Wednesday, July 4, 2012

DVD Spotlight: Reflecting on Mirror, Mirror through the Bollywood lens




 Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.










 Once upon a time there was a film called Mirror, Mirror that didn't get the credit it was due and after spending a criminally short period of time in theatres, was dismissed as a mere visual bauble, lacking "enough depth or originality to set it apart from the countless other adaptations of the tale," according to RottenTomatoes.com.

As Julia Roberts would say in the film, lightly daubing her mouth with an ornate lace napkin, "agree to disagree."

 Though there was a number of patriotic films I could've chosen to review, I decided on the Fourth of July to blow $20 on the recently released DVD of Twentieth Century Fox's Mirror, Mirror, the Bollywood reimagining of a German fairy tale that sadly did not get the publicity or the attention it deserved. I believe this film, directed by Tarsem Singh, was a victim of poor marketing and cultural divides.What we essentially have here is an incredibly well-cast and lushly displayed Bollywood film, and being a fan of  that genre, of course I adored it.  For those of you not in the know, Bollywood (formally referred to as Hindi Cinema) is a genre of Indian film that incorporates energetic dance sequences, over-the-top costumes and self-referential humor with whimsical plots that generally revolve around love stories.

If I needed any more support for my case, just take a gander at the ending sequence (No spoilers here, unless you've grown up under a rock and don't realize that Snow White and the Prince live happily ever after....if that's the case, well, OOOPS!) and then take a look at a dance sequence from Saawariya, a Bollywood film released in 2007:



So yeah, you get the idea. But the truth is, Bollywood doesn't tend to go over terribly well in this country, and it's a damn shame, because it's a whole lot of fun. And without having that background, I imagine several moviegoers saw Mirror, Mirror and found it a singularly perplexing giddy experience wrapped up in a sumptuous orange bow. But at least they had plenty of jaw-droppingly beautiful costumes and sets to gawk at.

The other thing that I find incredibly appealing personally about Mirror, Mirror is I strongly dislike Julia Roberts. She tends to be cast as the sweet "girl next door" when I always saw evil and treachery lurking beneath that mile-wide smile. As the Evil Queen, I feel she was finally given the role she was born to play - a cruel, self-possessed downright witchy woman. And there's a certain amount of self-reflected irony in Roberts taking on the role, as she herself isn't quite as "fair" as she used to be as the actress creeps toward middle age.

In fact, I can't think of a single person who wasn't suited to their roles.The delicately lovely Lily Collins does a fine turn at Snow White, creating the difficult balance between sweet and innocent and also profoundly human - and it's the humanness that makes her so darn likeable. She gets irritated and says inappropriate things, and doesn't let the Evil Queen boss her around, all of which makes her a step above the standard oh-so-goody-two-shoes flawless fairytale princess. The dwarves are wise-cracking thieves played by incredibly talented little people, which definitely is a tip of the hat to that particular community of actors since in the age of CGI it would've been easy to just "create" them, and their chemistry with Snow is endearing as it is genuine. Nathan Lane (aging quite gracefully, by the way) rounds out the palace ensemble as Brighton, the simpering, scraping manservant to the Queen who finds himself quite literally playing the cockroach he is in a sequence that would make Franz Kafka proud.

And, of course, the Prince. Could there have been a better choice, really, than Armie Hammer? He's blonde, blue-eyed, and so darn hapless in the presence of two great female leads you just want to give him a big old hug. What else can he do but just do what he does best - be charming? And yet, somehow he succeeds through his interactions with Snow White as being more than just a stock fairytale character, and even gamely does a great job at imitating a puppy when the Queen botches one of her own spells.

But under all the fluff and visual splendor, the film has a dark edge that is highly appealing to me, and is rather appropriate given that the tale itself is quite macabre. While there's no glass display coffins to be had, the Queen's rotten apple core of a magical abode has very Poe-like elements and the opening animation sequence featuring young Snow White, the King, and the Evil Queen as fine-featured porcelain dolls is incredibly original. What I'd give to see an entire film done in that style!

Probably what sold me the most on the film is what they do with the King, Snow White's father. He's a story element that has rarely been explored in recent interpretations of the tale.His character in Mirror, Mirror is given a rather unique spin, and I think if you take the time to give it a watch, you'll very much agree with me.

The DVD is sadly lacking in the extras department. The documentary is interesting and will give viewers more of the mindset in filmmaking from the Indian cultural experience (Armie Hammer quite rightly calls Tarsem Singh's directing style "unceasingly effervescent") and a cute puppy feature for the kiddies, but not much else to write home about. However, it does let you skip past the previews for other films at the beginning and being able to pause certain scenes and take in all the rich detail is a definite plus.

Mirror, Mirror may not be the fairest one of all - but it's a whole lot of fun and a great opportunity to step into another doorway of cultural moviedom. 


Movie:





DVD packaging and extras:







Sunday, July 1, 2012

Current Reels: Brave has enough heart, but not enough plot



 Image courtesy of Pixar/Disney















By a strange twist of fate, I ended up seeing Brave twice - once in 3D and once in 2D. I'd like to say right out of the gate that if you are so inclined to see this film, DO NOT see it in 3D. It doesn't enhance the film dramatically, it takes the incredibly vivid colors and makes them drab, and muddies up the the numerous night scenes making the characters almost completely indiscernible from one another. Save your cash - it's not worth it! Also, be sure to stay til the very end of the credits for a mini-bonus sequence.

 Now, for the rest of the review. The spunky Scottish princess (voiced brilliantly by  Kelly Macdonald) does a lot of running around on her amazingly animated horse, Angus, tossing her tornado of red curls around, and stamping her foot while echoing her mother's wise words that "Legends are lessons. They ring with truth."

Clearly there is some legend to be told and we are supposed to learn something from it. But it's not really clear what that lesson is, other than don't make any deals with wily witches in forests before you've read the fine print. But we all know THAT. This doesn't make for a BAD film, but let's face it - we've all gotten semi-biased when it comes to Pixar. After all they've put out hit after hit. Toy Story, Ratatouille, and my personal favorite, The Incredibles. (Apparently I'm not alone in this one - a recent Entertainment Weekly poll showed that 21 percent of their readers consider The Incredibles their favorite despite it being eight years old.) And why were they so good? Because they had amazing stories to be told to go along with the jaw-droppingly beautiful and innovative animation.

I enjoyed Brave and there are certain parts of it that I'm actually quite fond of - even the parts that BEARLY made sense (you'll forgive the pun if you've already seen the film.) But as Pixar aficionados, we've gotten used to being served the best of the best - and this is definitely not. It's an absolute visual stunner, but plotwise it fails to be as inventive.

But let's put all of this comparison stuff aside for a moment and look at the film in its own right. I really enjoyed the dry, cutting humor combined with slapstick, provided via Merida's father and the other bumbling clansmen chiefs, their ineffectual sons (all vying for the hand of Merida at their father's forced nudges) and Merida's three younger brothers - a hive of mischief and well-coordinated and executed crimson-curled mayhem. Her brothers, which so easily could have been three-minute gags sporadically pastiched on the storyboard for comedy relief, end up serving as important plot devices throughout the film as a whole. There's also very Hayao Miyazaki-like overtones to the Will O' The Wisps that beckon Merida toward her "fate." I also found the relationship dynamics between Merida and her long-suffering mother, Queen Elinor (voiced by the ever-versatile Emma Thompson), to be quite genuine (having had my own share of clashes with my own mother as a young teen not so unlike Merida, minus the crazy mop of red hair) and, at times, incredibly heartfelt.

 WARNING: FROM HERE ON OUT, THERE BE PLOT SPOILERS, MATEYS.

I actually didn't mind the Ursa Major plotline so much. It's a plot device of a human trying to work out their flaws by walking in the paws of another animal's skin, and though done before, can be an effective one of executed creatively. Merida's mum turning into a bear was not a problem for me. It was the fact that Pixar seemed to get lazy with what to do once her mum became a bear. Okay, we're going to learn to fish together. Quality time. Her mum learns that sometimes it is important to fight and know how to use weapons. Yay growing experiences!

And yet, it all felt a little contrived. The compromise at the end of the movie proved to be no compromise at all. Yes, Merida learns to respect her mum, and her mum learns to let her hair flow in the wind and loosen her queenly stays a bit but it's not clear if Merida will follow through with her societal duties. That's a lot
of tradition and dynasties flushed down the proverbial toilet if Merida prefers to stay single. And what of the witch? Does she ever come back? Where did she ever come from? She's fun and spunky and someone I would've liked to have gotten to know better if the plotline hadn't been so hellbent on reaching it's desired conclusion with the same pacing as Merida charging through the woods on Angus.

So who ends up being Brave in the end?  Our fiery-haired heroine of the hour, Merida? Her strong-willed mother, Queen Elinor? Or maybe us in the audience, who put our faith into a film that was a joy to view with beautiful music but ended up being little more than a summer popcorn movie and a way to beat the heat for an hour and change. And that's okay too - but Pixar, next time around, don't put all your creative eggs into one basket in your beginning short, the absolutely flawless and breath-taking La Luna -I won't say any more about it except that it has the wide-eyed wonder and brushed gold magic that makes Pixar creations truly stunning - and leave nothing left for the main feature.


Toby sez:






For more Brave thoughts, visit my friend Ric Meyer's page here. (Note: his review is spoileriffic!)


Tuesday, June 19, 2012

AnimeNEXT 2012 Roundup!




So after forgetting my power cord for my laptop at the con in one of the panel rooms because I'm a derp, this is getting up a little later than I'd like. But in short, AnimeNEXT 2012 was definitely the best year EVER!

Before I get all texty on everyone, I'm going to present what I promised all those lovely people that got bookmarks from me....the AnimeNEXT photo reel! TA DAA!!!


By the way, if any of you would like copies of any photos you see in this photo reel, you can go to my public Facebook album by clicking here. If you want higher resolution photos for printing or whatnot, feel free to drop me a line.

Okay, now that we've gotten that out of the way, here's the rundown. There were some great panels that were given at the con, and many of you showed up for What Bronies Can Learn from Anime Fans, a panel I helped out with that was presented by my awesome Dad, Dr. Bill Ellis, who is also known as the owner of Sensei's Anime Gallery. ( When I announced the fact he is my Dad during the panel, the room pretty much went bonkers.) And I gotta say, you all were AWESOME. I mean, we literally got bum rushed at the end, and as a result I am clean outta The Insatiable Critic bookmarks. Also, seeing the combination of Bronies and Otaku meshed together in a big love fest just did my heart so much good. By the way, you can see a select few photos of my Dad and the slides from the panel in action here.


Check that guy out in the front nabbing that Critic bookmark! Love you guys!





I also give major props to those of you who came to the ill-fated Anime Under the Radar panel, whereupon I learned the Golden Rule of paneldom, repeat after me...

NEVER TRUST A HOTEL'S WIFI CONNECTION TO WORK WHEN YOU NEED IT TO. ALWAYS RIP VIDEO YOU WANT TO SHOW TO YOUR COMPUTER'S HARD DRIVE. 

But people were patient and awesome and despite our panel being SO under the radar that due to a prior scheduling glitch it was not included in the con pocket program guide. Then it was rescheduled from Friday to Saturday, then it had a room change, and THEN there were a bunch of ladies who had been misinformed about the room's availability and were about to do a cosplay panel that my Dad had to politely boot out of there. And we still had over 30 people in attendance to listen to Dr. Bill Ellis, Dylan Ferrara, and myself babble on about Heat Guy J, Saint Seiya, and Maeterlinck's Blue Bird. We had a great discussion about other titles such as DNA Squared and Darkside Blues that haven't gotten the credit they've deserved over the years. If anyone at that panel is reading this now, feel free to comment and list other obscure series worth a watch. A review of Heat Guy J, basically summarizing what I talked about in the panel, is waiting in the wings and will be posted on this blog soon. 

I also want to briefly mention voice actress Michele Knotz's Knotz Your Everyday Panel, which gave attendees a chance to strut their own personal voice talents, from a young girl singing the National Anthem (and pretty much blowing everyone away) to a guy doing a rap in the Kirby voice. It was awesome that she gave others a chance to shine as well as showing everyone a great time!

 Charles Dunbar did his usual awesome job with his panels, particularly with Style and Substance: 50 Years of Anime Openings which chronicled the development of the anime opening from its early days with Astro Boy to shows airing in Japan currently. I got a personal thrill getting to see the opening for Lupin III on the (relatively) big screen. Retro-tastic! (Also, he referred to this blog to a fellow con staffer as part of a group of "major web media outlets"! Not sure if that's accurate, but I'll take it!)  My personal favorite, however, was Beyond Castles, Forests, and Houses: Philosophy in the Works of Hayao Miyazaki, given at 11 a.m. on Sunday morning of the con. Usually a groggy time for most people, the room still ended up being packed. For those of you who couldn't get up that early due to too much raving or weren't able to get in due to the room being maxed out, your friendly neighborhood Critic videotaped a portion of the panel for your enjoyment:



GENERAL CON IMPRESSIONS: Being part of the Black Butler cosplay shoot as Grell on Saturday was a blast. Anime shows that are mega popular usually aren't my scene, but something about Black Butler has really captivated me. Fellow BB cosplayers were fun to be around to just get silly with, and silly we definitely got, as you can see from the photo reel. Also, I got a lot of complements on my Grell pointy shark teeth, which I made using a tip from Cosplay.com of taking fake nails and denture adhesive and sticking them on the surface of my front teeth. 

And speaking of Black Butler, this was my personal treat to myself from the Artist Alley: 

Look ma! You can have either Grell or Sebastian right-side up depending on how you feel that day.

 They had sold out of this print but were nice enough to ship it to me for FREE and it only took me a week to get it!! I was very, very impressed. When I can track down who actually DID this artwork I will pass it along.

Despite the usual craziness that accompanies attending and staffing a con, most attendees were very kind and sympathetic towards staffers and I didn't hear any major grumbling as I had in years past about people being shut out of panels or there not "being enough going on." If anything, there was so much stuff to choose from it was like being on a veritable caffeine high for most of the weekend. I sat next to a very nice woman who cosplayed Esmeralda from Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame during the Miyazaki panel who supplied me with ample amounts of sugar, saying she really respected what we as staffers do as a whole to make this con come off every year. It meant a lot for me to have a total stranger say something so heartfelt. In fact, it's that very heart-on-the-sleeve attitude that seems to be fostered at AnimeNEXT and at the end of it all, makes the "real world" so very hard to go back to.

 It's something I've heard referred to as PCD (Post-Con Depression.) Part of it is conning it up for three days when you're 29 is not the same as when you were 19. (Part of it was forgetting my freakin' power cord. D'oh!) You enter this world where people are totally accepting of you and your weird ways and having been a con-goer for over 10 years now (and an AnimeNEXT participant for at least five), you begin to see the familiar faces and it just ends up becoming a big ol' family reunion. And being able to share this interest with my Dad and get to spend some quality time with him is truly invaluable. I always find it highly appropriate that AnimeNEXT always falls within a week or two of Father's Day, and I can't think of a better way to spend it!

But what always stops me in my tracks about what makes something like AnimeNEXT all the more extraordinary is that it is all done through the efforts of a group of insanely dedicated VOLUNTEERS. The program guides that Sarah Moulder, Rene Jack, and I worked so hard on really looked slick despite the printers "forgetting" about our order in the warehouse and not actually getting everything to us until Friday morning of the con. Are we looking for new printers next year? You bet your sweet bippy we are. And Lisa Lamhut did her usual awesome job with her incredible artwork that was also featured on the con's official t-shirt.Major props also go out to Robert R. Rustay, AnimeNEXT con chair, the members of the executive committee and Universal Animation, Inc., board of directors, and Con-Safety, who worked their butts off all weekend to make sure we all had a safe, fun time.

But the truth is, it took everyone involved to make something this big and awesome come off, and it's only gotten bigger and better as the years have gone by. We're talking about a bigger venue in years to come, and I'm excited to be along for the ride, now and hopefully into the future.

Friday, June 8, 2012

In the Ring With the Pit Boss - Nothing Small about Four Feet Tall & Rising

 Image courtesy of Tantor Media, Inc.














The first line of the book pretty much says it all:

"I've got a big mouth. I came out of the womb wailing and I've pretty much been yelling ever since."

For those of you not in the know, Mr. Rossi is the creator and star of the Animal Planet show Pit Boss; he also happens to be a little person. But I can tell you - after meeting the man and giving his memoir Four Feet Tall & Rising  a listen,  there's nothing small about Shorty Rossi.

I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Rossi before I read his book, which is co-written with S.J. Hodges.  Beyond being unfailingly polite, he is everything the book shows him to be - loud, honest, and ultimately, big-hearted. Seeing him interact with his gorgeous and gentle pit bull Hercules (see above on the book cover), who also happens to be his service dog, was like seeing two old, dear friends shoot the shit with each other. (Far from the pit bull fierce "attack dog" stereotype, Hercules nuzzled his nose into my hand when I reached out to pet him and started licking like crazy. "He likes the ladies," was Mr. Rossi's amused comment.)

I can't imagine this book being read by anyone else. No one else would be able to do it justice. It is so personal and raw, and cuts so close to the heart at times, especially when he talks about his decade spent in prison. He also gives the humor a cigar-nashing, pugnacious charm. Hearing his story coming out of someone else's mouth just wouldn't hold the same weight. When he talks about how he started rescuing pit bulls off the streets of L.A. after being released from prison, you can hear the depth of the emotion in his voice when he describes what these dogs mean to him, and how they are like family to him.

Being a volunteer at a no-kill cat shelter in my area and having grown up around a pit bull (her name was Rootie, God rest her gentle soul) Mr. Rossi's advocacy of humane animal treatment hit a deep chord within me. To have someone who grew up having to fight to have his own identity against his family's wishes, to have experienced prison, and to be able to come through it as a successful person who can still have the love and passion to fight for these dogs - if you can excuse the pun, it is a true underdog story.

I won't say too much more about the book because I don't want to take the words out of Mr. Rossi's self-proclaimed big mouth. I will say that his story will  stay with me long after I finished it, and I'm not sure it would've made such an impact if I had simply read it on the page - something about hearing it in the audio made an already incredible story that much more personal. It reminds us that we, as humans, have responsibilities for the lives of each other and the lives of the animals around us, no matter what the stereotypes are surrounding a particular man or beast. That above all, every creature - big or small - deserves love and respect.

 Thanks for having that big mouth, Shorty.

To listen to an audio sample, click here.

 




Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Critic Invades AnimeNEXT!


The Critic is going to AnimeNEXT 2012 in Somerset, NJ this weekend and is going to rock the casba!! Watch me throw in my two cents at the Anime Under the Radar panel on Saturday in Panel 3 from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m., where I'll be talking about the semi-obscure and totally underrated anime Heat Guy J. Fellow panelists Dylan Ferrara and Dr. Bill Ellis will be weighing in on this panel discussing other older series such as Saint Seiya, Grimm's Fairy Tales (yes, they did make an anime of those, and it is awesome), and Maeterlinck's Blue Bird.

IMMEDIATELY following that in Panel 1 from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m., you can catch me helping out Dr. Bill Ellis at his What Bronies Can Learn From Anime Fans, discussing the phenomenon of the fandom of grown adults that have gravitated toward the 2010 (and ongoing) reboot of My Little Pony animated TV series and how it is not so different from otakuism (that is, anime nuts like ourselves).

Dr. Bill Ellis will also be holding a panel discussing the sometimes complicated relationships between fathers and daughters in anime series, particularly "Magical Girl" series. That will take place Friday in Panel 3 from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. 

I will be handing out free Insatiable Critic bookmarks, so first come first serve! Here's a sneak peek at one: 



Other panels worth checking out...the incredibly talented voice actress Michele Knotz , who you might know from a little series called Pok√©mon and is currently the English voice of Alisa Bosconovitch from the new Street Fighter X Tekken game that was recently released will be doing a panel discussing her role in the game with equally talented voice actor Kyle Hebert...who's done just about everything. You can catch them on Friday in  Panel 2 from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. If you can't make that, never fear! Michele will also be holding Knotz Your Everyday Panel! where she will discuss her voice acting career on Saturday in Panel 3 from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m.

I would also highly recommend any panel hosted by the illustrious Charles Dunbar, owner of the site Study of Anime. He will be doing no less than FOUR panels, all of which sound delicious and nutritious for the otaku soul. The ones I'll be catching include Style and Substance: 50 Years of Anime Openings on Saturday in Panel 3, from 8 to 9 p.m. (AND since you're all going to the Anime Under the Radar panel anyway, riiiiiight, you might as well get there a little early and check this one out. It's in the same room, yo!) And finally, Beyond Castles, Forests, and Houses: Philosophy in The Works of Hayao Miyazaki on Sunday, Panel 3, from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. looks pretty damn interesting.

 Also, if you're in the mood for something a little more playful, check out Kakurenbo, an altogether unusual game of tag that my illustrious colleague Mr. Ferrara will be holding in the Arena area on Saturday from 5:30 to 7 p.m.!

Have I made your head explode with all the awesome? It's gonna be a blast! See ya there and get yer bookmark!! 








Thursday, April 26, 2012

Audiobook Spotlight: Oracle's Moon weaves a compelling spell over readers and listeners

 
Image courtesy of Tantor Media, Inc. 








Amidst a plethora of average-to-awful supernatural/paranormal romance out on the market, Thea Harrison’s Elder Races series shines out like a diamond in the rough.

Her latest installment, Oracle’s Moon, is no different. Alternating effortlessly between witty and sublime, Harrison artfully renders a tale that weaves the real-world struggles of a suddenly single mom and the joys of discovering love and support in a decidedly otherworldly being.

Grace Andreas is a smart and fiery heroine who finds herself at 23 the sole guardian of her young niece and nephew when her sister, the Oracle Petra, and her husband are killed in a car accident. She herself has been seriously injured in the accident as well, and if learning to walk again and caring for her sister’s children before she’s even finished her college degree isn’t enough, she finds that she has inherited Petra’s power of The Oracle – and she is in high demand in the magical community. But how is she supposed to take on the mantle of her sister’s and her family’s legacy when she doesn’t even know where to find a good babysister?

Enter Kahlil (which happens to be the Arabic word, appropriately enough, for “friend”), a Djinn prince who has a penchant for making deals and doesn’t have a solid physical manifestation. He’s timeless, he’s cranky, but yet  cannot resist Grace’s four-year-old niece, Chloe, and nine-month-old Max. (One charming scene shows Kahlil in the form of a cat, with Chloe tugging at his tail. When he reappears in his human form, he chides her gently, saying “You know you’re not supposed to do that to real cats, right?” To which Chloe obediently nods. Trust me, it’s a heart-melter.)  In a moment of desperation, Grace makes a deal with Kahlil that he will stay with her to be the children’s bodyguard, on the condition that she returns a favor for him – anything he wishes – at an unspecified time in the future. Grace immediately regrets making this choice until both her and Kahlil begin to discover that despite his inhumanity and her physical limitations, that they are not so different after all.

Harrison takes the rules of her magical world quite seriously, and the degrees to which Kahlil begins to take human form, from a simple apparition to someone that can be touched, is truly fascinating. It is a great device to show how Kahlil begins to not only spiritually but physically  find his inner humanity, something he thought was lost to the sands of time. And let’s be honest here, it’s also downright sexy. In return, Grace is able to discover her inner strengths and abilities, proving that her humanity is not a deterrent, but rather an important asset, to her success as the Oracle – and in finding a true love.

Narrator Sophie Eastlake’s young voice enhances Grace’s tough side while still carrying the undercurrent of her vulnerability, while the deep, rumbling urbane tone she offers Kahlil that wavers between dismissive and passionate is right on the mark. And the voice she gives young Chloe is sweet and innocent without being cloying.  It is clear to me that Ms. Eastlake understood this tale is much more than meets the eye, with an ending that is satisfying as well as surprising.

For a cut above the usual boy-meets-girl with a compelling plot to boot, get yourself a pair of headphones and nestle yourself under the Oracle’s Moon tonight. 

Click here to listen to an audio sample.