Friday, January 31, 2014

Critic's Movie Pick for 2013: Star Trek Into Darkness, AKA: My Ship Works Better When I Kick It

Interrogating Khan - image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
2013 was unique in the sense that it was the year not one, but two pop culture film sequels actually surpassed the original in quality and plot. The first was Star Trek Into Darkness, the second being Thor: The Dark World (which you can read my review of here.)

This might seem an odd choice considering it isn't even up for Best Picture this year, and it may not be considered the “best” film of the year, but it is the one I had the best time watching. I often like to gauge the quality of films on the rewatchability factor - would I own this movie? Would I watch it more than once? More important - did I have a good time watching it?

Yes, yes, and yes - after seeing it twice in theatres, my Christmas wish (happily fulfilled) was the Special Edition DVD with steelbook packaging along with a figurine of the villain ship, the USS Vengeance. Considering it got generally good reviews and is currently rated 87 percent fresh on, I was saddened to read in The Guardian that at the annual Star Trek convention in Las Vegas held last August, it was voted the worst film in the entire canon by Trekkies. 

Really? Because I fell asleep during Nemesis despite Picard being my favorite captain (yay Patrick Stewart!). According to the article, the best film is Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan (the irony of Khan being in both the best and worst is not lost here). Look, I loved this film too, but it was nice to see Khan not look like an 80s David Bowie ripoff with a fake chest (I know it hasn't been confirmed as truly fake, but it looks pretty suspect in certain scenes – particularly if you are watching on Blu-ray).

Yes, Into Darkness has its flaws. For one, they could've come up with a better title. Two, there are inconsistencies - why does Bones make a big deal about Kirk having health issues in the beginning and then drop it? Why does the top secret new military ship have its own model in Admiral Marcus’s Starfleet office in plain sight? And why does it take so fracking long for the ship’s energy weapons to load up?
J.J. Abrams on the set. Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Here’s the thing. I can forgive these flaws because I like J.J. Abrams. You can tell by the solid writing and intricate camera work that Abrams invests a great deal of time and energy into his actors. (Read my review of another one of my Abrams favorites, Super 8, here.) He’s not out to make the a good Star Trek movie – he’s just out to make a good movie, period. I particularly enjoy a less brooding and guilt-ridden Kirk and overall, a better balance between action, character interaction, and drama. In the first installment, I felt like I was being constantly bombarded with big explosions and blockbuster movie sequences. Growing up watching Next Generation I appreciated the plot-driven episodes (which often had little or no action in them at times). Give me solid dialogue over another CGI ship exploding any day.

 I also appreciated Star Trek characters acting like Star Trek characters. Zachary Quinto as Spock is spot-on, and Chris Pine has embraced the character of Kirk wholeheartedly, continuing with William Shatner’s cocksure interpretation of the character while adding a layer of personal ethics that goes beyond the hero’s duty to “do what’s right.” It is gratifying to see the continued development of friendship and loyalty between Spock and Kirk, the ultimate odd couple. Even the supporting characters get moments in the sun – particularly when Sulu (John Cho reprising the role from the first film) gets a chance to take control of the Enterprise for a brief moment.

And Khan. I could write a book about Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan. That deliciously malicious voice combined unwavering intensity and swagger make his embodiment of the classic villain drool-worthy.  Cumberbatch’s naturally unique facial structure, enhanced by a severe haircut, plays up his otherworldly nature. I had to chuckle during one climactic scene when he stops mid-getaway to put on a trench coat just because it makes him look cool. It is a throwaway moment that many filmmakers would’ve left on the cutting room floor, and yet is endlessly amusing.

Great character development and interaction, fun plot, great pacing and balance combined with a kickass film score and a DVD chock full of special features allows me to forgive aforementioned inconsistencies. It is not the best film ever made, it is far, far from the worst.

Toby sez:  Sorry Guardian article - Star Trek Into Darkness is a solid addition to this DVD library.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Critic's Picks of 2013: Steelheart, ComiCONN, and PSB

2013 was iffy for a lot of people, but it brought great things to the pop culture front! Before we get too far into 2014, I wanted to touch on a few things that really made this past year shine.

The Year of Corrupt Superheroes: Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson 

UK cover, courtesy of
What if all superheroes turned out to be supervillains? This was, hands down, my favorite book of the year. Immediately compelling and engaging, it follows the journey of a young man named David, who is looking for revenge against the death of his father by the hands of a man named Steelheart, who is the most powerful of the Epics - humans that for unknown reasons have been gifted with powers beyond those of mere mortals, which they wield for personal gain. Steelheart is a kind of dark superman, almost completely invincible who has taken the city of Chicago and turned it into Newcago - his own personal empire. David joins the ranks of the Reckoners, a small group of rebels fighting to take back humanity by taking down the regime - one Epic at a time. 

The message of fighting against fear and freeing oneself from its terrifying grip is something that struck a deep chord within me. I had no idea what twists and turns this story was going to take next, and what starts out as a tale of vengeance develops into a tale far deeper and profound. 

The audiobook, narrated by Macleod Andrews, delivers all the suspense of this gripping young adult novel with a voice that transitions from the young, optimistic tones of David to the deeper, grittier vocals of Prof, head of The Reckoners. Andrews also engages listeners with convincing French and Southern accents as well as realistic and diverse feminine voices, fully realizing the unique personalities within the Reckoners. The result is the perfect marriage of masterful writing and versatile narration.

Click here to listen to a sample of the audiobook.

Toby sez: Great read and a great listen. Doesn't get much better than this.


The Year of the One-Day Wonder: ComiCONN 

ComiCONN was an absolute blast for this first-time attendee. Held in the Hotel Marriot in Trumbull, Conn. on August 24, 2013, it was the perfect wrap-up to the convention summer season and had an amazing number of awesome cosplayers. Take a look for yourself in the slideshow below - everything from old school Adam West Batman to Thor and Tony Stark. 

The Critic, Luke Foster style

 In fact, it was such a hit that the show goes on for its fifth year with an expanded venue at the Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, Conn and will be extended two more days - from August 15-17. What I enjoyed about it was it stuck to the roots of its fandom - comic books - while also making room for independent artists and authors as well. For instance, I ran into artist Luke Foster, whose 2013 project Drawn Away chronicled his 2013 tour across America in a cartoon/memoir format. He is also the creator, illustrator and writer of The Gang From the Store: True Tales from the Comic Book Shop, which ran from November 2009 to June 2010; and Moon Freight 3, which ran from August 2008 to November 2012. He was also kind enough to draw a fun picture of The Critic herself!

The Critic slightly starstruck with Lion-O voice actor Larry Kenney
Right around the corner from Luke Foster's booth was, lo and behold, Larry Kenney! An incredibly versatile voice actor and radio personality, Mr. Kenney is best known for voicing Lion-O in the original 1985 Thundercats series, and he also contributed his talents as Claudus  in the Thundercats 2011 reboot. He is also the voice of Count Chocula and Sonny in the Cocoa Puffs cereal commercials. He was an incredibly fun guy to talk to, signed my Lion-O print with a very kind note, and was truly an unexpected treat to meet! He can also be heard in Grand Theft Auto IV as The Beat 102.7 announcer.

What truly made this con fun was the accessibility of all the artists and guests - no long lines, no massive crowds to fight through - it was well-organized and gave everyone from Batman to Dr. Who fans something fun to enjoy. No wonder they decided to expand it for 2014! Plans are underway for a Dark Nite Club V.I.P. Party starring "The Bat Pack" - looking forward to see what that's all about.

Toby sez: Good things come in small packages. Looking forward to this year's expansion pack.


The Year we Got Electric, Great Britain-Style 

Electric album cover; courtesy of
On July 15, 2013 the classic British pop-synth duo Pet Shop Boys dropped their newest album Electric and gave electronica a fierce wake-up call. This marks their twelfth studio album.

The first instrumental track "Axis"makes the listener feel like they are taking a ride on a light cycle in Tron. It demonstrates the complete metamorphosis the duo has made into the sleeker butterfly of electronica while still keeping the best of their distinctly 80s roots. Unlike their more reflective album Elysium, which dropped without much fanfare on September of 2012, Electric brings the dance beats down hard, particularly with "Shouting in the Evening" and the feel-good dance hit "Thursday" (which even incorporates little bells!). But it's far from fluff. Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe stay true to their characteristic trademarks of thoughtful lyrics and strong - sometimes harsh - stances towards humanity, particularly during their haunting cover of Bruce Springsteen's "The Last to Die."

Tennant and Lowe have always had a knack for creating thematic moods for each of their albums, and while I wouldn't call this my favorite album of all time, it shows a definitive step in a new direction for their sound as they explore the outer limits of their synth/pop signature sound.

               Pet Shop Boys performing their 2003 hit "Miracles" during their 2013 Electric Tour at House of Blues in Boston.

Toby sez: Solid addition to the PSB catalog; great beats for long car trips. Recommend "Axis", "Thursday", "The Last to Die."

Stay tuned for the Critic's movie pick of 2013!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Critic hits Pinterest!

 Hey there readers! New Year, new page! In addition to the usual crop of reviews here, the Critic is going to be posting blog updates on current interests and trends to my brand new Pinterest board that you can access right HERE! Below is a small picture preview. Hope to see you on there!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Current Reels: Catching Fire grabs the heart of The Hunger Games

Image courtesy of Lionsgate Entertainment
Catching Fire made me feel like I'd been run over by a truck - but in a good way, if that's possible.

Let's just say I knew I was in trouble when I felt the tears pricking the corners of my eyes when Effie (played brilliantly by the effervescent Elizabeth Banks) was giving "her team" of District 12 a pep talk before they have to embark on another hellish round of the despicable games. Catching Fire is The Hunger Games all grown up, where the stakes are higher and the layer of emotional tension is thick enough to cut with a knife.

Which makes sense. Gary Ross, who directed the first installment, is a veteran of the film industry, making such feel-good classics as Big, Seabiscuit, and Pleasantville. Entertainment Weekly reported on the fatherly relationship star Jennifer Lawrence, playing the feisty Katniss Everdeen with great panache, and Ross had with one another, and the result from film #1 is the sense that a proud director papa Ross is watching his little darling go out and fight in the big leagues - a hardened young woman taking a stand against a force so much bigger than her, and Ross can rejoice in creating an effective underdog story that he so loves.

Director Francis Lawrence, who took over the helm of this great galleon of a film franchise, dispenses with such fatherly notions. It's almost as if he is saying to the viewers, get a grip people, this is real drama and the shit is seriously hitting the fan now. This is wholly appropriate. While readers could glory in the shocking stand that Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) take in book 1, now the characters have the face the consequences of their actions - which prove to be incredibly dire.

We see a lot of familiar faces, find out what makes Gale tick, and Stanley Tucci continues to portray the slick character of TV host Caesar Flickerman as a kind of Jimmy Carson on acid. (Fun fact: Gale is played by Liam Hemsworth, is the younger brother of Chris Hemsworth, known to most of us as Thor).  There's also some new players, with Philip Seymour Hoffman doing his turn as the urbane new game master, Plutarch Heavensbee, and Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin), a former survivor of the Hunger Games forced to duke it out once again, who still finds time to flash Katniss a cherubic smile in between throwing punches.

There's a lot left by the wayside in transition from book to movie, namely the quiet moments of introspection where Katniss questions her actions, and the character development of Haymitch (Woody Harrelson, who I'm sad to report was given an extremely bad wig in this film). Haymitch's influence is felt far less on screen, but it his love towards both Peeta and Katniss is palpable in the fleeting moments he has to make himself known.

Visually stunning, the film burns like tiny papercuts, events moving in such a blur towards - what? Death? Survival? Even when you know what's going to happen next, you can't look away, even in the most heartbreaking moments. Francis Lawrence has cut out the beating heart of The Hunger Games and shown it to us, in all of its raw, bloody glory, and in turn we are repulsed, saddened, and yet fascinated. Gone is the cosy sense of the underdog finally getting her day. In it's place is something darker, a sense of a people rising up for vengeance - a machine whose wheels Katniss has set in motion, a machine far bigger than she could have ever imagined, fueled by the passions of a people that can even make the brilliant white of Caesar's smile lose some of its sheen. 

Toby sez: Intense and gripping. I want more!