Thursday, September 27, 2012

Three Agatha Christie Murder Movies

There are three movies based on Agatha Christie novels done by Guy Hamilton. Each of them features a host of stars and each does a great job at telling the story. The three movies are “Evil Under The Sun,” “Death On The Nile,” and “The Mirror Crack’d.” Two feature Sir Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot and one features Angela Lansbury as Jane Maple. This post is about all three of them.

First I’d like to talk about “The Mirror Crack’d” (the novel it is based on is also known as “The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side”). I have to admit that, normally, Angela Lansbury is not among my favourite actresses, but in this movie she does a very good job as Miss Maple, picturing the woman from the novels rather well. While Margaret Rutherford will always be my favourite Miss Maple of all times, even I agree that she is far from the woman depicted in the books. She’s much more hands-on and much less ladylike than the spinster with the eye for human nature Agatha Christie created.
The story of the two divas, the murder, the murders that follow, and the true reason for the first murder is well told and nice to watch. The movie (made in the 1970s) does a good job in recreating a 1920s quaint English town (which Maple’s St. Mary Mead is). As in every Christie novel, the story develops slowly, showing us the calm and normal life that gets overshadowed by crime. There is a movie evening in town, the divas arrive, there is a party Miss Maple can’t take part in because of a twisted ankle. Then a woman dies and it looks as if she was a victim of chance, drinking the wrong drink. But Miss Maple doesn’t buy this theory, even though it all looks like the murderous intent was aimed at one of the divas – a woman coming back to the movies after a long pause, caused by a nervous breakdown years ago.
Who wants to kill her? Is it the producer, her secretary/assistant, her colleague (who wants to be the star of the movie), her own husband and director? Is it another source, not yet discovered? Miss Maple’s nephew is the inspector investigating and he talks things through with his aunt, only to find her seeing more, even from her comfortable chair in her drawing room (which, as she tells her maid at one point, is not a lounge).
As I have read the story a long time ago (and a good memory for plots), I knew from the beginning who did it and why, but it was interesting to see it all playing out in the movie. Overall, I can definitely vouch for it. If you like crime stories that are not about action, but about deduction, you will find it well worth your while.

Second on my list is “Death On The Nile,” a classic Hercule Poirot story, featuring Sir Peter Ustinov as the Belgian sleuth. The movie has a lot of stars in it, including Angela Lansbury as a writer/murder victim, Dame Maggie Smith as a nurse, and Jane Birkin as a maid. David Niven plays Poirot’s old friend who helps with the investigations.
The story has, again, been set in the 1920s/1930s and has been set there well. The deadly trip down the Nile that will cost five lives in the end, starts up long ago, where the basics for the plan were laid out, only to come to a tragic conclusion on board a steamer under the eyes of the surviving passengers.
While “Death On The Nile” is not the most well-known adventure of Hercule Poirot (that is, without any doubt, “Murder On The Orient Express”) and Sir Peter Ustinov isn’t that close to the physical description Agatha Christie gave of her Belgian detective, that does not stop the movie from being great. The first murder victim is far from being an innocent one. In the short time on the ship alone, she manages to make a lot of different enemies. Too bad, therefore, that the most promising, the woman she stole her husband from, has an iron-clad alibi. Too bad most of the other people have none, because they were sleeping at that time. Anyone could have picked up the gun after the husband (shot in the leg by his former girlfriend) has been taken to his rooms. Five minutes are more than enough to pick up a small gun and disappear from the salon again.
But why is the maid killed? And why is a piece of a money bill found in her hand? What about the rather theatrical writer who saw the murderer of the maid? How can she be killed only seconds after saying she saw the murderer? The movie (and the novel) plays with the time and the difference between ‘what you see’ and ‘what is there.’ I’m not spoiling the story here, read it or watch the movie, if you want to know the solution.
The movie does a great job in keeping the tension up and presenting a host of possible murderers, only to reveal the strange truth in the end. Again, if you don’t need oodles of gunfights in your crime story, it’s a great one to watch.

Finally, “Evil Under The Sun” which also happens to be one of my favourite novels. I also love this movie which, again, features Sir Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot. You will also find a couple of the same actors that feature in “Death On The Nile” here, albeit in other roles. Diana Rigg plays Arlena Marshall, the murder victim (yes, this one only has one victim, plus one from the past that matters).
Again, the movie is set in the 1920s/1930s and looks very nice. The setting has been changed slightly from the book, where the hotel on the island was situated in England, connected to the main land by a path passable during low tide. Yet, changing the location to the Mediterranean and removing the path (so the island can only be reached by boat), doesn’t change it much. There’s also a slight change in the motif, but that’s not grave.
Arlena Marshal, a former actress and femme fatale, is not the kind of woman incapable of making enemies. She makes them left and right, as it is, from the hostess of the hotel (who is an old friend of the Marshall family), to her step-daughter, to the wife of the man she openly flirts with, to her own husband. For someone like her, it’s not a matter of if they’re getting killed one day, it’s rather a matter of when.
Yet the actual deed leaves Poirot flustered for a little while. Everyone on the island has an alibi, nobody could have done it. Yet Arlena Marshall is dead, so someone must have killed her. People do not strangle themselves, normally.
Details pile up that show Poirot someone is playing with the times here. For the obvious time of the kill, from half past eleven to noon, everyone has an alibi. But was Arlena killed before noon? Why has someone taken a bath and denies it? Who threw a bottle into the sea? The plan is very complicated and has been played out over a long time. In the end it’s only the fact that the murderers copy themselves that leads Poirot to the solution. Which, again, I am not telling here. The movie is a lot of fun to watch, as Sir Peter Ustinov gives Hercule Poirot a funny side that is missing from the original. It’s also nice to watch because of the props, the other actors, and the story. A great way to spend some time on a rainy day or a boring evening.

All three movies described here are good and definitely approved of by me. You can find them on disk or, if you are lucky, maybe on TV every now and then. It pays to keep an eye out, rent them in an online store, or even old-fashioned and offline.

Finally Torchligh Again

It took almost a year longer than planned for Torchlight II to be released. On hindsight, however, it definitely was worth it.

A lot of sites and magazines are comparing Diablo III to Torchlight II or the other way around. Not a question for me, as Battlenet-bound, always-online RPG Diablo III is not an option for me at all. I only wonder whether Torchlight II was worth the wait and will be worth my money. And the answer to both questions is definitely ‘yes.’

I got the first Torchlight a bit late, after it had been through press already, but found it worth every cent I paid for it. The simple formula of fighting-looting-levelling worked out nicely, the game had a nice look, and I liked the character classes and the way the random level design made the game easily re-playable. It was like an updated and improved Diablo, one of my favourite action-oriented RPGs. Well, in many ways it was, I guess, as quite some Diablo developers are part of Runic Games, the Torchlight makers. I loved the idea with the pet which not only fights at the player’s side, but also takes back the loot to the town to sell it alone. I loved the Steampunk-infused look of the game and the characters. I loved the colourful and bright comic graphics and the interesting-to-strange enemies.

When I heard there was going to be a second one (bigger, better, longer, as usual with computer games), I was very happy. Originally it was supposed to be out before Diablo III (which would have made it less of a ‘which is better’ discussion), but the team postponed release several times. They did it for good reason, though, as they wanted to make the game as good as possible before release. They did a lot of balancing between the last official release date (beginning of August) and the final one (20th September). And made the game even better, I’m sure.

I pre-purchased the game at Steam (before the next-to-final release date, actually) and downloaded it right after release to play. I knew about the changes already, of course. The three character classes of the first game (Destroyer, Vanquisher, Alchemist) had been replaced by four new ones (Embermage, Berserker, Engineer, Outlander). Two pets (dog, cat) have been turned into eight (panther, bulldog, cat, chakawary [a lizard-like creature], papillon, ferret, hawk, wolf). The pets and characters are customizable to a certain degree (face/hair/hair colour for character, fur colour for pets). Each character class has a male and a female model (in the first Torchlight only the long-range Vanquisher was female). Changes don’t stop there, of course. The game has three long acts, taking the player from the partially snow-covered tundra to the hot desert to the rain-dripping forests. The final levels are set below the world, in an old dwarf-fortress/factory that leads to the world’s core. Instead of spending all the time underground, only coming up for air when you return to the town for shopping or selling (or finishing a task), you spend a lot of time above ground now, the biggest levels of each area are above ground, with entrances that lead to tombs, caves, towers or other structures for additional fighting and looting. There are quite some sub-quests that are presented to you either in one of the towns (not all necessary are towns as a such, but they are the place where you can go to trade) or on the above-ground maps. Usually they are connected to some of the entrances, even though some also require running around on the above-ground areas to find places.

The core of Torchlight II still is the same that is driving all action-oriented RPGs of the kind: looting, fighting, levelling. There is a lot of loot and, due to the fact that almost all characters can use almost all weapon types, a lot of different equipment. It pays to check the inventory in regular intervals, choose stronger weapons and better armour and hand the remainder to your pet, so it can carry everything into town to sell it. In addition to just selling stuff, the pet can also buy the four basic necessities: healing potions, mana potions, identify scrolls, and waypoint scrolls (they replace the ‘scroll of the town portal’ and create a lasting waypoint that only gets moved when you use the next scroll).

Each of the four character classes has three distinct ability trees to choose from at level-up time. Like this, it is easy enough to customize your character further, optimizing the abilities for your playing style. Besides spending 5 points on the four basic characteristics, you get to spend one point on abilities with every level-up. Increases in fame (which you get by slaying bosses and champions) also give you an additional ability point to spend.

Bosses are everywhere in the game, not only do you have to defeat one at the end of each act (two in the last), every main- and sub-quest in the game has its own boss. They live in the caverns, crypts, and other places everywhere. Bosses are huge, but so are quite some of the normal enemies as well. As a matter of fact, I think over 75% of the enemies in the game are bigger than the player character, which makes you feel rather heroic after slaying them.

As weapon types range from swords and pole arms over bows and guns to staffs of various kinds, there is something for everyone. While the Engineer prefers great weapons (they are slow, but do a terrible lot of damage), the Outlander is partial to all ranged weapons (bows, crossbows, pistols, guns, cannons), the Berserker can do terrible damage with swords, pole arms, maces, and suchlike, and the Embermage not only unleashes deathly spells, but also fights with staffs that do more than just physical damage. For most of the stuff you find in your inventory there is no class restriction (only very few objects I encountered were limited to one class). Restrictions usually are along the lines of minimum level or minimum character stats. In other words: nobody stops your mage from carrying a cannon for all those times when mana is low and enemies are swarming. It’s always nice to have a weapon to fall back to, especially as you can have two weapon sets equipped at all times, so change between close-quarter and ranged fighting is only a pressed key away.

What do I think about Torchlight II, then? I love it, I already spent a whole weekend with it, and I will play it for quite a while, to test out all classes and have fun. Especially considering it’s a lot cheaper than Diablo III (if you want a comparison from me), it’s a must-buy game for every lover of action RPGs for me.

Casual Corner

Hello and welcome to another month and another casual corner. This month, we have three interesting games here to talk about: Northern Tale, Dark Parables: The Red Riding Hood Sisters, and Faster Than Light.

Northern Tale by Realore is another game like My Kingdom to the Princess. Far north, the three daughters of the king have been abducted and cursed by an evil witch and now their father and his men travel the lands of summer, autumn, and winter to find them. The game is both very beautiful and quite difficult. There is an overkill of objects to pick up at the beginning of every level and it’s far too easy in many levels to work in the wrong direction and find yourself in a dead end. Yet the game also is very nice to play and a lot of fun. The graphics, the few, but beautiful cut scenes, and the demanding gameplay make it a game definitely worth the money.

Dark Parables: The Red Riding Hood Sisters is the fourth game in the Dark Parables series by Blue Tea Games. Again, you are sent out as a detective to find out more about a strange occurrence. This time, a strange woman has appeared in a French forest, commanding a group of huge, black, red-eyed wolves. The Red Riding Hood Sisters, a group of huntresses founded by the original Red Riding Hood, are supposed to help you, but it turns out you will have to help them instead. As every Blue Tea Games production, the fourth Dark Parables is very beautiful and has a great gameplay. It’s a  FROG (Fragmented Object Game), meaning that instead of looking for a list of objects in the search scenes, you are looking for parts of an object. The story evolves slowly throughout the game, you unlock several short stories connected to the main story. The Collector’s Edition also includes a little prequel story that tells how the portal was opened and  the mist wolves were unleashed into the world. As FROGs are rare among the huge group of HOGs out everywhere, Dark Parables is always worth a shot, and the story of the game is very well told, too. A good game, even though most people might want to wait for the SE with it.

FTL: Faster Than Light by Subset Games is not a casual game in a strict sense. It is out at GOG and Steam by now and it is priced like a casual game (for non-members at the usual portals like BFG and GOG). It’s a space strategy game with a few nice twists. Instead of putting groups of ships against each other, you travel with one ship through the galaxy, trying to bring information from one end to the other. You will encounter only one enemy ship in a sector (not in each sector, but in most), but will have to use your weapons strategically to bring it down. In addition you have to route and reroute power inside the ship every now and then, balancing out shields, weapons, life support, controls, and drive. Battles bring you scrap (the currency) and droid parts (that you can use, once you have a droid control center). You upgrade the ship and the systems and you can unlock various types of ships over time. Yet the game is terribly hard, there is so much that can happen (from fires and breaches of the hull to invading aliens), and there are many, many ways to die. I have yet to make it to the end once with a ship, sector 5 (half time) was the furthest I have gotten so far. The game gives you a new, randomly created galaxy every time, so you can’t just learn which sectors to avoid, you have to make up a strategy for dealing with all the problems every time – which makes the game great and challenging. FTL is going to test your frustration tolerance, that much is for sure. But if you tolerance is high enough, it’s a great game to get and it will keep you occupied for a long time.

That’s it with the casual corner this month, see you all at the end of October!