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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 16, 2017

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Orient Express, Song for Christmas

Murder on the Orient Express is based on one of Agatha Christie's best Hercule Poirot mysteries, and when it was filmed by Sidney Lumet back in 1974, it was dazzling.

Gorgeous sets, a fabulous cast -- Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark, Michael York, and Albert Finney as the vain and brilliant Hercule Poirot.

I had read the book years before, but didn't remember the ending, so everything took me by surprise and at the final reveal, I was blown away. It was one of those movies that stayed with me for years after seeing it.

When I heard that Kenneth Branagh was directing -- and starring in -- a remake of Murder on the Orient Express for release this year, I was saddened. First, because there seems so little point in remaking a perfect movie.

Either you don't change it at all, in which case, why not just let us stream or buy the original version?

Or you change it, and every change makes it a little worse.

They chose the second option, and who can be surprised? Because my second sadness was this: Only someone as vain as Kenneth Branagh could look at a project like Murder on the Orient Express and think, I know the perfect casting for Hercule Poirot! The greatest actor of the age! Moi! Me! Me me me me me!

Oh, the rest of the cast is very good, but except for Dame Judi Dench and Michelle Pfeiffer, there's nobody at the level of the previous cast.

As my favorite film reviewer, Eric Snyder, said, "This film would have had $100 million in pre-sales if the marketing had told people that Johnny Depp is the one who gets murdered."

The filmmakers, including Branagh as director, did a splendid job of filming this script and evoking another age. And the actors all did their parts wonderfully.

One hundred percent of the problems with this film are in the script, though they are almost certainly not the fault of the writer, Michael Green, or at least not his fault alone.

I mean, this is the same guy who gave us the brilliant scripts for Blade Runner 2049 and Logan. And in this script he gave us lively, intelligent dialogue and characters who deserved the level of acting the cast gave them.

But somebody -- an executive? Branagh? Green himself? -- actually believed the formulaic twaddle they teach screenwriters and movie executives in film classes.

What, Agatha Christie's novel consists mostly of people talking to each other in posh surroundings? No! Somebody needs to be shot! Somebody needs to fall from a high place! And above all, Hercule Poirot himself must be in personal jeopardy!

Here's the thing that never occurs to them: Maybe Agatha Christie, quite probably the greatest writer of detective novels ever, knew what she was doing. In many of her mysteries, the sleuth character is in a great deal of personal jeopardy -- she knew how to do it, when it needed to be done.

But in Murder on the Orient Express she didn't need to do it. What mattered was the insoluble puzzle, with Poirot frustrated, knowing that everyone was lying to him and not knowing how to get at the truth.

When Sidney Lumet, one of the greatest film directors of all time, directed this story, he created an excellent balance in an ensemble cast, and the reveal was stunning.

But because Kenneth Branagh was director and star, he did what Streisand always did when she starred in and directed a movie: The entire thing became about the star.

That's why Murder on the Orient Express this time around is relentlessly about Hercule Poirot -- the part that Branagh plays. In a continuation of one of the great love stories in all of cinema -- Kenneth's devotion to Kenneth -- we get Hercule Poirot suffering terribly over the thought that he might not be able to bring the murderer to justice. Scene after scene, speech after speech. Yes, Kenneth! We get it! You're the star! This movie is about you!

Not only does all this angst absolutely telegraph the reveal, it overshadows it when it finally comes. That's just inept.

Twaddle. Fake. And, above all, ick.

And yet. Despite Kenneth Branagh's self-worship, despite the script's film-school formulae, despite the faked-up adventure, this is a gorgeous film with excellent performances, not least by Judi Dench and Michelle Pfeiffer, who blow everybody else off the screen (including Branagh; he's really not in their league, alas).

And that's what still works in this 2017 remake -- in spite of the script's having lost faith in Christie's original.

So I do recommend seeing this movie, for the scenery (shot pretty much everywhere) and the train (lovingly reconstructed in an English town), the cast, and the performances. And, yes, the story, because it does mostly survive, proving that even when you try to wreck Agatha Christie, she still outsmarts you in the end.

Then get yourself a copy of the 1974 version, and you'll see why every teenage girl in the world in 1974 had a crush on Michael York -- and why that version of Murder on the Orient Express was beloved for 43 years before anyone thought a remake was needed.

You'll also get a good schooling in the difference between a great director -- Sidney Lumet -- and a merely good-enough one.

*

Are you sick of Greek yogurt bullying every other kind off the shelves? I know that I've watched in great frustration as inedible Greek-style yogurt became a fad and every store dropped most of their edible yogurts in favor of the Greek, which even the cats that infest my back yard reject.

Well, there's been a bit of a swing of the pendulum lately. First, Whole Foods has restored the shelf-space occupied by Wallaby brand yogurt -- the best there is -- so that I can now find all my favorite flavors every time I go there.

And then, in a simple Food Lion in Avon this past weekend, I found two Yoplait products that are truly outstanding -- and they're French, not Greek.

First are the low, wide tubs of Yoplait Custard Yogurt. I tried the Strawberry and Vanilla; both were excellent. They aren't as loose as the Wallaby brand; you don't need or want to stir them. You just spoon them out the way you would a great chocolate mousse.

Even better, though, is the French Style Yogurt: Oui, by Yoplait. It comes in sealed glass jars, which are so well made that I felt awful throwing them away. I grew up in a family that saved all our baby-food jars for years because my father could use them to store precious artifacts like a nut without a bolt, or a bolt without a nut, in case the mate turned up someday.

But since the Oui yogurts don't come with reusable lids, the only practical reason for keeping those fine glass jars is that they would make great juice glasses -- if you ever have only two ounces of juice.

Too big for a shot glass, too small for a juice glass, way too tiny for a potted plant, they're lovely and pretty much useless. So I tell myself: They used to be sand on the beach; now they'll go to whatever recycling our lovely community does with glass. Maybe they'll become sand again.

The flavors we tried: Vanilla. Peach. Plain. All delicious, perfectly smooth.

If you, too, are fed up with weird claims about the virtues of nasty Greek-style yogurt, the kale of the yogurt world, and want to get back to the real thing, you could do a whole lot worse than Yoplait's Oui and Custard Yogurt.

Or, of course, go to Whole Foods and raid their supply of Wallaby yogurt.

*

I happened to hear a snippet of a Christmas song from a new male quartet called "Under the Streetlamp." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pxY_sJibrD8

This quartet consists of four recent leading cast members of Jersey Boys -- a tribute musical to the Four Seasons. Except that individually, voice for voice, and then together in close harmony and dancing all over the stage, Under the Streetlamp is kind of better than the Four Seasons.

They specialize in great rock-and-pop songs from the 40s, 50s, and 60s.

Now, this is the music I grew up on, back when we went to dances and, like, danced -- the Lindy hop, foxtrot, cha-cha, waltz, even polka. We knew how -- and we already knew by fourth grade. (I remember a basement rec-room dance at some girl's house for her birthday party when I was nine, and everybody knew the steps and danced. It's the last time in my life that I was actually cool.)

But their audience is not just old coots like me. It's for people of every age who love great songs, performed with energy and perfect musicality.

Alexa couldn't find them for me, and at the moment Amazon only has used copies at absurdly inflated prices, but it doesn't matter. You can buy physical cds from their website (underthestreetlamp.com) and also stream them from other sources.

Their Christmas album, Every Day's a Holiday, is three years old, so they've been around a little while. They offer cds from two PBS specials and a cd/dvd combination, besides their Christmas album.

To those who remember the nostalgia band Sha Na Na, I'm happy to tell you that Under the Streetlamp is better, and has no hint of irony. They love this music and they're not joking.

*

It's pretty daring to create a movie about a singing star.

First, there's the casting problem. Who ya gonna cast that actually sings like somebody who could be a star?

In making The Rose, loosely based on Janis Joplin, back in 1979, they cast Bette Midler. No, she didn't sound like Janis Joplin; no, she didn't sing Joplin's signature songs. But from beginning to end, you absolutely believed that people would turn out by the thousands to hear her sing.

Most of the time, though, they cast actors whose singing ability is perfectly OK; but you can't actually believe anybody would line up outside the theater to get their autograph.

In making the new Hallmark Movies & Mysteries Christmas movie A Song for Christmas, they needed two credible country singers who could also act. They found both in Becca Tobin, who first met the television audience in Glee, and Kevin McGarry, who survived being an actor in Saw III and also seems to have a promising country music career getting started.

So yeah, A Song for Christmas has an excellent cast, led by Tobin and McGarry, who take a good script and make it work beautifully. They have, not "chemistry," which suggests raw physical attraction, but something better: a romantic connection where we can see admiration and respect turn into love.

The plot is simple. The Lapp family Christmas tree farm is going to be foreclosed on, and they have to make money to pay off the back payments. At that moment of need, along comes Adelaide Kay (Tobin), who was accidently left behind by her tour bus. The Lapps take her in.

Will she fall in love with this family? Will they make Christmas real for her again? Will she help them save the farm? Will she jettison the fake boyfriend that publicists got for her and end up with Dillon Lapp (McGarry)?

This movie works. And it made me want to see and hear a lot more of Tobin and McGarry.

But they aren't alone in this cast. There are lots of good supporting actors, though my favorite is Dillon Lapp's little sister, Hailey, played by Kendra Leigh Timmins.

Playing the earnest farmgirl without a speck of glamor, Timmins completely wins our hearts as she struggles to come up with a plan to save the farm. Are there overtones of the Andy Hardy movies, with their "We can put on our own show!" formula? Yes. But Timmins is a really good actress, who makes us believe in and care about her character almost more than we do the leads.

Now here's the thing that's hardest about making movies about musical stars. Somebody has to write a hit song for them.

Remember how in About a Boy every time we start believing in the movie, they play a snippet of the Christmas song that Hugh Grant's father supposedly wrote, which makes Grant idly rich? And the song is so obviously awful that it undercuts the basic premise of the whole show?

What about Love Actually, in which Bill Nighy plays Billy Mack, a washed-up rock singer whose comeback is a truly awful remake of one of his old hits? The movie takes the curse off the song's awfulness by having Billy Mack make fun of it himself. But it's still awful, and still hard to believe anybody ever liked any version of it.

OK, A Song For Christmas includes the collaboration between Addie Kay and Dillon Lapp, in which she writes words for a tune he wrote, making it a Christmas song. We catch snippets of it -- underproduced, of course, and never complete -- until, at the end, they sing it as a unison duet (even though both singers are perfectly capable of singing harmony).

I was prepared for this to be a movie-wrecking failure. Instead, the song itself is in the not-bad category, leaning toward pretty good. I'd listen to it again.

Now, I saw this TV movie after driving to and from the Outer Banks with Sirius XM's two holiday channels pumping out endless Christmas music.

Some of that music was switch-away bad, like any version ever of "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" and "I'm Gettin' Nuttin' for Christmas," both of which seemed to be in a thirty-minute rotation on both channels.

Some of it was grind-your-head-into-a-belt-sander awful, like "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch."

Just because How the Grinch Stole Christmas became an unavoidable ritual of television at Christmas time doesn't turn "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" into a Christmas song -- any more than the fact that Oklahoma! contains a romance turns "Poor Jud Is Dead" into a love song.

But scattered among the tedious Christmas-season but not Christmas-song offerings ("Run Run Rudolph" -- or the originals about Rudolph and Frosty themselves) were some genuine Christmas songs, and a few winter-season songs that are actually good songs, including even the delightfully suggestive "Baby It's Cold Outside," which has not even a speck of Christmas about it.

(I don't understand how Sirius XM can think they have "Christmas music" when there's almost nothing that includes mention of Christ. There's no shortage of wonderful Christmas carols. Can't they have a music channel during the Christmas season that actual offers music to people who think that Jesus is the Savior of the world? There are a lot of us -- millions, in fact -- who would prefer that to "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree.")

But the thing is, I had constant reminders of songs that, one way or another, have become classics. And as I listened to the song these kids supposedly wrote in A Song for Christmas, I thought: This would make a non-embarrassing filler on a Christmas album, but as the lead single ... not quite there.

Then again, there are plenty of very successful songs in many genres which remain inexplicable to me, so what do I know?

What matters is that the song is good enough not to weaken the effect of a very good Hallmark Christmas movie. A Song for Christmas is well worth watching, for every reason.

*

Christmas music is more than festive, more than a sales-plug for stores that offer toys and other gifts from "Santa." When you grew up believing, not particularly in Santa Claus, but very deeply in Jesus Christ, Christmas music becomes a part of your soul.

Two notes into the overture of Handel's Messiah I'm already filled with anticipation and joy.

And even some of the more ordinary songs, like "Away in a Manger," have become deeply meaningful to me. My firstborn son had a hard time getting to sleep at night. We learned that if I lay on the floor of his bedroom, singing "Away in a Manger" -- his choice -- in an endless loop, alternating all three melodies, my wife could get some sleep and I could grade student papers.

That's right, I learned how to read essays and make appropriate comments and corrections while singing "Away in a Manger." And I did that almost every night until he was five.

The thing is, that was pretty much the last time I had that kind of presence in my son's life. The song is tied up with my memories of the little boy he was, and of my joy in my new role as a father.

So when our church choir rehearses a version of it, I have a hard time figuring out how I'm going to get through that song. I get so choked up that singing is impossible.

And it's made even worse because I finally understood the original meaning of the words in that last verse: "Bless all the dear children in thy tender care, and fit them for heaven to live with thee there."

In our family we had always sung "And fit us for heaven to live with thee there." This made it sound as if all children -- as if all people -- were in Christ's tender care, and it was by his influence in our lives that he was to "fit us for heaven."

But the original words seem to refer to all the children who died in childhood, particularly those who died unbaptized and therefore, according to some versions of Christian theology, were doomed to eternity in hell. That is not the doctrine of my church, but I can understand that prayer: a plea for mercy toward these innocents, whose only sin was being born descendants of Adam.

With that notion that "all the dear children" are the babies who died, that verse becomes quite unsingable for me, because my mind immediately reverts to the two graves in a cemetery in American Fork, Utah, where our last baby daughter and our seventeen-year-old second son lie buried. The song is personal to me in every way a song can be personal.

Not every Christmas song carries so much weight -- but very few of the good ones are without highly personal associations. Every song from the Messiah brings back memories of singing with the Greensboro Oratorio Society and, years earlier, singing many of the choruses in the brilliant church choir led by the late Margaret Brown, who taught my wife and me pretty much everything we know about conducting choral music.

The arrangement of "O Come, All Ye Faithful" that our choir is rehearsing was the first solo I sang in public after my voice changed (I had been a boy soprano). "The Little Drummer Boy" is, of course, the voice of Bing Crosby -- but it's also a song that my older daughter and I sang as a duet before she left home for good.

Many of the songs were Lennon Sisters favorites that I heard while decorating the tree or playing with the Christmas train while the family watched the Lawrence Welk Christmas special.

In fact, I pretty much organize my memories from Christmas to Christmas, and along with memories of the new pajamas our grandparents sent every Christmas and putting up the HO train around the tree and conspiring with my older sister to slip presents into our parents' stockings, there's always an accompaniment of Christmas music -- listening to it, singing it.

That's why I'm so disappointed in Sirius XM's Christmas channels this year. They both seem to offer the same mix of totally secular, reindeer-and-Santa centered jingles that have very little to do with my feelings and memories about Christmas.

Perhaps the ultimate Christmas music experience, for me, was when my good friend and frequent collaborator, Robert Stoddard, assembled the Christmas songs he had been writing as a Christmas present to his friends for many years, and arranged and recorded them with our mutual friend, John Huntington, as the soloist.

It's a beautiful album, written by a believing Christian who takes images of the manger, of Christmas ornaments, of everything that he and I love about Christmas and turns them into gorgeous music. I'm incredibly fortunate that one of the songs on that album has lyrics of mine -- yes, I was presumptuous enough to offer them to Robert, though he did very well without me on every other song.

I got my copy of his Christmas album -- December Tales -- not long after the death of our seventeen-year-old son, whose entire life had been limited by severe cerebral palsy, and whose patience, kindness, love, and joy were deeply missed in our home.

I still had books to write, and so as I sat in my attic office, I listened to December Tales over and over again while I forced myself to tell stories that meant pretty much nothing to me. There has been nothing in my life that was anywhere near as important to me as my children; my career is well down the list from there. Yet that's what put food on the table and paid the mortgage, so I could not stop.

December Tales felt like having this dear friend put his arm around my shoulder, helping me to go on with my work, with my life, despite my grief.

You can't listen to songs over and over and love them more each time, if they aren't pretty wonderful to start with. There are other composers and musicians who have written songs that provide great solace -- I think of Beth Nielsen Chapman's Sand and Water album and many ballads by Mary Chapin Carpenter.

And some highly popular songs have had a Christmas motif -- Joni Mitchell's "River" and Kenny Loggins's "Celebrate Me Home" -- that brings them into my list of Christmas songs that have built a road straight into my heart.

But how can they compete with the songs that carried me through the first and worst of my mourning? There's a reason why movies don't come to life until the musical score is added in. When it comes to the human heart, music is the floodlight, music is the laser.

As Joni Mitchell implied, music is the river you can skate away on.

I guess my point is that Christmas music isn't silly. At its best, it's the soul of the Christmas season. And those who, like Sirius XM, treat it as if only the shallow songs exist don't hurt Christmas -- they just lose out on it.

*

Sorry to keep repeating this notice, but ... not everybody reads my column every week, and we've found over the past few years that many people want autographed books to give as gifts during the Christmas season:

The Christmas season approaches, and we're continuing the tradition of offering some of my books, signed and personalized to your gift recipient, through our Greensboro Barnes & Noble. This spares you and me the need to attend a single book signing on a certain day, and you don't have to wait in any lines longer than the checkout line at the bookstore.

Becky Carignan at Barnes & Noble will even take remote orders, which they will then ship anywhere in the U.S. She'll stop taking out-of-town orders on 11 December or soon after, but local orders can be placed as late as 18 December of this year.

Remote buyers will pay the actual shipping costs, but there's no charge to local customers beyond the ordinary price of the book.

We don't offer this with every title -- just a few that Barnes & Noble orders especially for this purpose and keeps on hand until the end of the Christmas buying season.

Here is the list of books available in this program -- until the store runs out of any particular title:

-- My just-released book, Children of the Fleet, a sequel to Ender's Game.

-- Hardcovers of Ender's Game, Ender's Shadow, and the new edition of War of Gifts.

-- Hardcovers of the Mithermages trilogy: The Lost Gate, The Gate Thief, and Gatefather.

-- Boxed sets of hardcover or trade paperback editions of the YA trilogy Pathfinder, Ruins, and Visitors. We will remove the shrink-wrap so I can sign all three volumes to the person you specify.

If you're a local customer, just stop in at Barnes & Noble and ask for the book or books you want from this list. They'll charge you for it, take your information about whom it's to be signed to, then hold it till Monday when I come in to sign it. Once it's signed, they'll phone or email you so you can pick it up.

If you're ordering remotely, email the store at crm2795@bn.com and let them know the titles you want, the names you want them signed for, and the address to which the books should be shipped after signing. Include your phone number, too, because a store employee will call you to get credit card information (we don't want you including credit card info in emails!).

This offer is from our local Barnes & Noble only. The national chain and the Barnes & Noble website have nothing to do with this, so they won't know what you're talking about if you try to participate through them.

Remember, the last day to order locally will be Monday, December 18th; the last day for remote orders will be Monday, December 11th.

In addition, signed (but not personalized) copies of many of my books can be ordered directly from my own online bookstore at Hatrack.com -- including my Christmas book Zanna's Gift, which I think may be the best story I ever wrote. Give us a look at http://www.hatrack.com/store/store.cgi


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