The Phantom of the Opera Reading and Viewing Challenge – 1st Update

It’s April 1st, a quarter of the way through 2020 already, and that means it’s time for an update on Phantom reading and viewing adventures.  I hope you and yours are staying well in the midst of the pandemic situation, and maybe having time for some extra reading.  And remember – social isolation may be hard, but donning a mask and crashing chandeliers is never the answer!

I kicked off my Phantom exploration for the year with a reread of the original story, Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera.  This was my…third? fourth? time reading the book, and I enjoyed it immensely–and had lots of thoughts about the unreliability of the narration.

Read my written review of Leroux’s Phantom.

Watch my video review of Leroux’s Phantom.

If you’d like a refresher on the challenge, check out the launch post here.  And please share about your Phantom adventures so far in 2020 in a comment below.  I look forward to seeing what you’ve been exploring this year.

Shameless self-promotion: As a further update on my own retelling of the Phantom, The Guardian of the Opera: Nocturne will be out June 5th, and the cover reveal is this Friday, April 3rd.  Drop by Friday and see the awesome cover I can’t wait to share!

The Phantom of the Opera Reading and Viewing Challenge

Are you intrigued by a masked man in the shadows?  Love being swept away by stirring musical tragedies?  Want to visit 1880s Paris?  Then this challenge is for you!

Join us to venture below the Opera Garnier and across the underground lake for a Phantom of the Opera Reading and Viewing Challenge.  Since Gaston Leroux’s first publication of The Phantom of the Opera in 1909, the story has been told, retold and continued dozens of times, on the screen, on the stage, and on the page.  Get a little more Phantom into your life in 2020 by participating in this challenge to go exploring through the many versions of the Phantom.  Maybe you’ll meet a new phan friend, or find a new version of the story to love.

I want this above all to be fun, so the rules (which are really more guidelines) are simple and, I hope, welcoming to all.

What Qualifies: Any book, movie or play based on Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera, or an obvious sequel or prequel to the story.  If there’s a masked man with a deformity in love with a singer, while hiding in an opera house, it probably qualifies.  I’ve provided a (non-comprehensive) list of ideas at the end of this post.  Rereads/rewatches are just as valid as new ones, although if you’re someone who watches the Claude Rains Phantom every Saturday, it still only counts as one.  The exception to that rule is if you see a play version more than once in the year, with different lead actors.

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Movie Review: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

I missed this movie when it first came out (in 2012!) and just picked it up recently at my library.  Another semi-comedy about the end of the world, I found it thought-provoking…in ways good and bad!

The premise centers around the end of the world by asteroid–everyone knows the asteroid is coming in three weeks, all of life will be wiped out, and nothing can be done to prevent it.  Society is mostly holding together but starting to fragment (planes are no longer flying, phone service is down–which is plot convenient).  Dodge (Steve Carrell) has no particular plans for his final weeks, as he seems to be the movie trope of a hero who wasn’t really living his life to begin with.  But then he meets Penny (Kiera Knightley), his quirky, passionate neighbor.  She wants to get to England to reunite with her family; he decides to seek out his long-lost first love.  She has a car and he knows a guy with a plane, so they set out together.

The concept of the world ending, but with a few weeks notice, was really interesting.  Maybe it helped that it was an asteroid strike–whatever the actual odds, it feels out there and unreal enough that I could think of it abstractly.  Nuclear war and cancer diagnosis stories more likely make me anxious or depressed.  But this was pretty good as a thought experiment, about what becomes really important under that kind of time pressure.  How do you live your life when you have only a small amount of time left?  Some people rioted, some partied, others went on as though nothing was changed, one woman decided to wear all the beautiful things she bought but had been saving.

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Book and Movie Review: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

As part of my goal to read more love stories in 2019, I decided to give To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han a chance.  I really enjoyed the movie version, so I figured it was worth trying the book–even though I wasn’t really a fan of The Summer I Turned Pretty, also by Jenny Han.  Well.  It turned out this was one of the rare times when the movie really was better than the book.

The fundamental premise of both the book and the movie is slightly absurd–teenager Lara Jean writes love letters to her crushes, not to send them, but just to put her feelings into words.  She writes them, addresses them, and then puts them away to save.  But then her letters get mailed by mistake–including the one to Josh, her sister’s (very recently) ex-boyfriend.  In a panic to hide her feelings for Josh, Lara Jean tries to convince him that she’s really in love with Peter, one of her other letter recipients.  Peter just broke up with his long-time girlfriend, and suggests that he and Lara Jean pretend to date, to make his ex jealous and to throw Josh off the track.

Like I said, it’s kind of absurd, but worth going along with.  At least in the movie, which had a lot I liked.  It’s a cute, funny teenage romantic comedy, with a silly premise but believable and likable characters.  I like that it has a lot of diversity–Lara Jean and her two sisters are biracial, Korean and Caucasian; besides their parents’ interracial relationship, none of the guys she crushes on are Asian.  Mostly white, one is African-American (and gay).  But what I liked best was that Lara Jean used her words, a lot.

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Movie Review: Christopher Robin

I missed Christopher Robin when it was in theatres last year, but I watched it just last week at home.  If I did end of the year ratings of the movies I watched, this would be a serious contender for best of the year!

The movie begins where the Winnie-the-Pooh books end–they overlap with the first scene of the movie and the last scene of The House at Pooh Corner.  I always thought this was one of the saddest scenes in literature, as Christopher Robin is growing up and going away, and has to say good-bye to Pooh and his other friends.  The scene is faithfully and beautifully reproduced.  Bring your tissues!  The movie then goes on, Christopher Robin grows up, and somewhere over the years he loses his way.  He becomes, to borrow a phrase from J. M. Barrie who also wrote of children growing up, a “man who doesn’t know any stories to tell his child.”  But then Winnie the Pooh comes out of a tree outside Christopher Robin’s house in London, and wants to bring him back to the Hundred Acre Wood.

I have a soft spot for the Winnie the Pooh characters, and this was a charming delight of a movie.  The characters are beautifully rendered, in terms of portrayal and the excellent CGI for the stuffed animals.  They truly feel like Milne’s characters brought to life, and the details are all spot-on.  I notice when movie adaptations get it wrong, and this one got it so very right.

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Mini-Monday: Thor: Ragnarok

I may have confessed this before but, at the risk of harming my geek cred, I’m not much into Marvel.  I watched the first movie of several of their franchises, and didn’t feel inclined to continue.  Although I make exceptions for Dr. Strange and Guardians of the Galaxy.  And now, as it turns out, Thor: Ragnarok.

I came late to this one, but I finally watched Ragnarok last month.  From the trailer and the reports of people I knew who watched it, this seemed to be a funnier Marvel one than most–and it was!  Which is a bit odd considering the titular event is the end of the world…  In brief, the goddess Hela is released on Asgard, the Norse gods’ home realm, and Thor and Loki have to work together to top her–but wind up exiled to a kind of cosmic junk heap in the process.  Where, oddly enough, they bump into the Incredible Hulk.  As one does.

I knew this was going to be a better movie as soon as it started demonstrating a willingness to poke fun at itself.  Early on Thor confronts a giant flame demon whose name I can’t remember, and tries to carry on a conversation while rotating around hanging from a chain.  Weird, I know.  But it’s really funny as flame demon tries to rant about his fiery vengeance and Thor keeps asking him to pause because he’s rotated around out of sight.  The movie kept up a similar kind of tongue-in-cheek humor, and Thor himself was a lot funnier than I remembered from previous encounters.

It also helped that we had a fairly small cast, with the action centering around Thor, Loki and the Hulk, with Hela (an unrecognizable Cate Blanchett!)  It gave a decent amount of time to showcase each character, their arc and their relationships with each other.  Much better than ensemble casts of a dozen where barely any character gets seen.

So, from a non-Marvel fan, Thor: Ragnarok gets my approval as a funny, entertaining superhero flick!

Movie Review: Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

I missed last year’s Murder on the Orient Express in theaters, so when I saw it at Redbox while waiting in a long line at the grocery store, the same day I was having a monthly movie night with friends–well, serendipity!  I’m glad to have seen it and I enjoyed watching it, and I’m glad I watched it with my friends.  Because I had some thoughts to discuss.

Based on the classic Agatha Christie novel, the story centers around a murder on a train, the titular Orient Express.  The train is trapped by an avalanche in the middle of nowhere, so when a body is found in a sleeping compartment in the morning, it appears the murderer must be one of the passengers.  Fortunately for the forces of truth, justice and mystery-writing, among the passengers is the famous Hercule Poirot, who sets out to get to the bottom of the mystery.

So much is true in the book, the recent movie, and the 1974 version (also enjoyable).  This one also brings star power equal to the old one, with Kenneth Branagh playing Poirot with truly remarkable mustaches (always plural with Poirot); Johnny Depp doing a rather sinister turn as the murder victim; and Judi Dench as Princess Dragomiroff (inevitable casting, as it felt strange in the older movie that the old British dame wasn’t Judi Dench).  Penelope Cruz, Michelle Pfeiffer and Daisy Ridley also appear.

Branagh played a more nuanced, less theatrical (barring the mustaches) Poirot, and I’m not sure how I feel about that.  This Poirot was exhausted by the horrors of the crime-solving life, had a secret love in his past, and was probably OCD.  Usually I’m in favor of more nuance and depth to characters…but Poirot’s theatricality and delight in his work is part of his charm!  If I can get over the “but that’s not right…” aspect of things, it was a very good character who was interesting to follow through the movie–though I will maintain that the secret past love seemed wildly unnecessary, and an example of the movie industry trying to horn romance in everywhere.  (I’m pro-romance!  I’m just also pro-the occasional character who doesn’t have that motivation.)

Likewise the movie made some different choices in the nuances.  There was some extra drama thrown-in, with an added stabbing and more dramatic confrontations.  Which were exciting–but I rather liked the cerebral quality of the original.  The motivations behind the murder also felt more intense, more emotion-driven than the considered justice of the original.  None of it was bad as it was in the new movie–or as it was in the original.  They’re just different.

I do prefer the way the modern movie opened compared to the earlier one (both add-ons that weren’t in the book).  The old one gives away much of the mystery in the first five minutes with a kind of prologue, while the new one lets us learn connections as Poirot makes them, which I greatly prefer.  The new movie instead opens with a small-scale mystery which Poirot solves within perhaps ten minutes, which provides a bit of early drama and, more importantly, effectively introduces us to the lead character in a vivid way.

So I guess the conclusion was that it was good–but different–but good.  And if you’ve never read the book or seen the previous movie, then it’s just good.  And contains a very clever twist on the murder that (I hope) hasn’t been spoiled for you yet!