Saturday, March 14, 2015

Critic's Pick of the Week: Nocturna, a hidden star in the wide sky of European animation

The Cat Shepherd, Tim, & Tobermory, Tim's assigned guardian cat, with friends.
Most of us have been afraid of the dark at one point or another in our lives. We try to face those fears as best we can, and it is good training for later in life when as adults we face bigger and altogether too real demons. Nocturna, an animated film that is a collaboration between two French and Spanish studios and directed by and, explores this theme of facing terrors in the dark with a collection of round-faced, quirky characters, done in the traditional hand-drawn cel-animation style.

I stumbled across this little gem completely by accident. I was on Amazon Prime trying to find Song of the Sea, an Irish animated film by the creators of one of my absolute favorites, The Secret of Kells, which was nominated for best animated feature in this year's Oscar race. (Sadly it did not win, and I have my own personal grumblings about two Disney featured films winning that title two years running, but I'll save that for another time). Unfortunately, Song of the Sea was not available, but Amazon did recommend Nocturna to me (plus, it was free to watch - bonus!) Hmmm..lots of cats, check, focus on the slighty grim topic of shadowy night figures, check, cute, pudgy looking kid, and only 80 minutes long. Okay, let's wind this up and see what happens!

The pastel colors and beautiful watercolor skies make the viewer feel like they are inside a Monet painting. We see that our pint-sized hero Tim is something of an outcast in the orphanage where he lives in an unspecified city (looks a bit like Paris, or perhaps Barcelona - the European influence is palpable here). He also happens to be a budding astronomist, gazing up into the sky from the orphanage window and relying on his stars there to keep him safe from his fear of the dark. One night, he discovers that his favorite star has winked out, which upsets him greatly. When a school bully pulls a nasty trick on him the following night, leaving him in total darkness, he finds his way up on the roof, and discovers a whole other world that comes alive at night, of creatures and cats - loads and loads of cats - each who are assigned to a child to make sure they are sound asleep to ensure the world of Nocturna can be kept safe and undiscovered by the unsuspecting human world. The cat's long,elegant tails quirk upward like a dancing parade of questions marks as they wind their way through the night with shining, golden eyes and sleek, blue-grey bodies.

Tim and Tobermory - images courtesy of Filmax Animation. 
Unfortunately, Tobermory, Tim's assigned cat, has a case of narcolepsy (his version of course, since his "daytime" is at night), so he doesn't do a great job of getting him to go back to sleep. As a result, Tim meets the Cat Shepherd - a hulking, doll-like being who is short on temper but big on heart, who grudgingly agrees to take him to Moka - the coffee-bean crunching head honcho of Nocturna - when they realize more than one star is disappearing on them. I enjoy the stage set effect of the nighttime in the city - that everything atmospheric is achieved through gears, levers, wires - and a dash of magic amid all the practicality.

The accents of the various characters in the English dub are a bit confusing - Tim has a refined British accent, while other characters sound like they have arrived fresh out of the Bronx. But it seems to fit the kaleidoscope of cultural influences the film embraces. I particularly enjoyed the hair "undressers", doll-like creatures who resemble middle-aged women with Long Island accents whose job is to mess up children's hair in their sleep and thus create the effect of "bed head." The plot does become unfocused at times, particularly during the sequences involving Moka. His apparently flexible morals are befuddling rather than intriguing, to the point of where one wonders why he needs to be part of the plot at all. But the eye candy of of the animation and the warmth and grit of the supporting cast (including one very tough little light fixture) more than make up for it's less-than-streamlined moments.

Toby sez: Quirky and unexpected, it is a true showcase of stunning animation created across the seas. Plus, the plethora of cats is a big thumbs up.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Critic's Pick of the Week: Feeling the love with HP Lovecraft's Precipitous Tales, Narrated by Neil Hellegers

Image courtesy of 
Ah, February. A time for Valentines, Mardi Gras, roses, and....slowly going mad?

Precipitous Tales: Origins of Mythos features four of the master of horror HP Lovecraft's earliest short stories, retold by New York voice actor, Neil Hellegers. Accompanied by the ominous music expertly mixed in by the good people at Alcazar Audioworks, an independent audiobooks publisher based on the West Coast, it makes for well-produced suspenseful listening. 

Hellegers' deep, rich voice conveys a sense of cultured aristocracy with a tinge of the uncertainty of one who has experienced terror so great as to be scarred for all time. Most haunting is the fourth tale, "The Music of Erich Zahn," which tells of a young man who rents an apartment in a rambling old mansion and finds he has a rather...interesting neighbor. He is an old man who must play his music furiously through the night to keep at bay some kind of all-consuming evil force threatening to rip out of its world into ours at any moment. What is enjoyable about Hellegers' narration is the sense of doubt underlying his tones as he embodies the questionable psyches of the main narrative voices in each story. He understands that the characters in the story know how crazy they sound - and they don't care. All that matters is the story be told before it is too late. It helps that Hellegers doesn't take himself too seriously - he reads the work with a comfortable flow that eschews stodginess so often affected in retelling classic works of literature. His desperate, cautionary edge, honed to a sharpness with well-placed dramatic pauses and rising inflections, creates a polished finished product that will satisfy fans of Lovecraft and help usher in new ones. It is a great introduction piece to Lovecraft's writing, a prequel for the masterpieces that he would later write. 

Toby sez: Suspenseful, fun, engaging - A great homage to the works of a classic American writer. Well worth two hours of your time for a listen. 

Click below to hear an audio sample! 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Critic's Pick of the Week: Leatherworker Corey Christopher

As promised, I am featuring something or someone cool that I run across each week. I'm happy to feature artist Corey Christopher as the first of this series, whose Etsy page TaDaLaboratory blew up last November when her Smaug leather cuff (among others) was featured on Fashionably Geek. I'm here to showcase a bracelet she made specifically for me, fondly entitled, "Once a King or Queen in Narnia, Always a King or Queen in Narnia."

 This is Corey. Hi, Corey!

Corey says, "I'm badass."

This is the cuff in the initial process of engraving the soft leather. 

Closeup of the Aslan image.

Once the engraving is completed, the painstaking process of painting the details begins. Corey mentioned that this was "definitely one of the toughest paint jobs I've done. His eyes are really piercing." I'm inclined to agree!

His gaze is searing into my soul!

The final product once the paint drys, including the incredibly ecstatic recipient!

Corey makes every single one of her cuffs by hand from real leather from beginning to end, and she also makes key chains, belt bags, and baggage tags. Prices range from $15 to $60; pretty reasonable for something so unique! Her designs range from Lord of the Rings to Dr. Who to Marvel and everything in between; she always has something new and exciting to add to her collection! Follow her on Twitter @CoreyChiev and check out her shop here. 

Toby rating of finished product: 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

In the Projection Booth with Michael Dunaway, director of 21 Years: Richard Linklater

Michael and I at the Sewanee Union Theatre, Sewanee, TN
I had the pleasure of interviewing 1991 Sewanee, University of the South alumn Michael Dunaway, editor of the film section of Paste Magazine and founding partner of Gasoline Films and of Poitier & Dunaway Motion Pictures. Last month, Dunaway showed the latest film he directed, 21 Years: Richard Linklater, a documentary (currently on DVD) that follows the work of a pivotal filmmaker whose film Boyhood is currently nominated for SIX Oscars, including Best Picture. (Linklater's also long been a favorite director of mine -  you can read my review of his film Bernie here.) Passionate and affable, Dunaway agreed to meet with me in the projection booth of the Sewanee Union Theatre, where he as a student worked many a night, and answer a few burning questions about 21 Years and why he chose to become a filmmaker. You can view in the interview below! Special thanks to Laura Willis, editor of the Sewanee Mountain Messenger, and Alexander Bruce at the Sewanee Union Theatre (go like their page on Facebook!) for making this opportunity possible. 


Words of wisdom from Linklater that Michael cherishes:
"He captures that punk rock ethos: Don’t ask anybody for permission, don’t wait till the time is right, don’t wait till everything’s perfect and until your skills are perfectly honed, f that, just get out and make something."



Friday, December 5, 2014

A singular listening experience: Gethsemane, An Epic Poem About Us brings back the compelling genre of radio theatre

Cover of Gethsemane, used by permission of the author
When I think of epic poems, I recall pieces of work written long ago, such as Homer's Odyssey and John Milton's Paradise Lost. So when California author Raymond Jacobs reached out to me about reviewing his most recent work, Gethsemane, An Epic Poem About Us, I was intrigued. And, to celebrate my 100th post on this blog, I thought it was only fitting to review something as thoughtful and fascinating as this title.

 Jacobs takes on the challenge of rhyming an entire intense storyline into three acts, describing the fall of Lucifer and mankind, and then his own ultimate undoing, through the eyes of the Devil himself. Taking it one step further, Jacobs made his poem into what he calls a "Radio Theatre Experience"; inspired by the works of Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre he founded in 1937 that brought famous radio dramas such as War of the Worlds to listeners across the country. Though Jacobs is the main narrator, he utilizes a host of vocal talents to act out various scenarios that the poem describes, such as Lucifer's initial fall from God's grace in the first act. He also uses vocal manipulation software at times - for instance, the deep and booming "voice of the Lord" (played by Sigmund Kramer) is accentuated with an effect making it sound echoing and cavernous.

The result is a program just under two hours that is surprising and wholly unique. While the title lends itself to be thought of as a religious work, Jacobs refutes that, saying that the story is "philosophical, and one with conviction," that speaks to people from all walks of life and all belief systems.

That being said, Gethsemane takes patience. Being such a complicated work, it demands close listening, particularly because of its format as a poem and the accompanying rhyme scheme. Jacobs has an understated, even tone and crisp enunciation, but there are moments when the accompanying sound effects hinder rather than enhance. One such instance is a snake hissing in the background that to my ears overshadowed the main narration, making it hard to catch the main narrator's words, particularly when I was listening in the car. However, the baroque music, composed specifically for this work by Mark Moya, is balanced perfectly to the text and adds an extra layer of emotion to an already powerful work.

Jacobs, who describes the poem as being an "asylum for him to exercise his demons," says that the major challenge of converting Gethsemane into the audio realm is finding volunteers willing to donate their time and talents to the project.

"Their invaluable contribution had more to do with the material they were performing than anything else.  This means casting voice-over actors who were willing to travel (long distances, in some cases) to act a part or recruiting musicians who were willing to squeeze what little time they had between a busy class schedule to rehearse and then record," says Jacobs, via email. "All the musicians involved in the recording of the original, baroque score are students at the University of Southern California and the esteemed Thornton School of Music. They all saw the potential behind the audiobook and made it the unique and exhilarating production that it is."

Gethsemane will not be for everyone - it is edgy with its stark portrayal of passion and death, and how narrow the chasm is between the two. Due to some graphic sensual content, it is definitely geared towards mature audiences. The message is about us as humans - deeply flawed and yet with resilient spirits capable of redemption, even from ourselves.

Toby sez: Moving and complex, this work successfully engages audiences in "active listening" and though some of the sound mixing could've been better balanced, the journey will give them food for thought long after the last stanzas of the story are told.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Insatiable Critic Shop is OPEN!

Dear friends,
    I'm so, SO happy to announce that my Cafe Press Shop for this blog is a real thing now. You can get mugs, pins, mousepads - either with the blog's logo, or everyone's favorite Critic Kitteh, Sir Toby himself. The shirts are two-sided - Sir Toby on the front, and the blog's logo on the back, designed by the infinitely talented webcomic artist and graphic designer, Tina Pratt. And just in time for the holidays! (Hint, hint, nudge, nudge.) It's a fun way to help keep this blog keep on keepin' on, and to display your geeky pride for your favorite Critic. You can click the button on the sidebar to the right, or just click HERE to get shoppin'!

The first five people to order from the shop will get a choice of a freebie Insatiable Critic bookmark or Critic Kitteh magnet! Thanks so much for your support and helping to keep this blog happening!

Friday, October 31, 2014

Critic's Spooky Picks for Halloween

It's the witching hour, and I've got the goods for your ears and your eyes for a truly creepy evening! Read on if you dare....

Audiobook Spooky Spotlight: The Vanishing

Image courtesy of Audible, Inc.
Written by Wendy Webb
Narrated by Xe Sands

Julia Bishop's life as she knows it has been destroyed by her late husband, who has made a career out of embezzling people's funds. So when a strange visitor comes to her out of the blue with an offer to help care for Julia's favorite horror/suspense novelist, Amaris Sinclair - who up until that point was believed to be dead - she jumps at the opportunity. Sands gives our heroine a soft, ethereal voice that builds the suspense nicely as the plot twists and turns down the creepy corridors of Ms. Sinclair's remote mansion. Her vocal diversity is the sure sign of a master storyteller - she can switch expertly from a gruff, Scottish brogue to the ghostly, sandpapery tones of the inscrutable Ms. Sinclair herself. With an ending that both delivers and leaves the listener wondering, The Vanishing will have you jumping at shadows long after the intrigues of the story have unraveled themselves. Click here to listen to an audio sample. 

Creepy Cinema Classics

Image courtesy of IMDB


1979, PG, 107 minutes
Long before vampires sparkled and acted like sullen teenagers, they were a dark force to contend with. This German film takes our favorite pain in the neck to a whole new level of creepy, remaking the 1922 silent film of the same title. Largely following the plot of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nosferatu takes over a small German village, reaching out to his victims with long, white fingers with cruel tips at the end. As the film progresses, Nosferatu becomes more physically desiccated as he attempts to spread his influence throughout the rest of the world. Critics have often related director Werner Herzog’s portrayal of this iconic monster of literature to the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. It won the Outstanding Single Achievement award for production design at the 1979 Berlin International Film Festival and has become a classic of the horror genre. Rated PG, there are violent scenes of bloodshed that parents should be advised to take into consideration with small children. 

Image courtesy of IMDB

Young Frankenstein

1974, PG, 106 minutes
“No no no, it’s pronounced Fronk-en-STEEN.” This Mel Brook’s spoof on the classic horror tale by Mary Shelley is filmed in glorious black and white and is a great alternative for audiences looking for something on the lighter side this Halloween. Gene Wilder plays the grandson of Dr. Frankenstein, an eminent neurosurgeon who initially scoffs at his grandfathe’s work, calling it “doo doo.” He changes his tune though when he finds out that he has inherited the Frankenstein castle, as well as the shady characters that live within it. The monster he creates (played brilliantly by Peter Boyle) turns out to be a sensitive soul that much prefers a night out on the town in tux and tails rather than ransacking local villages. Rated PG for sexually suggestive humor, Young Frankenstein is a great graveyard romp for the whole family.