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
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 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!

Friday, September 25, 2015

Coming Soon to DVD: How Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl Reminds Us We're Universally Weird - and It's OK

Earl dubiously enjoy's Greg's Dad's cuisine du jour - pig's feet.
Let's face it - much of my experience of being in high school was thinking that everyone was weird, including myself, and it turns out that was largely true. An indie feature that won hearts at The Sundance Film Festival called Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl, coming to Blu Ray and DVD on October 6, conveys this concept beautifully.

This movie, based on the 2012 novel of the same name by Jesse Andrews,  is about several things - filmmaking, life and death, the excruciating transition from childhood to adulthood, and the realization that we all must come to: even adults don't have all the answers. It is also about uncovering uncomfortable truths rarely spoken about but are there - the fact that young people do get diagnosed with devastating diseases, that yes, teenage boys and girls do masturbate, and yes, sometimes the occasional pot cookie does get eaten prior to college. But rather than jar us with these truths by exposing them in harsh light, they are drawn out in the cozy confines of everyday life, amongst talks about health class and where to sit at lunch, while clutching pillows in quaint yellow childhood bedrooms. 
The story begins focusing on Greg (Thomas Mann), an awkward high school senior who spends much of his time under the radar of the various social classes, eating lunch in his badass history teacher's office, and being terrified every time the girl of his dreams touches him on the shoulder. Most of the film is told from Greg's perspective, but relative newcomer director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon regularly brings the audience up for air from our hero's existential musings to get perspective from other characters, including Earl, whom Greg calls his "co-worker" since the believes he's not cool enough to have actual friends. They make hilarious parodies of movies together, with titles such as Senior Citizen Kane and A Sockwork Orange, with menacing looking sock puppets in top hats and black felt long eyelashes around their stuck-on googly eyes. You can even watch tiny clips of these mini-movies here - David Lynch fans will appreciate their take on the classic mind-bender, Blue Velvet.
One of Greg and Earl's films within the film. Cracked me up.

Greg is pulled abruptly out of his self-absorption malaise when he finds out from his mother that his classmate Rachel, played by the lovely Olivia Cooke,  has been diagnosed with leukemia. I adore it when films can bring realistic reactions to the big screen, and Greg's is your typical teenage mantra - well, that really sucks, but what am I supposed to do about it? In typical mom fashion, she encourages Greg to go over to her house anyway for support, which Greg is not jazzed about doing, but eventually does.

Much of the film is slow and poignant, buoyed along by the creative original music by Brian Eno that incorporates the mournful drones of  the harmonium spiced up with sparkles of techno beats.The cinematography incorporates everything from long, unbroken shots to stop-motion animation (including a hilarious recurring montage of a moose accidentally stepping on a small chipmunk over and over, a mental metaphor for Greg's crush inadvertently stepping on his heart with her casual interest in him). The camerawork is a joy to behold, with many of the shots done in one long take, casually panning back and forth between the characters. There are off-center shots with the character in corners, at the end of hallways, allowing us to get a sense of their broader environment. One particularly epic scene is after Rachel has started chemo treatment, and she and Greg get into their first major argument. It is all done in ONE shot. This allows the emotion of the moment to build in our hearts and minds and is a testament to the acting chops of both Mann and Cooke. That scene is worth the price of admission alone.

Olivia Cooke, Thomas Mann, & RJ Cyler as the featured trio.
Everyone in this film is undeniably weird. We see a greying teacher wearing aviator sunglasses during class. Greg's Dad is a college professor that spends a lot of his time cuddling the cat and cooking weird Asian food (sounds a lot like my fiance). Molly Shannon, taking on her mantle of middle age with beauty and grace, plays the role of Rachel's mom with a kind of aching honesty - one scene in which she hugs and kisses Greg on the cheek has just a pinch of benign but undeniable sexual tension on Shannon's side - as a hardworking single mom of a dying girl with a love for a glass or three of white wine, she gets her kicks where she can. In fact, the most normal character of all is Rachel, who handles the crushing weight of her diagnosis with as much wide-eyed optimism as she can muster for as long as she physically can.

Unlike many films that walk the tightrope between tragedy and comedy, there's no pretension. It's a simple story with a complex message, and a heartfelt look into today's contemporary teen, and all that goes into the journey from being a boy to becoming a man.

 Toby sez: Come for the humor, stay for the humanity. Definitely one of the best films of the year in terms of plot, acting, and cinematography. Oh, and having a cat in it was definitely a plus in my book. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Revisiting Beasts of the Southern Wild: A Conversation with Screenwriter Lucy Alibar

Hushpuppy listening to the call of the wild.

 "The most important thing I can teach you - you gotta learn to take care of people smaller and sweeter than you are."

Last month, I had the great opportunity to meet and interview Ms. Lucy Alibar, Oscar-nominated screenwriter for the film Beasts of the Southern Wild when she came to visit the University of the South at Sewanee.

Watching this film on the big screen for the first time in the cool darkness of the Sewanee Union Theater, I could feel my heart expanding with love. It is such a raw, real story that emphasizes the base truth that every tiny thing matters in this world; even more so when that world is turned upside down. There is a sense of authenticity about it that comes from most of the actors being primarily unknowns at the time of filming. The gritty beauty of it all permeates every inch of the big screen.The viewing was followed by a riveting discussion afterwards led by filmmaker and Sewanee alumn Michael Dunaway as part of the programs for the Sewanee Young Writers Conference.
Mr. Dunaway holding the after-screening discussion

 Ms. Alibar is every bit as lovely and real as her screenplay. My interview with her for the university, which you can see here, mostly focused on her involvement with the Writers Conference. We also spent a great deal of time talking about her inspiration for the film and the challenges adapting the work from her one act play, Juicy and Delicious.

"Everything I do, even if it is adapted from something else, feels like a brand new endeavor," says Alibar. "A lot of it was learning what the script of a movie does for the experience of the audience and for the experience of the director."

Alibar explains the story that is now the heart of Beasts developed from her coping with her father's illness, and how she was blaming the illness on herself.

"I felt a very deep guilt - I felt responsible for him being so sick," says Alibar. "I would take really cold showers in the winter in New York, I wouldn't let myself eat...eventually, I started writing it down because it was eating me from the inside." 

The film's plot revolves around Hushpuppy (played by old soul Quvenzhane Wallis, who has since gone on to play in 12 Years a Slave and Annie) a young girl living in the Bayou in a place called "The Bathtub", and her relationship with her sick father. Her father (Dwight Henry) is always toughening her up, always referring to her as "man." Alibar says her father treated her similarly growing up, and when people would say she was pretty her father would respond "She ain't pretty, she's smart!" The magical realism the film portrays effectively engages all the wonder of the childhood experience, despite the flooding of Hushpuppy's home, recalling the terror and panic that so many experienced during Hurricane Katrina. Alibar's storytelling is a force of nature in its own right.

Enjoying the sunshine with the lovely Lucy Alibar
"Growing up in the South we are experts at suspending disbelief. We live where there used to be tar pits and there's all these fossils and dinosaur bones, but we also believe in Creation, but the dinosaur bones are right here," says Alibar. "Schools teach abstinence only but yet there are really high pregnancy rates in certain areas. We are experts at living with two truths, and to me, that's how children live as well. She sees her Dad being sick, and sees the beasts that are coming as a result of the world ending, and they are both very real for her." 

Alibar says the characters felt so close to her own family and friends that when the actors were cast, it didn't feel like an adaptation.

"I was just writing for those people," says Alibar, shrugging her slim, sun-kissed shoulders.

 Running a brisk 93 minutes, it sweeps you up and when it drops you down, and you are not the same. When a story can shake you to your core and the camera and actors illuminate that power, that, my friends, is what great cinema is all about.

 Toby sez: Spellbinding and magical, Alibar's storytelling brings out the raw emotional beasts in all of us. The power of her words are illuminated in stellar performances of every actor great and small.