Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Big Rewind: Where Nostalgia Unfurls the Mystery with Heart and Snark

Cover image courtesy of HarperCollins
Mixtapes are a thing of great beauty. Music has often been called food for the soul, and when someone takes the time to compile a customized album, just for you, it is nothing less than magical. They are mailing their heart to you on polycarbonate.

I have made several mixtapes (in the form of CDs) for people over the years, but the only person who ever returned the favor to me was my dear friend and college cohort Libby Cudmore, who recently published her first novel, The Big Rewind, through HarperCollins. (She occasionally contributes her talent to this blog as well - check out her snarktastic review of Sin City: A Dame To Kill For.) And naturally, the plot revolves around solving a murder through the only major clue - a mixtape.

The Big Rewind is a gumshoe detective novel told from the perspective of a struggling young professional writer rather than a hardened private eye - Jett Bennett, along with a slew of snarky hipster friends ("lumbersexuals"- brilliant). Cudmore expertly captures the hustling, mercurial lifestyle that is the Big Apple. You can go from zero to hero and back again in the blink of an eye.Whether the reader is intimately familiar with good old New York, NY or has just seen the city lights from afar, Cudmore puts you right in the eye of the storm: 

"In the fashion show that was the L train, I was wearing my laundry-day T-shirt from the 'Save our Bluths' - themed run last fall for Habitat for Humanity, meaning that I was completely invisible in a surging tide of seafoam Tom and ModCloth skirts."

 The book also realistically depicts the challenges of city living, as Jett tries to keep her nose above the water working for a freelance agency - which includes some dubious "favors" for her boss - and counts her pennies in the process of sleuthing out the killer of her friend and neighbor, the charmingly bohemian and retro KitKat. This ain't no Sex and City fantasy island, where a weekly columnist can afford her own apartment and Manolo Blahnik heels twice a month.

Sailor Mars is so right.
We humans often turn to nostalgia to remind us of less stressful moments of our lives. For Jett, that nostalgia comes in the form of a "Boyfriend Box" that hold mementos from her past relationships - "The box had traveled, unopened, with me every time I moved. As long as it was there, I didn't have to think about it - like it was the Dorian Gray picture of my heart." Interspersed with the sleuthing is a great deal of resolving the past, which at times distracts from the main narrative, but Jett becomes less of a caricature and more multidimensional as facing her past makes her whole again. Her best friend and current major crush Sid smooths off Jett's rough edges with his Southern gentleman charm while simultaneously rankling her with his typical male obliviousness to her affections. This theme of the past clarifying the present plays into the personal development of Jett as a character and the development of the overall plot.

This review would be remiss if I didn't discuss the other major character in the book besides Jett - the music. What is wonderful about reading this book is if you keep your smartphone or laptop handy, there are so many great references to songs both implicit and explicit that you can look up after reading a chapter and enjoy. In fact, you could make your own "Big Rewind" mix tape and it would be the raddest thing ever. The chapter titles are snippets of song lyrics or song titles, and I was super excited to discover one was "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" which references a classic Pet Shop Boys song, my favorite band and a group we discovered together back in college. I would never would've discovered this obscure jem of a song by a band called the Lightning Seeds without this good read. 

 As the narrative began to resolve itself, I got the same sad sensation of leaving something dear behind - a good journey coming to its inevitable conclusion, but one I would never regret having made.


Guest Critic Kitteh reviewer Jackaroo sez: Just like a mixtape, The Big Rewind can be a bit too nostalgic for its own good at times, but overall a solid debut. 






Sunday, February 28, 2016

Sir Toby is Dead, Long Live Sir Toby

Toby on our front porch in Tennessee, June 2015 
"One helluva cat you got there Liz. One helluva cat." - my landlord Allen Buck

It is with a heavy heart that I write this modest obituary on the life of an extraordinary feline, Sir Toby, who has been the mascot of this blog for the last six years. He was diagosed with kidney failure, and passed away peacefully on February 12, surrounded by people that love him.

It feels weird to have it be the night of the Oscars and my fluffy fellow couch potato and critic, gone to that great catnip ranch in the sky. He got so much joy out of curling up next to me, watching movies. Many people have asked, "Did he really watch them with you?" He sure did, and you can bet that first night my fiance Casey and I settled on the couch to watch some Star Trek without that familiar warm fluffball, I was inconsolable.

Toby came into my life in the spring of 2005 when he was living with my friend Chris in an apartment in New Haven, CT at the time, right down the block from my aunt and uncle's house. I had just graduated from Binghamton University of New York and was starting out my career as a journalist for a local community paper in the area. Chris traveled a lot for his work, and Toby (he came with the name) was his ex-girlfriend's cat. She had moved out and was going to "come get Toby later" when she found a new place. I started catsitting him while Chris was away and in the meantime we fell in love with each other's company. I'll never know how old he was really - he was a rescue that had already lived with at least one other family, but we estimated him to be around 3 at that time.

Soaking up the sun. 
Six months later Chris's ex told him that she couldn't successfully find an apartment she could afford that would allow her to have a pet, so he was on his own with Toby. He didn't feel it was right to keep him considering all the traveling he was doing but didn't want to throw him in a shelter. At the time, I was not in a financial or practical position to take on a cat,  but he had basically become mine anyway, so I found a more pet-friendly situation and made it work.

I'll never forget when I came to pick him up for good. He was very nervous in his little carrier and he mewed and mewed and mewed. That is, until I threw on a Billy Joel album. I was just getting into Billy at the time and apparently Toby agreed with my taste in music because he quieted right down and was visibly more at ease. Later, when we decided to forego the carrier for a harness (significantly less stressful of the two options), I'd always make sure to have a Billy Joel or Sting album handy if we had to travel. It never failed to chill him out.

I would soon discover that Toby was a great lover of people, and he could win over the most devoted cat hater with his rough tongue kisses and dashing good looks. Put him in a bowtie and he was irresistibly dapper. He loved parties and being the center of attention and was a total ladies man. He was an incredibly empathetic creature, right by my side whenever I was lonely or afraid and purring and sporting half-closed eyes kitty smile of his when he was "picking up the good vibes" as my Dad would say. He was also amazingly tolerant of new situations. We moved eight times together over the course of 10 years. It never really bothered him - as long as he had me and I had him, anything was possible. We lived together for four years, just the two of us, in a 425-square-foot studio apartment in East Haven, and he was a huge amount of company, especially during major life transitions (i.e., breaking up with ex of seven years, losing my job).

The last big move was from Rhode Island to Tennessee in the summer of 2014, and even then, he just rolled with it. He LOVED our house in Tennessee, and I'm so happy his last few years on this plain of existence were spent there instead of a cramped apartment, with a big front porch to roll around on during supervised outings (he was mainly an indoor cat). I made him a promise, that no matter how bad the situation was, I would never, ever leave him. And I never did. Not even at the very end, when he mustered up one final headbutt as I stroked his forehead and I felt his soul slip through my fingers into the great beyond.

Nothing can prepare you for the huge cement truck of grief that comes along and dumps it all on your doorstep when you come home and that friend is no longer there to greet you (which this article my friend Marian sent me that you can read here describes with laser-point accuracy). What is even more extraordinary is the lack of understanding many give to the loss of a non-human companion. Like somehow it is less of a loss. In many ways, I would argue it is more in the case of dear Toby. What other being has been the first to greet me the morning after an endless night of hopelessness to bat me on the head lightly and say in his own way, "Hey, life sucks, but that food bowl ain't gonna fill itself, sugar."

Toby gave me a purpose, and was a huge inspiration for this blog. On my best days he gave me someone to hug and kiss and on my worst days, slept next to my head, licking me gently, giving me the will to go on. Many people have been asking if I am planning to get a new cat, and what I will do with the blog now that Sir Toby has passed on. There will be a new Critic Kitteh, eventually, but not for a little while as we process the grief that Toby's passing has left us with. In the meantime, I've decided to leave the blog and the rating system as-is for a little while in tribute to him. I thank all my family, friends, fans, and followers for sharing in my sadness and offering me hope and encouragement during his sad time. Now and always, you help me to "keep on keepin' on," as the great Bob Dylan once said. I hope you enjoy this memorial video that showcases the best moments over the last 11 years of my funny friend and me.








Friday, January 29, 2016

Guest Review! The Call of the Wild: The Revenant shows the human heart in all its aching rawness

  Alejandro G. Iñárritu directs a tense moment with Tom Hardy & Leo
Every once in awhile, I like to encourage other voices to contribute to this blog because it is always fascinating to get a fresh perspective on what other cinephiles take away from the magic that is a well-crafted motion picture, especially one so majestic as The Revenant. My friend Debbie Blinder, owner of Full Circle Candles and self-professed "movie freak" spoke so passionately to me about seeing this film (currently nominated for 12 Oscars, including Best Picture), that I encouraged her to write about it. She even agreed to have her Russian Blue, Jackaroo, give Toby a break and rate the picture at the bottom. Without further ado, here is her review!

What does "revenant" even mean? many people have asked. It matches the story perfectly.

rev·e·nant: a person who has returned, especially supposedly from the dead.

Walking into the theatre after being warned that I might not be able to take the gruesome parts of the
movie, I found myself hesitant. However, being a longtime fan of Leonardo DiCaprio and knowing what he went through in this role, I still decided to brave the film as the intrigue and support outweighed the concern.

This movie was no doubt raw, but no part of it ran me off. It is a simple story of family love, survival and ultimate revenge mixed into the incredibly rough wilderness. What captured me right from the beginning was the way it was artistically filmed. Camera angles, natural lighting mixed with incredible acting, were in my opinion, the heroes from the start. It is a work of art.

Debbie with her daughter Autumn 
The scenery is impeccable. Beautiful and harsh all at the same time. I noticed scenes in which there were no footprints, not a hint of any human presence in these deep, snowy areas. Just the actors taking the first steps in uncharted territory. I knew going into the film that the choice was made to film not using artificial lighting. Genius! Evening scenes, lit from fire, stars, or the Aurora Borealis, illuminated the actors and landscapes beautifully. From morning till dusk the suns angles permeated the forest trees taking the audience on an eye-catching adventure. The senses were indeed awakened.

With all this said, the parts I was warned about were indeed intense. There is no going around that, but it is so well directed, filmed and acted that through the story I found myself intrigued by what would happen next and an understanding that the basic techniques for survival is a necessity. There are some slower moments, but they allow you, the viewer, to soak in the beauty before your eyes. Also, the Native American energy intertwined in this story made the intensity all the more sacred. I have great admiration for what the actors had to endure. (The Insatiable Critic's note: The Revenant was filmed in Canada, Argentina, Mexico, and Arizona. According to Entertainment Weekly, some of the crew complained about having to travel 12 hours to film 90 minutes of the movie, as well as being limited to the time constraints of natural lighting). Braving the environment seemed to be impossible and yet it was realistic. The Revenant is very much worth seeing and again, especially (if you still can) on the big screen to get the full experience of the rustic environment.




Jackaroo's Oscar predictions: Cinematography should be one for sure in addition to Best Actor for Leonardo's amazing performance.






Tuesday, January 5, 2016

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas The Critic Gave to Me...A Beautiful Blue Death Audiobook Spotlight

Image courtesy of Tantor.com
The last day of Christmas is often a "blue" one, because we know that the party is truly over at this point and winter gets underway in earnest. Christmas, particularly in 19th century England, is also traditionally a time to tell stories of intrigue, often with notes of the supernatural.

Enter a cure for the winter doldrums and an inspiration for the ear and mind. A Beautiful Blue Death, Book 1 in the Charles Lenox Mysteries series written by Charles Finch and read by James Langton, is set in Victorian London and has all the markings of a frightfully buttoned up bore. It soon proves to be exactly the opposite - murder by poisoning of a maid (tidy enough for even the most delicate sensibilities) is uncovered despite a hasty conclusion of suicide. Langton's crisp British tenor buoys the plot along with an impressive array of regional accents and tones.

Mysteries are not easy things to write, particularly good ones. It takes patience and willingness to intricately weave a plot that is intriguing enough to tease the reader or listener into seeing it through to the end, but not giving away too much as to cause the audience to solve the crime too early (or, in many cases, at all). Our man Lenox is an aristocrat without being obnoxious, and fully admits to his status of being an "amateur detective." The numerous historical tidbits referring to trends of the time, from food to the way wood is stacked, shows the mark of exhaustive research on the part of the author to fully immerse the audience within the time period. The slow burn attraction between Lenox and our heroine Lady Jane is charming, enhanced by the appropriate emotional depth of Langton's narration. The juxaposition of these two characters as next-door neighbors and old friends makes the ongoing daily interaction of the opposite sexes, minus a chaperone in such strict social times, plausible - also the fact that they are both so terribly proper (until they aren't, that is).

Perhaps my only complaint about the plot is the copious amount of plodding through conversations (lots and LOTS of tea and sandwiches) in order to get to the bottom of things, which may try the patience of someone more accustomed to fast-paced thrillers. But Langton does masterful work in building the suspense while maintaining a very firm "stiff upper lip" that Lenox as a character cultivates within himself despite the most desperate of situations. Langton also pays strict attention to vocal consistency of multiple recurring characters and slips easily from the rarified polish of the upper class to the coarser notes of servants, footmen, and street thugs.It is a story that I believe Dickens himself might have enjoyed by the fire with a strong cup of tea on a cold winter's eve.

Toby sez: An excellent start to a series with a solid narration that wraps up loose ends but leaves the listener hungry for more. 



Friday, December 25, 2015

Audiobook Holiday Spotlight: Finding God in a Bag of Groceries: Sharing Food, Discovering Grace


Finding God in a Bag of Groceries Audiobook
Laura's inspirational book recently released on audio

During this time of light and giving in our cosy homes with holiday decorations that some of our dear kitties are lazily batting off various surfaces, we often overlook those less fortunate that may live only mere miles from our houses and apartments.

 But Laura Willis doesn’t forget. In Finding God in a Bag of Groceries, she tells stories about working within the community of Sewanee, a community that I have become a part of, helping the poorest of the poor, the desperate, and those who have been victims of the socioeconomic crisis. I was happy to see that her work was picked up by Audible Studios and turned into an audiobook this year, capably and compassionately read by Lesa Wilson. You can hear a sample here.

A little background: Laura was one of the first friends that I made when I moved to the Sewanee community in August 2014. Having quit my dead-end full-time job in Connecticut, I had taken a leap of faith moving six states away when my fiancé got a job opportunity teaching at the University of the South in Sewanee, TN. The first thing I looked for was writing opportunities because, though I wear many hats professionally, I consider the core of myself to be a writer. I found out about the local paper The Sewanee Mountain Messenger, and I contacted the editor, who happens to be Laura. I shared a link to this blog and she contacted me right away, suggesting we meet at Waffle House – the bastion of hope and center of all southern goodness, 24/7 – to discuss writing opportunities. As I sat there nursing my cup of delicious coffee, a well-dressed middle-aged woman with attractively cut white hair and a smile a mile wide walked through the door. Her energy was infectious and her green eyes danced as she talked excitedly about how she had written the column reviewing the local movies showing at the local Sewanee Union Theatre for years and felt her writing was getting stale, and how my movie blog would be just the thing to breathe some new life into the column. She couldn’t pay me a whole lot, but it would give me an introduction to the community and give me an opportunity to write creatively. I jumped on it immediately. 
Author Laura Willis

Since then, Laura has become an ally to me both personally and professionally, and Toby has become the most famous cat on the mountain. I regularly have people stop me in the grocery, at the gym, wherever, and ask me about my take on the latest film and what will I be writing about next? Having read Finding God in a Bag of Groceries in its hardcover format, I was excited to see what it would be like hearing the work of someone I know so well being read by someone else. It was strange at first to hear Ms. Wilson narrate the first words without an accent – I’ve become so familiar with Laura’s comforting, smooth southern drawl accented with tidbits of her Texas roots. But as I eased into the listen, the warmth coming from Wilson’s overall tenor proved to me that not only did she understand the vital message of this book, but the compassion and heart of the person who had written it, despite never having met Laura personally. Her pronunciations are spot-on and her enunciation is clear without being edgy. Her younger voice belies the maturity of the writing, but makes it accessible for a range of listeners. While there is a focus on Laura’s Christian faith, the book is more about how we can be heroes to the people right down the street from us. And for those of us that celebrate Christmas –isn’t that what this holiday is all about? Giving to those we love, but also to those most in need? Even a bag of groceries can mean life or death to someone. Wilson, echoing Laura’s wonderful words, reminds us all in just a little under four hours that no matter what our faith journeys are, it doesn’t take changing the world at large to change the world for one person or family in need.

 Toby sez: A quick listen with an uplifting message about hope and joy – and how each of us has the capacity to be our own hometown heroes, no matter where we live. 



Thursday, November 26, 2015

Giving Thanks for Indie Film Pieces of April

One (eventually) happy family; image courtesy of MGM. 
Thanksgiving isn't given much of a spotlight nowadays. Somewhere along the way, the popular media has come to view it as a pre-party to Christmas. However, I still think there is something to be said for having an autumnal holiday that give us pause to reflect on one's blessings. Over the five-plus years that I have maintained this blog, it has paved the way for so much good in my life - a column in my local paper The Sewanee Mountain Messenger, and a regular gig writing reviews for AudioFile Magazine, a prestigious publication based in Portland, Maine that is the definitive go-to for everything in the audiobook world. This has all happened because of you, dear reader, taking the time to stop in and enjoy this blog, and for that, I am deeply thankful. As a thank you, I'm sharing a review of one of my favorite non-mainstream Thanksgiving films that has become a tradition to watch because it so touches my heart every time.  Drink, be merry, and happy viewing! 



Pieces of April

April attempting to impress relatives (aka: Mission Impossible)
 

2003, Rated PG-13, 80 minutes

There's one in every family - the black sheep, the renegade, the one who won't settle down and do what's expected- and that is exactly what April is. Masterfully played by Katie Holmes, April is a 20-something New Yorker who has invited her conservative family and bitter mother who's recently been diagnosed with cancer to her tiny apartment for Thanksgiving. As she is attempting to create a full-scale dinner to impress her incredibly judgmental family, everything goes wrong - from dropping the turkey to a burned out oven. As the film intersperses shots of her family in the car making snarky remarks about how awful it is all going to be to April desperately trying to piece it all together, something beautiful happens: the other tenants in the apartment complex begin to pitch in and help bring the meal together.

What impresses me most about this film is its unflinching realism of family drama juxtaposed with the optimistic joy of reunions. April's mother is played by Patricia Clarkson, who was nominated for an Oscar as best supporting actress. Clarkson is surprisingly vicious when it comes to her views toward April, and this kind of no-holds-barred honesty is equally refreshing and uncomfortable. There are so many holiday films that either make light of or gloss over family issues, an inevitable part of the picture. But what director and writer Peter Hedges manages to do is to walk a fine line between optimism and cynicism, and show that when it all comes together - its just about BEING together. With a plethora of zoomed in shots of people's faces and their reactions to surrounding people and situations, the film is an intensely personal experience; a dedication of sorts to Hedges' mother, who died of cancer. It available for streaming starting at $2.99 on Amazon.com and available for DVD rental through Netflix. Rated PG-13 for language, sensuality, and drug content, this one is best viewed by older children and adults after the pumpkin pie has been passed around and the teenies are tucked in bed.


Toby sez: A uniquely told tale that incorporates the ideals of thankfulness- and that you don't have to be related by blood to be family. A sure winner for those who need a break from football. 




Saturday, October 31, 2015

Halloween Paranormal Romance Double Feature: Love at First Bite and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

What's more fun than having your date end up being quite literally, out of this world? This Halloween, follow me on a journey between two cinema classics that feature seriously hunky male leads who are dead and loving it - and the women who fall for them.

 Love at First Bite (1979)


George Hamilton as Dracula putting the moves on Susan Saint James at a disco.
Before Twilight. Before Interview with a Vampire...there was....George Hamilton?


You got it. The tannest man on earth took a turn in 1979 as the Prince of Pale himself - Dracula. He said in an interview that they would keep powdering his face between scenes to keep him looking as pale as possible (he still looks pretty tan). This didn't stop my young heart from beating double-time though when I first watched this on TV as a tween.

Hamilton, with a convincing Transylvania accent, oozes more sex appeal in this film than Robert Pattinson could conjure up in four movies. It begins with Dracula realizing that his intended eternal love Sandy Sondheim, whom he has been pursuing over the course of many lifetimes, is now a model in New York City. Being chased out of Transylvania, he and his manservant Renfield (played brilliantly by comedian Arte Johnson) hit the mean streets of the 70s version of the Big Apple, proving that happening dance moves and classic charm can sweep any woman from any era off her feet.

My vinyl record of the soundtrack, signed by George Hamilton!
 Love at First Bite is the kind of film that could never be made today. The amount of politically incorrect jokes that get made throughout the course of the script - "how to get your gynecologist to tear up your bill by yelling, 'Rape, rape!'" - being one of the milder examples get thrown around fast and furiously. But it is the product of its time, and it never takes itself too seriously, making Hamilton a wholly sympathetic version of the famed blood-sucking demon. Set off with a killer soundtrack of 70s disco beats, Hamilton earned a Golden Globe nomination in 1980 for Best Actor in a Musical/Comedy and the film overall won six awards in the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films.

 Unfortunately, due to licensing issues, the song "I Love The Night Life" by Alicia Bridges is not included in the DVD release of this film during the iconic dance sequence between Hamilton and Saint James with all the jive turkeys standing back, agape. Thanks to the miracle of YouTube however, you can watch the scene with the original music right here:



 The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)

Harrison gets up close as the hauntingly hunky ghost of a sea captain

This classic set at the turn of the century features a young Rex Harrison as the dashing
ghost of sea Captain Daniel Gregg that finds himself irresistibly drawn from the hereafter to get to know the beautiful young widow that has recently moved into the seaside cottage where he used to live. The widow is Ms. Lucy Muir, a decidedly strong-willed woman of her time played by the ethereally lovely Gene Tierney who decides to rent the cottage despite warnings of its haunted nature. The black and white cinemetography by Charles Lang, which was nominated for an Oscar, effectively engages the shadows and creates the perfect eerie nature for this bittersweet love story. George Sanders plays the unctuous flesh and blood rival for Lucy's affections, stirring Gregg's jealous heart even from beyond the grave.

The pacing of this film is slow and deliberate compared to many of today's movies. The entrance of Gregg is a gradual build as the ever-practical Lucy keeps denying his existence even as she finds windows being open after she's closed them and being irresistibly drawn to the sea captain's dashing portrait on the wall of the cottage. The great reveal is via candlelight during a thunderstorm - solidifying in one great moment the paradoxical thrill of both terror and romance. The fact that he is dead also conveniently ties up any issues with creating a romance involving a man in the 1900s randomly showing up in a woman's bedroom. Much of the film revolves around the philosophical, above-board chats between Lucy and Gregg, all set against the dynamic background of the rolling sea. Interestingly enough, the popularity of the film was enough to spawn a miniseries based loosely on the original premise that ran from 1968 to 1970.




Toby sez: If you're looking for good laughs, solid grooves, and hot romance, sink your teeth into Love at First Bite. If you're more in the mood for a hauntingly bittersweet tale with epic cinematography, go for The Ghost and Mrs. Muir!