Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Critic's 12 Faves of Christmas

Merry Christmas, happy holidays and joyous tidings dear readers; whatever you happen to be celebrating! As my gift to you, I've listed the 12 things that get me into the holiday spirit, and hopefully one of them will bring you the same joy it gives me year in and year out. From classic movies to drunken mall Santas, there's something for everyone here! 

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

1. Christmas in Connecticut: 1945, starring Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan, and Sydney Greenstreet 

Forget It's A Wonderful Life. This screwball comedy starring two of the big names in classic film noir (Stanwyck and Greenstreet, respectively) step out of their shadowy typecasts of gangsters and femme fatales to quite literally romp in the snowdrifts of New England. A brilliant businesswoman in Manhattan (Stanwyck) has typecast herself as a doting housewife living in the backwoods of Connecticut in a famous magazine column that pays for her mink coats and comfortable lifestyle. All that threatens to come to a halt when her boss at the magazine that publishes her column asks her to host a returning war vet at her idyllic home; which of course doesn't exist! A she frets in her cramped high-rise apartment, hilarity ensues.

2. It Doesn't Often Snow At Christmas - Single by The Pet Shop Boys 

 The perfect blend of cynical and sweet; it's just not truly the holidays until this quirky gem comes on. "Bing Crosby, are you listening to me??"


Image courtesy of Tantor Media, Inc.

 3. The Fat Man: A Tale of North Pole Noir, by Ken Harmon; audiobook read by Johnny Heller 

When you've got "North Pole" and "Noir" together in one title; what's not to love? A quick read or listen, this celebration of the hard-boiled detective mystery novels follows the misadventures of Gumdrop Coal, a two-foot-three-inch hard-nog drinker who has the nasty job of delivering coal to kids on the Naughty List. Disillusioned after 1,300 years, he's ready to lose himself to the bottle of eggnog until one parent of a particularly naughty kid winds up dead. Who framed him? And is ol' Kris Kringle, (aka: The Fat Man), next? A send-up of all your favorite childhood characters (even little Ralphie from The Christmas Story puts in an appearance) against the shadowy backdrop of crime fiction at its best. Audiobook features the voice talent of New York native Johnny Heller, who gives Gumdrop the right amount of Brooklyn grit to his voice and gives the perfect accompaniment to this twisted tale. 

Listen to an audio clip HERE.

4. Hershey's Kisses Bell Choir Commercial

Self-explanatory. I grew up seeing this commercial for as long as I can remember, and it always rings in the holiday cheer for me. When I visited Hershey' Chocolate World in PA over Thanksgiving this year, they had an interactive display where you could make up your own melodies using the Hershey's bells. Timelessly brilliant and delicious.


5. Brian Setzer Orchestra - Boogie Woogie Christmas

Image courtesy of

This is essential to my Christmas soundtrack. This album has gotten me through the toughest wrapping, letter writing, cookie baking, and what have you - it's the espresso jolt to your holiday blues; and far superior to his following installment, Dig That Crazy Christmas (although that too has moments of brilliance, most notably with "Angels We Have Heard on High"). It also features the best version of "Baby It's Cold Outside", a duet with the timelessly talented Ann Margret (also known as one of Elvis's old gal pals; see Viva Las Vegas) and a version of "O Holy Night" that will make your momma cry. Enough said. Go listen!


6. Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Long before the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp duo became trite and tacky, back in the early 90s they came together to create a film that is truly magical. A true modern day fairy tale, it centers around why it always snows around Christmastime in a particular suburban town of Florida, and blossoms into a story of deep tolerance, acceptance, love - and the ultimate consequences of all three. Featuring some of the most heartrending music created by the brilliant Danny Elfman and the very last major film performance of the incredible Vincent Price, it is the kind of film that will melt your heart like a snowflake on your warm gloved hand.

7. The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg

Image courtesy of Chris Van Allsburg and Houghton Mifflin.
I'm talking about the book, NOT the movie. Sorry to all you fans of the film out there, but I pretty much pretend that doesn't exist. This book was one I would constantly take out of my local library to read as a kid; and I'm not sure why I never thought to ask for a copy of my own until I was 23 years old. With the beautiful painted illustrations (also done by the author, a rarity in children's books) and the message of belief in the spirit of Christmas well into adulthood, giving these well-worn pages another read-through has become a happy tradition for me.


Sunday, November 24, 2013

Current Reels - Thor: The Dark World is a feast for the eyes and soul

Brains and brawn team up: image courtesy of Marvel, Inc.
The trouble with movie sequels is that they very rarely live up to the original in the qualities of aesthetic and storytelling. This seems to be the case particularly in the superhero genre. (Let's not even get started on the Tobey Maguire atrocity that was Spiderman 3).

Thor: The Dark World not only equaled but surpassed the quality of the original film, which, helmed by powerhouse directors Kenneth Branagh and Joss Whedon, was already pretty amazing. Director Alan Taylor, whose work on the HBO series Game of Thrones' influence is clearly seen here, and James Gunn teamed up to give our Asgardians (even the extras) a serious upgrade. The Lord of the Rings meets Star Wars aesthetic, introduced in the first and nurtured in loving detail in the second, is a strange concoction that is executed brilliantly. Everything is better - the ongoing character development, the plot, right down to everyone's hair. Loki's look in particular (Tom Hiddleston) was much improved over The Avengers, ditching the greasy gelled up villainous 'do and the helmet that looked like it came from a Halloween rack at Target rather than being forged in the smithies of Asgard.

Speaking of helmets, the ones belonging to Thor/Odin/Loki there were nary to be seen in this film. It somehow seems a fitting symbol for the theme of the plot, which is in the face of tragedy, one has to make him or herself vulnerable to what needs to be done despite the impulse to arm oneself with selfish thoughts and desires. Odin's wife Frigga (Rene Russo) gets significantly more screen time and even a chance to kick some serious butt. A pleasant carryover from the first film is the bemusing way the extraordinary fits into the ordinary world (aka: Earth) - one particular sequence that got some good guffaws out of the audience was when Thor enters a home and proceeds to hang Mjolnir on what my companion mentioned must've been "a very sturdy coat rack." This theme continues in the bonus footage at the very end of the credits, so sit tight!

Father and son time - image courtesy of Marvel, Inc.
It is those small, deft touches that adds depth and humanity to both the characters and the situations. Indeed, the movie fits in a ridiculous amount of plot in a compact package just shy of two hours. The expert pacing and balancing of spitfire dialogue  and inventive action sequences make sure the film doesn't lag or or get caught up in monologuing. The pitfall of many sequels is that the time they gain not having to introduce characters is often never used to its full advantage, filling in the holes of a mediocre plot with bad dialogue with gratuitous action sequences. (The only gratuitous sequence I can think of is a short scene where a shirtless Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is seen washing up after battle - which the actor reportedly objected to - but I for one am very glad that the deliciously good-natured Australian actor bit the bullet and gave us some fanservice.)

Where this film really shines is the plotline focusing on the strained relationship between Loki and Thor, and the tragedy that ultimately brings them together again. One fault in the otherwise enjoyable film - unless one is a fan of the Marvel comics or knows his or her Norse mythology - Loki's gift of shape shifting and illusion and the fact he gets those powers from his mum is a plot point that seemingly comes out of nowhere, seeing that it was given no real attention (that I can recall) in either the first film or in The Avengers. If I'm wrong, by all means, lay the truth hammer down on me! 

Toby sez: This movie; I like it. ANOTHER! *smashes water bowl*

Friday, November 15, 2013

AudioFile reviews visit England; catching up with Quentin Blake

Image courtesy of Penguin Audio, Inc.

Happy Friday dear readers! The latest bunch of reviews for AudioFile Magazine hops the pond into merry old England and the best of its British authors, Roald Dahl and E.V. Odle. I was very happy to see that my nomination of The BFG for the Earphones Award was granted! It is one of my favorite children's books and it was great to have revisited it in such a delightful way. It actually prompted me to investigate what Quentin Blake, a British artist who illustrated many of Roald Dahl's works, is up to these days. I was happy to find that he has a thriving online presence that includes links to a Facebook Page, Twitter feed, and free ecards! Inspired, I dropped him a note letting him know I was reviewing the revamped audiobook version of The BFG,and got a wonderful response back from his secretary, Liz Williams! Further proof to me that women named Elizabeth and any nickname variation of that tend to be awesome people. The correspondence is as follows:  

Dear Mr. Blake,
I recently reviewed the audiobook of the BFG by Roald Dahl narrated by David Walliams, and while it was lovely to listen to I couldn't help but call up in my head as I listened your wonderful illustrations that went along with the book when I first read it myself as a child. Now at age 30, I look back on your work and realize what an impact it had on me not only in my own drawings which I occasionally do for friends and family but also how your work was such a huge and important part of my childhood. I was wondering however, was there a particular Dahl book you enjoyed illustrating the most? In my mind, you seemed to have the most fun with Esio Trot, although my personal favorite is a tie between The Witches and The Twits.

Thanks so much for continuing to grace us with your wonderful talent!

 And the response! 

Dear Elizabeth,

Thanks for your message to Quentin.  He says he enjoyed illustrating all of the Dahl books, in very different ways.  But he does have a soft spot for 'Esio Trot', which he has just recorded in audio (in the same series as 'The BFG') - so you were quite right that he had the most fun with it!

What a joy to know what one the heroes of my childhood is still around and active, with a nice staff who kindly take the time to relay fan mail to him. Simply scrumdiddlyumcious.

Without further ado, the reviews!

Roald Dahl
Read by David Walliams

Versatile British actor David Walliams pulls out all the stops from his vocal repertoire to create a romping narration of this children's classic. There's no voice too big or too small for him, whether it's giving the Big Friendly Giant a deep, rumbling Cockney accent or endowing the queen of England with a prim and proper tone. Helping him along are well-placed sound effects sprinkled throughout--from the loud roars of evil giants to the soft tinkling of glass. The sounds enhance the wacky adventure, which only Roald Dahl could dream up. The four-plus hours whiz by with whimsy and inspired fun. Whether you're a child or a child at heart, you'll have a wopsy, splendiferous time. E.E. Winner of AudioFile Earphones Award © AudioFile 2013, Portland, Maine. 

To view the review on the AudioFile website, click here.

Image courtesy of Dreamscape Media LLC.
E.V. Odle
Read by Ralph Lister

Being a stranger in a strange land is never a comforting experience. Narrator Ralph Lister's animated performance captures all the bewilderment associated with that circumstance in this curious tale about a half-man/half-machine from thousands of years in the future who suddenly appears in 1920s England. Lister's voice moves from the stuffy accents of the British aristocracy to the high-pitched squeak of the Clockwork Man's machinery as it starts malfunctioning, along with associated beeps, buzzes, and, on one occasion, growling. Lister goes after it all with gusto and conveys the deadpan humor with skill. Despite the silliness, the story leaves listeners thinking about how much humanity must be sacrificed to create the ultimate being. E.E. © AudioFile 2013, Portland, Maine.

To view the review on the AudioFile website, click here.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween Double Feature! Sympathetic Murderers Edition: Bernie and God Bless America

Dark comedy is a hard line to walk, and very little of it is well done. Make it too gorey and you end up with your standard horror flick, make it too light and joyful and you lose the grimmer elements that make it thought-provoking in the first place.

In honor of my favorite holiday, I'm going to look at two stand-out films in this genre I recently watched back to back; Bernie and God Bless America. Perhaps it will give you some good ideas for something to watch tonight after the Trick or Treaters have gone to bed.

Image courtesy of Millenium Entertainment.
Bernie is based on a true story of a mild-mannered undertaker Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) living the small town of Carthage, TX, who is SO good, SO kind, that he finally cracks under the tyrannical demands of Marjorie Nugent, a disgruntled, selfish rich widow played brilliantly by Shirley MacLaine that Bernie is taking care of. The more he gives, the more she takes, until finally much to his horror he snaps and kills her. At this point, the plot really takes off as he goes to creative lengths to convince everyone in the town for almost a year that she is still alive.

The real Bernie Tiede with director Richard Linklater
What makes this film such a gem is way the story is told through the eyes of the town's residents. There are multiple cutbacks to them talking about Bernie and what kind of a person he is, and these people are a mixture of actual residents and actors. This creates a unique blend of mixing the movie's creative license with the actual people and story. It also features one of the best performances of Matthew McConaughey (who was born in Uvalde, TX, about seven hours outside of Carthage) as a straight-shootin' prosecutin' lawyer Danny Buck Davidson, who has his suspicions about Bernie from the start. Fun fact: his mom, Kay McConaughey, has a cameo as one of the townsfolk interviewed.

It's clear the actors did their homework, and the director as well as Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine were in touch with the real Bernie Tiede (see photo above, courtesy of Samuel Haun Photography). It's a singular tale about how people with even the best of intentions can completely lose it, but it doesn't necessarily make them bad people at heart. It makes you think about why people do what they do, and how motives aren't always what they seem.

Toby gives this title:

Image courtesy of Magnet Releasing.

God Bless America is much edgier, and doesn't pull any punches in regards to blood and gore. Written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, the off-beat renaissance man known for everything from his distinctive character voice (e.g. Pain in Disney's Hercules) to Eliot Loudermilk in 1988's Scrooged, it is clear from this film he has a major axe to grind.

Frank, played by Joel Murray, is in your middle class suburban nightmare. He's divorced, has a self-absorbed brat of a daughter that doesn't love him, lives in a crappy apartment with terrible next-door neighbors, and on top of it all, he may be terminally ill. Desperate times call for desperate measures - and away we go.

The plot moves quickly - not much time to stop and chat when there's so many stupid people that need their just desserts. But the pacing does slow down enough to develop the relationship between Frank and Roxy, the equally jaded teen played by Tara Lynne Barr he happens to stumble upon. It has heartwarming elements in the sense that Frank finally gets at least a glimpse at the father/daughter dynamic he's always wanted before it is too late.

Without spoiling anything, it is refreshing the film ends in the only way that makes sense. There's no last-minute change of heart or regrets, which would've cheapened the tale overall. Frank and Roxy came in guns blazing and they go out the same way. There's a kind of defiant, heady charm to that attitude, but after the rush is over, there's not much left to chew on afterwards.

While it is great fun watching ignorant, shallow people get taken out (who hasn't had the urge to do some damage to the person that double-parks in an already crowded lot?), the film smacks of self-indulgence. The film was not made for us, but rather for Mr. Goldthwait, and while it is a fun ride, the sheer anger and resentment leaves the film with a hollow feel, and precious little substance.

Toby gives this title:

Toby sez:

Bottom line: if you're looking for a morbidly funny, thought-provoking tale, go with Bernie. If you're in the mood for thrill and sheer vengeance, go for God Bless America.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

October AudioFile Book Reviews: Widdershins & CHRONO SPASM: Deathlands 109

 Yes dear readers, I have been busy while I've been away. The move to Providence went well, I currently know where MOST of my stuff is, and I'm hitting the keyboard hard to have some movie-related content coming soon. In the meantime I will share with you my latest crop of reviews for AudioFile Magazine. I also have links at the bottom of each if you would like to see the review on the original magazine website. Of course, E.E. happens to be me. Enjoy! 

Image courtesy of Audible, Inc.
 WIDDERSHINS :Whyborne & Griffin, Book 1   

 Julian G. Simmons gives a heartwarming portrayal of early-twentieth-century linguist Percival Endicott Whyborne, who finds himself unexpectedly falling in love. This experience is accompanied by a mystery of surprisingly supernatural proportions when he encounters the brash detective Griffin Flaherty, his perfect opposite. Set in Victorian New England, this story of a romance budding amid the taboos of the time is wrapped up with an intriguing plot. Simmons differentiates the two men by giving Flaherty a bold, sarcastic tone befitting his personality but trips up on delivering a convincing Irish accent when the detective has to go undercover. Thankfully, the scene is brief. Overall, Simmons's tender narration gives added dimension to this unique adventure story. E.E. © AudioFile 2013, Portland, Maine

To view the review on the AudioFile website, click here.

Image courtesy of Graphic Audio, Inc.
CHRONO SPASM :Deathlands 109
James Axler
Read by Richard Rohan and a Full Cast

The harsh elements of Alaska and equally harsh scenes are described with a cool efficiency by Richard Rohan and enhanced by a range of character voices, music, and sound effects. Although the plot can be difficult to follow due to the multiple subplots, one involving a time portal, the balance of volume between Rohan and the rest of the cast is excellent. The depictions of violence are not for the faint of heart and are made all the more realistic by the accompanying sounds; for instance, when a man is burned to death, you actually hear the crackle of the flames and his agonized screams of pain. Russian accents are believable and not overdone. A well-executed thriller. E.E. © AudioFile 2013, Portland, Maine

To view the review on the AudioFile website, click here.

 Look for my reviews of the splendiferous children's classic The BFG by Roald Dahl and The Clockwork Man by Edwin Vincent Odle in November!

Friday, September 13, 2013

AudioFile Reviews for August/September!

Hey guys, to tide you over until I successfully complete my move to a new apartment next week, your favorite critic has had her first roundup of audiobook reviews published in AudioFile magazine! You can read them here:

Review of The Winds of Altair by Ben Bova, winner of the September AudioFile Earphones Award 

Review of The Third Caliph: Rogue Angel 40 by Alex Archer 

Look for my upcoming reviews of Widdershins: Whyborne & Griffin, Book 1 and Deathlands 109: Chrono Spasm to be published in the October/November issue of AudioFile! 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Remembering 9/11

It's an old cliche, but sometimes it is true that a picture is worth a thousand words. I thought about how best to take time out of my crazy life to remember 9/11 in a fitting way, and I decided to show rather than tell this time around. The photo below was taken by me from the top of the Empire State Building in July 2001 with a film camera, approximately two months before the attack.You can tell from the photo how hot and muggy it was that day since there's a misty quality to it.

Whenever I look at this photo, my heart twists. It reminds me of so many things - the devastating losses, how much I love New York City, how lucky I am to know such great people from there, where I was when 9/11 occurred. I was starting my freshman year at Binghamton University of New York and I remember the fear and panic of so many frantically trying to call their relatives and friends back home...we were just kids, but we grew up fast that year, garnering the dubious title of the "Class of 9/11."

This photo is precious to me because it says the thousand words on this day that cannot be said but can be felt. It reminds me that every day, life is precious, no matter where you live. Even if its a crappy day, its still a day you are here, with countless opportunities to live and love.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Insatiable Critic Hits 1,000!

The Critic and Sir Toby having a celebratory toot!
I was looking through the stats on my page recently and I happened to notice that in July, this blog had 1,000 visitors.Wow! I figured that was something worth celebrating. I don't think our mascot Sir Toby was a fan of the noisemaker, but we all had fun in the end.

I want to give a big THANK YOU to all my readers of this blog, past and present. When I got the ball rolling on this back in 2010, I had a lot of reservations. I knew I wanted to do something more specific than just a free-form personal blog, but I worried there were already too many "review" sites out there. The goal was an outlet for my writing and to keep it fresh by focusing on things I'm passionate about that might interest others, but I was worried about keeping up the momentum. I had no idea where this blog was going to lead me, but soon others were excited about my project and giving me help, ideas for content, and practical encouragement to keep writing and updating.

Even when due to personal reasons I was unable to update for an extended period of time last year, The Insatiable Critic was still getting a decent amount of traffic. I've had a tremendous amount of support from some great people, many of whose pages you can visit under my "Friends of the Critic" section. To those people and others, I will be forever grateful.

In fact, it still amazes me to think that in the time this blog has been live, it has had 15,000 views. I only hope that the numbers continue to grow. YOU are my inspiration, dear readers, to keep being, well, insatiable! Here's to you. Cheers!

Monday, August 12, 2013

Urban Legends: Mist gives Norse gods the human touch in San Francisco

Image courtesy of Tantor Audio

Truth: I’m a sucker for urban fantasy. I love the idea of Thor shopping at Rite Aid, for example. We as mere mortals are constantly intrigued by the notion of bringing mythical creatures out of their legendary realms and placing them into our mundane human existences to spice up our lives.

Mist, Susan Krinard’s premiere into this genre, is equal parts funny, passionate, and thought-provoking. It is obvious she has a deep knowledge of Norse mythology, and she makes a concerted effort to write her immortal beings in a realistic way – that is, how someone might actually act if they had been around for, well, EVER and had seen it all. You’d probably be rude and have a perpetual sense of self-entitlement too if that were the case.  

The story kicks off with our heroine Mist, a no-nonsense Valkyrie living in modern day San Francisco. All she wants to do is create her custom-made swords for avid collectors in her smelting workshop, spar with her (supposedly) human boyfriend and attempt to live a mundane existence for a change. Her world of grocery shopping and paying rent like the average Joe gets turned upside down when the man she’s been seeing turns out to be not what he seems – and it has grave complications for the world she came from as well as the world she lives in.

Narrator Emily Durante gives a stellar performance. What drives the plot of Mist is the complex relationships the characters have with one another, and Ms. Durante's understanding of this adds an extra layer of enjoyment to the book in its audio form. She finds her way around the toughest Norse name pronunciations and manages to stay consistent with character voices and tone throughout. Her youthful voice can transition from hard-as-nails Mist to seductive Freya to cunning Loki in a snap, and the way she can believably fill the characters’ dialogue with the appropriate emotion in a given scene makes listeners want to hang onto every last word. It is also worth mentioning that the author’s depiction of shape-shifter Loki and Durante’s interpretation of his voice are both very, very sexy.

The dimension Krinard gives to her characters, highlighting their passions, fears, and insecurities makes for a compelling plot involving superhuman beings dealing with very human problems – of love and acceptance, establishing identity, and perhaps most prevalent, seeking how to continue to be valid in an ever-changing world. Even minor characters are significant, and she never loses track of anyone despite the complex storyline.  

The plot of Mist brings home the point that even the strongest of beings still want to be acknowledged and loved, and some will do most anything to attain those goals. Definitely a story that will give listeners food for thought long after it is over, and leave them hungry for the next installment! 

Monday, August 5, 2013

Marina Sirtis talks Trekkie at ConnectiCon 2013

 Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
Hey everyone! As promised, I've posted the video of Marina Sirtis, best known for her role as Counselor Deanna Troi on Star Trek: The Next Generation, during her panel at ConnectiCon 2013 on July 13 in honor of YouTube's Geek Week!

Ms. Sirtis talks about her experience with the show, the movies, crashing the Enterprise, bad wigs, and even does a hilarious impression of Patrick Stewart. Witty, outspoken, and hilarious, Ms. Sirtis proves herself to be far more than her reserved, demure Troi portrays, and all the while doing it in great shoes.

Monday, July 29, 2013

ConnectiCon 2013: Everything for the Geek in Everyone

Now that's what I call a Thor helmet!
One of my favorite conventions to attend is ConnectiCon in the capital city of Hartford for a number of reasons - it is close to where I live, located right off the highway, and has convenient garage parking which is not outrageously priced. Also, the physical layout of the building makes it easy to get around, with handy escalators for its three levels of geeky fun and water coolers around every corner. 

The event has grown into its tagline of "A Massively Multi-Genre Convention" since 2005 when it first opened its doors in the then-newly completed Connecticut Convention Center. The souvenir program book IS a book, with its hefty binding holding 120 pages packed with guests, activities, and panels. And as always, the tabletop gaming scene is impressive in its diversity and scope, a core staple of the con since its early years. As you can see from the photo reel of the con goers and guests, there was everything from Attack on Titan cosplayers to Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. What used to be a slightly more diverse anime convention has truly evolved into an event for the individual geek in everyone. My only regret? Only having gone for Saturday!  

The Critic, Casey, and Marina Sirtis!
One of the real highlights for me and my companion, Casey, was meeting Marina Sirtis, a classically trained British actress who is best known for her role as Counselor Deanna Troi on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Smart, funny, and outspoken, her Q&A panel played like a stand-up comedy about the highs and lows of TV and movie stardom. One of my favorite episodes of Next Generation is called "The Child" where a formless being from another distant galaxy decides it wants to experience what it is like to be human and chooses Counselor Troi to be its mother. Sirtis's role was so sincere I was surprised when she mentioned she had no children. I asked her what the experience of making that episode was. It was interesting to me that she had to pause before giving her answer - obviously it was not one of the "standard" questions she usually got. After a moment, she gave a very funny story about how all the men on the set - including Patrick Stewart - were unusually kind to her when she had to wear her fake pregnant belly while shooting, giving up their seats for her as they would to someone who really was pregnant! Then she said that when she was holding the tiny baby, covered in mayo and raspberry jam to look like a newborn, she had that sensation of love and bonding, as if it really were a child of her own that she had given birth to. She also said that particular episode has special significance for her - there had been talk of cutting her character after the first season, and of course she was very worried about the future of her TV career. When she was told that the first episode of the second season would be a Counselor Troi episode, THAT particular episode, her relief was tremendous.

Check out my video of Marina Sirtis's panel here!

Jim Cummings with fan at CTCon 2013
Another great panel was with Jim Cummings, who has pretty much done every voice of every Disney character ever. Okay, I exaggerate, but he's done a lot, such as Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, and  Darkwing Duck. It was a real pleasure to get to hear his take on the last scene Gone With the Wind with Rhett Butler having the voice of the Louisiana cajun firefly, Raymond, from Disney's Princess and the Frog, with fellow voice actress Lauren Landa (known for her work as the English voice of Kyoko Sakura in the anime series Puella Magi Madoka Magica) as Scarlett. Talking to him afterwards, Casey and I found out he actually lived in New Orleans in his youth and helped design Mardi Gras floats. Casey, who was born and raised in New Orleans, got to have a brief chat about what Mr. Cummings calls "the good eats" down in the Big Easy. My only issue was that the panel room was TINY for someone of his fame - it definitely should have been held in the ballroom area where Marina Sirtis's Q&A took place.

Charles Dunbar (left) and Aleks Prince (right) during the horror panel
The panel that wrapped up the day for me was presented by my colleague and friend Charles Dunbar and his companion Aleks Prince with Are You Scared? A Look at International Horror Films. As someone who has cautiously made her way into the horror genre, having had a low tolerance for blood and gore as a youngster, I came to the panel hoping to get some good ideas for films to watch that I might not have heard of. The panel used its 1.5 hour slot well by delving into the subgenres of horror as well as how different countries around the world put their own spin on what goes bump in the night; including clips from each discussed feature. One French film discussed that I'm particularly interested in seeing is Peur(s) du Noir (Fears of the Dark), an animated feature created in 2007 that is a series of short stories that revolve around one central theme - greatest phobias coming to life. The co-presenters had a good balance with one another that allowed each to give their individual perspective without overloading the audience with information. The short clips also gave me a good sense of what films to personally avoid - for example, the three minutes I saw of Susperia, an Italian film made in 1977, was just way too gruesome for the likes of me. But much like the con itself, whether it was gore, suspense, psychological or just downright weird, everyone left with something new to watch and think about.

Best cosplay on Saturday - entirely handmade!
 As shown in the photo reel above, there were also some  incredible costumes - this woman shown on the right cosplaying as Esther Blanchett from the anime series Trinity Blood handmade every part of her costume over the course of a year and a half, right down to the hand-painted roses on her dress! Talk about dedication.

 All in all, the day and the con exceeded expectations and left me wanting to stay for more.It is gratifying to me how it has evolved over the past several years due to the dedication and hard work of fans and volunteers. I  look forward to what the con will have in store for 2014, and this time, I'll stay for the whole weekend!

Con organization:

Overall experience:

Monday, July 22, 2013

Current Reels: Love and mayhem is in the air in Despicable Me 2

Image courtesy of Universal Studios and Illumination Entertainment

Sugar and spice and everything nice - that's what Despicable Me 2 is made of.

There were moments where the film became SO sweet I was tempted to dart into the bathroom to check  for cavities. Which isn't to say it wasn't entertaining, but much of the gothic charm from DM1 got sacrificed for lighter fare - and I blame Lucy Wilde.

In this roundup, we see a much mellower and significantly less grumpy Gru (voiced by the ever-versatile Steve Carell) as the doting father of his three adopted girls, Margo, Edith, and the ever-quirky Agnes. The movie is successful in the gentle way it addresses the importance of mothers (for both the child and the father) without dimming the impact of Gru's role in his little girls' lives, but it fails in the introduction of the paramour herself, the aforementioned Ms. Wilde (voiced by an overly-enthusiastic Kristen Wiig).

At first, she severely grated on my nerves. But similar to how the semi-acidic taste of a Sour Patch Kids gummy segues into a more pleasant mild flavor, she does mellow out into something semi-palatable towards the end - but it's still not your theatre candy of choice (at least for my particular Gru-ish soul, sorry for any Sour Patch fans out there).

The writers try hard to make her quirky in the slightly sinister way that Gru is, but while he succeeds at continuing to be downright nasty at times - although a lot less than in the first film, to my disappointment - Lucy's bubbly, bright-eyed personality clashes mightily with Gru's purposeful Addams Family vibe.

Bottom line -  its hard to buy the romance. It's easy to see why the girls adore Ms. Wilde, with her bright fashion sense and James Bondish gadgets, but it was hard for me to see what Gru finds so appealing about her (beyond her shapely physique, and the fact that Gru apparently hasn't had a date since The Mary Tyler Moore show was premiering).  And well, maybe the reasons I mentioned are enough, but I would've preferred something more for dear Gru.

Ms. Wilde is not the only romance floating in the air, however. Margo, on the cusp of adolescence, falls for the cute guy at the mall that has a definite swagger akin to a young Johnny Depp. Gru, of course, has fits, considers buying a shotgun, and basically has every loving parents' personal nightmare of coming to terms with their sweet, adorable little child awakening to sexual desires and attraction. Even worse when that particular parent hasn't had much action lately in his fabulous G-monogrammed silk pjs. (Who wouldn't love a guy with some of those?) We even get a small glimpse into what a Minion may find attractive - yes, it's true, those adorable goggle-donning penicillin tablets, for all their silliness, long for romance to call their own as well.

All of these more profound themes are wrapped up in a crazy plot involving lots of gadgets, a poorly organized and executed Anti-Villain League,  Minions bouncing around doing what they do best - causing mayhem, a villain who is more than he appears to be, and one very pissed off chicken. While the first movie had an elegant compactness in plot and execution, the thematic elements of DM2 seem jumbled. It all adds up to a lot of fun, but it is something akin to an under-baked cake - lots of good ingredients, but not quite able to hold its own in the same way as predecessor.

Still, it has something for everyone. The film  boasts the best 3D effects of any feature I've seen so far this year, and the textures, from clothes to metal to food, are eye-poppingly realistic. And the deeper themes of the challenges of single parenthood, dating after a certain age in an incredibly judgmental society, and a parent coming to terms that he will someday have to share his child's affections with someone else make for a film that is just as enjoyable for adults as it is for children.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

AnimeNEXT 2013: The Wrath of CON

The Critic interviewing J-Pop band Moon Stream!

 I've had about two weeks to catch up on sleep and clear my head from the blitz that is AnimeNEXT to gain a little perspective, and overall the experience was very positive!

AnimeNEXT 2013, the annual convention celebrating Japanese pop culture and animation held in Somerset, NJ, did not start out auspiciously for me. My fearless companion Casey and I got on the road later than we meant to, charging through the pouring rain, and halfway there I realized I forgot two major components to a costume I was planning to wear. I got there slightly less exhausted than in years past, but still feeling the effects of a too-busy week and a too-busy weekend ahead. Thankfully, that appeared to be the worst of it - upon arrival things moved along swimmingly, albeit hectically, but that's pretty much the nature of the beast that is a convention.

First off, what you're all actually here for:  the obligatory photo reel! A lot of cosplay and a little of esteemed associates of mine.  Let me know if anyone recognizes themselves; I will be more than happy to email a high-res picture to you if you like what you see.

The panels that my team of colleagues and myself presented ended up being well-attended by thoughtful and interesting people, with Collecting Original Japanese Animation Art drawing a small but interested crowd on Sunday morning. I also had fun showing off my prized Anthy cel from Revolutionary Girl Utena, and talking a little bit about the remastered series.  For those of you who were there, here's the link to presenter Dr. Bill Ellis's online anime art gallery.  

Anime Under the Radar was a particular success. (It even got a very nice review here.)  Because I learned my lesson last year with the unreliability of the Doubletree Hotel’s Wi-fi, I had downloaded and embedded the video opening of Attack on Titan, which played in its full-throttle glory with no hitches whatsoever. Dr. Ellis successfully showed a few entertaining and touching sequences from the ridiculously obscure Maeterlinck’s Blue Bird and Ai to Yuki no Pig Gril Tonde Buurin and Dylan Ferrara discussed the virtues of Chuka Ichiban! Cooking Master Boy with enough time at the end to ask the audience to share their favorite obscure anime series.  I’ve made a list of them here in case anyone wants to check out some of these titles: 

Our Home's Fox Deity 

Legend of the Galactic Heroes

Saikano: She the Ultimate Weapon

Angel Beats

Detroit Metal City




Great Teach Onizuka (GTO) 

Girls und Panzer 


I also attended Disabilities in Anime and Manga panel, presented by Ro Pirog, which was an interesting overview of Japan's fascination with characters with disabilities and what the reality of how disabilities are viewed and treated in Japanese culture. I included a short video clip of it here for your enjoyment:

The Bronies Uncensored panel drew a large crowd despite being held at 11:30 at night, who were well-behaved and asked fun and insightful questions. It was interesting to see the new My Little Pony series and the cultural phenomenon of Bronies put into an academic light, relating both topics to contemporary myth and queer studies. Here's a short clip that gives the flavor of insight balanced with some good, geeky humor this panel had in spades:

The best part of the con for me this year ended up being part of my staff duties – video interviews with guests! Hopefully the AN crew will be getting those on YouTube soon; but I had the fun task of interviewing the J-Pop band Moon Stream, who rocked the con on Friday evening, voice actor/DJ Greg Ayres, and voice actress Michele Knotz. It was fun hear what it is about AN that attract the guests, and why some such as Ms. Knotz and Mr. Ayres (who comes all the way from Texas!) keep coming back. Also, it was interesting to discover how both Ms. Knotz and Mr. Ayres continue to evolve their craft over the years to keep their talents relevant and fresh in the rather fickle market of anime, which has experienced its share of highs and lows in terms of audience interest and engagement over the last decade or so.

Greg Ayres and I putting on our con faces
 I also found myself wondering in the post-con comedown - after seven years of attending, what keeps ME coming back to AnimeNEXT? As I face the reality of turning 30 next month, I wonder if I’m growing “too old” to be a part of these cons. They are so much work to prepare for and they take so much energy.  But then I get there and I see the awesome responsibility that so many people take on, all volunteers, mind you, to keep putting on this show year after year, and the interesting guests and panelists that are drawn in, and I realize the passion and efforts behind all of this is awe-inspiring. I did see improvement this year over last year - despite the uptick in attendance from 9,800 to probably over 10,000, I found it was much easier to get from point A to point B than in years before, due to dutiful con staff making a noted effort to keep crowds moving along and not allowing a giant cosplay photo shoot to commence in the middle of a narrow hallway. There was a better overall gauge of what panels would draw bigger vs. smaller crowds and assigning them accordingly, and the staff was better at holding panelists accountable to time in order to allow the next round-up to get set up and ready to roll.

My only regret is not having more time to wander the hallways, the Artist Alley, and the Dealers Room to soak up the experience from more of an outsider's perspective, but between the interesting panels, awesome guests, and fun events, AnimeNEXT continues to remain one of my favorite experiences year in and year out.