Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Audiobook spotlight: To End All Wars - WWI through the eyes of the peacemakers

Image courtesy of Tantor Media, Inc.

To be totally honest, what I knew about World War I would fit into a very small teacup before I started listening to To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918. Usually I shy away from these types of war biographies, but what intrigued me about this book is that it is told through the eyes of the peacemakers in the war, from a very human, vulnerable point of view.

Narrator Arthur Morey sets the right tone for this book: his voice is clear and soothing, but gives the kind of depth and solemness needed for such a serious topic. Rather than being told as a straight-out chronology of events, author Adam Hochschild engages the reader by focusing on the relationship between the people fighting the war and the people opposing it. One of the most interesting points the book makes is how World War I really set the stage for World War II; and how Germany's losses in World War I embittered a well-known soldier, Adolf Hitler.

The book picks apart several major historical figures, delving into their psyches as only an author who has done an exhausting amount of research can. Field Marshal Douglas Haig, who was the British senior officer, became so obsessed with the idea of Britain claiming a victory that his ambitions led to the deaths of thousands of soldiers, particularly during The Battle of Somme in France. The opening day of the battle saw nearly 60,000 casualties on the British side.

The book also talks about the women who were very influential during the war, such as Maria Bochkareva, a 25-year-old Russian woman who was given special permission by the goverment to enlist in the Army. She then organized the "Women's Battalion of Death", whose members "shaved their heads, slept on Bar boards during training, endured the same corporal punishment as male Russian soldiers, and sported a skull-and-crossbones insignia." Boy, would they have made a great Roller Derby team or what?

The book also talks about the Pankhursts, a family of powerful women who promoted their ideas through newspapers and public gatherings. However, two of the sisters would find that their differing beliefs about the war would divide them straight down the middle. The book also talks of the writer Rudyard Kipling, his involvement with the war effort, and the crushing blow that the death of his young son John in the war dealt him. For John had bad eyesight and the Army would not take him, but his father, ever supportive, managed to get him in anyway through his political connections. His son's body would never be found.

Hochschild reminds us that the impact of the war remains prevalent today...."some half-million pounds of First World War scrap is still collected from French and Belgian fields each year. And everywhere along the old Western Front the soil continues to yield up bones: the remains of 250 British and Australian soldiers were found beneath a French field in 2009."

Sobering, but vital, it is a book with much heart, as well as being a great, easily understood overview of the war, its immensity, and its impact. Morey's gentle voice and incredible research on the pronunciations of names and places gives the story its due honor as well as making it a great listening experience.

Click here to listen a sample.

Current Reels: Kung Fu Panda 2, or How My Inner Peace Can Kick Your Butt

Image courtesy of Dreamworks Studios

Following up an already great film is never an easy task, and some don't always hit the mark. Take Iron Man 2, for example. The first one was pretty much flawless - great acting, great plot, wonderful special effects, snappy dialogue and killer pacing. The second- not so much. It had all the right pieces on the game board; with Mickey Rourke as Whiplash and Don Cheadle a worthy replacement for Terrence Howard as Rhodey/War Machine, but it just didn't have the zip and zing of the first. Perhaps in its own right, its not such a bad movie, but once you've seen the first you can't help but wish it was just as clever and brilliant.

Such is the burden on filmmakers with sequels; particularly second installments. There are benefits too - not being weighed down by character development and setting the stage, you can just push play and hit the ground running. The creators of Kung Fu Panda 2 used this benefit to their full advantage. Right from the start, you get a loving reference to a dearly departed character from the first film artfully rendered into the studio logo, and then BAM away we go.

And WOW is the animation gorgeous; even more so than the first. The textures in fur and the patterns in clothes are detailed to the extreme, and Po, though slimmed down a tad (all that kung fu will do that to you) is fuzzier and cuter than ever. The 3D well-worth the extra couple bucks on the movie ticket; it enhances rather than hinders the already dazzling animation.

Things I loved about this film- more scenes done in the unique hand-drawn animation style that we got a glimpse of in the first film. It looks like ancient Chinese tapestries come to life. I also enjoyed the evolved friendship between Panda and Tigress, considering their relationship was definitely off to a rocky start in the first film. When I first read that the villain was going to be an albino peacock named Shen, I was like rather skeptical. But the ever-versatile Gary Oldman really rose to the occasion and made him menacing to the point of scary, especially to very young children.

It was also a joy to hear more from Mr. Ping, voiced by James Hong, who will always remain endearing to me as Cassandra's Dad in Wayne's World 2. His character is a duck who owns a noodle shop and happens to be Po's clearly adopted father. He becomes a central character later in the first film and remains central in the second. And here's where the plot becomes tricky to navigate.

As my boyfriend said to me after the film was over; I LIKED just having Mr. Ping be Po's Dad without a lot of explanation. And delving into one's mysterious origins is a well-trod plot path, and is tricky to make fresh, new, and well, not downright trite.

But somehow, they did it. The sequence when Po begins to put the pieces of his past together (the flashback scenes rendered in that gorgeous hand-drawn animation style I gushed about previously) literally brought tears to my eyes. It brought home the idea that family is where you find it, which is a theme I think is too seldom seen in films.

I just wish the last few moments of the film had been taken out entirely, or at least put at the end of the credits. But I would've preferred to not have it in at all. Without giving too much away, it is in direct conflict with all the previous statements and themes the film has built up to this point. It left me feeling a little cheated. And honestly, would it have been too much to ask to give Monkey (voiced by Jackie Chan) a COUPLE more lines? Maybe in the third movie...

]The action continues to be fantastic and well-researched, and a delight to see especially if you know anything about kung fu. Watching Shifu, Po's teacher, do the Tai Chi move "Wave Hands Like Clouds" at the beginning of the film made me tingle a little inside with happiness.

Overall, a solid follow-up with plenty of fun for kids and adults alike. Stay for the great animation during the credits! Very much looking forward to seeing what they come up with for DVD extras.

P.S. Look for Master Croc, who gets a pityingly small role, voiced by Jean Claude Van Damme, do a signature "Van Damme" split!

Monday, June 20, 2011

AnimeNEXT: 10 years of wacky geeky goodness Part I

Like father, like daughter: The Critic with her Dad after his panel, Anime Under the Radar at AnimeNEXT 2011

I realized that as AnimeNEXT turns 10, a convention held in Somerset, NJ that I attended from June 10-12, I will also be reaching a geeky milestone myself.

Ten years ago, almost a wide-eyed freshman in college, I wrapped up my college days by setting foot inside my first anime convention, which was Otakon 2001 in Baltimore, MD. And much like this year, my Dad was by my side, ready to geek out with the best of them. I guess you could say in terms of conventions, I'm as of this year, a proverbial "X-Man" (sorry guys, if you know your Roman numerals, I couldn't avoid the obvious pun.)

Flash forward, and things really haven't changed much. Sure, I've graduated and somehow through a lot of hard work and the grace of God I have a full-time job that I actually like and an apartment to call my own (plus kitteh!) but my love for the proverbial "con" remains the same.

What is it about the con that draws myself, my Dad, and all the lunatics I know that I'm proud to call friends? For me, it's always been the chance of being able to gather with like-minded people and feel like I'm a part of some kind of huge, slightly scary, but never boring family reunion. Yes, I happen to be one of those freaks who dress up and I love it. There is nothing cooler to me than wearable art. If it works for Lady Gaga...

Speaking of wearable art, I made a little slide show of some of the best costumes I saw at the show. I hope you all like it, and if you happen to see yourself in here, feel free to comment and tell us a little about the creation of said costume!

Being on staff this year gives me a somewhat biased opinion of the convention, I admit, but I enjoyed myself a heck of a lot more this year than I did the year before. Part of it was that there seemed to be more staff in general and the con overall had a better sense of what panels were going to be super popular and putting them in rooms that didn't cram everyone in super tight. There were still the usual bugs - events starting late, the Artist Alley being in way too small of a space which counteracted the convenience of it being across from the Dealers Room as opposed to in another building like it was last year. But overall the people working the con were knowledgeable and polite, and the tech guys were really on the ball in making sure projectors and the like could be hooked up to laptops and net books easily for presentations. Both my Dad (AKA: Professor Bill Ellis), and my boyfriend, Casey Schoenberger, did panels and neither had any problems setting up their Power Point presentations or getting sound to work, or any of the usual pitfalls that can bog down and plague a panel presentation. Also, the con staff was pretty johnny-on-the-spot about making sure people didn't run over the time limit, and would pop in and say courteously (and then, if they had to, slightly less courteously) if the person only had 10 to 5 minutes left. This made for smoother transitions between panels.

And then there was this guy...CHIPOCRITE. He came. He saw. He geeked hardcore. And then we were compelled to do the same, as you can see...

Basically, this guy (Paul Weinstein's) shtick is that he "repurposes" old video game hardware into synthesizers, so he's actually controlling the music using an old Game Boy. Pretty great stuff. I wanted to buy his CD because it was only $5, but they went like hotcakes, as they say. Thankfully, this Philly native's music can be heard and bought here.

I also went to some pretty awesome panels, one of which was called Fandom & Criticism:The Art of Active Viewing, which was put on by these cool guys. Basically it gave an interesting overview of how does one decide what is actually good or not, and can BAD anime or movies actually be GOOD? And considering critiquing is what I do on this site, it proved to be a very enriching panel that left the neurons in my brain singing long afterwards. When I handed one of the presenters a bookmark for this blog, he said "Wow. Movie reviews and cats. You must be the most popular blog on the planet." High praise indeed. Working towards it a little at a time...

Anyway, I'll get into more of the other cool panels in Part II! But at least gives you a taste of the good times that were rollin' out.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Current Reels: Pirates o' the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides proves goodly enough, mateys

Image courtesy of Disney Pictures and Jerry Bruckheimer Films

Yarr mateys, here we be again with Jack Sparrow and his son of a sea rahhht friends On Stranger Tides. And it wasn't half bad.

I have to say, I had my doubts. As many of you know I am a big fan of pirate lore and pirates in general, but the thing I didn't like about the last film, At World's End, was that they were trying too hard to make it into a BIG EPIC TALE: sort like Lord of the Rings with pirates. SPOILER AHEAD MATEYS IN REGARD TO WORLD'S END: About the time I got to the scene where Jack Sparrow and Davey Jones are fighting each other on the prow of their decks as their ships swirled around in a giant sinkhole in the middle of the ocean...well, I'd had enough.

I didn't go to this film expecting a bucket full o' treasure, but I left feeling like I had a lot of fun.

You could tell from the start they had stripped down a lot of the characters from the first film, not having Will Turner and Elizabeth Swan (played by Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, respectively) which I was just as happy about. Their plotline had gotten worn down to the nubbin and frankly, their constant whining was starting to piss me off. A lot of the minor characters were chucked, which made for a more streamlined story that revolved mainly around Blackbeard (Ian McShane), his daughter Angelica (Penelope Cruz) Jack Sparrow (played by Johnny Depp, of course), and Captain Barbosa, played by the ever-versatile and captivating Geoffrey Rush.

I would like to take a moment and just gush about Rush's performance in this film. He is 150 percent pirate. There is a great part when he is telling Jack about his epic battle with Blackbeard and you can see the story unfold in the fire of his eyes. This is a true actor, my friends; when someone can steal you into a tale on the strength of their voice and expression, that defies all action sequences and special effects. And when Barbosa gets his just deserts at the end, you can't help but feel a swell of pride on behalf of his character.

The saddest part about this film is despite the scaled-down nature and more plot-based storyline (less reliant on a variety of action sequences and special effects that bogged down the third film) is the plot isn't terribly good. Jack is on a quest for the fountain of youth, as is Spain, as is Blackbeard. And everyone seems to find it without too much trouble, which seems odd for being such an elusive thing. Cruz is entertaining as Angelica, a good strong pirate gal (with a kickass hat) that Geena Davis of Cutthroat Island could be proud of, but her relationship with Jack is rather frustrating. One minute they love one another, the next they are trying to kill one another. The playful banter is nice but some kind of consistency in what the heck is going on between the two of them would be nice.

Also, while I love Ian McShane and he always plays a good villain, his rendition of Blackbeard didn't exactly shiver me timbers. I never got the impression he was truly as evil as he was portrayed to be...maybe just indifferent to good rather than opposed to it? And his ship, the Queen Anne's Revenge, was impressive but a wee bit too CGI-ed for my taste.

The mermaids are terrifyingly lovely and some of the best use of non-action CGI I have seen as of late. I particularly enjoyed that when they showed their more deadly side, they did not transform completely into ugly, terrifying beasts - the fact that they retain their beauty while adding just a touch more bite to their bark was highly enjoyable.

In essence, this film was a fun ride, and a good coda, bringing back some of the beloved characters of the past movies, but the script be gettin' a little green around the gills, me hearties. The sharp biting crispness and pace of the first movie seems te be all but lost, but endin' the film on the shore with Sparrow and Mr. Gibbs, his loyal mate from the start, seems like a good enough endin' fer the likes o' me.

Now, let's be pointin' our compass for other shores besides the Caribbean and leave Capt. Jack well alone. There be other pirate tales and plots uncharted to explore.