Weekly Update: Gravity Falls, Soundboxing, Death on the Nile

What I’ve been Watching: Gravity Falls

I actually technically finished this before I published the last one, but I wanted to save my thoughts until I’d had some time to chew on them. Gravity Falls was half of the reason I finally got Disney+ (Another part was WandaVision) and it’s a show that you sort of want to reflect on a bit.

My reaction to the first episode was great amusement but slight disappointment. From the ecstatic reactions of my friends, I’d anticipated a Lost-style web of conspiracies, puzzles, and vague mysteries where you finished the first episode just barely understanding what was going on.

That’s not the kind of show Gravity Falls is. There are obscure hints that only pay off much later (some of which I’d had spoiled for me), and there are a lot of overarching mysteries that get explored piece by piece, but it is, still, a weekly kids show. It wasn’t written for streaming services, meaning that each episode needed to be a lot more self-contained than we expect in today’s Netflix and Hulu world. So individual episodes are clear, and while there are oftentimes strange details in the background (I was thrilled when I noticed a previously-introduced government agent lurking in a quick panning shot), for the most part the show is easy to follow. I think it would have been really cool to watch this when it was first coming out, one week at a time–not as something you could boot up and just play whenever, but had to wait until it was on.

Gravity Falls pays great attention to continuity and details, with side-gags often being glimpsed in later scenes, and blink-and-miss-it symbols showing up in a later episode as a major plot point. But it doesn’t take its lore super seriously, and that’s fine. There’s no overarching mythology or anything. A lot of the monsters and adventures don’t relate to the main plot and are just meant to be goofy (like the Manotaurs), especially in the first season, which is mostly about setting up the characters for the more explosive second season.

Like this guy does reappear, but c’mon, this is something just meant to be goofy.

Apparently a lot of the characters and setting were based on the creator Alex Hirsch’s own life, including his twin sister, grandfather, and trips to Oregon, which explains why everyone in the show feels so marvelously human while still so bizarre. Dipper works well as an exasperated everyman, but his gloriously madcap sister Mabel fills the shenanigans with heart and humor. I will say I don’t get the whole “crush on an older girl” dynamic Dipper has with the cashier Wendy–it’s a standard trope that seems to feature into a lot of preteen dramas, but I’m doubtful how universal it actually is in human experience. However it’s not just left as wish-fulfillment or something for laughs, it’s studied in depth and used to examine larger themes in the show, which is really pretty sweet–and sad, at turns.

A thought I had watching this–and this was something I observed when watching Stranger Things, also–is that the moments when the community comes together to face a common threat were in themselves something of a wish-fulfillment fantasy. There’s a strong desire people have to be part of a community–a small-town community, in Gravity Falls case. The show is about the weird and wacky elements of the town as much as it is about the bizarre happenings in the woods. People yearn for some sort of sense of belonging, of place, of people and friends around them who they can work or fight alongside. And that’s something increasingly ephemeral in our digital age. In Gravity Falls, the moment of the town coming together to fight back against the monsters is deeply satisfying and inspiring.

One can think of worse ways to die than fighting side-by-side with your friends.

The show deals mostly with the dilemna of growing up vs. staying a kid, but there’s a lot of other themes in there. I hadn’t thought about this till I started typing this up, but looking back, a lot of the episodes really deal with sacrificing your dreams for others. The adventures are less wish-fulfillment and more wish-defer-ment, where what you thought you wanted turns out to be not as important as what someone else needs. A perfect date, a dream job, a magical infinite time-wish that can change anything–sometimes those simply aren’t worth it if they come at the price of someone else’s happiness.

It’s a good show. The characters are zany and lovable, the setting familiar and yet bizarre. It’s got good stories, fun mysteries, and (as far as I can judge) excellent animation. And it’s short, so it’s definitely worth a watch.

What I’m Playing: Soundboxing

I mentioned last week that I’m getting back into VR as a way of exercise/stress relief. That meant downloading an old friend of mine, Soundboxing, which I’ve referred to before.

Soundboxing is not that great of a game, anymore. A lot of other more recent games are more polished and better suited to the rhythm genre. It’s a lot smoother to slash blocks or beat drums in time to a beat than it is to punch them. Even in its heyday, Soundboxing didn’t have the clout of Audioshield, simply because it couldn’t generate beatmaps based on a Youtube video. Instead, Soundboxing relied on its playerbase (a comparatively small demographic) to create sequences showing where to punch when. This made for an large, if eclectic, selection of songs, but the quality of the beatmaps was a little… hit and miss.

Eh? Eh?

Ahem. I think an undersung aspect of the game was the dancing robots alongside you, which showed you how the artist had been moving when they created the map. You could see motions like fist pumps and jumping up and down, which gave you a better sense of what the beatmap was supposed to be. It was more than a random sequence of colored balls, someone had genuinely danced to this.

I didn’t find Soundboxing as engrossing as I remembered, though I was able to pass my high score on The Greatest Show beatmap. But it was fun to revisit an old classic.

What I’ve Been Watching: Death on the Nile

It’s my birthday! Like literally, today, is my 33rd birthday. Dang I feel old.

To celebrate, my folks and I and my little sister went out to see the new Hercule Poirot movie, Death on the Nile. My family has a possibly unhealthy interest in murder mystery serials–my sister especially has watched all the Miss Marple stories, all the Hercule Poirot stories, an assortment of Father Brown mysteries, all the Lord Peter Wimsey murder mysteries…

…England really has a lot of amateur murder sleuths just kicking around, don’t they. Is there anything left for their actual police to do?

Anyway, the movie. We’d seen Murder on the Orient Express when it came out and enjoyed it–we already knew how it went, of course, having seen the earlier adaptation, but the lavish sets and the stellar cast were a joy to watch, and Branagh did a surprisingly good job as the Belgian detective, despite a notable lack of fat. But he was fussy and a little petty, and though he was an… intense Poirot, he was brilliant and idiosyncratic, and he was fun to watch.

Death on the Nile mixes things up more than Murder on the Orient Express did. The central mystery and events were mostly the same, but the characters were shifted, changed, and combined. For instance, the book includes a marxist revolutionary who turns out to be a nobleman. In the movie, the marxist revolutionary is instead a grandstanding dowager, and the nobleman is instead the mysterious doctor character, who is transformed into a murder suspect via a new backstory as the victim’s ex-fiance. It made for some interesting surprises where I genuinely wasn’t sure what was going on with some of the guests, despite my familiarity with the mystery,

The sheer opulence of Orient Express is again on display, with sweeping shots of foreign vistas and lingering close-ups of luxurious furnishings. Branagh’s Poirot is appropriately vain, and bounces from harmlessly fussy to brutally accusing with great efficiency. His young friend Bouc returns, and gets a larger and more proactive role, which is welcome. The cast is not as A-list as Orient Express was, but in a way that’s nice, as you can see the characters as characters and not as actors.

As is typical of Hollywood, the movie decides the best way to convey how deeply two characters are in love is to show them as physically entangled as possible. How else are you going to believe that these two love each other if you don’t see them do a three-minute long dance/grinding session? Better throw in some references to how much sex they’ve been having, just to really drive it home how much these people are in LOVE.

Does this actually work on anyone? Like does any audience member really go: “oh look his hand just went there, this couple must have a really deep connection.” Or on a more cynical level: are more people really going to flock to theaters becase of a scene where Gal Gadot talks dirty to Arnie Hammer?

Hilariously, the movie decides that what Hercule Poirot really needs is a gritty WWI backstory where we learn why he decided to grow his moustache. It’s not a BAD backstory, as far as things go, but it’s ludicrously out of keeping with the fussy, fat, vain Belgian detective presented in the original stories. It’s yet another point in which Branagh’s Poirot strays toward a more typical Hollywood detective, instead of the sharply atypical creature Agatha Christie deliberately concocted. It serves some purpose–Poirot’s observations on love come across as experience and not insensitivity–but it seems entirely against the spirit.

It’s certainly an enjoyable movie, and I’d recommend it for that, so long as you’re aware that the movie lays on the sensuality a bit thick at the start and that it takes some liberties with the source material. Based on the ending (and the critical reception), I think this’ll probably be the last of Branagh’s Poirot.

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