Beard Blog Tech Reviews: Apple HomePod

The gadget you don’t need until you have one

HomePod: The iPod that lives in your home

HomePod

The latest product from tech giant Apple is their own take on the very popular “lady in a cylinder”. The HomePod aims to fill the gap where the competition lacks in areas such as sound quality, ease of use, and aesthetics. I’ve spent the last month with the HomePod, testing everything I could.

It Packs a Punch

The Apple HomePod is a small cylindrical device that is about the size of a two liter soda bottle, with the top cut off. It’s covered in a thick mesh that feels soft but also sturdy at the same time. Inside, the HomePod packs a large upward facing subwoofer and seven tweeters around the bottom circumference. In between those there is a six microphone array for hearing your voice as well as to fine tune the sound based on the surroundings. The speakers and microphones are controlled by a stripped-down version of the fourth generation Apple TV. The processing power allows you to shout anything at it and it responds very quickly. 

High Fidelity

I don’t consider myself an audiophile, but I enjoy high quality music when I can get it. When I listen to music over bluetooth in my car I can hear the lower quality compared to playing over USB. That’s about the extent of my sound quality identifying experience. The HomePod does a great job of producing great sound in a small package. It sits next to my forty-eight inch, nine speaker sound bar, and the HomePod has noticeably better sound.

The music stopped and I thought “there’s no way she heard that.”

The sound output fills my living room with high fidelity music so well that you would think I have a 7.1 surround sound system setup.

Apple’s Music

The HomePod only knows one music service and that’s Apple’s own Apple Music. That means the HomePod cannot play music from Spotify, Tidal, Google, or any other music service out there. You can play songs from Apple’s giant library, your own iTunes library, or songs you’ve previously purchased from iTunes, so there is a lot of variety. If that is not enough for you, you can still stream whatever you like from an iOS device to the speaker, just like you AirPlay to an Apple TV. The benefit of using Apple Music on the HomePod is you don’t need your iPhone or iPad to play it. In fact, if you turned off all your devices, it will still be able to play music from Apple’s streaming service. If you’re thinking of getting a HomePod, switching to or signing up for Apple Music is definitely worth it.

Hey Siri

Beyond playing great music, the HomePod packs the same helpful assistant as iPhones and iPads. Her name is Siri and she is very willing to help you any way she can. The HomePod doesn’t have a screen or a way for you to interact with anything, so Siri is limited. Speaking “Hey Siri…” into the air turns her attention towards you as she hangs on your next words. I’ve had moderate success with asking Siri random questions. I’ve been using Siri for a long time so I know how to ask her things and what she can and can’t do. Here are some things I asked my HomePod that resulted in the correct answer on the first try: What is 60g in oz?; What is the scientific name for a sloth?; How many tablespoons are in 20oz?; Who is Michael B. Jordan?; Who sings purple rain?

Contrary to your iPhone, Siri on the HomePod doesn’t know who you are. Whomever sets up the HomePod initially can choose to allow some details to be passed through the Apple account, but it’s still very limited. The nice thing about this is anyone that can yell “Hey Siri!” can control the HomePod. This can also cause some disagreements between people who want to hear two different songs.

One of my favorite HomePod activities is when I wake up with a random song in my head, I can shout out loud and have it played

One place where the HomePod excels over the competition is how well it can hear you. Even at whisper with music playing the HomePod picks up the “Hey Siri” command. I was in my kitchen cooking with the exhaust fan on, the HomePod was about twenty feet away with a wall between us. The HomePod was playing something from Apple Music when I said “Hey Siri skip” at a volume that a person next to me would struggle to hear. The music stopped and I thought “there’s no way she heard that.” The next song began to play and I was taken aback by how well it could hear my over all the noise.

The Kit of Home

Another way Siri on the HomePod is helpful is by controlling HomeKit devices. These are smart home devices that are compatible with Apple’s home ecosystem. I have structured the smart devices in my home around this ecosystem allowing me to take full advantage of Siri for automation and control. By shouting at the HomePod I can close my garage doors, turn up the heat, turn on/off lights, and trigger scenes I have setup. homepod The HomePod also acts as a HomeKit bridge that allows you to (if you don’t already have an Apple TV) access your HomeKit devices from outside your home network. 

Who should buy one?

If you’re deeply invested in Apple’s ecosystem (which is easy to do) with a subscription to Apple Music, HomeKit compatible devices (Philips Hue bulbs fit this bill), like listening to music in your home, and use an iOS device; the HomePod is definitely for you.

It’s going to be hard to find a lot of people that meet those criteria, which is Apple’s fault, but at the same time it helps get more people into their ecosystem.

One of my favorite HomePod activities is when I wake up with a random song in my head (which happens almost every morning) I can shout out loud and have it played, and it sounds great!

Measuring the Competition

Apple is late to the “lady in a can” game, which seems to be their modus operandi as of late. There is plenty of competition in this space and surprisingly the first mover here was Amazon with their Echo line. Amazon has released nine products with their Alexa assistant before the HomePod shipped. Google now has three different types of devices that use the Google Assistant for your home. Amazon, Google and Apple’s devices all have the same functions; play music, control smart devices, and try to answer your dimwitted questions.

Which one is the best? That’s a hard question to answer for everyone, and each person you ask might have a different answer. The best one for you is which system you’re invested in. Do you have Apple products throughout your home or are you more in the Google ecosystem? Amazon has the advantage of being the cheaper solution and throwing their products at consumers every way possible. It’s more likely you know someone with an Amazon product in their house than the other two.

HomePod

Apple’s HomePod is another great first generation product. A lot of people are comparing it to the the original Apple Watch, which is fair. Both of those devices are late entries to a new market for Apple and so far, both have been received very well. My time with the HomePod has been great and I don’t regret the purchase at all. I’m looking forward to the near future where Apple makes smaller/cheaper versions of the HomePod that I can stick in various places in my house.

In summary, John Gruber put it best when he wrote, “What AirPods are for your own ears, HomePod is for your home.”.

 

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Artificial Intelligence: The Downfall of Humans

Us humans are programmatically extinguishing ourselves out of existence

ai-brain

Artificial intelligence (AI) is one of the latest buzzwords you hear in the media, but it’s been around for a long time. AI is defined as intelligence demonstrated by machines, in contrast natural intelligence is displayed by humans and other animals. Even the simplest of machines or activities can have AI. Think about the last time your received coupons in the mail for a grocery store or department store. Using AI, that company determined the set of coupons you should receive to increase the probability of you visiting to their store or website. It’s straightforward and sometimes helpful, but that’s just the tip of this very large iceberg.

When I think about artificial intelligence, machine learning, and autonomous machines I get excited for what the future holds. At the same time I start to ruminate about what all of this will mean for the future of us mortals. If we continue to build machines that learn, think, and live on their own, without our interaction, we could be creating our own extinction. 

“The key for that machine to be successful is knowing what is right, wrong, fake, real, or useful. “

Humans are currently the most advanced and smartest race on the planet Earth. Most of us have compassion, foresight, and morals which lends us to save inferior organisms like plants and animals. The plants and animals also offer us the resources we need to survive. Machines that aren’t based on needing plants, animals, or humans will have no use for those objects. Last time I checked, the advanced computers and machines using AI today don’t have any compassion or ideologies to prevent them from one day purging the Earth of humans.

Creating an Artificial Existence

Let’s start to perceive how AI evolution would occur that might force us humans out of continuation. Humans have created complex machines that can think for themselves as well as learn new ideas. Because humans are so diligent, most of the world’s information is procurable digitally on the internet. A high-powered machine could easily graze through all the information on the internet and learn everything, thus making that machine the smartest being in existence. The key for that machine to be successful is knowing what is right, wrong, fake, real, or useful. This machine, that I’m going to call BAE (Ben’s Artificial Existence), after years and years of studying old and new enlightenment, would be more powerful than anything we’ve seen to date.

Let’s assume BAE has learned all the factual bits from the internet. BAE now knows how to speak, read, and write in every documented language on the planet. It also knows how to build anything (provided it’s blueprints were available on the internet). Lastly, with all the programming language information available (especially on the subject of AI) BAE is now a world-class artificial intelligence and machine learning expert. Because BAE is smart and is, presumably, self-aware it now has the means to upgrade itself. BAE can make phone calls (in any language), open bank accounts, trade on the stock markets, take over other machines; the list goes on and on. After a while BAE could start to reprogram other machines, creating a botnet army. BAE could also invent new technologies to make itself and it’s army untouchable. Before we know it, BAE has millions of machines that are self-sufficient, self-aware, and no longer have a use for the human race.

Now let’s crawl back up out of that rabbit hole. All of this seems far fetched and is a lot like the plot of the movie ‘Transcendence’. The way people are advancing technology and all the information we have out there, it does seem that someday it could be possible. It’s also entirely possible that there are a few intelligent and prudent humans who can program compassion, sacrifice, and self-worth into machines. In that case we would have the ultimate personal assistant / companion.

Humans aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, at least not from machines taking over the world. In reality, it seems humans will destroy ourselves before something else.

Beard Blog Movie Review: I, Tonya (2017)

”It wasn’t my fault.”

The true story of how Olympic ice skater Tonya Harding became one of the most well-known people in the world, for all the wrong reasons.

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Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding

I, Tonya is told from the perspective of Tonya Harding through recreations of interviews over the last 40 years. She always maintains her innocence and we get to see the (supposed) true story of what really went down.

Being a young kind in the early 90s, I wasn’t fully aware of everything that had happened between Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. Up until seeing this film, I always believed the narrative that Tonya smashed Nancy’s knee with a lead pipe of some sort. This was incorrect, and I’m glad to know the truth.

This film’s writing is stellar and makes me feel like I’m getting the whole life experience of Tonya Harding. Better than the writing is the acting. Margot Robbie is phenomenal as Tonya; she is perfect for this role. Allison Janney steals the show with her tough love, foul-mouthed, hard working persona. I know Janney is getting a lot of press for this role, but I still think it’s underrated.

The other acting is passable by themselves, but without Robbie and Janney this movie would never leave the cutting room floor.

Before seeing I, Tonya I thought there would be less actual ice skating and more about her life outside of skating. I was wrong and that’s not a bad thing. Turns out, I, Tonya is a biopic that paints Tony Harding in a very good light.

This movie may also help victims in a abusive relationship see how things really look from the outside. Hopefully anyone going through that can find a way to get help.

Who should see this movie? Ice skating fans, people who follow(ed) the Harding/Kerrigan story, and viewers who like a good biopic with dark comedy.

Who shouldn’t see this movie? Viewers who do not like profanity or domestic violence, people who hate ice skating, and those who can’t find the humor in this story.

Score

8.5 / 10 – I, Tonya is a fun, emotional, and riveting tale of one of the biggest news stories from the 90s.

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Beard Blog Movie Review: Molly’s Game (2017)

Deal with her.

Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut is the true story behind skier turned poker criminal Molly Bloom. The film is based on the book by Molly Bloom of the same name and it’s referenced throughout the movie as it takes place after the books release. 

Molly bloom
Jessica Chastain as Molly Bloom

“I don’t recall a point during the whole movie that I was waiting for something to happen.”

As always with Sorkin films, there is a lot of intense, descriptive dialogue and Molly’s Game is no different. Idris Elba and Jessica Chastain are great on the screen together as they argue why Molly is not the real criminal. 

The story is told in sort of a flip-flop fashion with the scenes cycling between early in Molly’s life and then after her book was published. This allows the story to be told from Molly’s point of view while her legal issues get worked out on screen.

I don’t recall a point during the whole movie that I was waiting for something to happen. The next scene is beautifully woven into the story as to not leave you hanging. It’s a long movie, but goes by very quick.

Can’t wait to see more movies from the great Aaron Sorkin. This is one of the few films I can’t wait to watch again.

Who should see this movie? Fans of Molly Bloom’s story/book, fans of crime and gambling movies, and those who like Aaron Sorkin’s writing style

Who shouldn’t see this movie? People who find it hard to keep up with Sorkin’s writing style, movie-goers who aren’t into real-life drama tales, or those who can’t sit through a 2.5 hour film.

Score

9 / 10 – Molly’s Game is a well-written, well-acted, true story with all the high stakes of an action movie.

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Beard Blog Movie Review: The Disaster Artist (2017)

“You are tearing me apart Lisa!”

The Disaster Artist is the (mostly) true story of about how the cult classic movie The Room came to be. Tommy Wiseau’s The Room has been a hit since 2003 for all the wrong reasons. The production, writing, acting, and directing is awful, but that is what makes it so popular. The Room is one of those films where you just shake your head and laugh at the mess you’re watching. Fans now gather around the country at midnight screenings to watch The Room to laugh and carryon throughout the showing. Sometimes Tommy Wiseau stops by, adding to the fanfare.

disaster artist
James Franco as Tommy Wiseau

I went to see The Disaster Artist knowing three things; 1. This movie was directed by and starring James Franco (I love most of his stuff). 2. It was a movie about making a movie. 3. It was a comedy. That’s all. I hadn’t seen The Room and never heard about what makes it so appealing. 

“This is one of those movies you can quote with your friends and always get a laugh.”

In a crowded theater my wife and I sat through roughly 100 minutes of audience laughter and inside jokes we didn’t understand. The movie was very well done and I found a lot of it funny despite not knowing what they were poking fun at. After the movie I was kind of in shock, and continually asked myself, “what did I just watch?”.

I continued to think about The Disaster Artist for three days before writing this review. The more I thought about it, the more I enjoyed it. James Franco was great as always and he seems to have a knack for portraying Tommy Wiseau and his unusual accent.

This is one of those movies you can quote with your friends and always get a laugh.

I highly recommend The Disaster Artist, but please do yourself a favor and watch The Room first. Even if you can’t get through the whole thing, at least watch the first 45 minutes.

Who should see this movie? Fans of the subject matter The Room, comedy fans especially of James and/or Dave Franco, and people who enjoy true stories about movie production.

Who shouldn’t see this movie? People who have never seen The Room or viewers of The Room who thought it was not funny and stupid.

Score

8 / 10 – The Disaster Artist continues to grow on me and I am already looking forward to watching it again.

 

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Beard Blog Movie Review: Lady Bird (2017)

Lady Bird, time to fly.

lady bird
Saoirse Ronan as “Lady Bird”

Lady Bird is an odd-titled coming of age story set in the early 2000s. The film follows Christine “Lady Bird” MacPherson played by Saoirse (Sir-sha) Ronan as she navigates high school, sex, family, and getting into college. 

“With great writing and even better acting Lady Bird will be a film to remember.”

To put in bluntly, Lady Bird is a roller coaster of emotions. You get the sense of how tough it is to be a teen getting ready to enter the real world. This film feels very nostalgic to me, mainly because I was also in high school in the early 2000s.

Lady Bird offers laughter, tears, hatred, and compassion. There’s rarely an emotionless scene. You won’t get a lot of sugar-coating or TV sitcom scenarios. This film delivers a lot of truths and a lot of real family experiences.

Saoirse Ronan is fantastic in Lady Bird. She will be deserving of a Best Actress nominee for this role. Throughout the whole movie Ronan’s character is ever-changing and she plays those changes so very well. Normally she has a thick Irish accent, but I would have never guessed that from this role.

Laurie Metcalf, who I grew up watching play Rosann’s sister, is fantastic as Christine’s mother. She’s tough and loving, just like all the best moms. Her character’s actions at the end of the movie really pull on the heartstrings.

The rest of the cast was amazing as well. The director, Greta Gerwig, who also wrote the script, did a great job delivering the emotion to the screen. With great writing and even better acting Lady Bird will be a film to remember.

Who should see this movie? People who like realistic tales, viewers who want to see great screen acting, and “coming of age” fans.

Who shouldn’t see this movie? Young children and people who don’t have a heart. This is another movie I feel that almost everyone needs to see.

Score

9 / 10 – I loved this movie. Everything about it makes me smile. Great movies impart lots of emotion and Lady Bird does just that.

 

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Beard Blog Movie Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Raped while dying and still no arrests? How come?

three billboards
Mildred Hayes and her billboards

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a dark and twisted tale about a mother and the tragic loss of her daughter. Frances McDormand plays a foul-mouthed smooth talking country woman who seems to have reached the end of her wits. After almost a year since her daughter was brutally murdered and no news from the Police, Mildred (McDormand) calls out the police chief in a very public way, on three billboards.

This movie isn’t about catching the murderer of Mildred’s daughter. It’s not about how she was raped and burned alive. It’s also not about how small town police departments are often notoriously complacent. This movie is about exactly what the title says, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The billboards go up and the the small town around them comes crashing down. 

“An emotional ride with plenty of laughs, tears, and surprises.”

Sam Rockwell is becoming one of my favorite lesser-known actors. After Three Billboards… he cements himself on that list. Rockwell’s performance should land him an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Officer Jason Dixon. Throughout the film you can see his character evolve and by the end you start to feel sorry for him, even after almost two hours of hatred.

The rest of the cast is great and they all turn in amazing performances. Woody Harrelson somehow jerks the tears right from your face while still making you laugh. McDormand’s rough exterior eventually cracks and you can see the shining light that’s been trying to get out for the entire movie. John Hawkes has a great supporting role as Mildred’s estranged husband. There’s even a surprise role by Peter Dinklage. Dinklage’s portrayal of James is delightful and well-spoken as usual.

In summary, Three Billboard Outside Ebbing, Missouri is fun, but deep down it’s tragic. We are carried through various instances of death and despair but writer Martin McDonagh peppered in enough comedy to keep us sane.

Who should see this movie?
Fans of dark comedies, viewers looking for an original movie, and people who like great screen performances.

Who shouldn’t see this movie?
People who don’t like natural (vulgar) language – It is rated R. That’s it. Everyone should see this film.

Score

9 / 10 – An emotional ride with plenty of laughs, tears, and surprises. One of the most original ideas I’ve seen in a long time.

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Spoilers

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First Home Owner Diaries Volume Four: Plumber’s Putty

It all started with a backed up bathtub…

Slow drain or slow brain?

Over the last six months since we’ve moved into our new home, our main bathtub drain has been getting slower and slower. This is not a new thing if you live with long-haired females. Recently, I was able to take a normal 10 minute shower and have the water rise past my ankles. This was the proverbial last straw.

Original Pipes

At our last house we had the same issue semi-annually and I invested in my very own drain snake. Previously, I would go through the tub drain or through the trap cleanout and snake it until I couldn’t snake it anymore. This would usually yield a large mass of hair-soap-scum nastiness that would leave the drain flowing like the Hoover Dam.

My previous successes gave me the confidence to charm my snake once again on this backed up drain. After a few attempts on what seemed too easy to be effective, I tested the drain. Immediately I noticed there was no change and threw down my champion snake in disgust. I retreated to the garage where I knew there was an access panel in the ceiling to the tub drain. As I was removing the access panel that the previous owner screwed AND glued, water began to drip. At this point I was fearing the worst… 

Old house | Old pipes
DIY-2
Holy Pipe

To my surprise, under the access panel was an array of old corroded copper piping. Normally this would be fine as most mid-century homes in western PA have this infrastructure, but one of my pipes was missing a chunk. I concluded that my overzealous snaking caused this hole, but when I put my hands on the broken pipe, it almost caved under my grip. This was a ticking time bomb that was accelerated by my prodding. We have another shower in the house, but I decided this needed to be fixed, now. 

“I’m grateful that I have a father who’s not only willing to help on jobs like this, but adds a great deal of knowledge to most projects.”

DIY-2
No drips

I called my home warranty company (AHS) and they assigned me a plumber whom I didn’t hear from for a day or two. After talking to the plumber’s office and not wanting to pay the service fee, I decided I could do this myself… mostly. 

When it’s cold and rainy, there’s nothing better than plumbing

On a cold, rainy, and boring Saturday my dad and I set out to get this problem fixed. It looks like an easy job, just replace the existing pipes and we’re done! Not so fast… the old plumbing had a vintage drum-style trap, infamous for getting clogged, which also needed to be removed. Our first trip to my local home improvement center yielded a bunch of stuff that might do the job. After careful planning, cutting, dry-fitting, hypothesizing, trimming, and thoughtful staring, we had a configuration that would work.

Cutting out the old piping was easy. A cut here, loosen screws there, and it all came crashing down. We put in a new drain system in the tub accompanied by an overflow down to a new trap and piping. After gluing the first part together we did a water test. No drips, success! The last thing we had to do was vent the pipes through the roof.

DIY-3
Plumbing complete

Venting the trap and drain to the existing roof vent would require another trip to my local home improvement store, and food. After dinner we assembled the remaining parts our masterpiece of amateur engineering. Another successful leak test and we were done.

Another job well done

The only part that remains is patching the ceiling in the garage where the access panel was. After a few weeks to make sure there are no leaks, I’ll patch this with some removable drywall. Hopefully I’ll never have to open that panel again as long as I live in this house (knock-on-wood).

Plumbing isn’t the easiest task to undertake, but it’s easy to understand. You have to get water from point A to point B, end of story. It’s more of a puzzle than a labor intensive job, you have to assemble the right pieces to get water to flow properly, and away from your house.

I’m grateful that I have a father who’s not only willing to help on jobs like this, but adds a great deal of knowledge to most projects.

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Beard Blog Movie Review: Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Not your average Marvel movie!

First, I’d like to preface this review by stating that I have not kept up with all the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). I’ve seen a few, but I’m by no means qualified to discuss how Thor: Ragnarok ties into the other films.

thor-ragnarok
Thor loses his mane of hair

Now if you’re like me, this movie is a fun trip through the unknown. Characters come into the light that may have been in previous films as well as other lesser-known characters only the hardcore fans will appreciate. Die-hard MCU fans may see Thor: Ragnarok as breaking away from the winning formula. It’s light-hearted and possibly inaccurate script make it easy to criticize.

The music, story, and overall feel gave me an 80s/90s vibe which turns out to be a good thing in Thor: Ragnarok. Furthermore there’s not a single slow period or mind-numbing action overload like in many MCU movies of late. Great pace, interesting characters, and villain animosity keep you involved start to finish. Thor: Ragnarok got me interested it Super Hero movies again.

Not sure if this will be the end of the Thor films, but Ragnarok in Norse Mythology roughly means the final battle of the gods.

Who should see this movie? Fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, fans of the Marvel character Thor, viewers who enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy.

Who shouldn’t see this movie? Fans of Norse mythology looking for a true to myth Thor movie, people who hate fantasy/magic/unbeliveable movies, and viewers who dislike somewhat cheesy comedy in action films.

Score

7.5 / 10 – Much better than I expected. I hope Marvel continues this trend.

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Beard Blog Movie Review: Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

It’s more than murder on a train.

Murder on the Orient Express is a remake of the 1974 classic of the same name. Both movies were adapted from the 1934 Agatha Christie novel also of the same name. If you’ve seen the original movie this story won’t be new for you, but the directing, acting, and sets are (obviously) different.

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Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot

The cast of Murder on the Orient Express has a lot of heavy hitters like Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judy Dench, Willem Dafoe, and of course Johnny Depp. We also get to see some unknown and up-and-comers such as Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, and Lucy Boynton.

“Murder on the Orient Express had me questioning the entire plot about halfway through.”

Branagh is great as Hercule (not Hercules) Poirot throughout the whole film. I would love to see him play the character again in another story. His performance reminded me of Christoph Waltz’s portrayall of Col. Hand Landa in The Inglorious Basterds.

The one thing that disappointed me with Murder on the Orient Express is how the audience was given information over the course of the story. My opinion is based off the 2017 adaptation only, the novel may have it differently. Without spoiling anything (scroll to the bottom for spoilers) the audience is given way too much information too soon. Murder mysteries have this great tendency to sway the viewers opinions and then twist their minds at the end with the real outcome. Murder on the Orient Express had me questioning the entire plot about halfway through.

Who should see this movie? People who like murder mysteries, fans of Agatha Christie, and fans of the 1974 adaptation.

Who shouldn’t see this movie? Viewers who don’t like murder mysteries, hate French accents, or don’t have time to waste.

Score

6/ 10 – Not bad, not good, and probably not better than the original.

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