Tag: film

Death Wish: Shooting for Peace, Not War

When the film Death Wish was first released back in 1974, it was met with fury and outrage. Centered around an architect (played by Charles Bronson) who becomes a gun-toting vigilante in the wake of his wife’s murder during a vicious home invasion, the film drew major criticism because of its support for the idea of the brutal punishment of criminals while rejecting due process. That said, its story is one that captured the minds of the public and sparked plenty of debate over how to handle the rampant crime that had plagued cities in that time like New York City. It is no wonder, then, how it would become so frequently discussed. However, there is one thing that some might forget these days about that movie: it was based on a book of the same name. The book was written back in 1972 by Brian Garfield, inspired by an incident in which he was scared by his own flash of anger after finding his car vandalized. As for his response to the film adaptation of his novel, Garfield hated it. He hated it for a very specific reason: unlike the movie’s pro-vigilante stance, his novel takes the side of anti-vigilantism.

Paul Benjamin was a New York accountant, a life-long liberal, and an old man. One day, which had seemed so ordinary at the start, would change his life. A call from his son-in-law Jack brought him out to a hospital. He received the news that his wife and daughter had been attacked in a random home invasion within his very apartment, one that had left his wife dead and his daughter in an increasingly catatonic state. In the aftermath, Paul now finds himself haunted. He has trouble sleeping, finds himself afraid of any dark shadows in the streets and alleyways. The police are investigating, but they have no leads and no major progress. He feels like the world is not making sense. That all changes one night, when a mugger pulls a knife on him. He is overcome with rage, swinging at the mugger and scaring him off. The feeling is intoxicating to him, a salve to the fears that had filled his mind. Soon, he comes to believe something: that people have to take back control of their lives. That someone has to stand up against the killers walking the streets. Of course, he knows he can’t just rely on his own rage. He needs a weapon to use against the thugs he wants to seek vengeance upon. He wants a gun.

Brian Garfield’s novel makes for a fascinating read. The story flows at a steady pace, painting an evocative picture of the world and Paul’s increasingly dark mental state. For those who might expect to read about a spree of killings much like the 1974 film, they might be disappointed. Instead, the bulk of the book is devoted to Paul’s change, showcasing him as he finds himself grappling with grief and seeing his left-leaning views gradually shift to a right-wing hardened edge. Along with that, Garfield also brings up and explores various aspects of crime stats and crime prevention techniques. Occasionally, there is the odd fact or statistic that feels a bit exaggerated, such as a character claiming that a crime is committed every twelve seconds in New York City. Aside from those odd moments, they fill the story with a sense of realism and a feeling that Garfield has really tried to make this a story that one could believe. Of course, that leads me into the biggest standpoint of the book, and what might in fact be its double-edged sword: the evolution of Paul Benjamin into a vigilante.

Experiencing the tragedy of a murdered spouse and traumatized daughter is a moment that would shake anyone to their core. It is understandable that Paul would become enwrapped in grief, that he would want to do anything to take back some control of his life. However, the story does not hide just how dangerous this new path would be for someone to follow. For instance, it is made clear that Paul has some trouble in how to exhibit and experience his grief. When he finds himself bursting into tears suddenly, he can’t understand it and believes that his sadness was weakness. Later, as his thoughts become consumed with the idea of bringing violence against criminals, his own view of the world around him changes. The faces that would have once brought him pity and concerns on how to help, he now presumes as those belonging to criminals and killers. Fear fills his mind, along with an anger that seeks to vent itself by lashing out at crime itself. The tragedy in Paul’s life is certainly understandable and the path that Garfield presents gives a clear understanding how someone could give in like this, but the image of him as a vigilante who intentionally draws out criminals to target him is still one presented as dangerous and one to avoid. In a way, however, one can see how a film adaptation might lean into a pro-vigilante stance. The book does a great job in presenting Paul’s change over time, and the tragedy is one which others could relate and sympathize. It does a good enough job that some might glaze over what the reality means to intentionally hurt and even kill others, throwing away our legal system just for the visceral feeling of a personal and perceived vengeance. It is a shame, then, that such a fascinating character study should be eclipsed by a more lurid film (and eventual franchise) that goes against the very point the book makes.

The name Death Wish is one that conjures up the image of a gun-toting Charles Bronson shooting muggers and a movie that supports such actions. The book it is based upon, on the other hand, goes against that stance with a character study that captures how one might change into such a person.


A Slice of ’80s Cinema: My Personal Picks

Back in 2011, author Ernest Cline hit the literary world hard with the debut of his premiere novel Ready Player One. Telling the story of teenager Wade Watts and his hunt for a legendary treasure in a virtual reality world known as the Oasis, the book grabbed attention not only with its fascinating vision of a VR world that impacts everyday life, but also with the deluge of pop culture references that permeate its pages. In particular, pop culture from the 1980s is a major subject within this sci-fi adventure. In honor of the upcoming release of the film adaptation, which is being done by famed director Steven Spielberg, I have decided to assemble my personal selection of movies from the 1980s. These are an assortment of films I feel could serve as a solid introduction to ’80s pop culture for someone new to the time period. Some are movies I feel capture some aspect of the time, others are a spotlight on filmmakers who impacted the era or began their careers here, and some are simply movies that are generally regarded as classics and worth checking out. Now, these thirteen films are not ranked in any particular order, and they are my personal opinion. With that said, let’s delve into the era, shall we?

1. Back to the Future

Though I have tried not to do any particular ranking to this list, I confess that I chose to start it with a movie from the ’80s that is also my personal favorite film: Back to the Future. Centered around teenager Marty McFly as he goes back in time to the ’50s, the film follows Marty as he inadvertently interferes with his parents’ first meeting and must bring them together before he fades from existence. It is no wonder how the film has become a classic since its release, thanks to memorable characters, a sharp story, and one of fiction’s most remembered time machines in the form of the DeLorean.

2. The Breakfast Club

Teen films were ever present throughout the ’80s, from standard fare like Fast Times at Ridgemont High to more subversive and different works like Heathers. Chief among the filmmakers for such films was John Hughes, regarded as having an ear for writing natural dialogue for his teenage characters. No work better captures that like The Breakfast Club, which brings five high school stereotypes together for detention and break down the social barriers between them.

3. Raiders of the Lost Ark

After cementing the modern blockbuster with the one-two punch of Jaws and Star Wars back in the ’70s, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas would come to be two defining figures in ’80s cinema. The pair would separately direct and produce plenty of ’80s films, but one project where the two worked together was Raiders of the Lost Ark. Serving as a fun and thrilling throwback to the two-fisted tales of the 1930s, the film followed archaeologist Indiana Jones as he battled Nazis and sought to find the legendary Ark of the Covenant.

4. Ghostbusters

Among the many hit movies of the ’80s, few quite struck a nerve as did the comedy Ghostbusters. Following a group of scientists who start a business hunting ghosts, the movie’s sharp wit, memorable characters, and even creepy supernatural threats helped to ensure that the film became one of 1984’s highest-grossing releases. It also doesn’t hurt having one of the most memorable theme songs in movie history, one that was even nominated for an Academy Award.

5. A Nightmare on Elm Street

The horror trend in the ’80s was all about the Slasher movie, a subgenre that concerns teens and young adults being hunted down by some powerful killer. Though plenty of slasher movies like Friday the 13th and My Bloody Valentine were made in those years, I feel a strong example of the subgenre comes with A Nightmare on Elm Street. Following a group of teens haunted by a supernatural killer that can slaughter them in their sleep, the movie offers a good story paired with memorable scares and a brilliant bogeyman in the form of Freddy Krueger.

6. Flashdance

The ’80s gave the world MTV, and with that came the true birth of the music video. In this new avenue of music and visuals working together, one film to capitalize on this moment was Flashdance. Centered around a steel mill worker who dreams of becoming a professional dancer, the movie’s intimate story of pursuing one’s dreams is paired up with several dance sequences that would fit well among the music videos the newfound channel would broadcast.

7. Big Trouble in Little China

John Carpenter is a director who certainly made his mark in the ’80s, with such films as the sci-fi horror classic The Thing and the subversive action movie They Live. However, a work from that time I feel is worth checking out is Big Trouble in Little China. Centered around trucker Jack Burton and his pal Wang Chi, the two face off against monsters and martial artists to rescue a girl captured by an ancient Chinese ghost sorcerer. Filled with plenty of action and some good fun, it’s capped by the film’s cleverest touch: that Jack Burton thinks he’s the movie’s hero, when he’s really the comic relief in over his head in a world of Chinese combat and mythology.

8. The Terminator

James Cameron is a filmmaker who has made two of the highest grossing films of all time, but it’s almost hard to believe how quickly he hit the ground running with his first feature, known as The Terminator. This sci-fi thriller follows soldier Kyle Reese as he goes back in time to save Sarah Connor from a Terminator, an unstoppable android sent to kill her. Its vision of a future ravaged by a robotic uprising and cybernetic killing machines left an indelible mark in the realm of science fiction, along with launching the acting career of Arnold Schwarzenegger and turning him into one of the decade’s biggest action stars.

9. Die Hard

For ’80s action movies, most of them tended to be centered around muscular men who proved to be unstoppable killing machines, such as in films like Commando or The Delta Force. The genre received a solid shakeup from this archetype with the release of Die Hard, centered around officer John McClane as he gets caught in a hostage situation orchestrated by Hans Gruber. John McClane stood out among the action heroes of the time thanks to relying more on cunning and sheer determination to battle these criminals instead of brute strength, along with a charming performance delivered by then newcomer Bruce Willis.

10. Akira

Japan was on the pop culture mind back in the 1980s, and anime was beginning to creep into the West with series like Voltron and Robotech. However, the gates would really open with the release of the cyberpunk anime film Akira. Telling the tale of two friends torn apart when one gains incredible psychic power, its brutal action and surreal visuals caught the imagination of many and carved anime’s first solid foothold into the West, paving the way for its boom in the ’90s.

11. First Blood

Though John Rambo is a movie character whose films would become associated with the excessive action fare most associated in the ’80s, his first film is actually a more serious affair. First Blood is a psychological thriller, one that unfolds when police brutality dealt to Vietnam veteran John Rambo triggers wartime flashbacks and leads to a small-scale war as he fights back. This gripping film explores the issue of mistreatment of Vietnam veterans with a powerful hand, aided by Sylvester Stallone’s haunting performance as Rambo.

12. Beetlejuice

Long before Tim Burton would become one of the crowning pop culture figures in the Goth community, he was a budding filmmaker whose career began after a short film he made called Vincent gained notice. His first feature would be Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, but the film that really would establish him was his follow-up, a comedy known as Beetlejuice. Centered around a ghost couple who mistakenly hire the “bio-exorcist” Betelgeuse to scare a new family out of their home, the film showcases the kind of wondrous visuals and playfully morbid nature that would define Burton’s style.

13. The Princess Bride

The fantasy genre had a major boom in the 1980s, with plenty of variety from sweeping epics like Conan the Barbarian and Legend to more playful fare like Labyrinth and Willow. One work that has grown into becoming a fond classic among this boom is The Princess Bride. Framed within the set-up of a grandfather reading his grandson a story, the film’s tale of adventure and romance as farmhand Wesley seeks to reunite with the lovely Princess Buttercup pulls off a wonderful balance of poking fun at fairy tale conventions while sincerely capturing the joy of them.

So, those are my recommendations when it comes to introducing oneself to movies from the ’80s. I hope that this sample platter of films helps to offer a gateway to ’80s pop culture for someone new. There are plenty of other films I could have added to this list, but I didn’t want to go on too long. Perhaps you might discover these other works yourself, after dipping your toes into the pop culture pool.

The Old and the New: The Blob (1958 and 1988)

In the world of film, there have been plenty of arguments about original movies versus remakes. Some may argue that the first version is superior, thanks to a purer execution in its idea or perhaps the methods of the time better working. Others may argue that a remake can be the better work, perhaps in better realizing the original work’s ideas or using better effects to pull off what the earlier work could not properly show. The debates rage back and forth, and some may lay down a blanket statement for its side. Personally, I feel that the case can vary based upon the films. Sometimes the original can work well, other times the remake can achieve better goals. In this case, I thought it might be worth examining an example of this split. After all, noting the elements in both can help to better understand the processes between an original and remake. In this case, I shall examine two films of the same subject, separated by 30 years from one another. The subject is The Blob, first made back in 1958 and earning a spot among classic ’50s sci-fi movies. Later, it would be remade in 1988, with the remake gaining a cult following over the years. Now, how do these two versions of the same work compare?

Both films work from the same basic plot. One night, a meteorite falls from space just outside of a small town. From within this meteorite, a strange amoeba-like creature emerges and begins crawling out in search of food. It wraps itself around its prey, dissolving them down into its body. A group of teenagers discover the creature and try to warn the authorities, only to be met by resistance from disbelieving adults. It is only once the creature grows in mass and its hunt more prominent, do the townspeople finally come together to fight for their survival and just maybe stop this alien creature. From this common point, along with a shared theme of distrust, come two diverging approaches. Firstly, the original 1958 film has its focus on the generational divide. In an age when sci-fi movies had their focus on adults and scientists, the movie stood out with its focus on teenagers trying to stop this seemingly unstoppable creature. It also offers a promise of hope in its narrative, as adults come to see past their prejudices and help out these desperate teenagers. The 1988 film, meanwhile, takes a more pointed angle in its distrust. Though there are issues between teens and adults, a more focused distrust comes from the government. They arrive claiming they they seek to simply quarantine and save the town, yet their attitudes suggest they know more about the creature than they let on. The result is that, in a way, the remake gives more of an enemy and explanation beyond just the blob itself.

As for the creature itself, the titular blob, both films offer great visions of this alien threat. In the original, the creature oozes and crawls with a creeping manner, even if the effects do not quite capture the full potential. That said, the idea of this monster, of a creeping blob that simply seeks to feed and eat, is a powerful one and it is no surprise that the creature should become such a classic movie monster. In fact, there is a particular detail that I find striking in the original. Namely, it begins as a clear-colored blob, but grow redder over the film as it consumes its victims. Meanwhile, the remake takes advantage of more modern effects to truly capture the terror of this blob. Often, there are clear views of victims enwrapped within the blob’s amorphous form, dissolving and breaking down in its acid-like body. The visual is a horrific one, and delivers a strong punch. That said, the remake’s conceit of the blob being able to form tentacles feels like an excessive touch. Despite the original’s weaker effects, there is something to be said for the simple effectiveness of a single, moving mass seeking out its prey. There are times that the remake certainly delivers that core terror, but occasionally it offers ideas that stray from the simple effectiveness of this monster. Now, is there a particular version of the film which I recommend?

Personally, I find that the 1988 version makes for a better watch. While the 1958 film certainly has its place in movie history, I find that the film has not aged well in certain regards. For instance, a fair amount of the film finds itself dragged down in dialogue that is delivered in a more amateur style. Along with that, budget limitations of the day mean that the blob itself is often relegated to an offscreen threat, until near the end of the film once it becomes a massive threat. Not that hiding a monster is necessarily bad, as it could build suspense. However, the result is frequent description of what it does, instead of a real showcase of its destruction. Most of all, the pacing of the movie feels bogged down, as the combination of weak performances and budget restrictions result in the movie dragging its feet and not fully delivering on its monster movie punch until near its end. Meanwhile, the pacing of the 1988 film moves along at a brisker flow, developing its story with solid twists and turns. Along with that, improved special effects allow the movie to deliver some visceral scenes of the blob’s attacks, at enough of a pace that it does not feel like the movie forgets to deliver on the horror of this creature. Ultimately, while the original film has a great idea along with a memorable movie monster, it feels like the remake is able to deliver more on the promise of that idea.

Oftentimes, arguments can rage back and forth on whether an original film or its remake is better. In the case of The Blob, I find that the 1988 remake is an enjoyable watch that has a better pace and the perk of more modern special effects to better realize the promise of the 1958 original.

The Man Who Invented Christmas: A Writer’s Lament

The biopic is a type of movie that offers a glimpse into the life of a figure from history. They may attempt to cover a broad history of their central figure, or they may choose to instead focus their lens upon a singular event in their life. In any case, they offer a chance to examine the fascinating history behind real people, from ordinary people to grand figures in the scope of history. However, there is one particular kind of person that can pose a challenge with the biopic. Namely, a writer. Writers of course can make their impact on history with their writing, but how does one communicate their work to an audience? After all, simply showing the writer writing and then having others say their work is great can come across as dull and blunt. Thankfully, a new film about Charles Dickens has found an interesting approach over this hurdle. In the film The Man Who Invented Christmas, it takes the chance to look at Charles Dickens and his creation of A Christmas Carol. Within this delightful look at the the creation of a literary classic, it presents the writing process by having Dickens interact with his own characters as he builds the story.

Suffering from a string of three flops and finding mounting debt facing him, Charles Dickens must write a new hit. Finding inspiration all around him, in particular a little-attended funeral for a rich man, he hits upon the idea of a ghost story set during Christmastime. However, his publishers are hesitant to go ahead with the idea, not only due to Dickens’s string of flops but also due to Christmas being a then-little-celebrated holiday. As a result, Dickens takes it upon himself to self-publish his book, intending to release it in time for Christmas. Thus, he is left with six weeks to write this new story and get it published in time. Complicating matters is the arrival of his father John, a man Charles resents for his spendthrift and immature ways. In fact, it is those attitudes that had caused a split between the two of them, resulting in a past that still haunts Dickens. That haunting gnaws at him, particularly as he tries to find the ending to his story. He finds himself plagued by a simple question: can a man, trapped in his ways and past for so long, truly change after all this time?

The Man Who Invented Christmas is a breezy, delightful look at the making of such a classic piece of Christmas literature. Dan Stevens works well as the famous author Charles Dickens, lending him both an eccentric air as he captures that great creative spark and that unease when facing the chains of his own past. Likewise, Christopher Plummer is a natural fit as Ebenezer Scrooge, giving the miser a cold gaze and hardened air. There is a charming, theatrical pulse to the film as a whole, which charges ahead with a firm energy in its tale. Using the dynamic of Dickens meeting and interacting with his characters as he fleshes them out into form adds a spirited touch to the proceedings, mixing his memories and the world around him with the fantastical tale of spirits on Christmas Eve. In fact, with its element of doubling actors as both figures in Dickens’s life and characters from his story, one could almost imagine this work playing out on a stage in the West End. More than that, this idea goes into one of the best strengths of the film. Namely, it offers a visual format for presenting the writing process.

The challenge in presenting a writer at work is the fact that writing is, essentially, an internal task. It is a person bringing their ideas and thoughts to the page. Thus, a way to work around that hurdle when telling the story of a writer is to externalize that process. The Man Who Invented Christmas finds a variety of ways to communicate the writing process and Dickens’s path to creating A Christmas Carol. For instance, people and things all around Dickens plant their inspiration for elements of his story. One such example is how the name of an aging waiter and the image of chains scattered over a lawyer’s safe eventually come together to create the ghost of Jacob Marley. Most often, the film plays with Dickens talking to and interacting with his characters, finding how they develop and in turn develop the story. An early meeting upon first creating Scrooge, as an example, leads to a word association game that fleshes out the tight-fisted miser and better crystallizes the character in Dickens’s mind. More than that, it also uses these character to better explore Dickens himself. Over the course of the film, Scrooge serves as not just the bitter man who would be so central to A Christmas Carol. He also serves to represent Dickens’s fears and doubts, gnawing away at him with the concerns of his past and his present. It is a way that also communicates the personal impact of the writer, how their own life can come to affect and influence their work. All in all, it does a lot more than other works that just show a writer doing their job and showing others react to their work. It shows all the pieces that come into play, from the bits of inspiration in the world around them to those personal interior sparks.

Biopics can be made of all sorts of figures through history, but writers are more difficult to convey due to the nature of their profession. The Man Who Invented Christmas deftly handles that issue as Dickens meets the characters of his own story, offering a spirited touch to the history behind a literary classic.

Justice League: Good Heroes in Need of a Good Movie

The timeline of the DCEU (or DC Extended Universe, as Warner Bros. Pictures refers to its cinematic universe based on the works of DC Comics) has been a spotty one. First starting with Man of Steel back in 2013, this movie universe started with a film that was alright, if slightly misguided in applying a darker tone to Superman, a character more noted for his hope and optimism. Later, a major misstep arose in the form of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which misunderstood the core of its heroes alongside plenty of other errors and weird questions. Suicide Squad similarly had issues, such as a clean split in tone between an overstylized first 45 minutes that then deflates into generic action. It was not until this past summer that the DCEU had its first major success with Wonder Woman, capturing the core spirit of its legendary heroine in period piece action. Now, at last, one of the most iconic teams in comics has hit the big screen with Justice League. Is this another hit, or yet another stumbling block in the DCEU? It certainly is not as bad as some may say, but it sadly does fall shorter than one would like.

It has been six months since the death of Superman. With the loss of such a figure for good, crime and terror have been on the rise around the world. Among all of this, however, a stranger threat as begun to emerge. Parademons, bug-like alien soldiers that target those who feel fear, have been turning up around the planet. After Batman has a battle with one such Parademon on the rooftops of Gotham City, he realizes that it is time to prepare. Reaching out to Diana Prince, in truth the legendary warrior Wonder Woman, the two realize the source of these scouts. An alien warlord known as Steppenwolf is coming to Earth, in search of three devices known as Mother Boxes that could potentially destroy all life on the planet. To stop him, they seek out others who can aid them in their fight. These include Barry Allen, a quip-making young man capable of moving at super speed; Arthur Curry, a protector of the seas who possesses great strength, incredible swimming prowess, and the ability to communicate with sea life; and Victor Stone, a former high school football star who has become a cybernetic being ever since a tragic car accident. Can these disparate characters come together to save the world, or shall the Earth fall to the forces of Steppenwolf?

Now, there are some good points to this film. For instance, Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot still show their prowess as Batman and Wonder Woman respectively. As for the newcomers, J. K. Simmons is a great match with an all-too-brief appearance as Commissioner Gordon while Ray Fisher works fine as Cyborg, even as he is chained down with a brooding attitude and poor special effects. However, the film has plenty of flaws that do burden it. For instance, the first half of this film is something of a pain through which to wade. The film is almost precisely two hours long, meaning that the movie with tasked with introducing its three new heroes and establishing its conflict while still delivering action within that run time. The result is that the movie, for a long time, rushes itself through blunt exposition and sudden bits of action at a breakneck speed with little time for real character development. Once the team comes together, it settles into a better pace that allows for room to offer character insights and show the team working together. Still, one must sit through agonized storytelling to get there. Along with that, it is surprising that such a big budget film would have middling-to-poor CG for its effects. It is particularly apparent with Cyborg, whose over-designed CG body sticks out when a practical body with CG enhancements could have looked better.  Still, despite my complaints, Justice League is not the total wreck that some fear and it is an alright film. That is the problem, however, and why so many people are dismissive of it. A movie about the Justice League should not simply be okay.

Throughout the process of these films, Warner Bros. Pictures has been using a rather broad strokes approach to its management of the DCEU. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice had been given a “no jokes” guiding approach, specifically to be a contrast against Marvel’s lighter tone. When they found that audiences had responded well to Suicide Squad‘s more light-hearted trailer, the studio had the film go through reshoots to put in more humor and then recut it by the team that did the trailer. Even Justice League has had its share of brute management, such as first starting as two separate films and being condensed to one and then being given a mandate to be no longer than two hours. This sort of heavy-handed management has been plaguing the DCEU ever since the start. Now, I am not saying that Warner Bros. has to copy Marvel Studios’s exact methods. However, Marvel has put in careful planning and tailored each film to best fit their particular heroes. As a result, they took heroes that most of the general public were not familiar with and made them stars. Meanwhile, Warner Bros. has taken some of the most iconic superheroes in the history of comics and has gotten a response not much greater than “meh”. It is truly a shame that such great characters should be weighed down by such poor management. The Justice League deserve a movie that is better than “meh”, and Warner Bros. needs to open up to more careful management instead of continuing this reactionary broad strokes approach.

The DCEU has been a spotty affair, though there was a glimmer of hope with the success of Wonder Woman. Unfortunately, Justice League falls on the lesser end of the spectrum, not quite as bad as other DCEU misses though still disappointing in its mediocrity.

Damon Runyon: More than Somewhat a Fascinating Author

It is a fascinating thing to watch as a piece of fiction grows in popularity and ingrains itself into the public consciousness. It is more interesting, in a way, when it grows such that the source behind the story might be lost to the public eye. Take, for instance, the classic musical Guys and Dolls. First premiering on Broadway back in 1950, the show has remained a classic thanks to its infectious score and delightful tale of love and gambling. Its popularity has endured and cemented the show among the musical classics, from a film adaptation back in 1955 to numerous stage revivals on Broadway and the West End that have cropped up to this day.  What most people these days might not remember, however, are the stories which inspired the musical. Specifically, the show is based on two short stories known as “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” and “Blood Pressure”. Both stories are the creation of Damon Runyon, a journalist who would gain fame with his short story writing. So, just who is this man and how did his writing light the spark for such a hit musical? Let us begin with a peek into the life of Mr. Runyon.

Born on October 4, 1880 with the name “Alfred Damon Runyan”, Runyon’s family was one involved in the newspaper business. After moving from Kansas to Colorado as a result of his father selling their paper, he spent his days in school until the fourth grade. After that, he began working under his father and learning the ways of the business. There was a break in this work when he joined the military in his late teens, but he became a full journalist of his own after the military service. He worked across a variety of papers, before eventually moving out to New York City in 1910. His byline at the time presented his name as “Damon Runyon”, which would stick for the rest of his life.  From there, he found himself a life covering baseball and boxing for the papers. His writing quickly earned him notice, thanks to his keen eye for the weird and eccentric. In fact, he is the man who nicknamed the famous heavyweight boxer James Braddock as the “Cinderella Man”. Of course, his memorable writing is not only limited to the world of the newspaper column. He would also go on to write numerous short stories.

Within the world of Runyon’s stories, he paints a picture of a wicked yet playful underside to New York City. His tales found themselves centered around criminals, gamblers, and actors, all hustling and bustling amid crazy adventures. Oftentimes, they possess colorful names like Nathan Detroit, Good Time Charley, and Dave the Dude. Their escapades are frequently presented through the lens of an unnamed narrator, a character who seems to not be a criminal yet knows the company of shady characters well. He orchestrates his yarns with a carefully constructed sense of heart and humor, but one of the most unique parts of Runyon’s stories is how he writes them. Firstly, he almost totally avoids using the past or future tense, preferring to unfold his writing in the present tense. Secondly, he writes with an interesting mixture of street slang and a mocking sense of pomposity. In his stories, a lady is just as likely to be called a “doll” as she would a “character of a feminine nature”. That odd mixture is further enhanced by a lack of contractions, giving a precise rhythm to his pacing. The overall result is a writing style that brings pompous airs to street-level energy. This style, in conjunction with the colorful characters and criminal atmosphere he wrote about, is what helped make him such a big name.

Though his name might not be as well-known these days, Runyon had earned himself quite a popular following in his time and the years after. In addition to the stage musical adaptation of his stories in Guys and Dolls and its film adaptation, there have been nineteen other movies based on his work. A few of these other films include Lady for a Day (released in 1933 and directed by Frank Capra), Little Miss Marker (released in 1934 and launching the career of Shirley Temple), and The Lemon Drop Kid (first adapted in 1934, then remade in 1951 with Bob Hope). His short stories even had a home in anthology programming with Damon Runyon Theater, first as a radio program and then a television series. Clearly, his colorful tales about criminals and their schemes have earned him a solid spot in American literary history, yet his name has unfortunately fallen into obscurity these days. Personally, I feel his work is worth revisiting, his sharp writing style bringing an energy and feel that is still as effective as when his work was first printed. If one is interested in getting a taste of his stories, I would recommend Guys and Dolls and Other Writings. Published by Penguin Classics in 2008, the collection serves as a good starting point with Runyon’s writing. In addition to the two stories that would serve as the basis for Guys and Dolls, the book features plenty of his other short stories, along with poems, newspaper articles, and other pieces of his writing. It is just the right collection to introduce someone to Damon Runyon and the colorful underworld he brought to life with his words.

Murder on the Orient Express: A Rocky Railway for the Familiar Mystery

During the 1920s and 1930s, the literary world was going through a phrase now regarded as the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. During that era, plenty of authors gained attention with their takes on the mystery genre, along with creating interesting detectives to sort through these clues. Among the bigger names of this period was writer Agatha Christie, who brought one of fiction’s greatest detectives to the page: Hercule Poirot. A Belgian detective fastidious in his appearance, he is also decidedly arrogant about his own genius. In fact, Poirot’s main method in solving a mystery is to talk to witnesses and suspects, using his “little grey cells” (as he refers to his brain) to figure out the truth from their testimonies instead of relying on just physical clues. Poirot has been the subject of numerous books, with one of his most famous tales being Murder on the Orient Express. Plenty of adaptations have been done of the Poirot stories, but this time filmmaker Kenneth Branagh has taken a crack at adapting that famous novel for the big screen. While the core of the story still works, the path in displaying this memorable yarn is unfortunately a rocky one.

After solving a case in Jerusalem, Hercule Poirot finds himself in need of a vacation. Unfortunately, his chance at a break from detective work is broken when a telegram urges him to London in regards to a new case. With some help from an associate named Bouc, Poirot manages to get himself a last-minute cabin on the famous Orient Express train. Among the packed train and its many riders, Poirot finds himself approached by one such passenger named Samuel Ratchett. A rather shady character, Ratchett tries to convince Poirot that someone is out to get him and that he wants to hire Poirot to protect him. Disgusted by the man, Poirot simply declines. The next day, however, Poirot and the other passengers discover a nasty shock: someone has murdered Ratchett. Even worse, an avalanche has left the train trapped, and them trapped with the murderer. With nowhere to go as they wait for officials to clear the path, Bouc implores Poirot to take the case and figure out who killed Ratchett. Using not much more than the clues on this train and the testimonies of the other passengers, Poirot must work through the twisted tangle of lies and red herrings, in search of the shocking truth behind it all.

As the latest attempt to adapt this classic story, Kenneth Branagh’s film is slightly uneven in the execution. Before getting into those points, it is worth noting that there are parts that do work in this retelling. For instance, Branagh has assembled a top-notch cast for this film, who all offer some fine work. In particular, some of the fresher faces like Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, and Leslie Odom Jr. shine through with captivating performances. Likewise, Kenneth Branagh does a fine job as Hercule Poirot, delivering a mixture of keen determination along with a warm gentility. As for how the film is shot, Branagh’s approach for lavish shots works to a degree. In addition to scenes located outside of the train, he offers a variety of shooting styles to bring variety to the singular location of a train. For instance, an early tracking shot through the hallway of the train serves to showcase some of the other passengers in one steady path, while an overhead shot of the murder scene is presented in a way that evokes design schematics. These are fine points, but unfortunately the film does suffer in certain aspects that keep it from getting its full potential.

Throughout the film, there are touches and changes that either do not add much to the story or simply are flawed in their execution. For instance, there are a few moments when Poirot pines over a picture of a lost love, despite these moments not really being followed up in the narrative. There are also a few points in the film when it decides to bring out a more action-oriented approach, which occasionally feels out of place within this sort of old-fashioned murder mystery. Most of all, there is a flawed execution in this version’s take on Poirot. His fastidiousness and desire for order are extrapolated and expanded, turned into a black and white view on morality. This movie’s version of the iconic detective sees crime as simply disorder, a fracture of the soul. Thus, the film attempts to conflict it against the bizarre nature of the crime. It is an interesting angle and one which possesses shades in the original story, but it feels like it sacrifices some of the charm of Poirot by hammering the point so hard for a grander narrative. Perhaps it could have been more interesting to explore Poirot’s own egotism and his belief in his skill of understanding order and method, bringing it to conflict against the nature of this very case. That could have perhaps allowed this film to offer something more of its own in adapting the classic story, while retaining the classic mystery feel in its core. In truth, the film’s best moments are when it commits to the sort of murder mystery that is seldom seen in media these days, capturing a glimmer of what helps this story remain such a classic.

In the world of detective fiction, Hercule Poirot is one of the most iconic detectives, with the most famous tale of his intellectual prowess being Murder on the Orient Express. This particular adaptation shows glimmers of that great tale, if only it had been more focused on capturing the strength of the original murder mystery style instead of overdoing grander ideas.