Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Audiobook Spotlight: Me and a Guy Named Elvis gives heart to the icon's soul

Image courtesy of Tantor Media, Inc.

Everyone knows the side of Elvis that's the huge aviator sunglasses, the white sequined jumpsuits, the outrageous sideburns. But did you know Elvis studied martial arts and taught karate? Or studied methods of meditation and had light brown hair as a kid?

Me and a Guy Named Elvis, written by Jerry Schilling with Chuck Crisafulli, shows listeners a side of Elvis we so rarely see - the regular guy.

The audio begins with Schilling himself reading the introduction, in a growly, warm voice that pulls the listener in. He was one of Elvis's best friends and a longtime member of the renowned "Memphis Mafia," the group of guys that palled around and lived with Elvis, acting as de facto bodyguards. The transition to William Dufris's lighter, clearer tone starting in the first chapter gives the listener the satisfaction that the book's material is in good hands. It almost feels like Schilling is giving his blessing over the whole audiobook experience before handing it over to Dufris.

And he really does the icon justice by not trying to imitate the drawl we've all come to know, rather just hints at it, allowing us to break down all our preconceptions about the guy and really go beneath the surface. Schilling doesn't spin a drama-filled, expose-all tale about the ups and downs of Elvis's life. Yeah, there are the fights at the Graceland Mansion in Memphis, Tenn., and the discussion of Elvis's drug use; Schilling certainly doesn't shy away from the dark stuff. But he also talks about the good times, the parties at Graceland, and Elvis's incredible generosity, like one Christmas when they delivered a new wheelchair to a paralyzed friend who couldn't afford a new one. How he cared about his family and cared FOR them, letting them live at Graceland with him. Schilling writes with a kind of good-natured honesty with a massive amount of respect for the man as an artist as well as his friend.

And that's really what makes the book such a joy. It's everything you would hope your best friend would say about you - accepting your faults, working beyond them, but remembering you as that all-around generous good guy. Schilling talks about his personal transition of looking at Elvis with the kind of awe to becoming equals with him. It's a book about the power of friendship as much as about Elvis, and how strong friendships allow themselves to grow and evolve over the years, even if that involves a couple of break-up make-up fights. And well heck, it's nice to imagine Elvis as a light-brown haired 19-year-old with floppy hair in Memphis, just on the cusp of his music career, but taking the time to play touch football in the park with a bunch of his pals - including then 12-year-old Schilling - before changing the world with the force of his personality.

This audiobook is also chock-full of extras - after the tale is told Schilling graciously allows Dufris to interview him about what inspired him to write the book and what he hopes listeners took away from the experience. And the final icing on the cake - a recording of Elvis himself during a very personal moment reflecting on his music and his life.

This audiobook is a must for any die-hard Elvis fan, but also for anyone who believes in the power of a lifelong friendship between two regular guys. I'd like to think if Elvis were alive today, he would be moved and touched by this incredible tribute to him by someone who knew him best.

Click here to listen to an audio clip!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Kinda quiet out on the range....

Sad cat is sad.....

Sorry about the lack of updates folks. Last week we had Hurricane Irene rip through Connecticut and left me without power for several days, and a lot of work at my day job to catch up on. I'll be doing a double-header to make up for the power loss: Look for a review of The Help and the audiobook Me and a Guy Named Elvis coming this week!

Thanks for reading and for your understanding!

Monday, August 15, 2011

We Interrupt our regularly scheduled programming....

My friend Tina Pratt, who runs the awesome-tastic webcomic The Paul Reveres and is also responsible for the creation of my site banner and the Insatiable Critic logo, was in a very serious car accident with a drunk driver, who was idiotically attempting to operate a rather large pickup truck. She is in good condition but has been recovering in the hospital for several days after having to have surgery on her knee. Please keep her in your thoughts and prayers that she continues to make a safe and speedy recovery.

Toby sends lots of licks and purrs!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Audiobook Spotlight: Magic in the Shadows casts its spell on readers

Image courtesy of Tantor Media, Inc.

Since the dawn of the Harry Potter craze, many of us out there have started to get a sense of “wizarding fatigue” as I like to call it. There’s got to be other intriguing magic plotlines that don’t revolve around high school characters waving magic wands, right?

The author Devon Monk has found a cure for readers looking to sink their teeth into something a little different, and boy to we get it with a shot of adrenaline in her Allie Beckstrom series, revolving around the adventures of a very funny and true spitfire character (Allie) who can sling magic like a cowboy can sling a Colt revolver.

This type of magic is grittier and more complicated than traditional wizard stuff, and Allie has the unusual condition of actually having magic INSIDE of her – it comes to her naturally and flows through her, so much so that it becomes a detriment to her having a “normal” life. The upside is, it gives Allie some highly evolved senses, especially smell. Taking place in the city of Portland, Oregon, we are set in a world where the use of magic comes with a price – and people are paid good money to be the “proxies” (that is, the recipients of the pain associated with the use of a significant amount of magic) and it is a part of everyday life. Allie's job (when she's not dealing with other out-of-control supernatural elements) is to to be a Hound, a person who can track down people who abuse their power in magic and keep them from causing harm to innocent non-magic users.

Magic in the Shadows is the third installment in Monk’s series, but it is written in such a way that it could be read as a stand-alone without readers being too lost. Monk does a wonderful job in giving readers enough background to get grounded before the plot takes off at a breakneck speed. Engaging and funny, the book is filled with numerous wonderful characters, including Shamus, a death magic user who dresses gothy, drinks like a true Irishman, and has a smart mouth to match. This book lends itself well to audio because the characters play off each other so well, and the chemistry between Allie and her budding romance with Zayvion Jones, (affectionately known as “Zay”) a member of the Authority – an elite group in the city whose job it is to keep magic in check – practically sparks and dances off the pages. They are worthy of one another as allies and lovers.

Another character that gets introduced in this book is Stone, a gargoyle that Allie accidentally releases into life through an accidental surge of magic during an attempt to have a quiet dinner out with Zayvion. He becomes an unforgettable and important character in this book as well as the subsequent volumes in the series later. And honestly, people that know me well know I have a thing for gargoyles, and Stone is just flat-out adorable!

Despite all the magical properties in the world that Monk has created for us, the characters are very real and relatable. Allie gets tired. She gets stressed. And she’s really tired of having to deal with the spirit of her dead father in her head. Okay, so thankfully we in the real world don’t have to deal with that, but there’s a very human element that runs through Monk’s writing, that there are consequences to people’s actions; there is a price to pay for the magic that is used.

Perhaps it is that human element that makes for such a great audiobook. Emily Durante brings attitude and flair to Allie, as well as embodying the cool straight-man aura that Zayvion embues. She does a fantastic job with Shamus’s Irish accent, giving him just the right amount of snark his character requires without going over the edge and making him totally obnoxious. Her voice makes the book come alive in the way a truly well-done audiobook should, and makes the reader hungry for more. And thankfully there IS more: there are three more volumes awaiting after Magic in the Shadows, the most recent volume, Magic on the Hunt available through Tantor Media through CD or download as of Aug. 29.

A truly compelling listen, anyone who is looking for a fresh voice in the genre of urban magic should check out this series. You can listen to an audio clip from Magic in the Shadows here.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Current Reels GUEST Review: Cowboys & Aliens has the look but not the thrill

Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig lookin' grim in this image courtesy of Universal Studios and Dreamworks Pictures

And now...for something a little different.

I am proud and happy to have the equally insatiable Libby Cudmore, writer extraordinaire, throw in her two cents on my blog. For guest reviews, we also have a guest rating system, featuring Roxy, my friend's epically amazing pooch who is a very good girl and also has good taste in movies. Same gig, one through five. You'll see her featured at the end of this review!

For more of Libby's writing goodness, giddy-up and turn your browser horses (or "hosses", as they say in the Old West) towards Record of the Month Club/Boys on Film.

Without further ado...take it away Libby:

Cowboys & Aliens was, for me, like my 13-year-old self and my 27-year-old self giving each other a high five. Harrison Ford (as Han Solo) was my first love, and Walton Goggins (as Shane Vendrell) is my most recent. So while IMDB-stalking Goggins the night before Predators opened, I saw a listing for Cowboys & Aliens and have been anxious for it ever since.

In addition to being a fan of Harrison Ford, Walton Goggins, Clancy Brown and Toby Huss, I also like big bloated silly action movies. Not like Transformers or, even worse, Battleship (which has the silliest looking trailer ever), but big cheesy ones like Independence Day. From everything I’d seen, Cowboys & Aliens looked like it was trying to bring fun back to the movies, and I can get behind that. Cowboys fight aliens. Awesome.

The problem I’ve had with recent alien invasion movies, like Skyline, is that Our Heroes inevitably look to the sky and point and scream, “What’s that?” Well, let’s see, we’ve had alien invasion movies since the fifties, and they all have giant flying saucers hovering in the sky, what the hell do you think it is, it’s ALIENS, what, are you Amish!?! But Cowboys have never seen aliens, so the believability is already there. Imagine, you’re just a normal guy, riding your horse and you see a giant THING flying past you. Holy cats, that’s got to be scary! I like that kind of rooting interest in my films. I also like the idea of Walton Goggins in a cowboy hat.

So I put on my refashioned vintage western shirt and got tickets for the midnight showing. I took a nap, I got some Bottlecaps and I was all geared up. I was ready. I needed my Walton Goggins fix.

I need to say this first: Guys in western gear are really hot. This is part of Shane Vendrell’s sex appeal on The Shield—he wears snap-front western shirts a girl could just rip off his body and inappropriately tight boot-cut jeans. The real, old-timey western costumes are even sexier, even on Daniel Craig, who has a mouth like a puckered cat butt. Harrison Ford’s still got it and rocks that paisley scarf, even if he is a million years old and can barely move his mouth anymore. Olivia Wilde has creepy doll-eyes and looks like she wore her Laura Ashley pajamas to the gunfight. Paul Dano has a pube ‘stach. But other than that—Sexy City.

(This does not mean, gentlemen, that you can start wearing cowboy hats. Chances are you are not a cowboy, nor are you Daniel Craig, and you will end up looking like a dope in a cowboy hat. And unless you have an ass like Walton Goggins, step away from the boot cut jeans while you’re at it. Vintage snap-front western shirts make you look like a hipster. So really, just don’t bother trying, because you will hurt yourself and those around you.)

But I digress, and I’d like to point out one more great thing about the film—it has an awesome ensemble cast. You have two TV Cops (Adam Beach of short-lived SVU fame joins Shield alum Goggins) a guy from another western show (Keith Carradine of Deadwood, although you could also make the Justified argument in Goggins’ case) two dudes from Carnival (Toby Huss and Clancy Brown, once again playing a man of God) James Bond and Indiana Jones. Really, how do you screw that up?

Two hours later I was sleepy and slightly disappointed. The movie wasn’t bad (except for Paul Dano and Olivia Wilde’s sad attempts at “acting”) but it wasn’t especially good either. It wasn’t even bad/good, (although it is ripe for riffing). Walton Goggins is barely in it. I was expecting a summer thrill-ride, but what I got was a generic blockbuster with nothing memorable or unique.

And that’s what hurt most of all.

I was so pumped for this film. I’d waited a year, scanned for screenshots, watched the trailer, stayed up past my bedtime and for what? Nothing special. I didn’t even come away with the same goofy affection I have for Predators. At least in Predators, Walton Goggins (who is the only good part of that film) got to say lines like, “If we ever get out of here . . . I’m going to do so much cocaine.” I don’t remember a single gruff, muttered piece of dialogue from Cowboys & Aliens.

While the cowboys are mostly hot, the aliens look like Silent Hill villains, and poorly-rendered ones at that. I’m a big fan of guys in rubber suits, so I can see right through CGI—but bad CGI is even worse than the zipper hanging out. It’s lame and it’s pathetic and it makes you sort of sad. Luckily they weren’t in it that much, probably because the budget was used up on making Olivia Wilde look less like a Real Doll and more like a human being (they almost succeeded).

If you’re looking for a way to hang around in the A/C and eat some snacks, by all means. Cowboys & Aliens is a perfect film. It’s inoffensive, it doesn’t put cocaine directly up Michael Bay’s nose and tells Hollywood, “Hey, we like Jon Favreau. We still like Harrison Ford, and we’ll tolerate Daniel Craig.” The western is making a comeback, and I think we need to support that as best we can. I’d rather see this than, say, a gritty reboot of Wild Wild West.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Video interview with Kung Fu Film Expert Ric Meyers!

Ric Meyers, famous writer, fellow critic, and some say the American expert on Kung Fu films, graciously allowed me to interview him about his new book and corresponding movie, Films of Fury! before he trotted off to the San Diego Comic Con. At this biggest and baddest of the comic cons, at 7:45 p.m. in Room 6A, yesterday he premiered Films of Fury: The Kung Fu Movie Movie!

We had a great time. UPDATE: So I had a great, edited, wonderful copy of the interview with a header and footer and lots of bells and whistles, and for some reason Windows Movie Maker will not process it. I begged, pleaded, and almost came close to throwing my laptop out the window. So here it is folks, the raw copy, uncut and unplugged. The first chunk is about 20 minutes long and the second is about 11 minutes long (don't have to watch it all in one go if you don't wish) long and no fancy intro but bug-free. Hope you enjoy! MANY thanks to Casey Schoenberger who played cameraman and managed to get the video uploaded to his YouTube channel, and for Ric for being patient and a good sport as always.

Without further one and two!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Audiobook Spotlight: British WWII soldier breaks silence to tell tale of extraordinary bravery

Image courtesy of Tantor Media, Inc.

After over sixty years and in his early nineties, British soldier Denis Avey broke his silence and found a way to tell the incredible tale of his experience as a POW in World War II.

The Man Who Broke Into Auschwitz tells of a British soldier's courage to go-willingly-into a Jewish prisoner camp to give one man two days of freedom - and find out for himself the horrors that the prisoners were being subjected to.

This is a very personal and important book, which must have been very hard for Denis Avey to write, even with the assistance of BBC journalist Rob Broomby. What I enjoy so much about the way this book is written is you not only get a feel for what Avey experienced while he was in the war - watching his friend get literally blown to smithereens, for one - but the loneliness and isolation he felt AFTERWARDS.We get the back story, the aftermath, that one so rarely gets to hear about; the long healing process and mental and physical toll the experience took on him as a soldier and as a person. He doesn't tell any of this in a self-pitying way. The writing is direct and finds humor in the most unlikely places.

British narrator James Langton is really quite perfect for making this tale come to life. He strikes the balance between the lighter and darker moments of the book, yet giving it the overall solemn poignancy that the subject matter requires. What makes this such a great audiobook is because the content is so personal, having a compelling voice relating it and infusing it with the appropriate emotions for each passage gives the story an even deeper dimension.

The book takes us through Avey's earliest days of the war fighting Italians in the desert, jumping off a ship to avoid being a POW, his tense flight as a fugitive in Greece, and his capture by the Nazis. Avey was taken to Poland and placed at the British POW labor camp, labeled E715, near Buna-Monowitz, more famously known as Auschwitz III. He recalls the chilling sign in front of his camp and others, reading "Arbeit Macht Frei", which translates as "Work Will Set You Free."

Avey tells of his deeds switching uniforms with Jewish prisoner Hans and writing in code to another Jewish prisoner’s sister in England in order to send him cigarettes, which was the currency of the camps - a valuable asset that could prove the difference between survival and death. He tells all of this with a matter-of-fact attitude that neither pats himself on the back nor diminishes his heroic actions. He unflinchingly relates the horrors of the camp and the war itself not with the intent to shock, but to honestly send forth the message that yes, all of this really truly did happen, and history must never repeat itself. He also includes how he had an opportunity to have an easy time of it during his early involvement in the war after he saved a man in the desert, but went back to fighting because he felt in his gut it was the right thing to do.

This book left me with renewed focus on the importance of the Holocaust and how it is a terrible chapter in our history that should remain undimmed for the ages. Remain so, because it reminds us of how close we are to becoming inhuman and how valuable the lives of others truly are. And it also reminds us that the soldiers who fight for us are very human as well, underneath a hard shell of discipline and courage that allows them to do what they have to.

Whatever made this man tell his story - I am grateful for it. Had it gone to the grave with him; what a huge loss for all of us, what an important message gone unsaid. This is a story that will stay with me for a long, long time.

Click here to listen to a sample of the book.

Monday, July 4, 2011

July Fourth special: Super 8 is really great, let's make a date watch Super 8!

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures, Amblin Entertainment, and Bad Robot Productions

No movie this year has surprised and delighted me as much as Super 8 did; which I managed to see this weekend quite by chance. It's been one of the most rewarding viewing experiences I've stumbled upon lately.

I chose this movie to review on Fourth of July partly because I just can't contain my enthusiasm for seeing a film THIS good, but mostly because I can't think of anything more American than a plot that revolves around a bunch of precocious kids in 1979 Dayton, Ohio, running around making movies.

It's a good old-fashioned, growing up geeky in America mixed with a good dose of action/thriller supernatural good times. The brain child of Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams, the two directors use this film to wax nostalgic about their mutual passion for film-making from a young age. Indeed, young Spielberg was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio and started his film career running around with, you guessed it, an 8 mm.

The film has a kind of movie magic, a kind of wonder, that I have seldom seen since the great adolescent/coming of age films of my youth - The Goonies, E.T., Flight of the Navigator and Summer of 42 all come to mind. Indeed, the Amblin Entertainment logo featuring the iconic scene from E.T. of the bike flying against the moon is the first thing the audience sees, already stirring up the nostalgic cockles of the audiences' hearts.

The biggest complaint I have about the film really only involves the massive amount of suspension of belief the first dramatic scene asks of the audience. You'll see what I mean. But as things get increasingly weirder and weirder; the quality level just goes up and up.

A big part of it is that the kids, who are trying to film a zombie movie in the midst of a real supernatural occurrence going on in their town, are all great actors. Many of them are newcomers - according to Entertainment Weekly, Joel Courtney, who plays the main character Joe Lamb, went to Los Angeles last summer to visit his brother without a single acting credit. "I really wanted a commercial and $100, and I got Super 8," the article says. Elle Fanning, who plays Joe's love interest Alice Dainard, is probably the most well-known out of the bunch for being the kid sister of Dakota Fanning. Riley Griffiths, who plays the obsessive director Charles, definitely comes across as kid Spielberg personified. Add in a stoner friend with a car and a kid with a penchant for explosives and flames, and you're in for one wild, fun ride.

I won't get into the plot. I think its important to watch the story unfold on the screen without knowing much about it. I will say this - there are some scary moments, one that actually made me jump back against my seat, but just as things are on the verge of getting a little too tense, the directors toss you a lifeline of levity with great writing that shows no matter how crazy their current situation might be, kids will still be kids.

What most impressed me about Super 8 is the writing of the script shows kids being intelligent; not stereotyped cardboard cutouts that many high school films portray them to be. It's not about the jocks vs. the nerds, or who's better than who. You never even see the kids at school because its summer and the directors wisely chose that as the perfect time A. to release the movie and B. set the movie because it allowed them to focus solely on this small group of adolescents that are just doing their damndest to follow their hearts and their passions. And best of all, the message brought home at the end is that there's a whole lot adults can learn from kids as well, if they would only listen.

So seriously, what are you still doing here reading this? Go forth and Super 8!