Friday, December 5, 2014

A singular listening experience: Gethsemane, An Epic Poem About Us brings back the compelling genre of radio theatre

Cover of Gethsemane, used by permission of the author
When I think of epic poems, I recall pieces of work written long ago, such as Homer's Odyssey and John Milton's Paradise Lost. So when California author Raymond Jacobs reached out to me about reviewing his most recent work, Gethsemane, An Epic Poem About Us, I was intrigued. And, to celebrate my 100th post on this blog, I thought it was only fitting to review something as thoughtful and fascinating as this title.

 Jacobs takes on the challenge of rhyming an entire intense storyline into three acts, describing the fall of Lucifer and mankind, and then his own ultimate undoing, through the eyes of the Devil himself. Taking it one step further, Jacobs made his poem into what he calls a "Radio Theatre Experience"; inspired by the works of Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre he founded in 1937 that brought famous radio dramas such as War of the Worlds to listeners across the country. Though Jacobs is the main narrator, he utilizes a host of vocal talents to act out various scenarios that the poem describes, such as Lucifer's initial fall from God's grace in the first act. He also uses vocal manipulation software at times - for instance, the deep and booming "voice of the Lord" (played by Sigmund Kramer) is accentuated with an effect making it sound echoing and cavernous.

The result is a program just under two hours that is surprising and wholly unique. While the title lends itself to be thought of as a religious work, Jacobs refutes that, saying that the story is "philosophical, and one with conviction," that speaks to people from all walks of life and all belief systems.

That being said, Gethsemane takes patience. Being such a complicated work, it demands close listening, particularly because of its format as a poem and the accompanying rhyme scheme. Jacobs has an understated, even tone and crisp enunciation, but there are moments when the accompanying sound effects hinder rather than enhance. One such instance is a snake hissing in the background that to my ears overshadowed the main narration, making it hard to catch the main narrator's words, particularly when I was listening in the car. However, the baroque music, composed specifically for this work by Mark Moya, is balanced perfectly to the text and adds an extra layer of emotion to an already powerful work.

Jacobs, who describes the poem as being an "asylum for him to exercise his demons," says that the major challenge of converting Gethsemane into the audio realm is finding volunteers willing to donate their time and talents to the project.

"Their invaluable contribution had more to do with the material they were performing than anything else.  This means casting voice-over actors who were willing to travel (long distances, in some cases) to act a part or recruiting musicians who were willing to squeeze what little time they had between a busy class schedule to rehearse and then record," says Jacobs, via email. "All the musicians involved in the recording of the original, baroque score are students at the University of Southern California and the esteemed Thornton School of Music. They all saw the potential behind the audiobook and made it the unique and exhilarating production that it is."

Gethsemane will not be for everyone - it is edgy with its stark portrayal of passion and death, and how narrow the chasm is between the two. Due to some graphic sensual content, it is definitely geared towards mature audiences. The message is about us as humans - deeply flawed and yet with resilient spirits capable of redemption, even from ourselves.

Toby sez: Moving and complex, this work successfully engages audiences in "active listening" and though some of the sound mixing could've been better balanced, the journey will give them food for thought long after the last stanzas of the story are told.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Insatiable Critic Shop is OPEN!

Dear friends,
    I'm so, SO happy to announce that my Cafe Press Shop for this blog is a real thing now. You can get mugs, pins, mousepads - either with the blog's logo, or everyone's favorite Critic Kitteh, Sir Toby himself. The shirts are two-sided - Sir Toby on the front, and the blog's logo on the back, designed by the infinitely talented webcomic artist and graphic designer, Tina Pratt. And just in time for the holidays! (Hint, hint, nudge, nudge.) It's a fun way to help keep this blog keep on keepin' on, and to display your geeky pride for your favorite Critic. You can click the button on the sidebar to the right, or just click HERE to get shoppin'!

The first five people to order from the shop will get a choice of a freebie Insatiable Critic bookmark or Critic Kitteh magnet! Thanks so much for your support and helping to keep this blog happening!

Friday, October 31, 2014

Critic's Spooky Picks for Halloween

It's the witching hour, and I've got the goods for your ears and your eyes for a truly creepy evening! Read on if you dare....

Audiobook Spooky Spotlight: The Vanishing

Image courtesy of Audible, Inc.
Written by Wendy Webb
Narrated by Xe Sands

Julia Bishop's life as she knows it has been destroyed by her late husband, who has made a career out of embezzling people's funds. So when a strange visitor comes to her out of the blue with an offer to help care for Julia's favorite horror/suspense novelist, Amaris Sinclair - who up until that point was believed to be dead - she jumps at the opportunity. Sands gives our heroine a soft, ethereal voice that builds the suspense nicely as the plot twists and turns down the creepy corridors of Ms. Sinclair's remote mansion. Her vocal diversity is the sure sign of a master storyteller - she can switch expertly from a gruff, Scottish brogue to the ghostly, sandpapery tones of the inscrutable Ms. Sinclair herself. With an ending that both delivers and leaves the listener wondering, The Vanishing will have you jumping at shadows long after the intrigues of the story have unraveled themselves. Click here to listen to an audio sample. 

Creepy Cinema Classics

Image courtesy of IMDB


1979, PG, 107 minutes
Long before vampires sparkled and acted like sullen teenagers, they were a dark force to contend with. This German film takes our favorite pain in the neck to a whole new level of creepy, remaking the 1922 silent film of the same title. Largely following the plot of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nosferatu takes over a small German village, reaching out to his victims with long, white fingers with cruel tips at the end. As the film progresses, Nosferatu becomes more physically desiccated as he attempts to spread his influence throughout the rest of the world. Critics have often related director Werner Herzog’s portrayal of this iconic monster of literature to the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. It won the Outstanding Single Achievement award for production design at the 1979 Berlin International Film Festival and has become a classic of the horror genre. Rated PG, there are violent scenes of bloodshed that parents should be advised to take into consideration with small children. 

Image courtesy of IMDB

Young Frankenstein

1974, PG, 106 minutes
“No no no, it’s pronounced Fronk-en-STEEN.” This Mel Brook’s spoof on the classic horror tale by Mary Shelley is filmed in glorious black and white and is a great alternative for audiences looking for something on the lighter side this Halloween. Gene Wilder plays the grandson of Dr. Frankenstein, an eminent neurosurgeon who initially scoffs at his grandfathe’s work, calling it “doo doo.” He changes his tune though when he finds out that he has inherited the Frankenstein castle, as well as the shady characters that live within it. The monster he creates (played brilliantly by Peter Boyle) turns out to be a sensitive soul that much prefers a night out on the town in tux and tails rather than ransacking local villages. Rated PG for sexually suggestive humor, Young Frankenstein is a great graveyard romp for the whole family. 

Friday, October 24, 2014

Guest Review - Hunter X Hunter Reboot Offers Fresh Adventure for New Audiences while Satisfying Diehard Fans

The gang's all here - image courtesy of Shonen Jump

From time to time, I like to feature fresh writing voices to keep things interesting. I haven't featured an anime review on this blog for quite some time, so when Chris Smith, DJ and guest relations manager for 91.8 The Fan, a 24-hour online radio station by and for fans of the Japanese animation industry, offered to write a review of Hunter X Hunter, whose 2011 reboot recently (and temporarily) concluded, I said go for it! The result is below. Enjoy!

 Sometimes watching anime is hard. Do you decide to watch a new, up-and-coming show or should you watch a classic? Do you watch something you've been meaning to finish or do you start something anew? Back in 2011 I decided to pick start on an adventure of a series that was both old and new at the same time: the remake of Yoshiro Togashi's Hunter X Hunter. I was already a fan of Togashi's previous series, Yu Yu Hakusho so I had high hopes for my viewing experience.

Hunter X Hunter is a shonen series that follows the adventures of Gon Freecss on his quest to become  a Hunter and find his father. Along the way, he befriends Kurapika, Leorio, and Killua and the series focuses on each of them in turn instead of focusing solely on Gon, which I really enjoy. There are only two recap episodes throughout the entire 148-episode run and it also follows the manga very closely with minimal filler. Hunter X Hunter marks one of the rare few series that intrigued me to the point where I read all of the manga that is currently available in the US.

In a world of anime that follows the same tropes over and over again, this series is a breath of fresh air from high school romance or the random sports series. Oddly enough, it manages to accomplish this by just being a standard shonen series. While watching Hunter X Hunter, I had a familiar feeling of coming home from school to watch Dragonball Z and I had a moment where I found myself holding my breath due to how intense the show was. This feeling translated to when I read the manga to see what would happen next, where I got so absorbed into what was going on, I didn't realize that I was near the end of the volume until it finally appeared.

Some of the show's greatest hooks are the animation and music, and how they work in combination to draw you in and keep you there. The new 2011 version was animated by Madhouse, the studio responsible for such great shows as Trigun, Death Note and Black Lagoon. The opening theme song never really changes, it just switches between verses of the full song seemingly. Despite that, it never fails to capture that old style sensation of me as a little kid watching a cartoon.

I haven't had a chance to see the older version of this anime, but I would highly recommend checking this incarnation out, even though it's only available in Japanese with English subtitles at this time. All 148 episodes are available for viewing on Crunchyroll  and a good amount are also available on Netflix. For anyone looking to get into the manga like I did, you can find them digitally on the Viz Media website, which also has an app so you can read them on your phone.

While there is still more Hunter X Hunter to be had in the future, the series is currently on hiatus indefinitely due to Yoshihiro Togashi's back problems. There's not a real end to the series in sight, so the animation side of the product has ended itself at a decent stopping point until such a time that there is more to animate. Since the anime series has turned into something of a juggernaut in terms of episode length, it's highly unlikely that an American company will pick it up for a dub, but with Bleach running out of episodes to air on Toonami I am hopeful that someone will undertake the task while we wait for the author to write more of this series that has quickly become one of my favorites. Over the years, I have convinced many of my friends to get involved with this great show and this hiatus is a great time to jump in since you can see the definite ending point, however far off on the horizon it may be. I would be more than happy to experience it again in any facet, whether it be with a new dub, new episodes or just watching it from the beginning with someone who hasn't seen it before.

Chris can be found on Twitter at @christmas4477 as well as on Facebook, posting about awesome geeky things.