Christie Redux

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In 1931, renowned mystery writer Agatha Christie was traveling on the Orient Express when a flash flood suddenly washed some of the track away. The passengers were stranded while repairs were made. This was not the first time the Orient Express had been stranded; two years earlier a blizzard had halted the train for six days. While other passengers fumed, Christie began to muse: “What a delicious location for a murder!” The setting for Murder on the Orient Express was established. Now she just needed a plot.

Christie wrote 66 murder mysteries and 14 short story collections, as well as a handful of romance novels and the longest continuously running play in London (The Mousetrap). Most of her mysteries are solved by the eccentric Belgian super-sleuth Hercule Poirot or the no-nonsense matron-next-door, Miss Jane Marple. Her novels have sold an estimated two billion copies, and have been translated into a record 103 languages. She remains one of the world’s best-loved novelists.

While other passengers fumed, Christie began to muse: “What a delicious location for a murder!”

Murder on the Orient Express can work especially well for film because of its closed set (it takes place almost entirely on a train car) and its large cast of suspects. You may have seen the 1974 film version, for which Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar; you might wonder: do we really need another? Perhaps “need” is the wrong word for any entertainment. Is it worth seeing this version? Yes, indeed.

Even if you’ve already read the story or seen it on screen, you haven’t seen this one, directed by Kenneth Branagh, who also plays the detective Poirot. The enjoyment of an Agatha Christie doesn’t come so much from figuring out who done it or how it was done as from understanding what might drive someone to commit murder — and for a short time, finding ourselves in sympathy with a killer. From that standpoint, Murder on the Orient Express could as easily have been called “A Jury of One’s Peers.”

The story is simple: a group of seemingly unconnected people is traveling together from Istanbul to Paris. Each has a reason for needing to arrive on time. Each is harboring a private grief. Each grief will be uncovered by Poirot. And one of them will be killed. But who is the murderer?

You might wonder: do we really need another version of this story? But perhaps “need” is the wrong word for any entertainment.

Filmed in New Zealand and Switzerland, the movie is beautifully rendered, especially the long, wide views of snow-covered mountains and cloudy, luminescent skies. It almost feels as though the train is barreling through a Thomas Kincaid painting. Early scenes in Jerusalem, where Poirot is winding up a previous case before boarding the train, are filmed at odd angles, emphasizing Poirot’s odd way of seeing the world. Poirot’s unconscious and unintended talent for comedy is well served by Branagh, whose Poirot is a bit more physical and more emotional than we normally see him.

The cast of suspects includes such notable actors as Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom, Jr., Penelope Cruz, Josh Gad, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Derek Jacobi, Willem Defoe, and Dame Judi Dench. Gad, usually cast in silly comedic roles, is surprisingly good in his first truly dramatic turn. Even Emma Thompson, Branagh’s former wife, who has appeared in many of his films, makes a cameo appearance in this one. That’s a very young photo of her in the picture frame Poirot keeps by his bedside.

Poirot’s denouement is especially provocative, as the characters are blocked and staged in a way that emphasizes the ultimate theme of the story. I won’t say more here, but watch for it. You’ll know what I mean when you see it.

Poirot’s unconscious and unintended talent for comedy is well served by Branagh, whose Poirot is a bit more physical and more emotional than we normally see him.

Murder on the Orient Express evokes the glamour days of drawing room murders populated by characters with impeccable manners camouflaging their sharp claws. Its Alpine landscapes and exterior scenes in Jerusalem are breathtaking. Don’t wait for Netflix — this is one you’ll want to see in a theater. And see it on IMAX if you can.


Editor's Note: Review of "Murder on the Orient Express," directed by Kenneth Branagh. Twentieth Century Fox, 2017. 114 minutes.



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Frackin’ . . . Like the Doo-Dah Man

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Recent stories in the wonderful Wall Street Journal give us the happy news that (while receiving no coverage from the mainstream media, of course) the fracking revolution rolls on.

The first story reports that American crude oil exports are accelerating to new highs, rapidly approaching as much as Kuwait currently exports. Amazing. As of last month, we were exporting 1,984 million barrels per day (BPD), an increase of nearly 500,000 BPD from the week before, and up an astounding 684 million BPD in May. Considering that Kuwait ships about two million BPD, this is great news.

Admittedly, the US is still a net oil importer. But we import almost all the decreasing amount of foreign oil we need from our great ally Canada — our great ally, unless President Trump pulls out of NAFTA.

This exporting craze will only continue to build — if we don’t try to destroy our fracking industry, and allow it to flourish.

The reason for this surge in US crude oil exportation is that American crude is relatively cheap. In the week in which the record in exports was set, the US crude price was nearly $7 per barrel cheaper than the world standard. This is a new record low during the period since the 50-year-old ban on oil exports was lifted a couple of years ago, thanks to the much-maligned Congressman Paul Ryan.

In the irony that is the mother and father of all ironies, the second biggest buyer of America’s crude oil is our devoted enemy, China, which now takes about 180,000 BPD from us, up almost 900% from last year.

This exporting craze will only continue to build — if we don’t try to destroy our fracking industry, and allow it to flourish. All it needs is to be left alone in the free market. If so, it will guarantee that we never see $100 a barrel oil again ever. Here I must give Trump his props — he has allowed fracking to go unmolested.

What the frackers have shown is a profound and continuing ability to innovate and lower costs, in the face of an attempt by OPEC, that rent-seeking cesspool of corruption, to drive them out of business by lowering prices. But it was the OPEC companies that were driven to the wall.

This is just more of the daffy Malthusian “peak oil” thinking we’ve heard before.

The Wall Street Journal reports that one of the biggest natural gas fields from a decade ago, the Haynesville Shale field in Louisiana, has been reborn. Ten years ago it was productive, but five years ago it was nearly played out. Yet this field has come roaring back to life. The number of drilling rigs has tripled in the past year, and the current amount of natural gas is up by 17% in the same period.

What has allowed this resurrection of gas fields is “refracking” — the process of using more sand and extending the wells further. In fact, the US Geological Survey now estimates that the Haynesville, Louisiana and adjacent fields hold 300 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. That is a 430% increase over its 2010 estimate.

Helping the process is investor recognition that natural gas has a bright future. The US Department of Energy projects that over the next quarter of a century or so, use of natural gas will outstrip that of all other fossil fuels, especially coal. Cheniere Energy has a large liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant and export facility in Louisiana. Additional LNG plants are being built in Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and even Maryland.

Natural gas is the “feedstock” in many industries — petrochemicals, plastics, and fertilizers, to name the biggest. Nearly 80 petrochemical plants are being built in the Gulf Coast region alone, where they will result in jobs, and the continued resurrection of Dixieland.

The major hurdles are an apparent fall in innovation in the fracking industry, wariness among investors, and rising labor costs.

The WSJ notes that some “experts” are worried that the export market will siphon off so much natural gas that prices will rise, hurting manufacturers that are now ramping up. This is just more of the daffy Malthusian “peak oil” thinking we’ve heard before. We can simply increase production of natural gas from all over the US — from the Dakotas to Pennsylvania to Texas — to meet the demand. All the while good paying jobs will be created, and our adversaries (such as Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Venezuela) will be kicked in their teeth.

When will the “experts” finally wake up and realize that in a free market there is no “peak” anything — least of all oil and natural gas?

In fact, during the past year, Castleton Commodities International spent more than a billion bucks to buy 160,000 acres of Anadarko’s Haynesville land. For that it got an infusion of capital from Tokyo Gas America, the largest utility in Japan. This shows the true expert assessment of fracking’s value.

A third WSJ article amplifies the idea that the glut of US production is spooking producers. In other words, it’s such a bitch that prices are set by supply and demand! The piece notes that the growth in the number of rigs — typically used as a measure of future activity — dropped from 20% for the preceding four quarters to “only” 6% in the third quarter of this year.

Many of the OPEC states (especially Saudi Arabia) need oil to be around $100 per barrel to keep their economies stable and their citizens quiet.

This shouldn’t cause any pain. With the buildout of American industry and the roaring appetite of East Asian consumers, demand will just keep increasing. The Journal notes that US oil production may surpass the supposed “peak oil” production of 9.6 million BPD set in 1970. The major hurdles are an apparent fall in innovation in the fracking industry, wariness among investors, and rising labor costs. But despite the slowdown in the increase of production, there is no decrease in production, and the Energy Information Agency expects American oil production to hit 9.69 million BPD at the end of the year. This, despite oil prices stuck at about $50 per barrel.

The last WSJ story that I want to mention points to the continuing geopolitical fallout from the growth of US oil production. It reports that continued low prices on world oil markets have led Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and other OPEC members to push Russia — which, while not technically an OPEC member, is surely a fellow traveler — to continue to agree to the current limits on production.

The narrative here is as simple as it is delicious. In the face of the American fracking revolution — which dropped world oil prices from over $100 per barrel a few years ago to $50 and below — OPEC has tried to figure out what to do. Many of the OPEC states (especially Saudi Arabia) need oil to be around $100 per barrel to keep their economies stable and their citizens quiet. But Putin’s regime has used Russia’s oil wealth for a huge military buildup, and kept Russian citizens happy by using military power to conquer the Crimea and threaten the rest of the former Soviet empire. To keep this up, Putin is prepared to sell as much oil as possible, even at lower prices, to fund his mechanisms of corruption.

In 2017 Russia agreed with the OPEC strategy to cut back production by 2% to keep prices from plummeting further. While this production cut helped raise the world price of oil by about 13%, American fracking has kept the world price well below $60 per barrel. But Russia’s participation in continuing the cuts is unclear, to say the least. The current agreement ends in March 2018, and OPEC is pushing the wily Putin to agree to extend it. The Saudis are offering to set up a billion-dollar fund to invest in energy projects.

The US should open all the spigots and end net importation of foreign oil once and for all.

Putin so far remains noncommittal. He can see what is obvious, which the WSJ article notes: if OPEC succeeds in raising prices, American shale companies can immediately crank up their output, rapidly driving the price back down.

Now, whether the Russians are bluffing OPEC to get more concessions, or simply intend to cover their drop in revenue by increasing their own production, we will have to wait to see. But I think the US should open all the spigots and end net importation of foreign oil once and for all. The US should make our own oil a major export. This means: opening up more federal land for fracking and offshore drilling, opening up ANWR in Alaska, opening the East Coast for offshore drilling, and pushing to open up the Arctic for the rapid exploitation of the region’s resources.

I would suggest to Trump that he get over his fears about free trade agreements and cut a deal that would allow him to sign the TPP agreement, but with one new provision: the TPP members should agree that if the US can sell them oil and LNG at world market prices, they will buy from us. That would eliminate the trade imbalances that so anger Trump (though not economists, of course). It is, alas, very doubtful that Trump can grow that much in strategic thinking.




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All About Eve

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In America, the political Left is like a once-beautiful woman who, over the years, has lost her looks in bitter and wasteful living. Nothing remains but her essence, which is evil. She was rotten to the core even when she was young, but then her beauty concealed that, bewitching and bedazzling a great many who couldn’t see past the surface. Now that her looks are gone, only the evil remains: desperately grasping to hold onto the only thing she ever really cared about, which is power.

Hillary Clinton never was a feminist in any true sense of the word. She was, and is, a servant to power. Over the years, she has lost any charm — however slight and shallow — she ever had. Most of what existed in the first place was not her own, but that of her husband. Slick Willie mastered the art of wooing to get what he wanted.

What matters is not women’s equality, racial equality, gay equality, or the equality of any other possible variation of humankind. All that really matters is power.

Third-wave feminism, the name for its present, grotesque incarnation, is actually nothing more than a graphic illustration of how all too many women still don’t get it. Despite their endless prattle about “equality,” they simply can’t understand why, for such a long stretch of human history, women were stuck in second place.

The so-called feminism of today totally subordinates itself to the Left. What matters is not women’s equality, racial equality, gay equality, or the equality of any other possible variation of humankind. All that really matters is power. The Left never takes its eyes off of the prize. And it won’t share that prize with anyone.

What has kept women for so long in second place is our disloyalty to one another. In a strictly superficial sense, leftist feminism pays lip service to an understanding of that. But in its savage treatment of any woman who thinks for herself and refuses to play by its rules, it shows its true colors.

Today’s feminists stand before an audience that is, if not yet invisible, rapidly losing interest and drifting away.

We were never admonished, by our leftist betters, to vote for a candidate who demonstrated any genuine concern for our wellbeing. We were expected, as a matter of course and in a pathetic facsimile of loyalty, to vote blindly for power. And not for women’s empowerment, whatever that actually means anymore, but for the juggernaut of tyranny that is the insatiably power-hungry Left.

A couple of years ago, I got to hold a real Academy Award. Oscar was heavy, coated with gold, and bigger than he seemed in pictures. As I stood there, feeling its heft in my humble hands, all I could think was, “Holy crap, Batman! I’m holding an Oscar!

I was almost instantly reminded of the ambitious ingénue who appears at the end of the classic movie All About Eve. I don’t remember the character’s name — it could have been any of a hundred forgettable names — but she hungered to take her place in the spotlight. As she stood in Eve Harrington’s dressing room, holding the stage star’s Sarah Siddons Award, she fantasized that it was her own, and bowed to her adoring, invisible audience.

Today’s feminists stand before an audience that is, if not yet invisible, rapidly losing interest and drifting away. They cling to a prize that is not their own — and which they can never keep. It will be passed on to “sisters” who do not appreciate what they have done, want the bauble only for the hollow and fleeting satisfaction of holding it for a while, and then will reluctantly pass it on to successors who neither understand them nor appreciate any genuine good theymight have done. Leftist feminism is an endless succession of incarnations, each uglier and wearier than the one before. It may eventually lead to annihilation, but never to Nirvana.




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We Interrupt This Program

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Trial by Fire

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It is the capricious nature of wildfire that can make it a lethal adversary. My own too-close-for-comfort brush with the beast occurred back on August 11, 1972 at a place called Harris Ridge, near the little town of Kooskia, Idaho.

It was the summer after my freshman year away at the university, and I'd found work as a chainsaw jockey thinning timber for the Idaho Department of Public Lands office in Orofino. The thinning crew — which could be pulled away from its thinning duties to fight wildfires if needed — was a young bunch: Greg had just graduated from high school; Ned, like me, had graduated from high school the previous year and had just finished his freshman year away at the university; and our two senior members, Russell and Rex, the foreman, were still in their twenties.

Of particular importance is a drill the firefighters have to perform in the event that things go to hell in a handbasket and their position is about to be overrun by fire.

Our assignment, when we had been dispatched to the Harris Ridge fire, was to climb a steep, brushy hillside, spread out, and start digging fire line to keep the fire on top from creeping down the hillside. At one point during our ascent, Ned and I ended up hugging either side of a brush-choked gully. We heard a faint cry of warning from somewhere below us, turned, and saw a huge, crackling fireball racing up the gully, right at us. I peeled away from the right side of the gully, took a quick look over my left shoulder, and saw through a wall of flame Ned's hardhat bobbing as he scrambled up and away to the left. I continued my lateral retreat, linked up with Rex, and made it back down to the bottom. Rex and I later linked back up with Ned, who had managed to get to the safety of a burned-out area on top.

But where were Greg and Russell? They had been well to the east of the rest of us, away from where the stealthy, encircling fire had ignited the tinder in the gully. They would have had plenty of time to get to higher ground as the fire burned across the hillside below them. In fact, I had even visualized them perched safely atop a bluff, taking a breather, and anxiously watching as Ned and I scrambled for our lives. Their bodies were found the next morning. According to the ensuing investigation, they had apparently found refuge atop a bluff — only to be knocked from their perch and into the inferno by a snag that had rolled down on them from the burned-out area above.

Those memories couldn't help but come to mind as I took my seat in the theater to watch Only the Brave. Based on Sean Flynn's excellent GQ article “No Exit,” the film deals with the Prescott, Arizona Fire Department's wildfire crew, headed by Eric Marsh. Knowing it was only a matter of time before Prescott itself would be menaced by wildfire, Marsh lobbies for the certification of his crew as “hotshots,” elite firefighters who can directly engage the fire, as opposed to being relegated to “mopping up” operations behind the hotshots. The film shows the crew honing its skills on a series of wildfires, one of which demands an evaluation of the skills that led to the crew’s certification. Of particular importance is a drill the firefighters have to perform in the event that things go to hell in a handbasket and their position is about to be overrun by fire: they hurriedly have to clear combustibles from a patch of ground, break out a thin protective covering that stretches from head to toe, and hunker down prone until the fire passes over them.

Snafus — such as air tankers dumping payloads of water on deliberately set backfires instead of on the actual burn — are also dutifully chronicled.

The film also tracks the character arcs of certain of the 20-man crew. A couple of young men who can't stand each other end up bonding like brothers. A young man dealing with substance abuse relapse and an unplanned pregnancy becomes a responsible father and provider. A crass womanizer finds true love. Marsh — in his forties the “old man” of the crew — has to deal with marital tensions at home. Josh Brolin, who plays Marsh, and Jennifer Connelly, who plays his wife Amanda, turn in particularly strong performances. In a masterly piece of dramatization,the film captures the anxiety of the crew's loved ones as they await news of the identity of the lone survivor of the Yarnell Hill fire, the visceral grief that follows that revelation, and the effect this has on the survivor himself.

The direction and cinematography are superb, capturing the essence of what it's like to be on a wildfire crew: charred, smoking ground where a burned-out tree trunk can topple over on a man, the black-faced griminess of a mop-up detail, the skies busy with helicopters and planes carrying loads of water and retardant to be dumped on critical areas, and the speed with which a wildfire can spread. Snafus — such as air tankers dumping payloads of water on deliberately set backfires instead of on the actual burn — are also dutifully chronicled. The film ends with a touching tribute to each of the firefighters.

As someone who has been there and done that, this reviewer gives Only the Brave a big thumbs up.


Editor's Note: Review of "Only the Brave," directed by Joseph Kosinski. Di Bonaventura Pictures, 2017. 133 minutes.



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