this trip and instead confined her complaints to Linnet being, uh, rich was symptomatic of the same lack of understanding of what socialism actually… is. Imperialism is capitalism at its most deplorable excess, and it is the first and most essential duty of any socialist living in an imperialist power to do what we can to call out and fight that imperialism to the extent we’re able to. To ignore that while literally on a luxurious trip through British-colonized Egypt while loudly complaining about superficial displays of wealth just ain’t it.
No, she isn’t wrong. Yes, the wealth Linnet and those surrounding her are flaunting is absolutely a product of various forms of exploitation including imperialism. But failing to address that when you’re literally in an occupied country, and even huffing sanctimoniously about human rights violations in that occupied country’s distant historical past makes her either a bad socialist or a poorly-written one, and much like Ferguson in Christie’s original text I’m betting on the latter.
Honestly while I love having a lesbian socialist in theory, if you really wanted to rehabilitate this aspect of the story you would’ve hot potatoed the socialism over to Dr. Bessner who was given like half of Mr. Ferguson’s story anyway (the ex-noble thing), and who was using his resources and training to provide aid to people in exploited nations which is kind of exactly the thing you would expect a socialist with his resources to do?
In the less-nitpicky department, I am still extremely over these two adaptations pulling out all the stops to inject as much extra drama as they can. In this case, though, it didn’t cause the entire second and third acts to genre jump into less of a cozy mystery and more of a thriller, so in comparison I’ll certainly take it. In this one, that shift doesn’t quite happen until Bouc is given the death scene that the novel gave Salome Otterbourne.
But honestly, given the choice, I’m glad Bouc is the one who ate the bullet? How often do you see a white guy fridged so a black woman can be sad about it? (And yeah, also so another white guy can be sad and angry about it, but y’know.) Like… if this was the direction we had to go, he was definitely the best character to off here. While it would’ve gotten Rosalie to more or less the same emotional place, I don’t especially enjoy the idea of the race-swapped Salome Otterbourne being the last of Jackie and Simon’s victims as she would have if we had stuck more closely to the original plot.
But, like, this brings the grand total of adaptations that did justice to that moment I loved in the novel where Poirot clears the way for Tim and Rosaline to be married up to a grand total of none of them, and I’m salty about it, dang it!
And of course the real reason they had to kidnap Bouc from the previous movie and have him eat a bullet is because Poirot cared about him and they wanted to give the whole ending more emotional stakes. And just… sometimes the emotional stakes can just be that murder is bad, guys! Poirot felt plenty of things (some of them even good) in the novel. We didn’t need to import additional stakes. We didn’t need him to be violently angry because his friend died. Not everything needs to be turned up to 11 at all times!
But, again, at least this time this misadventure of Faster And More Intense was limited to the very home stretch of the movie. Well, that and the aforementioned prologue and epilogue scenes, which do so many bad things at once. I hate it when things that thoroughly do not need an origin story get the Han Solo’s last name in Solo: A Star Wars Story treatment, and I really, really didn’t need Poirot’s trademark mustache to have a fucking tragic backstory??? Nor did I need Poirot to spend two movies pining for a tragically lost lover that these adaptations made up wholecloth for no reason.
It’s weird, because I think this is an aspect of these movies that Branagh & co clearly think is very important, and I think it’s just pretty hecking stupid? But I’ll still line up to see as many of these as they end up making, because at the end of the day they’re pretty entertaining movies even when I deeply disagree with a lot of the choices they make.
Alright. Knives Out surpassed Speed Racer as my favorite movie of all time a while back, so it’s past time I wrote a long, serious review of it. Spoilers throughout.
Setting the Stage
The first time I saw this was not under the most ideal of circumstances. It was honestly one of the most stressful and traumatic days I’ve ever had. My finacx and I were both coming down from adrenaline and needed something to do to take our minds off of it. Ve was actually the one who suggested a movie, but I readily agreed. When my parents were getting blackout drunk on weekends, going to the movie theater was what I did as a combination of a reason to get out of the house and a way to take my mind off of things. That’s how I first saw Speed Racer, actually. So it was a pretty familiar way to self-soothe.
Again, it was actually my fiancx who suggested Knives Out. I had never heard of it, but as a The Last Jedi stan I was well up for a Rian Johnson-directed mystery movie.
I had no idea what I was in for.
One of my favorite YouTubers tells a story in one of her Patreon videos about a particularly emotional day she had when she worked at Disneyland. She had recently decided to try to transfer to a different department but hadn’t told any of her coworkers yet. That night, they were having a cast member appreciation night, and they got to see the updated sequel trilogy version of Star Tours. The way she described it was that she was already so emotional from the day in the park with her coworkers whom she would be moving on from soon, that when BB-8 appeared on the screen she “imprinted on him like a baby bird,” and I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone describe that kind of experience with media before and I relate to it so intensely. I think that’s basically exactly what happened with me and Knives Out (and me and Her Story, and me and Speed Racer, and probably me and a lot of other things?).
I would have loved this movie no matter when I saw it. It’s perfect. But I think seeing the perfect movie at the perfect time, and the unexpectedness of it all (I hadn’t even heard of it before my fiancx mentioned it) just really added to me falling for it so quickly and so completely.
The second time I saw this movie, it looked disturbingly possible that Donald Trump was about to be elected for a second term and we made the conscious effort to get really high and not follow the news at all that night. So what better to take our minds off of that than the movie that had already lifted our spirits on a day when we had thought that likely an impossible task? The only concern I had was that we would come through classical conditioning to unduly associate this movie with periods of high stress.
Luckily, I needn’t have worried.I have watched Knives Out 14 times since it came out in September of 2019. I watched it on New Year’s to make sure it was technically both the last movie I watched in 2020 and the first movie I watched in 2021. I once watched it with my girlfriend on a Zoom call, then when I told my fiancx I had done so ve half-seriously suggested we watch it that night and I was genuinely up for it, but we didn’t end up doing it that night. (I think we did a few nights later, though.) Every time I watch it I notice something new.
This was the first movie we watched after my orchi, literally so I could write a joke review about how I would give both my nuts to watch it with my fiancx and my boyfriend who had just moved in with us. I fell asleep while we were watching it, woke up right as Ransom delivered his melodramatic “FATHER” to say it with him, and then fell right back asleep.
I will literally never not be in the mood to watch Knives Out.
A Murder Mystery by Rian Johnson
I promise this is the last section of the review where I’m going to mention Johnson’s immediately preceding work, but it’s something that just has to be dealt with. The Last Jedi is the best Star Wars movie and it isn’t particularly close. There is a confidence to its storytelling and an emotional sincerity to it that has never been seen in a Star Wars movie before or since. And on top of that it’s the first and last time that a Star Wars movie’s visuals have been genuinely striking. I was severely disappointed when J.J. Abrams, not Johnson, was announced as Trevorrow’s replacement for Episode IX.
I’ve had something of a falling out with the Star Wars franchise. You see, I grew up as probably one of the most devoted Star Wars fans there were. And not just the movies. I had a voracious appetite for all the expanded universe novels, video games, comic books, and all the “nonfiction”-style secondary materials that filled in details about the universe as a whole. I wrote FANFICTION about it. I was not in any way a casual fan. But in the last few years any enthusiasm I once had for the franchise has basically evaporated.
The inciting incident for this evaporation was the hiring of multiple TERFs who were TERFy in extremely newsworthy ways to star on The Mandalorian. Looking back on it, though, I think part of why I never fell back in love with the franchise is that The Last Jedi is not only the best Star Wars movie, it will likely forever be the pinnacle of what Star Wars can be. The fan backlash to it was so severe that they course corrected in dramatic fashion, and they’re just going to be playing it safe for the rest of eternity.
But this isn’t about Star Wars. I kind of don’t care even a little about Star Wars anymore? All of this is really to say… Rian Johnson was handed the reins of one of the most popular franchises of all time, knocked it out of the park in a way that was so stunning and so different from what had come before that no one knew what to do with it and decided they just hated it … and that wasn’t even his masterpiece, it was a fucking warm up.
But it could have prepared me for what Knives Out was going to be if I had been as plugged into the film industry as I used to be. Because the movie is just brimming with many of the same things that makes The Last Jedi so godsdamned great, but on top of that the setting, the characters, and the overarching plot are all things that Johnson got to build from the ground up, something that was truly his. Now where have I heard that before?
It might be a huge shame that we’re not going to see how great the Star Wars franchise could’ve been if it continued with direction Johnson took it in The Last Jedi, but we’re going to get Knives Out sequels and while I understand why I was so bitterly disappointed that we’re not getting the former, at this point I’d definitely rather have the latter.
The House at 2 Deerborn Dr
It’s rather cliché to say that a setting has so much personality it might as well be another character in the movie, but I mean… what else do you even say about Harlan’s mansion?
The place is just stuffed with mystery books and things that look like they could be from a mystery book. Hell, we canonically learn through dialogue (mostly from the overly-enthusiastic Trooper Wagner) that many of the items in and around the mansion are replicas of items from Harlan’s own books.
A lot of the action of the movie takes place in a library that inexplicably has a throne decorated with hundreds of knives? Harlan’s study has a trick window near it (from one of his books!) and creaky stairs leading up to it. Basically every room looks like someone could be found dramatically murdered in it.
The setting adds so much to the story. And it’s not even just the house? Setting this in New England during the fall leads to such a cozy vibe, and really matches the kind of mystery this is so, so well. And everyone gets to wear just the most incredible sweaters. Honestly, I’m not sure there was a bad choice made in this entire movie.
The Victim Who Was Not a Victim
For someone who starts the movie as a dead body, Harlan Thrombey sure gets to shine a whole lot.
Harlan is a man who cares deeply about the people around him. His oft-echoed belief that he “built something from the ground up” and desire to see his children do the same and succeed via capitalist mythmaking is my only real problem with him. But we see also the depths of his compassion for people like Ransom (whose attempt on Harlan’s life is already sitting in Marta’s medical bag), and the incredible lengths he’s willing to go to do what he thinks is right.
The man literally gives his life for Marta. He’s wrong to do so, and does it over her protestations. He would still be alive if he hadn’t. But there is certainly no questioning his conviction, or the fact that he has a good heart.
You can tell he’s used to being the smartest guy in whatever room he’s in, and though he references some hard-earned lessons in humility, his cause of death is his unwillingness to put his life in the hands of someone else because he’s too busy trying to save hers at the expense of his. As he earlier remarks to Marta about his son-in-law, he’s pulling on loose threads of his parachute.
He’s a flawed man, but one certainly worthy of the same compassion he so clearly had for those around him.
The Suspects Who Were Not Suspects
None of Harlan’s family killed him, but man, it would’ve been way simpler if one of them had. They are just… the WORST.
There are two running jokes early on in the film that are particularly revealing. One is that nearly every family member tells Marta they think she should have been at the funeral but “I was outvoted,” which raises the question of who exactly participated in this vote. The other is that every single character confidently identifies her family as being from a different South American country.
The most sympathetic of Harlan’s children is probably Linda. She seems to have had the warmest relationship with Harlan and is the most genuinely upset by his death. She also had less to gain than anyone else in the family, given that she’s the only member of the family who has stable employment that isn’t pulled out from under her by Harlan’s will.
Yet despite not being threatened in any meaningful way by Harlan’s altered will, Linda largely spearheads the ensuing bullying campaign against Marta. A viciousness born out of wounded entitlement is revealed. I would have appreciated some more context from Harlan’s point of view of his relationship with Linda, which again appears to have been the least troubled of his various familial relations, but her reaction in and of itself certainly seems to justify her exclusion.
Her husband Richard, on the other hand, had ample motive. Harlan confronts him with evidence of his infidelity and demands that he come clean with Linda before he tells her himself. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg with this asshole. We find out in one of the other flashbacks that Richard is a Donald Trump supporter. He ends up patronizingly inviting Marta over to the table to “hear what she has to say” without ever actually giving her a chance to talk, and then carelessly hands her his plate like it’s her job to clean up after him. (That last one was apparently an ad lib by Don Johnson. It adds so much to the scene, I’m really glad he added it.)
Then there’s Linda and Richard’s son Ransom, who we’ll come back to presently in another section.
As far as other siblings go you have Walter, whose motive is that his dad was going to fire him from running the publishing company (and doing fuck all, basically), his wife Donna who is barely in the movie (all we really know about her is that she’s high strung and extra racist, like even more racist than Richard), and their son Jacob who is literally a Nazi internet troll. His father either doesn’t understand or approves (“Kids today with the internet, it’s amazing.”)
Harlan’s other son apparently passed away quite a while before the movie, but his widow Joni and daughter Meg are still very much in the family picture. Joni runs a very unsuccessful skincare company (“it’s skincare, but it promotes a total lifestyle”) and is an Instagram influencer. Her motive is that Harlan was about to cut her off after financially supporting her for years. There’s a funny little gag where Joni tells Blanc “I read a tweet about a New Yorker article about you,” whereas Linda says, “I read your profile in the New Yorker, I found it delightful,” kinda demonstrating the contrast between the two. (Linda also sounds severely pissed off when she says it, which is pretty dang funny to hear someone saying “I found it delightful” with barely-constrained anger.)
Meg is the quintessential white feminist. She makes a huge show of being angry at the cops for asking if Marta is with “the help,” constantly stands up for her in very showy ways that cost her nothing, repeatedly offers her weed from Fran’s stash despite her obvious lack of interest (and then smokes it herself)… and then turns on Marta the second she’s subjected to the slightest bit of pressure.
It would’ve been underwhelming, but until the first major plot twist it would’ve been pretty easy to envision literally any of them as the murderer. And as a group, they are somehow even worse.
The only family member who seems more or less beyond reproach is Harlan’s mother, and the rest of the family is completely dismissive of her. It’s actually a fairly major plot point that Blanc is the only one who pays her any mind.
The Red Herring Who Was Not a Red Herring
Ransom is the perfect villain for this movie. The way he dramatically arrives on the scene like halfway through the movie and basically tells everyone to fuck off really shakes things up, and at first he honestly comes off as kinda awesome considering the people he’s telling off are his rich asshole family members. Yes, he’s also a rich asshole from that family, but at first he seems different. And he is. He’s somehow even worse.
Of all the family whose motives are basically identical to his, he’s the one who’s actually willing to metaphorically pull the trigger. And when he realizes it didn’t go down the way he wanted it to, he sloppily tries to manipulate people and events to engineer the outcome he wants. And he does it all with a careless swagger, confident that he’s smarter and better than everyone else and that that’s all he needs.
He severely needs to be punched in his perfect little face, but Marta throwing up on him will have to do.
The Supporting Players
(Okay, cards on the table: there were probably way better quotes to use here, I just really like Frank Oz’s read of this line a whole lot.)
The supporting characters we spend the most time with by far are the cops. In the audio commentary Rian Johnson describes them as “okay cops,” citing the fact that they probably haven’t killed any innocent people today. They’re “okay cops,” he reiterates, somewhat sardonically. I appreciate his justified cynicism about cops, it makes it easier to enjoy these ones as characters.
Both cops are their own kind of comedic relief. Trooper Wagner, as previously mentioned, is an overly enthusiastic fanboy of Harlan Thrombey’s books and also fanboys over Blanc’s detective work at times despite, you know, being an active part of the investigation.
Lieutenant Elliot is more or less the lead investigator between the two cops, but he’s willing to defer to Blanc for the most part. His form of comedy is just being Done with a capital D. He has lines like, “Again, more weak sauce. You’re just dumpin’ that vat of weak sauce on me,” and “That was the dumbest car chase of all time.”
One of the subtly hilarious moments of the film is when Linda Thrombey is screaming at everyone to get out of their house (which is about to be revealed to be Marta’s house) and both times she says it Trooper Wagner obediently moves to leave and Lieutenant Elliot just calmly stops him by placing a hand on his arm.
Rounding out the relatively small cast are also the security guard who proudly refers to video cameras and VHS tapes as “modern technology,” Fran the weed-smoking and sharp-tongued housekeeper, and Marta’s mother and sister.
I’ve grouped this last cluster of characters because we spend barely any time with each of them but they all feel like fully-formed characters and leave such a strong impression. The acting and character writing in this film is incredible, and all of the comedy beats (of which there are many) are mined from believable and relatable character interactions. Everything conspires to give this film such a feeling of vitality.
In the same category as these characters, but getting their own paragraph because of blatant favoritism, are the Thrombeys’ lawyer and his assistant. They’re in the movie for probably less than five minutes, but they nevertheless leave an enormous impression.
The Detective Who Did Not Dig
If there’s one character whose personality dominates the movie, it’s Benoit Blanc, “the last of the gentlemen sleuths.” His investigation method sets the tone and rhythm of the movie. The intercut interviews with the various family members early on gives us so much information at once, and are so revealing of everyone’s personalities, and they all come to the same head–Blanc figuring out what they’re trying to hide. He’s basically the movie’s onscreen director.
I have no idea if Blanc is a self-insert character for Johnson, but he clearly had a lot of fun writing him. But maybe not as much fun as Daniel Craig appears to have had playing him? It’s such a delight seeing him chew all of the scenery, using his overt charm to knock things loose.
The camera also loves him. He’s introduced as a shadowy, mysterious figure sitting by the piano (which he uses as a signal to the detectives to direct their questions in the direction he wants), there’s the dramatic zoom transition (with accompanying musical cue) from the Thrombeys’ meeting with their lawyer over to him, and there’s the similar zoom on “Enter… Benoit Blanc.”
He also is just constantly churning out some of the best lines of dialogue you’ll ever hear in a movie. Like nearly everything else about the movie, Blanc is hilarious while also being incredibly sincere and effective. Also like everything else about this movie, he has personality to spare and then some.
The Sidekick Who Was Not a Sidekick
Benoit Blanc may be the movie’s onscreen “director,” but the movie is not about him. In this sense the movie is unquestionably Marta’s. His “Watson,” who spends most of the runtime convinced that she is the murderer he is looking for.
Marta is the movie’s heart. Upon first laying eyes on her, Blanc sees the blood on her shoes but immediately deduces that she is no murderer. He asks her pointedly, “Does having a kind heart make you a good nurse?” He recruits her to be his sidekick, his “Watson,” not just to uncover the truth about the murder, but to uncover the larger truth about everything surrounding it. He knows she’s lying to him–the girl who literally cannot lie is lying to him by omission–but he also knows she is nevertheless the most honest person involved with the affair.
The entire movie, and entire solution to the murder, turns on Marta being a good person. Yes, she goes along with Harlan’s plan. She undertakes basically any benign action she can to interfere with the investigation–telling the version of the truth Harlan rehearsed with her, erasing the video tape that would incriminate her, pretending not to hear Blanc when he warns her not to walk in the mud and muddle the footprints. All of these have one thing in common: they protect her while hurting absolutely no one. On the other hand, literally every time she truly has to choose between her safety and someone else’s, she puts herself in harm’s way to do the right thing.
The Murder That Was Not a Murder
One of my favorite tropes about murder mysteries has always been that big, grandiose scene where the detective explains who did it and how. Where everything falls into place, every nagging detail suddenly makes sense, every question is answered with a dramatic, triumphant flourish. And this movie has quite possibly my favorite example of this trope that I’ve ever seen.
It has this in spite of the fact that instead of the detective confronting the entire group of suspects (though he does tell them off immediately beforehand), the principle players are only the detective Blanc, his sidekick (and principal suspect) Marta, and the truly guilty party Ransom, with the two cops on hand as a Greek Chorus.
It pulls together every single detail of the movie, it uses direct flashbacks effectively with voiceover narration and cuts back to the actual scene that’s transpiring. Not only that, the central thrust of the scene isn’t just the detective triumphantly explaining how he figured it out, it is backed by genuine emotion.
You do sometimes get hamfisted emotion in these kinds of scenes where the detective engages in some over the top moralizing, but what you get instead in this is that heartbreaking moment when Blanc explains that Marta had never given Harlan the wrong medication in the first place. And she hadn’t because she is just… amazing. But it’s heartbreaking because Harlan committed suicide for nothing.
It’s also a guided tour of the entire rest of the movie, the moment where everything comes together both intellectually and emotionally in a moment of profound catharsis. And if you’ve read my Speed Racer review (https://letterboxd.com/tailsmoon/film/speed-racer/1/), you know I live for that shit.
The Unclosed Circle
It was never about the murder mystery. I mean, it is. But the most important character in this movie is not Blanc, but Marta. And to drive that point home, the closing shot of the movie mirrors the opening shot, with Blanc having gracefully exited, and with Harlan’s “my house, my rules, my coffee” mug now in Marta’s hand.
So let me honor the movie by also circling back to the beginning, and say that that first night I saw it, Benoit Blanc’s parting words to Marta (quoted at the beginning of this section) were so unbelievably important to me. After going through that traumatic day, after watching this unexpectedly incredible movie, I was in the state of perfect vulnerability to hear exactly that.
Blanc finds Marta in this incredibly vulnerable state at the end of a physically and emotionally exhausting journey, and that’s the same state the movie found me in. He looks at her, and he sees her innermost self, who she really is… and he approves.
In my case it was only an illusion that the movie was doing the same thing, I mean, it wasn’t made for me specifically… but in that moment it felt like it was.
And I really needed that.
I love this movie. I love it for so many reasons much more mundane than this, but also for this.
But yeah, in case I haven’t made the case well enough in the preceding sections, it’s also just a pretty damn amazing movie on its own merits.
I’ll actually go even further than that. Moonfall is the best Roland Emmerich movie since Independence Day and it isn’t particularly close. I was severely tempted to say it’s better than Independence Day but I think that’s a pretty clear case of recency bias.
For real, though. What did we like so much about Independence Day? If we had to sum it up briefly it would probably be something along the lines of likable characters in a visually impressive movie that put earnest effort into bringing an inherently silly, easily digestible concept to life.
And what did Independence Day: Resurgence give us? Unlikable characters in a visually dull movie that put no effort into bringing a stale concept to life.
I’ll give you three guesses which of these two descriptions can be Ctrl+C/Ctrl+Ved over to Moonfall.
Even though half of them were literally characters in the first Independence Day, I can tell you next to nothing about the major characters in Independence Day: Resurgence except for Dr. Brent Spiner. And I don’t WANT to tell you about his story because I’m still livid that that soulless movie took the only genuinely good thing about itself and carelessly flushed it down the toilet.
Moonfall’s characters are as two-dimensional as Independence Day’s, but importantly not as one-dimensional as Independence Day: Resurgence’s. I remember literally all of them. I know who and what they care about. I know how they relate to each other. All of their actions feel real and motivated. Independence Day: Resurgence just moves people around for the next plot point and people’s motivations are, idk man, they read the script I guess.
But where Independence Day: Resurgence really spectacularly failed, and Moonfall succeeds, is in the obvious effort that went into the film’s visuals.
I’ve compared Independence Day: Resurgence to a set of video game cutscenes or the pilot for a television show not just because of its lazy plotting and lack of dramatic vitality, but because its visuals are just stunningly mediocre at their best and astonishingly awful at their worst. For long stretches of the movie you just CAN’T SEE ANYTHING, and it feels like this was done on purpose to hide the lack of effort that would otherwise be on display.
Moonfall does what a disaster movie, or any popcorn movie whose central draw is visually stunning special effects shots, should do. It makes sure you can see EVERYTHING. It doesn’t make you feel cheated. And it rewards you with stunning shots of the moon just absolutely tearing apart the earth as it makes its terrifying descent. I gasped out loud at a few of the scenes in this movie.
(I also saw it in D-BOX, which I highly recommend because a well-made disaster movie is basically a theme park ride with added pathos.)
On top of all the little details that make this a spiritual successor to Independence Day, there’s one obvious, big picture one overriding everything else. This is maybe the most 90s blockbuster-like movie I’ve ever seen despite the fact that we are currently living through a boom period for 90s nostalgia. And I would frankly be 1000% onboard with this becoming a more common experience. Though my real fervent desire is a revival of the 00s blockbuster scene, the 90s will do just fine too. Just PLEASE save me from the MCU-addled shared universe purgatory the 2010s blockbuster scene devolved into. PLEASE. I am literally begging you.
This movie met or exceeded all of my realistic expectations, and even some of my unrealistic ones. There were only two unrealistic ones it didn’t meet. The first was having Adele belt out, “Let the moon fall, let it crumble! And we will stand tall! Together!” Which, like. There are probably legal reasons to not do that, plus the fact that a normal person wouldn’t have thought of it. Then again this movie has a bizarre dialogue callback to The Lost World: Jurassic Park for no apparent reason, so who knows?
The other is a bit more damning, nigh unforgivable. Without getting too spoilery, Patrick Wilson learns some important plot details, and his comrades ask him how he knows, and I swear to the gods he absolutely could have answered with “the moon told me” but he didn’t. And I’m just. I’m not over it, guys. How do you pass that up???
I think the only genuinely likable characters are the homeless guy, the nerdy black kid, and the rich white twink you’re supposed to immediately dislike because he’s positioned as a romantic rival to Jake Gyllenhaal but he literally never makes a move on the girl and even encourages Jake to tell her how he feels. Any one of them would’ve been a better protagonist than Jake and his dad Dennis Quaid. Well, except for the rich twink. I think he’s actually perfectly utilized as affable, completely inconsequential eyecandy.
Worth revisiting for the orgy of so-so CGI weather disasters, but aside from the aforementioned (all of whom are side characters) there isn’t a single character in this who doesn’t drastically overstay their welcome. This would be a lot more of a chore to watch if it took itself more seriously, but luckily it knows what it’s about so it’s just fine. Not Emmerich’s best effort or one of my favorite disaster movies or anything. Just fine.
Wow yeah, that wasn’t as bad as I remembered it being!
It was drastically worse.
So, yeah, when we decided to watch a bunch of Roland Emmerich disaster movies to get ready for Moonfall (I am so unreasonably psyched for that one please don’t be bad pleasepleaseplease), this one did kinda jump out at me as hopefully being ripe for a reappraisal. I don’t like hating on things! But yeah this is just kinda genuinely unpleasant to watch.
One of those absolutely true things that makes you sound like a crazy conspiracy theorist when you talk about it is that rich capitalists are absolutely planning for the apocalypse without any intention whatsoever of stopping it, but rather just ensuring that they can continue to profit off of everyone else (a much, much diminished number of everyone else, mind) and live a life of luxury. We see a scaled down (but still extremely deadly for plenty of people) version of this in the response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but there’s even worse on the horizon when we get around to the climate collapse that’s still coming for us.
Okay, I should take a quick second here and not do exactly the same thing as this movie. I think literally all of this is solvable. I know we keep hearing in the news every other week or so it seems like that we’ve passed some kind of new “irreversible” climate benchmark. But if we overthrow the exploitative and destructive capitalist systems that are forcing things in this direction, and devote the full measure of the planet’s minds and resources to finding a way to fix it, I have to believe it’s fixable. It’s scary, but it’s fixable. Descending into nihilism isn’t going to help anyone.
Anyway. Sorry. Back to the movie. 2012 is the drastically toned down version of the Rich People Save Themselves thing where we’re not all wearing shock collars as part of Jeff Bezos’s private army or whatever the fuck, but like… the toned down version is still plenty depressing? So it’s just genuinely unpleasant to watch, but it also stops short of really being any kind of effective warning?
I just… I watch disaster movies for silly fun, and if it’s not gonna give me that it can at least do a good job of conveying… something? Anything? What was I supposed to get out of this? What was the point?
The usual cast of barely-characters you get in an Emmerich movie doesn’t even have as many redeeming qualities as your The Day After Tomorrows of the world, where all the main characters were bland but at least you had some halfway decent side characters to glom onto?
This just really had absolutely nothing going for it.
On top of that… okay. Imagine the opportunity that you’ve been given here if you’re Roland Emmerich. You’re one of the most famous and successful disaster movie directors of all time, and more than any other time since the Y2K scare, people are losing their minds with panic that the world is going to end in the near future. It’s literally something they’re casually talking about on the morning news (which is a thing people still watch at the time, gods help them) while nervously laughing and pretending that they’re 100 percent sure it’s bullshit instead of the 99 percent we all actually were while that one tiny 1 percent is in the back of your head going “oh gods oh gods but what if oh gods.”
So you literally have this perfect setup to do a CGI orgy disaster movie that will be extremely zeitgeisty… and what you come up with is “uh neutrinos uh start doing uh a thing and uh I guess well the Mayans knew about that because uh of reasons and uh um uh uh the tectonic plates move around and that makes tidal waves and cracks in the earth’s surface.”
You literally cannot sum up the disaster in this movie without either having recently seen it or Googling it! Why is this what you went with?
“But Miles, that’s so unfair!” You’re protesting, according to me. “What kind of disaster would’ve been suitably dramatic that hadn’t already been done?” Oh, really? You wanna go? You wanna go? Try me! Off the top of my head here are some potentially world-ending disasters that haven’t had a definitive (or any) movie made about them yet:
The Yellowstone supervolcano (which is literally in this movie but so incidental that I didn’t reference it in my brief description of the movie’s nebulous disaster).
A massive solar flare.
The Nemesis hypothesis (the idea that there’s a brown dwarf or similar stellar body orbiting the solar system knocking comets towards earth at predictable intervals and that’s why there is some regularity to the mass extinctions seen in the fossil record).
A gamma ray burst.
A rogue black hole.
Collision with another planet (Melancholia is sort of about this but it’s also not really about it.)
So it’s not the message, it’s not the characters, it’s not the godsdamned disaster itself… what am I supposed to be enjoying about this movie?
I’m sorry, I hate being a hater, I really do, but as someone who’s usually pretty forgiving about these kinds of movies (I GAVE CHRISTMAS TWISTER A POSITIVE REVIEW!), I’m just so genuinely upset about the giant swing and a miss this movie represents.
PLEASE be good, Moonfall. If you’re not, I’m never trusting Roland Emmerich again.
Independence Day: Resurgence
This feels like one of those YouTube videos that just clips together all the cutscenes from a video game into a “movie.” Or a pilot for a TV series based on Independence Day where the biggest cast member they could get back was Brent Spiner so they had to figure out a way to resurrect his character, à la Agent Coulson for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. And yeah, they also got Jeff Goldblum and Bill Pullman, but they killed Bill Pullman off in the pilot and surely they’re only gonna shell out the big bucks for Goldblum for the occasional really big episode, right?
Right, so, this was somehow only the second Agatha Christie book I’ve read? I’ve since read Death on the Nile, but yeah. My first was Murder in Mesopotamia, which I read in grade school and loved and always intended to read more of her but just never really got around to it? I also skimmed And Then There Were None and The Murder of Roger Aykroyd when I was supposed to read them in junior high and college respectively.
Pretty much every time I’m compelled to read a mystery book or watch a mystery movie, I’m reminded that, dang! I actually really like mystery stories, and should probably deliberately seek them out more often. And then I proceed to literally never do that because I’m very smart like that.
I had actually already seen two film adaptations of Murder on the Orient Express prior to reading it, which may have detracted from the experience somewhat? But yeah, I still liked it a heck of a lot! I really like Agatha Christie’s writing style. I like how grounded and verisimilitudinous everything feels.
I was also bracing myself for quite a bit more racism given the title and time this was written. But there really isn’t a whole lot besides the basic racism endemic in the entire notion of white people doing interesting things in other people’s countries and absolutely 0% questioning imperialism. Some of the adaptations more than compensate for this by adding extra racism (for flavor!) that wasn’t there before. Though I have learned through Death on the Nile that Christie herself includes plenty of racism (for flavor!) elsewhere.
I’m a little hamstrung here because I feel like I need to read more mystery novels in general and Christie specifically to have many fully formed opinions, so you’re kind of going to be seeing my education on this subject in realtime. But I really liked the methodical pace of this one and how Poirot is basically the POV character but the way it’s written still has him noticing things that the reader either notices on their own or misses. We only really get the thoughts he expresses out loud in the form of dialogue. This also makes the book practically tailor-made for adaptation into film, so of course every single adaptation I’m about to talk about made a whole lot of unnecessary changes.
I also think even once I’ve gotten a bit more experience reading mystery novels, the big reveal where Poirot explains the two possible solutions to the case and everyone collectively chooses one is going to go down as one of my favorites of these kinds of scenes. And really, the big scene where the detective explains what happened and is a huge showoff in the process has always been one of my favorite bits of traditional mystery stories.
But, yeah! Let’s see how the movie versions did.
Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
This was one of the two adaptations I had already seen prior to reading the book. Apparently it’s one of the most well-regarded Christie adaptations, but quite frankly I don’t particularly care for it. The soundtrack is distractingly bad, there’s a lot of extra racism (for flavor!), and the mood frequently just feels… off. Overly cheerful, maybe? Until the ending which read as fairly triumphant and conspiratorial in the book, but came off more like a somber funeral in the movie. Just… strange.
Starting the movie with a long, plodding montage of the Armstrong kidnapping was an extremely strange choice. The book doesn’t have the kidnapping come up until it becomes relevant to the case, which a lot of other adaptations preserve and that honestly makes a lot more sense to me.
The biggest bright spot that jumps out at me is Vanessa Redgrave as Mary Debenham. She took a character that kinda blended in on the page and really made her stand out for me. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I have to say I just didn’t particularly care for Albert Finney’s Poirot.
Murder on the Orient Express (2001)
This adaptation has much less lofty goals than the 1974 Hollywood production, and for my money it accomplishes them better, which if you run the numbers probably makes them about a wash. I get that the older version is a more polished and impressive film, but if forced to choose between a charmingly bad TV movie and a mediocre big budget movie I’d rather the former.
Amusingly despite being a modern AU with a smaller cast there are one or two spots where this is actually a more faithful adaptation. These aren’t consequential in the least, just kinda amusing considering the circumstances.
I can’t say Alfred Molina’s Poirot is particularly faithful, but it’s also Alfred Molina. I’m kind of just never gonna be unhappy to see Alfred Molina in a movie. Less welcome was the compulsory heterosexual love story they crammed in there for no real reason.
Murder on the Orient Express (2010)
This is the worst one. By like, a lot. I was not expecting that at all? I figured out basically immediately what they were doing with it, and I immediately hated it, and it just kept getting worse and worse.
They basically Sherlockified everything. Everything is very dramatic and very prestige television. It’s like Chris Nolan directed this. It’s just constantly bludgeoning you over the head and yelling DRAMA DRAMA DRAMA! I just… completely hate it.
There are plenty of awful choices on top of awful choices in this category, but I think probably the most hilariously bad one was having Poirot just shouting at everyone when he was presenting the solution to the crime, and having it very nearly break out into a violent fight, and then having the movie just kind of… awkwardly continue past the ending while he wrung his hands over whether to condemn them to the police. It’s just… it’s just so bad.
On top of that, there were so many strange, inconsequential details changed that after a while it started to feel kinda mean-spirited? Like, we’re talking incidental details here. And all of these changes added absolutely nothing, oftentimes made considerably less sense than the source material, and didn’t even serve to advance the movie’s aforementioned misguided goals to make everything as dramatic as possible? There’s just no clear motivation for why nearly every small detail of the case was changed in some way or another.
There was also a ton of kinda bizarre heavy-handed religious stuff? We see Poirot praying, which has never been a major part of his character as far as I know. People make all kinds of weird, out of place Biblical references. It’s just… strange.
Worst of all this actually manages to outstrip the 1974 version with added racism (for flavor!). The worst example being a woman being publicly stoned to death for adultery in the streets of Istalnbul. Stoning has never been a form of execution practiced in the Republic of Turkey, which is also noteworthy for having been a fairly secular country in the 1930s. They literally Ctrl+C/Ctrl+Ved some edgy Islamaphobia from elsewhere and called it a day.
Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
This was actually chugging along just fine, a really smooth ride. Nice and steady. And then it hit a snowbank and went off the rails.
You know. Metaphorically.
This was the other of the two adaptations I had seen prior to reading the book, and my recollection of it was pretty favorable. And it’s easy to see why. It’s stylish, star-studded, engaging. Just extremely competently made. I still mostly enjoyed the experience of watching it? It did get a bit tiresome that they were constantly leaving the train so they could get shots of Poirot with the train behind him in the snow for the trailer, but that felt nitpicky. And then we hit the third act and there are two completely unnecessary action scenes thrown in and everything just gets more and more dramatic.
Everyone is threatening each other with guns. Poriot literally gets shot in the arm. Instead of finding a knife in her purse Mrs. Hubbard finds it in her back. Where she was stabbed with it. And like, yeah that kind made sense by this point because with how the tension got ratcheted up and coming on the heels of a chase scene, her finding it in her bag and losing her shit wasn’t nearly dramatic enough, but that’s just it. This is the definition of an unforced error.
As already mentioned I’m not even that experienced with these stories, but I already know one of the things that’s so damn appealing about them is that they take place in a confined setting with a group of colorful characters penned in together. So just keep them on the damn train and let Poirot do his thing! I swear, this book in particular is so easy to adapt but everyone is just hell bent on hammering it into the shape they want it to be instead.
It’s not all bad by any means. The cast is freaking amazing, and Johnny Depp gets stabbed 12 times. The early parts of the movie where all the characters are being introduced and all the pieces are being moved into place was actually phenomenal? Like I said, it just went off the rails after that. (You know. Metaphorically.)
This is honestly a good movie! It’s just so frustrating because it’s so close to being both a faithful adaptation and a great movie in its own right.
[Harvesters]—dead! —slain by the [malware] and [computer viruses] against which their systems were unprepared; slain as the [firewalls] [were] being slain; slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that [hackers], in [their] wisdom, [had] put upon this [internet].
I have seen this movie probably close to a hundred times and this rather obvious, probably intentional parallel is only just now occurring to me.
There may not be a movie that’s more straightforward about its three act structure. It’s literally divided into three days, which are signposted with title cards. Appropriately, my appreciation of this movie has had three distinct acts as well.
I’m 11. I’m seeing this movie in theaters for the first time. My level of understanding of politics is getting bullied two years later because I cried when President Clinton announced we were bombing Iraq. (So like, secretly pretty good actually.) I don’t particularly notice the Gulf War being mentioned in the movie.
Back then, liking movies is basically preordained. I have toy spaceships and an action figure of one of the aliens before the movie has even come out. The alien action figure is of a “science officer” not seen in the movie. Its biomechanical suit is blue, unlike the yellowish white soldier suits we see in the movie. It came with a floppy disc that had a glorified minigame on it. Supposedly if you collected all of them it forms a coherent single game? I find that difficult to believe in retrospect.
Or I’m 12. I own this movie on VHS. It came with a lenticular motion cover that I peeled off to reveal the regular cover beneath so it would match the rest of my VHS collection better. Like I do with most movies at the time, I watch it so many times I can still quote it basically verbatim today. (My two nesting partners can attest to this.)
All I needed this movie to be was a lighthearted 90s action blockbuster where aliens blow up several recognizable landmarks as seen in literally every trailer, and it is absolutely that. I loved Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park and am excited to see him again. I fall in love with Will Smith hard. I love all the different cool alien ship designs. Between this and The X-Files (which gets a shout-out in the movie!) I go through a bit of an Obsessed With Aliens phase. I had that phase with a lot of things as a kid.
Probably this was one of my favorite movies for a good long time, but I don’t really think about it too hard? It fits right in on the shelf next to the likes of Jurassic Park and Men in Black. I honestly still have no small amount of nostalgia for this era of 90s blockbusters.
Act 1 of the movie ended with three major U.S. cities being blown up in a very crowd-pleasing practical effects extravaganza, but I’m afraid I don’t have something similarly dramatic to end on. I just really liked this movie.
I’m 29. A movie YouTuber I really like at the time has just released a video about how Independence Day is actually a really good movie. The YouTuber in question is very liberal. After largely preferring more genuinely leftist politics later in college, I’ve largely been intellectually bullied into liberalism by my abuser by this stage of young adulthood. There’s an election on the horizon that’s going to shove my face back into all the reasons I found liberalism untenable in the first place. It’s going to be one of the many cracks that forms in the cage my abuser has, up until then, kept me in with very little trouble.
This was also very much during the period of time when I thought I wanted to be, and could be, a Serious Movie Reviewer. I could put my English degree to good use, damn it. I could discover the Right Way to consume media, and write stirring things about it. Heck, I was already very occasionally getting retweeted by Real Movie Critics. Oh yeah, this was also a time in my life when I was even more Very Online than ever before, and I would say a majority of my social life was happening via social media. Because, you know, I had moved across the country to live near (not with, near) my abuser and I had no local friends and my life was literally just working and desperately trying to find things to fill up my free time with to ignore how intolerable the situation I was in was.
So, yeah, having someone come along and say that Actually, this silly disaster movie about aliens blowing up recognizable landmarks and very conventionally attractive movie stars saving the day was Genuinely Good and Had Things To Say was a pill I was more than happy to swallow, leading to a re-viewing and a long since deleted concurring review where I concluded that, yeah! The writing might be silly and obvious, but the central thrust of the narrative is the whole international community coming together to tackle a problem that no single country could solve on their own.
Look, I used to like The West Wing, I’ve had stupider takes.
Although this period wouldn’t see all the obsessive rewatches that my childhood had seen (at this time I tended to always pursue first watches so I could make the number of films I’d seen at the top of my Letterboxd profile grow faster), it was nevertheless a marked difference in my experience of the film. But not one that would last for nearly as long.
Act 2 of the film ends with the president ordering an ill-fated nuclear strike on the aliens, an option he had thus far resisted as being deeply immoral. He crosses that line, and it doesn’t even work. At the risk of being melodramatic, the parallels to my flirtation with liberalism are impossible to ignore.
I’m 36. I’m a socialist. I even actively organized with a socialist party for a time, before realizing I just didn’t have the capacity to do that work. (I still wish there were ways to contribute in smaller ways, but it seems like most parties don’t have a lot of in-between between just kind of showing up to events and full-time membership.) So, yeah. I have some Opinions about this movie’s politics now. Also of note is that I’m barely on social media anymore and WOW has that ever been a lifechanging improvement.
Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect upon revisiting this but I should have. The central theme of my post-“I can be a Serious Movie Reviewer!” phase has been the gradual realization that I had way better opinions about media when I was 12.
There’s something self-soothing about watching a movie you’ve seen so many times you can quote it verbatim, for one thing. And what was it I said earlier? “All I needed this movie to be was a lighthearted 90s action blockbuster where aliens blow up several recognizable landmarks as seen in literally every trailer, and it is absolutely that”? Yeah, that’ll still about do.
The politics are… oof. At one point President Bill Pullman says, “That’s the advantage of being a fighter pilot. In the Gulf War, we knew what we had to do. It’s just… not simple anymore.” And like… really? Blowing up brown people because Bush I said so was simple, my dude? But the rest of the movie’s politics are so disarmingly naive, it’s just thankfully kind of hard to get too invested in critiquing them. It’s just kind of uncomfortably hilarious in retrospect that when I was more of a liberal I bought another liberal’s argument that this movie had a surprisingly profound message about politics on offer. Nowadays, my approach to politics in Hollywood blockbusters is more like “it’s gonna be either outright propaganda or just kinda dumb, call it out and move on.”
You know what really jumped out at me a whole lot more on this rewatch, though? The big draw for me in the past was always Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, and even to an extent Bill Pullman. But this time I just couldn’t get over the sheer amount of ass Vivica A. Fox’s character was kicking! Just extended scenes of a sex worker and badass mother Getting Shit Done, grabbing a truck and saving everyone she can find on her way. I’m really not sure why this part of the movie never really grabbed me before, but she is just absolutely a force of nature and probably the most straightforwardly heroic character of the entire damn movie.
But, yeah! Independence Day. Still a very straightforwardly entertaining movie about aliens blowing shit up and then getting blown up, it turns out.
Okay well, the first movie I watched this year just set an impossibly high standard for the rest of the year.
The only thing I could think of to say about it in the immediate aftermath of watching Kiki’s Delivery Service is that it’s a perfect movie. And that still feels somehow insufficient? Like I was describing something more mundane or commonplace than this? Like I just didn’t have the words to convey how this movie moved me?
This is definitely my favorite Ghibli movie, and I think I can say with some degree of confidence that nothing is going to top it. I’ve seen 13 of their 23 films, so I do have a ways to go, but it’s just impossible to imagine me liking anything more. This is such a perfect storm of what I look for in a movie and just… an amazingly good movie on top of that.
This is maybe the best and most accurate depiction of magic I’ve ever seen in a movie, and I’m struggling to think of one that’s even particularly close? Kiki’s practice isn’t as visually flashy as you often get in fictional depictions of magic. You get the impression that she’s able to tap into something that’s present in everything, which is exactly how these things actually work. Magic itself is much bigger than anything an individual Witch might do with it. It’s present in the everyday rhythms of life. It is harmony and balance, yet it is wild and untamable.
This entire movie feels like it’s bathed in magic. Characters who aren’t doing anything to intentionally practice magic seem to gather it around themselves instinctively. You see it in their kindness towards each other. You see it retreat when they’re nasty or violent.
This is an incredibly empathetic movie. Everyone is so godsdamned wholesome to each other. Kiki’s biggest problem is what looks an awful lot like a bout of depression. This leads to her temporarily losing her connection with magic. And that makes sense, too. It’s hard to be in harmony with the world when we are not in harmony with ourselves. And she restores her connection when a friend drags her out to her cabin in the middle of woods, which, yeah! Connecting with nature is incredibly grounding, both for mood stabilization and connecting with magic.
Also, her friend relating Kiki’s experiences with magic to her own experiences with artistic inspiration are very yes! Magic is bigger than us, but our relationship with magic is intensely personal. It’s not something that can be forced. When it’s working it’s incredible and when it’s not you have to be patient! Seriously, this movie really gets it.
This is also a beautiful movie. I know that’s not exactly a rarity for Ghibli movies, but it really is worth mentioning that the art really is noticeably gorgeous. And the scenery is so vibrant. The sky, the oceans, the town, the forest. It contributes to how magical everything feels, but it also just makes it damn pleasant to watch.
So, yeah, my two most recent first watches (this and The Matrix Resurrections) are both in the running for my favorite movie of all time? I’m gonna force myself to have a cooling off period on both of them before putting them any higher than the last two spots in my top 5, but seriously, wow.
This is everything I look for in a movie, and then some.
Personally, I had a pretty great year this year. My boyfriend moved in with my fiancx & I, I got to see my other partners… not as much as I’d like, but a non-zero amount, I got meds for my ADHD which helped me get back into reading as a hobby (hence the list of favorite first reads included here), and I made even more progress with my transition!
Obviously the ongoing pandemic and rapidly deteriorating political situation in my capitalist hellscape of a country was a dark specter hanging over everything, but I still have a lot to be thankful for this year, and I’m going to keep holding on to the things and people I love. I will never stop fighting for them.
1. The Matrix Resurrections (S-Rank)
2. My Little Pony: A New Generation (S-Rank)
3. Aquaman (A-Rank)
4. Muppets Haunted Mansion (A-Rank)
5. Halloweentown (A-Rank)
6. No Time to Die (A-Rank)
7. Dune (2021) (A-Rank)
8. Candyman (2021)
This is incredible. I’m genuinely kind of at a loss for what to even say about it. It has one of the best endings of any horror movie ever. It’s so fucking cathartic.
9. Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) (A-Rank)
10. Ghostbusters: Afterlife (A-Rank)
1. Wild Magic by Tamora Pierce
Oh my Goddess.
Tamora Pierce has always been one of those authors who whenever her name came up I felt a vague tugging like I was missing out on something that would be a Really, Really Big Deal to me, so to have that confirmed in such an immediate, overpowering way upon reading my first book by her is stirring feelings I don’t quite have words for.
I have always wanted more fantasy (especially magic-focused fantasy) in my library, but the few times I’ve tried to get into fantasy I’ve been recommended epics with thick plots and paper-thin characters, and like… there’s a REASON I think Lord of the Rings makes much better movies than it does books, y’all! So to have something THIS exactly what I’m looking for fall into my lap is really something else.
The way this book approaches magic is perfect, both in terms of how it mechanically works/feels AND in the way the ethics around it are presented. I would not be even slightly surprised if Pierce were a practicing Witch or some other kind of magic-user. Daine is a wonderful protagonist who is realistically struggling with some trauma and who isn’t always perfect, but is surrounded by people who grow very quickly to care very much about her and very much want her to be okay and will go to great effort to help make sure she’s in a space where that can happen, while ALSO recognizing her own value and not patronizing her, letting HER help THEM when she’s able to, and it’s just… it’s just…! It’s just SO. GOOD. It’s just everything I want to see in the world in the form of a really good story and I love it so much.
(… shameful personal aside: I was definitely a lot more horny for Zhaneh Bitterclaws than I was supposed to be. I’m sorry! Her taunts are just so choice, and so dommy.)
So, yeah. This is something of a beginning for me because I just KNOW I’m going to devour the rest of her bibliography and love every second of it, and instead of being irritated that I missed the boat for so long I’ll instead choose to be excited that A) I HAVE SO MUCH OF HER STUFF TO READ I’m like never gonna run out, and B) I have someone to gush about it to along the way!!
2. Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey
Nbd, just a thoroughly delightful fantasy in a unique setting AND a story of a girl overcoming abusive parents (realistically, with help) to start making a life for herself.
3. The Showroom: Relationships and Robotics by Alexis Long (S-Rank)
4. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (S-Rank)
5. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
I have seen so many adaptations of this that it kinda felt like I had already read it, but it’s pretty obvious why there are so many adaptations now. And hey, look! I like one (1) Charles Dickens book!
6. Cells at Work: Platelets! Vol. 1 by Yuko Kakihara
Cells at Work is my favorite anime and the Platelets are my favorite characters and I was so excited when I heard they were getting a spinoff and I can’t believe it lived up to my hype for it I’m so happy!!
7. Cells at Work, Vol. 1 by Akane Shimizu (S-Rank)
8. Casting a Queer Circle: Non-Binary Witchcraft by Thista Minai
This is exactly what I needed. The heavy emphasis on a binary view of gender I’ve consistently seen in introductory texts on Wicca was beginning to wear very thin. I know one of the great things about the Craft is that you get to decide what parts work for you and what parts don’t, but even knowing that, seeing how some people are approaching these issues really helped. Even if I end up doing something completely different, this helped. A lot. And I think I needed something like this to help keep my enthusiasm up. Really glad I read this.
9. Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
This was sold to me as Harry Potter but written by someone who isn’t a transphobe, and featuring characters who actually act like people. Oh yeah and the main characters are gay. And it delivered on all of that. So uh, yeah! That’ll work!
The idea of making magic out of memes is extremely clever. Doesn’t really fit how I see magic at all, but to be fair the only reason I even think of that as a thing that can happen is because I recently read Wild Magic by Tamora Pierce, so yeah. I do think the book could’ve put more feeling into its descriptions of magic in general, especially since the conclusion really relies on you having strong feelings about Simon’s relationship with magic, but not the end of the world.
But yeah. I really, really liked this!
10. Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works by Evelyn Tribole & Elyse Resch
I genuinely kinda wish everyone would read this, but it’s not something I can really be pushy about because telling people what to do, re: their relationship with food is a major, major no-no. But yeah.
1. The Owl House, seasons 1 & 2
If it weren’t for this She-Ra would probably be my favorite show of all time, and although it’s being unfairly cut short because Disney is freaking stupid, The Owl House just feels so much like it was made for me specifically that I cannot possibly say it isn’t very likely my favorite television series of all time.
2. She-Ra and the Princesses of Power
IT’S SO GOOD AND IT’S EXPLICITLY GAY AND IT’S SO GOOD, LIKE, IT’S SO GOOD YOU GUYS! AAAAAAAAA. It would be a contender for my favorite television show of all time if Owl House hadn’t blown it out of the water by being unfair.
3. Star Trek: Lower Decks, season 2
I still cannot believe how good this show is.
4. Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Okay, well, hi somehow the best interpretation of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ever!!! And a very warm hello to all of the good guy human characters being black.
It took me a minute to adjust to this approach but now whenever I watch a different version of my turtle boys, I kind of miss this one! Wild, right?