Friday, October 24, 2014

Guest Review - Hunter X Hunter Reboot Offers Fresh Adventure for New Audiences while Satisfying Diehard Fans

The gang's all here - image courtesy of Shonen Jump

From time to time, I like to feature fresh writing voices to keep things interesting. I haven't featured an anime review on this blog for quite some time, so when Chris Smith, DJ and guest relations manager for 91.8 The Fan, a 24-hour online radio station by and for fans of the Japanese animation industry, offered to write a review of Hunter X Hunter, whose 2011 reboot recently (and temporarily) concluded, I said go for it! The result is below. Enjoy!

 Sometimes watching anime is hard. Do you decide to watch a new, up-and-coming show or should you watch a classic? Do you watch something you've been meaning to finish or do you start something anew? Back in 2011 I decided to pick start on an adventure of a series that was both old and new at the same time: the remake of Yoshiro Togashi's Hunter X Hunter. I was already a fan of Togashi's previous series, Yu Yu Hakusho so I had high hopes for my viewing experience.

Hunter X Hunter is a shonen series that follows the adventures of Gon Freecss on his quest to become  a Hunter and find his father. Along the way, he befriends Kurapika, Leorio, and Killua and the series focuses on each of them in turn instead of focusing solely on Gon, which I really enjoy. There are only two recap episodes throughout the entire 148-episode run and it also follows the manga very closely with minimal filler. Hunter X Hunter marks one of the rare few series that intrigued me to the point where I read all of the manga that is currently available in the US.

In a world of anime that follows the same tropes over and over again, this series is a breath of fresh air from high school romance or the random sports series. Oddly enough, it manages to accomplish this by just being a standard shonen series. While watching Hunter X Hunter, I had a familiar feeling of coming home from school to watch Dragonball Z and I had a moment where I found myself holding my breath due to how intense the show was. This feeling translated to when I read the manga to see what would happen next, where I got so absorbed into what was going on, I didn't realize that I was near the end of the volume until it finally appeared.

Some of the show's greatest hooks are the animation and music, and how they work in combination to draw you in and keep you there. The new 2011 version was animated by Madhouse, the studio responsible for such great shows as Trigun, Death Note and Black Lagoon. The opening theme song never really changes, it just switches between verses of the full song seemingly. Despite that, it never fails to capture that old style sensation of me as a little kid watching a cartoon.

I haven't had a chance to see the older version of this anime, but I would highly recommend checking this incarnation out, even though it's only available in Japanese with English subtitles at this time. All 148 episodes are available for viewing on Crunchyroll  and a good amount are also available on Netflix. For anyone looking to get into the manga like I did, you can find them digitally on the Viz Media website, which also has an app so you can read them on your phone.

While there is still more Hunter X Hunter to be had in the future, the series is currently on hiatus indefinitely due to Yoshihiro Togashi's back problems. There's not a real end to the series in sight, so the animation side of the product has ended itself at a decent stopping point until such a time that there is more to animate. Since the anime series has turned into something of a juggernaut in terms of episode length, it's highly unlikely that an American company will pick it up for a dub, but with Bleach running out of episodes to air on Toonami I am hopeful that someone will undertake the task while we wait for the author to write more of this series that has quickly become one of my favorites. Over the years, I have convinced many of my friends to get involved with this great show and this hiatus is a great time to jump in since you can see the definite ending point, however far off on the horizon it may be. I would be more than happy to experience it again in any facet, whether it be with a new dub, new episodes or just watching it from the beginning with someone who hasn't seen it before.

Chris can be found on Twitter at @christmas4477 as well as on Facebook, posting about awesome geeky things. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Current Reels: Snowpiercer, the Sleeper Hit of 2014

Going off the rails in the engine room. Image courtesy of the Weinstein Company.
One of my biggest issues with many recent films is the need for a very specific moral to be driven home to the audience that is oftentimes so blatant that I'm being bludgeoned by ideals. (I'm looking at you, Iron Man 3). But sometimes, a film comes along with an intriguing premise, leaves it on the table, and walks away, allowing the viewer to draw their own conclusions about the so-called "moral" of the story. This is exactly what Snowpiercer does. It is stimulating on almost every level - viscerally, visually, and mentally - but it hit some rough track on its run to the US. It premiered in South Korea on August 1, 2013, and due to a bitter dispute over the final edit of the film between South Korean director Joon-ho Bong and The Weinstein Company, it did not open in the US until June 25 of this year, and to an extremely limited release at that. It opened to a wider audience on July 11 as more theatres got on board, and it also became available for viewing via the Internet. 

Original cover of 1982 comic. 
The year is 2031, and 17 years ago a failed attempt to solve global warming has left Earth a frozen wasteland. All that's left of humanity are the passengers aboard Snowpiercer, a massive train that continually circumnavigates the world thanks to an eternal engine created by a man named Wilford, played by an unctuous Ed Harris. Based on the French comic book Le Transperceneige, written by Jacques Lob and illustrated by Jean-Marc Rochette in 1982, the original concept of the train was that it was 1,001 cars long, whereas in the film (they never mention a specific number) it is probably around 200 with 1,000 passengers. Chris Evans, best known as the face of Captain America in Marvel's Avengers films, is almost unrecognizable as Curtis, the grubby leader of the "Tail Section", the part of humanity that has been treated the most poorly, subsisting only on blood-colored gelatinous bricks called "protein bars" of sketchy origins and being forced to survive in windowless, cramped corridors.

I was immediately hooked on the premise, as trains are my most-preferred method of transportation. There's a strict order to their operation, they are quick, efficient, and have an intriguing history. Most of all, there's a loss of control once you are on a train that is all at once comforting and uncomfortable. In many trains, the further towards the front one goes, the better life gets, and Snowpiercer is no exception. Curtis, along with his comrades, (featuring appearances by Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer and Korean actor Kang-ho Song) decide enough is enough. In just over two hours, the hunt to the front is on. This is the point where a lesser film would've descended into madcap violence and mayhem, with the final outcome blatantly clear. Not so with Snowpiercer. The further ahead  the "tails" get to the front, the murkier and darker the plot becomes, to the point where I began to grip the arm of the chair every time the party managed to get another carriage door to open.Tilda Swinton, a personal favorite of mine, plays the truly despicable Mason, Wilford's evangelistic right-hand woman whose watery eyes peer out onto the downtrodden masses through frames that should've been thrown out with the shag carpeting of the 1970s.

Most of the action takes place within the train, although we get glimpses of the frosty outside world. This makes for tense, telescopic cinematography, with plenty of  long corridor views and choppy action sequences shot from every angle. It succeeds in trapping the viewer, and I was disturbed most of all by the things left unseen and unsaid.

It took a long time for Snowpiercer to arrive at the station, but it has been well worth the wait. I'll be looking forward to owning my copy on Oct. 21!

Toby Sez:

Brilliant, haunting, and unpretentious, Snowpiercer is a thriller that will leave me food for thought for weeks to come.View the international trailer below!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

A Marvel-ous Summer Finale: Guardians of the Galaxy Combines Sci-Fi Action with Heart

The gang's all here: image courtesy of Marvel, Inc.
An outlaw.

A racoon.

A tree.

An exiled warrioress. 

A warrior out for revenge.

A more motley crew one could not imagine, and yet they are bound by a common problem - each are ultimately alone, until they discover one another. 

Teamwork, the power of nostalgia, and the importance of friendship are all themes that elevate Marvel's latest film, Guardians of the Galaxy, from popcorn status to something entirely more profound. It is a character-driven film, and while the plot is interesting, what is more compelling is how the characters come to trust and respect one another, and heal each other from their self-made prisons of emotional isolation, created to protect them from the traumas of their shadowy pasts. If you're a fan of Cowboy Bebop and The Fifth Element, chances are you'll love this.

The film begins introducing our hero, Peter Quill (played by the welcome fresh face Chris Pratt) as a child, and how he ends up being carried off into space, with only his backpack, walkman, headphones, and his "Awesome Mix Vol. 1" to remind him of home. The walkman becomes not only a device that links Quill to his past life on earth, but a touchstone of continuity throughout that allows for poignant moments that take the edge off of Quill's swagger and bravado as the self-proclaimed "famous outlaw, Star-Lord." For children of the 80s such as myself, who are now about the age of Quill, hearing these tunes of our childhood creates an immediate sense of familiarity in an unknown universe. Were I hurtling through outer space at a breakneck pace, it would be nice to hear "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" to help me get through one more day.
Comic art for Guardians of the Galaxy. Image courtesy of Marvel, Inc.

Quill meets along the way Gamora (Zoe Saldana, well on her way to becoming the queen of sci fi), Drax
(Dave Bautista), Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), and Rocket (voiced with plenty of snarl and sarcasm by Bradley Cooper). They make an uneasy alliance with one another to bring down the baddie (Ronan, played by  Lee Pace in ridiculously heavy makeup), who is working with Thanos to gain world domination and destroy the world of Xandar. Thanos gets cut out of the picture once Ronan gets his hands on the ultimate weapon, ultimately found in an orb that Quill steals for his employer/adopted dad. Glen Close makes a welcome appearance as the buttoned-up Nova Prime, the leader of the Xandar world, and I was happy to see a cameo of Benicio Del Toro dolled up in a blonde David Bowie-esque wig as "The Collector."

Director James Gunn, known for his work on 2004's Dawn of the Dead, takes a page out of Joss Whedon's handbook, including quirky, offbeat humor to lighten up intense sequences. Amid the glut of CGI and action scenes, there is a basic truth encapsulated in the character of Groot - nature's capacity for survival and regeneration trumps any high-tech gadgetry the universe can create, a recurring theme in much of Hayao Miyazaki's films (and if you haven't seen one, get out from under that rock that you have been living under immediately). Groot is easily the most powerful of all of the characters, and yet he is the most humble, only repeating one phrase "I am Groot", which depending on how it is said can encapsulate a whole spectrum of feelings.

The characters grow into one another, much like Groot's vines wind around them during a particularly moving sequence when they are huddled together as one. They are, as Quill proclaims, "All losers. Each one of you has lost something." Each are individuals whose lives have been torn apart. Rocket is perhaps the most tragic of all -he was literally taken apart and pieced back together again - and is light years away from being your standard cute, talking animal. Despite dire circumstances, they create family from the frayed edges of their lives.

I only wish there had been more detail regarding Gamora's character and her relationship with Thanos and her adopted sister, Nebula. Spending more time on her would've made her a more fascinating character to me, but as-is she is the least compelling of the band of misfits. 

It is an age-old story, but one that when told right, never fails to be successful in its retelling - you don't have to be blood-related - or even be from the same planet!- to be family.

Toby sez: 

Well-developed characters and the nostalgia factor makes it a strong conclusion to the summer movie season.  



Friday, August 1, 2014

Independent Film Spotlight - Red 42 Strikes A Home Run

How does a group of independent filmmakers produce, edit, and submit a 9-minute period film in just one week with almost no budget - and scoop up four awards for their efforts?

With a lot of grit, tenacity, determination and ingenuity. The creative force is strong, and when it hits - nothing stands in its way.
Kathryn Robinson and her father accepting awards at the No Film Film Festival
A group of friends I have had the privilege to associate with over the years, The Geeks of New England, recently produced Red 42 that chronicles the Jackie Robinson story from the point of view of Brooklyn Dodgers announcer Walter (Red) Barber. Submitted to the No Film Film Festival held annually in Vermont, Red 42 scooped up numerous awards, including Second Place, Best Music, Best Press (local press choice) and Best Visual Style.

Watching the film, it's clear to see why - it is a real slice of American history brought to life. The camera angles are varied and subtle, the period clothing is spot on, and the original music suits the compelling story of one man overcoming his personal prejudices to pave the way for a new era in American baseball. The sound mixing is excellent as well, with crisp dialogue and seamless transitions from the past into the present.

Watch the film, and then scroll down to read the interview I conducted with the executive producer/director Kathryn Robinson about the extraordinary journey of bringing this film to life in a matter of days, from start to finish. 

What made you choose to do the Jackie Robinson story? 

The criteria of the No Film Film Festival is the reason we choose to do this extension of the film 42. Also, it's a great last name! 

The festival wanted to feature third string actors who usually play small character parts such as John C McGinly (who played Red Barber in 42), Luis Guzm├ín and Steve Buscemi. One of these three actors where chosen at random and assigned to a team. Once your were assigned an actor there was a small list of movies you could choose from. Then you needed to come up with a story that either told the story before the character appeared in the movie or after the character appeared in the movie. 

The list for John C. McGinly include a lot office spaces, cop uniforms or army uniforms. Since my team didn't even have a toy gun to use it narrowed the field a bit. What did we have? A closet of fedoras, access to an old armory and some old timey radios. 42 it is! Only after we choose it did we realize Red Barber was a real person and had a pretty good back story. Sometimes the best drama comes from real life. It was the perfect setup, this man almost quit his job because of his upbringing with prejudice against African Americans. You can't write a better conflict. We watched interviews on of Red Barber and read small biographies. Most of what we portrayed in the film really did happen. The scene where he is having martinis with his wife was real. More importantly the speech Branch Ricky gave was a real story. It practically wrote itself. Fun fact: We wrangled my father (Michael Robinson Jr.) to play Branch Ricky and this was is first time acting. I'm a very proud daughter.

How did you manage to make this movie in one week?

It was, actually, one week on the dot. We almost didn't make it to due to a failing Internet connection. Lots of drama on my end. The kick-off was on a Friday evening. We used Saturday to write, cast and build sets. Sunday was going to be our marathon shoot day. Most of our crew/actors had other professional commitments and some with late work shifts so Sunday was the only option. We did have complications on Sunday and ended up doing some re-shoots during the week. They were very late at night or early in the morning. One we had to shoot the pouring rain but we made it work. Rain can make the actor seem more pensive, right?!

What were some difficulties you ran into?

Well firstly was casting problems - we had trouble finding another elderly gentleman to play old Red Barber. Also there were a bunch of personal medical problems that occurred on Sunday that put us really behind. We opted to give old Red Barber some very visible stage makeup  - we had to go with it. Showing up with nothing is far worse than showing up with heavy makeup.

Also trying to make a period piece in on week in 2014 was a challenge. But we figured if the audience gets where we are going with it they'll be forgiving. We did have a lovely time creating our character's (period appropriate) living room - a handy skill. We had some serious technical difficulties that brought our editing time to near crawl. Director/producer Chris Hanley and I lived in my room for days working on this in order to make the deadline; it was super stressful and we almost didn't think we were going to make it.

What makes all the hard work worth it to you?
I love telling a story. I want to convey the emotion to the audience. It's a reaction I'm aiming for. I can see the film start to coalesce in my head. If you are lucky and it starts to come out in real life, there is nothing better.   

Toby Sez: A mini masterpiece and a true testament to the power of independent filmmaking and teamwork! Ol' Red would be proud. 


Friday, July 4, 2014

Winner and Runners-Up of the Mugshot Summer Photo Contest!

Photo courtesy of Sarah Baszto
You have waited patiently to hear the results of the Insatiable Critic's "Mugshot" Summer Photo Contest, and here is the winning shot! Taken by Sarah Baszto, she admitted that she bent the rules a little - but I really can't resist someone who thinks outside of the box. Here's what she had to say about it:

"I took this shot at the grand canyon at sunrise. In my family, one of my brothers started a tradition of raising a plate of food to my mother in appreciation. This photo was inspired by that same spirit of admiration and appreciation for the indescribable beauty and awe I was feeling at the canyon that morning. The mug itself was a recyclable paper one from the lodge and the coffee inside was hotel room brew... perhaps the worst coffee I've had in my life juxtaposed with the most beautiful place on earth I've experienced. Lol. I used the camera on my MotoX cell phone, with no filter or editing." 



Runners-up will be recieving an Insatiable Critic bookmark in the mail as a thank you for participating! These include: 

Coleen Watkins
Courtney Lyons
Daman Mills
 Ian Smith
Paul Faldetta

Check out the video below to see some of the "mugshots" my readers submitted Thanks again to all who participated!!


Saturday, June 28, 2014

Guest Review: Musings on the Upcoming Sin City: A Dame To Kill For

Every once in awhile I like to let someone else take the driver's seat (especially when I hit writer's block). So when Libby Cudmore, published author and mastermind behind Geek Girl Goes Glam, a year-long experiment in vintage beauty, wanted to write about the new Sin City film coming out August 22, I said girl, bring it. Read on and when you're done, check out her new project, Glam Geek Writes: Deep Thoughts on Writing Music, Movies and TV for more thoughtful insights on our pop media culture.  

So without further ado...Libby Cudmore everyone!

I wish I could be more excited for Sin City: A Dame To Kill For.  Throw it in a blender with Tom Waits and Raymond Chandler and some crappy jobs and a few intense but unorthodox relationships, and Sin City was part of what defined a decent portion of my early 20s. It was the theme of my legendary 22nd birthday party and the inspiration for more than one unpublished novel.  Even as I write this, a Gail action figure stares me down from the shelf above my desk.   But I had given up hope that A Dame to Kill For would ever get made.  Robert Rodriguez has been promising that the sequel was due out “this year” since 2007.  Sin City 2 was another broken cinematic promise, a relic of a bygone era and a bygone girl, a faded photograph left over from happier days.

So when the trailer surprised me on a Friday afternoon in late March, I thought three things: 1) This film looks terrible, 2) Where the fuck is Clive Owen?  After all these years, all the Comic-Con promises and Machete sequels, there was proof that, oh bollocks, this might actually happen and it might actually be terrible.  It was like finally reuniting with an old lover, only to realize that he didn’t remember any of your in-jokes and was kind of boring and not as cute as you remember.  

But to this day, I can still quote significant portions of Sin City, which remains one of my less annoying talents.  So, joined by my friend and fellow Sin City junkie Jason and Something Awful’s resident film critic Joseph Wade, we tried to see if we could review A Dame to Kill For – which none of us have seen yet – using only quotes from the original.  Here’s some of what we came up with:

The Critic with Libby at her Sin City Party
--“I can only express puzzlement which borders on alarm.”
--“Everybody knows what’s coming next, but they go through the motions anyways.”
--“Everything is under control.  Enjoy the show.”
--“Don’t scream.Whatever he does, don’t scream.”
--“And everything seemed to be going so well."'

I’d like to see these on the poster.  It might give me more hope for this movie not being an absolute heartbreak, because I can’t imagine A Dame to Kill For not living up to the fairly grim expectations we’ve set before it.  For starters, it’s not based on a particularly good comic.  Whereas The Hard Goodbye is still a heartbreakingly brutal little piece of crime fiction (made even better by Mickey Rourke’s gut-wrenchingly powerful performance as Marv, who could have just been played as another dumb, gravel-voiced lug like Bruce Willis’ Hartigan), A Dame to Kill For is and always has been a misogynistic, fedora-sporting piece of faux-noir garbage.  It’s got all the elements of noir – the femme fatale, the guns and the booze and the bodies piling up – but with none of the heart that makes The Hard Goodbye really tick.  It’s all window-dressing, and ugly curtains at that.  The Big Fat Kill is saved by Clive Owen’s sheer handsomeness and brooding intensity, but what does Josh Brolin have but a bald head and a sneer?  The Dwight in the comic doesn’t give Brolin a lot to work with.  Brittany Murphy and Michael Clark Duncan are both gone, plus we have to put up with a “never-before-seen” Nancy Callihan story where she’s an “avenging angel,” which is possibly my least favorite noir trope in the hands of my least favorite Sin City character played by an incompetent hack of an act-tor-ress who, at her most drah-mah-tic, only ever manages to look mildly irritated, like she just discovered that Ghost-Hartigan left the toilet seat up again. 

“I’m sorry, Wendy,” Marv says in one of the last exchanges of The Hard Goodbye, hours before he’s set to go to the electric chair for killing Cardinal Rourke and feeding Kevin to the wolves. “I got confused, seeing you like this.” To this, she replies, “You can call me Goldie, if you want.”  It’s a scene that always makes me tear up despite the fact that it’s a little weird to cry at Sin City; a small, precious moment of generosity and humanity in an over-stylized story that has been, up until that moment, almost wall-to-wall brutality.  It’s these kind of moments that are completely lacking from A Dame to Kill For, the kind of moments that make real characters out of cardboard cut-outs and bring life out of green screen and prosthetic faces.

 Maybe A Dame to Kill For will be good, I don’t know. I’m going to see it anyways, because I’m going to put on a red dress for my friend Mike and we’re going to watch it at the drive-in under the meteor shower.  But it’s been nine years and half a dozen life changes since the film that made me dream in black and white for a week and defined the crime fiction I would build my reputation as a writer on, and I cannot help but approach A Dame to Kill For with a cautious nostalgia. And like Marv, I can call this new movie Sin City, but in my heart, I know that even if it’s the best film I’ve ever seen, it’s never going to be the film I waited for.  

Friday, June 27, 2014

Summer Shorts '14 Bonus Listen Friday: The Cask of Amontillado in Full Gothic Glory!

Image courtesy of Tantor Media, Inc. & Going Public
Sadly my friends, this is the last Bonus Listen Friday of the month, but it has been so much fun sharing and promoting this collection! And we're ending June is Audiobook Month (JIAM) in full goth form - with Edgar Allan Poe's The Cask of Amontillado! 

Originally posted on the blog Jenn's Bookshelves, the performance features William Dufris and the AudioComics Company giving a singularly creepy rendition of this classic tale. After hitting the play button, we are greeting with the sounds of rain, then a door creaking, followed up by the menacing strains of an organ. Mr. Dufris does an excellent maniacal laugh that betrays the well-adjusted facade of his urbane voice as our narrator, Montresor, who is planning to take revenge on his friend Fortunato, over what seems like a pretty weak excuse. Over a tense, 17-minute time frame, the plot takes on deeper and deeper twists as we are led down into Montresor's the nefarious wine cellar to where he will supposedly show his friend a particular rare vintage.

This production paid great attention to the details within Poe's famous story. We can hear the bells jingle on Fortunato's cap, as he is described as wearing a jester's cap for Italian Carnival, and strains of festival music that recede farther in the background as Fortunato enters Montresor's lair. Water drips, sounds echo. Fortunato has a hacking cough that is eluded to in the text but brought to life to a disturbing effect. Montresor urges the man to go back several times (perhaps having a change of heart regarding his nefarious plans?) saying that the dampness of the cellars is no good for his condition, but Fortunato, perhaps out of pride, presses on. Towards the end, we are convinced that both characters have gone completely mad, if their unhinged laughter is any indication.

Poe has always had a special place in my heart, and I'd like to think he would really enjoy sitting back and seeing his tale retold with the dramatic voices and sound effects bringing forth such depth and passion.

The Cask of Amontillado is a part of a Summer Shorts '14, a collection that is the product of a collaboration of Spoken Freely and Tantor Media, Inc. All proceeds from the sales of this collection will go to support ProLiteracy, a nationwide organization to that provides adult learning, content, and programs to help adult learners and advocate on their behalf. Get hopping! The collection costs only $9.99 until June 30, after that the price goes up to $14.99.

The stories keep rolling on! Check out what's featured in the blog hop for the rest of the month...


6/27           Dawn Harvey, Something as Big as a Mountain, by Jane Cawthorne,
w/author Jane Cawthorne at My Books, My Life
6/28            Tanya Eby, The Girl at the Gate, by Lucy Maud Montgomery @ Miss Susie’s Reading & Observations
6/28            Tish Hicks, How They Broke Away to Go to the Rootabaga Country, by Carl Sandburg @ Going Public
6/29             Karen White, Sharks and Seals, by Susanna Daniel @ Every Day I Write the Book
6/30             Xe Sands, Virtue of the Month, by Kathleen Founds @ The Oddiophile

To find out more about the project, visit Xe Sands' blog Spoken Freely. And thanks for joining me on this fun listen through the best of classic literature and poetry!