Friday, December 25, 2015

Audiobook Holiday Spotlight: Finding God in a Bag of Groceries: Sharing Food, Discovering Grace

Finding God in a Bag of Groceries Audiobook
Laura's inspirational book recently released on audio

During this time of light and giving in our cosy homes with holiday decorations that some of our dear kitties are lazily batting off various surfaces, we often overlook those less fortunate that may live only mere miles from our houses and apartments.

 But Laura Willis doesn’t forget. In Finding God in a Bag of Groceries, she tells stories about working within the community of Sewanee, a community that I have become a part of, helping the poorest of the poor, the desperate, and those who have been victims of the socioeconomic crisis. I was happy to see that her work was picked up by Audible Studios and turned into an audiobook this year, capably and compassionately read by Lesa Wilson. You can hear a sample here.

A little background: Laura was one of the first friends that I made when I moved to the Sewanee community in August 2014. Having quit my dead-end full-time job in Connecticut, I had taken a leap of faith moving six states away when my fiancé got a job opportunity teaching at the University of the South in Sewanee, TN. The first thing I looked for was writing opportunities because, though I wear many hats professionally, I consider the core of myself to be a writer. I found out about the local paper The Sewanee Mountain Messenger, and I contacted the editor, who happens to be Laura. I shared a link to this blog and she contacted me right away, suggesting we meet at Waffle House – the bastion of hope and center of all southern goodness, 24/7 – to discuss writing opportunities. As I sat there nursing my cup of delicious coffee, a well-dressed middle-aged woman with attractively cut white hair and a smile a mile wide walked through the door. Her energy was infectious and her green eyes danced as she talked excitedly about how she had written the column reviewing the local movies showing at the local Sewanee Union Theatre for years and felt her writing was getting stale, and how my movie blog would be just the thing to breathe some new life into the column. She couldn’t pay me a whole lot, but it would give me an introduction to the community and give me an opportunity to write creatively. I jumped on it immediately. 
Author Laura Willis

Since then, Laura has become an ally to me both personally and professionally, and Toby has become the most famous cat on the mountain. I regularly have people stop me in the grocery, at the gym, wherever, and ask me about my take on the latest film and what will I be writing about next? Having read Finding God in a Bag of Groceries in its hardcover format, I was excited to see what it would be like hearing the work of someone I know so well being read by someone else. It was strange at first to hear Ms. Wilson narrate the first words without an accent – I’ve become so familiar with Laura’s comforting, smooth southern drawl accented with tidbits of her Texas roots. But as I eased into the listen, the warmth coming from Wilson’s overall tenor proved to me that not only did she understand the vital message of this book, but the compassion and heart of the person who had written it, despite never having met Laura personally. Her pronunciations are spot-on and her enunciation is clear without being edgy. Her younger voice belies the maturity of the writing, but makes it accessible for a range of listeners. While there is a focus on Laura’s Christian faith, the book is more about how we can be heroes to the people right down the street from us. And for those of us that celebrate Christmas –isn’t that what this holiday is all about? Giving to those we love, but also to those most in need? Even a bag of groceries can mean life or death to someone. Wilson, echoing Laura’s wonderful words, reminds us all in just a little under four hours that no matter what our faith journeys are, it doesn’t take changing the world at large to change the world for one person or family in need.

 Toby sez: A quick listen with an uplifting message about hope and joy – and how each of us has the capacity to be our own hometown heroes, no matter where we live. 

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Giving Thanks for Indie Film Pieces of April

One (eventually) happy family; image courtesy of MGM. 
Thanksgiving isn't given much of a spotlight nowadays. Somewhere along the way, the popular media has come to view it as a pre-party to Christmas. However, I still think there is something to be said for having an autumnal holiday that give us pause to reflect on one's blessings. Over the five-plus years that I have maintained this blog, it has paved the way for so much good in my life - a column in my local paper The Sewanee Mountain Messenger, and a regular gig writing reviews for AudioFile Magazine, a prestigious publication based in Portland, Maine that is the definitive go-to for everything in the audiobook world. This has all happened because of you, dear reader, taking the time to stop in and enjoy this blog, and for that, I am deeply thankful. As a thank you, I'm sharing a review of one of my favorite non-mainstream Thanksgiving films that has become a tradition to watch because it so touches my heart every time.  Drink, be merry, and happy viewing! 

Pieces of April

April attempting to impress relatives (aka: Mission Impossible)

2003, Rated PG-13, 80 minutes

There's one in every family - the black sheep, the renegade, the one who won't settle down and do what's expected- and that is exactly what April is. Masterfully played by Katie Holmes, April is a 20-something New Yorker who has invited her conservative family and bitter mother who's recently been diagnosed with cancer to her tiny apartment for Thanksgiving. As she is attempting to create a full-scale dinner to impress her incredibly judgmental family, everything goes wrong - from dropping the turkey to a burned out oven. As the film intersperses shots of her family in the car making snarky remarks about how awful it is all going to be to April desperately trying to piece it all together, something beautiful happens: the other tenants in the apartment complex begin to pitch in and help bring the meal together.

What impresses me most about this film is its unflinching realism of family drama juxtaposed with the optimistic joy of reunions. April's mother is played by Patricia Clarkson, who was nominated for an Oscar as best supporting actress. Clarkson is surprisingly vicious when it comes to her views toward April, and this kind of no-holds-barred honesty is equally refreshing and uncomfortable. There are so many holiday films that either make light of or gloss over family issues, an inevitable part of the picture. But what director and writer Peter Hedges manages to do is to walk a fine line between optimism and cynicism, and show that when it all comes together - its just about BEING together. With a plethora of zoomed in shots of people's faces and their reactions to surrounding people and situations, the film is an intensely personal experience; a dedication of sorts to Hedges' mother, who died of cancer. It available for streaming starting at $2.99 on and available for DVD rental through Netflix. Rated PG-13 for language, sensuality, and drug content, this one is best viewed by older children and adults after the pumpkin pie has been passed around and the teenies are tucked in bed.

Toby sez: A uniquely told tale that incorporates the ideals of thankfulness- and that you don't have to be related by blood to be family. A sure winner for those who need a break from football. 

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Halloween Paranormal Romance Double Feature: Love at First Bite and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

What's more fun than having your date end up being quite literally, out of this world? This Halloween, follow me on a journey between two cinema classics that feature seriously hunky male leads who are dead and loving it - and the women who fall for them.

 Love at First Bite (1979)

George Hamilton as Dracula putting the moves on Susan Saint James at a disco.
Before Twilight. Before Interview with a Vampire...there was....George Hamilton?

You got it. The tannest man on earth took a turn in 1979 as the Prince of Pale himself - Dracula. He said in an interview that they would keep powdering his face between scenes to keep him looking as pale as possible (he still looks pretty tan). This didn't stop my young heart from beating double-time though when I first watched this on TV as a tween.

Hamilton, with a convincing Transylvania accent, oozes more sex appeal in this film than Robert Pattinson could conjure up in four movies. It begins with Dracula realizing that his intended eternal love Sandy Sondheim, whom he has been pursuing over the course of many lifetimes, is now a model in New York City. Being chased out of Transylvania, he and his manservant Renfield (played brilliantly by comedian Arte Johnson) hit the mean streets of the 70s version of the Big Apple, proving that happening dance moves and classic charm can sweep any woman from any era off her feet.

My vinyl record of the soundtrack, signed by George Hamilton!
 Love at First Bite is the kind of film that could never be made today. The amount of politically incorrect jokes that get made throughout the course of the script - "how to get your gynecologist to tear up your bill by yelling, 'Rape, rape!'" - being one of the milder examples get thrown around fast and furiously. But it is the product of its time, and it never takes itself too seriously, making Hamilton a wholly sympathetic version of the famed blood-sucking demon. Set off with a killer soundtrack of 70s disco beats, Hamilton earned a Golden Globe nomination in 1980 for Best Actor in a Musical/Comedy and the film overall won six awards in the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films.

 Unfortunately, due to licensing issues, the song "I Love The Night Life" by Alicia Bridges is not included in the DVD release of this film during the iconic dance sequence between Hamilton and Saint James with all the jive turkeys standing back, agape. Thanks to the miracle of YouTube however, you can watch the scene with the original music right here:

 The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)

Harrison gets up close as the hauntingly hunky ghost of a sea captain

This classic set at the turn of the century features a young Rex Harrison as the dashing
ghost of sea Captain Daniel Gregg that finds himself irresistibly drawn from the hereafter to get to know the beautiful young widow that has recently moved into the seaside cottage where he used to live. The widow is Ms. Lucy Muir, a decidedly strong-willed woman of her time played by the ethereally lovely Gene Tierney who decides to rent the cottage despite warnings of its haunted nature. The black and white cinemetography by Charles Lang, which was nominated for an Oscar, effectively engages the shadows and creates the perfect eerie nature for this bittersweet love story. George Sanders plays the unctuous flesh and blood rival for Lucy's affections, stirring Gregg's jealous heart even from beyond the grave.

The pacing of this film is slow and deliberate compared to many of today's movies. The entrance of Gregg is a gradual build as the ever-practical Lucy keeps denying his existence even as she finds windows being open after she's closed them and being irresistibly drawn to the sea captain's dashing portrait on the wall of the cottage. The great reveal is via candlelight during a thunderstorm - solidifying in one great moment the paradoxical thrill of both terror and romance. The fact that he is dead also conveniently ties up any issues with creating a romance involving a man in the 1900s randomly showing up in a woman's bedroom. Much of the film revolves around the philosophical, above-board chats between Lucy and Gregg, all set against the dynamic background of the rolling sea. Interestingly enough, the popularity of the film was enough to spawn a miniseries based loosely on the original premise that ran from 1968 to 1970.

Toby sez: If you're looking for good laughs, solid grooves, and hot romance, sink your teeth into Love at First Bite. If you're more in the mood for a hauntingly bittersweet tale with epic cinematography, go for The Ghost and Mrs. Muir!

Friday, September 25, 2015

Coming Soon to DVD: How Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl Reminds Us We're Universally Weird - and It's OK

Earl dubiously enjoy's Greg's Dad's cuisine du jour - pig's feet.
Let's face it - much of my experience of being in high school was thinking that everyone was weird, including myself, and it turns out that was largely true. An indie feature that won hearts at The Sundance Film Festival called Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl, coming to Blu Ray and DVD on October 6, conveys this concept beautifully.

This movie, based on the 2012 novel of the same name by Jesse Andrews,  is about several things - filmmaking, life and death, the excruciating transition from childhood to adulthood, and the realization that we all must come to: even adults don't have all the answers. It is also about uncovering uncomfortable truths rarely spoken about but are there - the fact that young people do get diagnosed with devastating diseases, that yes, teenage boys and girls do masturbate, and yes, sometimes the occasional pot cookie does get eaten prior to college. But rather than jar us with these truths by exposing them in harsh light, they are drawn out in the cozy confines of everyday life, amongst talks about health class and where to sit at lunch, while clutching pillows in quaint yellow childhood bedrooms. 
The story begins focusing on Greg (Thomas Mann), an awkward high school senior who spends much of his time under the radar of the various social classes, eating lunch in his badass history teacher's office, and being terrified every time the girl of his dreams touches him on the shoulder. Most of the film is told from Greg's perspective, but relative newcomer director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon regularly brings the audience up for air from our hero's existential musings to get perspective from other characters, including Earl, whom Greg calls his "co-worker" since the believes he's not cool enough to have actual friends. They make hilarious parodies of movies together, with titles such as Senior Citizen Kane and A Sockwork Orange, with menacing looking sock puppets in top hats and black felt long eyelashes around their stuck-on googly eyes. You can even watch tiny clips of these mini-movies here - David Lynch fans will appreciate their take on the classic mind-bender, Blue Velvet.
One of Greg and Earl's films within the film. Cracked me up.

Greg is pulled abruptly out of his self-absorption malaise when he finds out from his mother that his classmate Rachel, played by the lovely Olivia Cooke,  has been diagnosed with leukemia. I adore it when films can bring realistic reactions to the big screen, and Greg's is your typical teenage mantra - well, that really sucks, but what am I supposed to do about it? In typical mom fashion, she encourages Greg to go over to her house anyway for support, which Greg is not jazzed about doing, but eventually does.

Much of the film is slow and poignant, buoyed along by the creative original music by Brian Eno that incorporates the mournful drones of  the harmonium spiced up with sparkles of techno beats.The cinematography incorporates everything from long, unbroken shots to stop-motion animation (including a hilarious recurring montage of a moose accidentally stepping on a small chipmunk over and over, a mental metaphor for Greg's crush inadvertently stepping on his heart with her casual interest in him). The camerawork is a joy to behold, with many of the shots done in one long take, casually panning back and forth between the characters. There are off-center shots with the character in corners, at the end of hallways, allowing us to get a sense of their broader environment. One particularly epic scene is after Rachel has started chemo treatment, and she and Greg get into their first major argument. It is all done in ONE shot. This allows the emotion of the moment to build in our hearts and minds and is a testament to the acting chops of both Mann and Cooke. That scene is worth the price of admission alone.

Olivia Cooke, Thomas Mann, & RJ Cyler as the featured trio.
Everyone in this film is undeniably weird. We see a greying teacher wearing aviator sunglasses during class. Greg's Dad is a college professor that spends a lot of his time cuddling the cat and cooking weird Asian food (sounds a lot like my fiance). Molly Shannon, taking on her mantle of middle age with beauty and grace, plays the role of Rachel's mom with a kind of aching honesty - one scene in which she hugs and kisses Greg on the cheek has just a pinch of benign but undeniable sexual tension on Shannon's side - as a hardworking single mom of a dying girl with a love for a glass or three of white wine, she gets her kicks where she can. In fact, the most normal character of all is Rachel, who handles the crushing weight of her diagnosis with as much wide-eyed optimism as she can muster for as long as she physically can.

Unlike many films that walk the tightrope between tragedy and comedy, there's no pretension. It's a simple story with a complex message, and a heartfelt look into today's contemporary teen, and all that goes into the journey from being a boy to becoming a man.

 Toby sez: Come for the humor, stay for the humanity. Definitely one of the best films of the year in terms of plot, acting, and cinematography. Oh, and having a cat in it was definitely a plus in my book. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Revisiting Beasts of the Southern Wild: A Conversation with Screenwriter Lucy Alibar

Hushpuppy listening to the call of the wild.

 "The most important thing I can teach you - you gotta learn to take care of people smaller and sweeter than you are."

Last month, I had the great opportunity to meet and interview Ms. Lucy Alibar, Oscar-nominated screenwriter for the film Beasts of the Southern Wild when she came to visit the University of the South at Sewanee.

Watching this film on the big screen for the first time in the cool darkness of the Sewanee Union Theater, I could feel my heart expanding with love. It is such a raw, real story that emphasizes the base truth that every tiny thing matters in this world; even more so when that world is turned upside down. There is a sense of authenticity about it that comes from most of the actors being primarily unknowns at the time of filming. The gritty beauty of it all permeates every inch of the big screen.The viewing was followed by a riveting discussion afterwards led by filmmaker and Sewanee alumn Michael Dunaway as part of the programs for the Sewanee Young Writers Conference.
Mr. Dunaway holding the after-screening discussion

 Ms. Alibar is every bit as lovely and real as her screenplay. My interview with her for the university, which you can see here, mostly focused on her involvement with the Writers Conference. We also spent a great deal of time talking about her inspiration for the film and the challenges adapting the work from her one act play, Juicy and Delicious.

"Everything I do, even if it is adapted from something else, feels like a brand new endeavor," says Alibar. "A lot of it was learning what the script of a movie does for the experience of the audience and for the experience of the director."

Alibar explains the story that is now the heart of Beasts developed from her coping with her father's illness, and how she was blaming the illness on herself.

"I felt a very deep guilt - I felt responsible for him being so sick," says Alibar. "I would take really cold showers in the winter in New York, I wouldn't let myself eat...eventually, I started writing it down because it was eating me from the inside." 

The film's plot revolves around Hushpuppy (played by old soul Quvenzhane Wallis, who has since gone on to play in 12 Years a Slave and Annie) a young girl living in the Bayou in a place called "The Bathtub", and her relationship with her sick father. Her father (Dwight Henry) is always toughening her up, always referring to her as "man." Alibar says her father treated her similarly growing up, and when people would say she was pretty her father would respond "She ain't pretty, she's smart!" The magical realism the film portrays effectively engages all the wonder of the childhood experience, despite the flooding of Hushpuppy's home, recalling the terror and panic that so many experienced during Hurricane Katrina. Alibar's storytelling is a force of nature in its own right.

Enjoying the sunshine with the lovely Lucy Alibar
"Growing up in the South we are experts at suspending disbelief. We live where there used to be tar pits and there's all these fossils and dinosaur bones, but we also believe in Creation, but the dinosaur bones are right here," says Alibar. "Schools teach abstinence only but yet there are really high pregnancy rates in certain areas. We are experts at living with two truths, and to me, that's how children live as well. She sees her Dad being sick, and sees the beasts that are coming as a result of the world ending, and they are both very real for her." 

Alibar says the characters felt so close to her own family and friends that when the actors were cast, it didn't feel like an adaptation.

"I was just writing for those people," says Alibar, shrugging her slim, sun-kissed shoulders.

 Running a brisk 93 minutes, it sweeps you up and when it drops you down, and you are not the same. When a story can shake you to your core and the camera and actors illuminate that power, that, my friends, is what great cinema is all about.

 Toby sez: Spellbinding and magical, Alibar's storytelling brings out the raw emotional beasts in all of us. The power of her words are illuminated in stellar performances of every actor great and small.

Friday, July 31, 2015

As You Wish: Why this audiobook about the making of The Princess Bride is inconceivably good

Image courtesy of Simon & Schuster
As an audiobook reviewer for the prestigious publication AudioFile Magazine and a gun-for-hire audio proofer and editor, I don't often get to listen to a book that hasn't been assigned to me. But when I discovered As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of the Princess Bride (on my top 10 list of Liz's personal favorite films of all time) written by Cary Elwes (Westley himself!) and Joe Layden and narrated by most of the cast, I knew this was one adventure not to be missed.

Being the progeny of a rather nerdy literary family, I was already well-versed on high fantasy involving castles, and more importantly, PIRATES. To this day, I'm pretty much on board (pun intended) with anything that involves pirates. Whether it started with The Princess Bride or something earlier, I can't be sure, but I can tell you Elwes in that black getup set my tender childhood heart aflutter and charted a course for a young woman who would thrive on high adventure. I remember the first time watching it: I was probably about eight years old, and my Aunt Sherry and Uncle Jack had a TV room and kid's play area set up in their basement. I'll never forget seeing the VHS tape cover of Robin Wright looking resplendent as Princess Buttercup, and her clinging to Westley as he raised his sword high. This very picture you see below that they reused for the original DVD release (if it ain't broke, don't fix it!):

One of the major films that defined by 80s movie childhood. 

I have watched the film several times since then. I own the special edition DVD, and I knew my now-fiance was potential long-term material when he sat through repeated viewings with me, uncomplaining, reciting the familiar lines right along..."Never cross a Sicilian when death is on the line!" and so on. My mind was blown a few years back when said fiance developed a special fascination for the show Columbo and I realized that the same actor (the sorely missed Peter Falk) was the grandfather in the film.  It warmed my heart that something I felt like I knew as well as the back of my own hand could still surprise me. I have also since read the novel by William Goldman who also wrote the screenplay, and not surprisingly it holds the same level of tongue-in-cheek humor. I was pleased to discover, when listening to As You Wish that Goldman was a very prominent player in the production - getting to hear the man himself narrate his reactions of seeing the tale he wrote for his children come to life is a delight. 

As You Wish is very special in the sense that it does what the ideal audiobook is supposed to do - give the writing further dimension and make it a richer experience. Not every book is cut out to do this, of course, but this one seemed made for the audio realm. Not only do we get treated to hearing Westley himself narrating most of the book to us, but also hearing the expertly edited and timed feedback from the people themselves - director Rob Reiner (who wrote and narrated the forward), Billy Crystal (Miracle Max), Mandy Patinkin (better known as Inigo Montoya) Robin Wright, and many others. For someone who has never seen the film, or saw it many years ago, Elwes provides helpful background about the tale, and it works well as a standalone for anyone interested in the conversion process on how to take a book and make it into a successful movie - and more importantly, how to do it right. The backstories from Cary breaking his toe before a major scene to the epic tales of Andre the Giant's humongous tolerance for alcohol (he apparently could drink a whole case of wine and barely be buzzed) will make you see the film in a whole new way. 

I couldn't get enough of this book. Hearing  the real voices as well as the actors doing their impressions of each other was entertaining as well as endearing. You can tell this book was a real collaborative process; it is clear the cast and crew are thrilled to be back together reminiscing on what was so clearly such a positive experience for all of them. I can't say enough about the good people in charge of producing this book at Simon & Schuster, whose proofing, editing, and splicing all the voices into a seamless, clear, and consistent narrative deserves a medal all by itself. 

There could never be a sequel to top The Princess Bride, but this audiobook is better than a sequel - it is a satisfying nostalgic journey for people like me who grew up with the movie, and a fascinating look into the world of filmmaking for the uninitiated. 

So what are you waiting for? Take a listen to a sample here, and have fun storming the castle! 

Toby sez: I couldn't have wished for more! 

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Current Reels: Tomorrowland's Convoluted Plot Hampers Its Thrill Factor

Where did my plotline go again? wonders Britt Robertson in Tomorrowland.
Brad Bird is one of my favorite directors, so when I heard Tomorrowland was coming out, I got mega excited. His films such as The Iron Giant and The Incredibles, while not totally flawless, are true gems in my movie collection, ones that I can watch over and over and that I hope to share with my future kid someday. Bird also has a particular fascination that I happen to share with the way the 50s and 60s were obsessed with sci-fi and "the future." Despite the trailer for the film being a tad confusing, I was buoyed by Bird's successes of the past, and boldly went forth into Tomorrowland with high hopes...

....and I walked away a bit disappointed, perhaps, unsettled - I had the same sensation of eating at a restaurant highly recommended and still leaving hungry. When I went home to my long-suffering sweetie (who had declined to go) and attempted to dissect it over dinner, he said, "You've been talking about this movie for 20 minutes and I still have no idea what it is about." I thought about that for a moment and said, "You know, I'm not sure I know what it is about, either."

Tomorrowland has the feel of something half-baked; there is a lot of good concepts and plain ol' sci-fi fun floating around, but it doesn't quite come together in a coherent way for adult viewers (although the kids sitting behind me had a total blast, and for them, I am happy). Unlike some of Bird's other features, there were two other writers involved in the screenplay on this one, and they all seemed to be competing against Bird for first place. The film begins with George Clooney, playing Frank Walker, and his cohort, a precocious teen Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), arguing over who is going to tell the story first. This becomes weirdly appropriate as the film trundles along on shaky tracks. It starts out as Frank's story and his childhood, captured in bright and buoyant colors, entering and growing up in Tomorrowland, which is simultaneously a nostalgic tribute to Disneyland's days of yore and full of wondrous little touches, such as large, imposing, but ultimately helpful and friendly robots (throwback to The Iron Giant) and the rocket pack, a purposeful wink to adults in the audience who would remember one of my favorite Disney films of my childhood, The Rocketeer.

It then switches to being Casey's story, and this is the point where the plot unravels into the weird and convoluted. The linchpin that connects these two stories is (minor SPOILER) an android little girl Athena (Raffey Cassidy) that Walker as a young boy fell in love with and who first "recruited him" into this alternate future universe in the form of a pin that helps transport him.  It then ultimately becomes Frank's story again when Athena recruites Casey to convince him to return to save Tomorrowland - and by proxy, save the future...from what? Pessimism? I'm still not really sure. Also, I should note there is something ultimately weird about seeing a 50-something Walker saying to Athena, who as an android hasn't aged a day, admit his childhood crush on her. Bird, I'm sure, was aware of the shaky ground he was treading on filming that sequence, but it still made me feel a bit skeevy watching it.

While I am happy to disband my notions of reality to indulge in escapist fantasy, there were a few moments back in the real world seemed totally implausible. Example of the worst faux pas: Casey gets arrested for destroying public property and bailed out by her father. Upon being bailed out, she discovers a pin with a "T" on it. When she touches it, it takes her into Tomorrowland, if only for a moment. Her Dad, of course, doesn't believe her and thinks she is tripping out. She then decides it will be a good idea to head out on her own to find out just what the hell is going on, so she tells her little brother to tell Dad she's gone camping with friends and that she'll call when she gets to the campsite. Okay, if I were a parent and my daughter who I had just bailed out had gone missing and I couldn't reach her cell phone (which at this point in the movie is dead) I would be completely losing my shit. Bird makes some attempt to reconnect with reality with having her call her Dad via a payphone (apparently those are still around in some places?) and leave a voicemail saying that she's fine, but weird stuff is going down, and she has to do what she has to do. At this point as a parent, I would definitely have called the cops and started tracking her down. Upon her return, I would be happy, relieved, but mad as hell. But the plot doesn't bother with any of that.

The main problem is, there's far too many things happening in the movie all at once as well as too many things left on the table and never addressed again. We get a short glimpse at Walker's father and saw he wasn't a super nice guy, but did he ever mourn his son's loss when Walker chose to stay in Tomorrowland for 20 years? It it those things I wonder about on an adult level. I am not sorry I saw it, but it left me sad knowing it could have been so much more.

Toby sez: While visually stunning and a fun adventure caper for kids, a plot hampered with too many twists and uneven storytelling make it a muddled conundrum for adults. 

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Reviewing The Rewrite; Reflections on an Ever-Present Past

 Grant & Simmons enjoying Speidie & Rib Pit in Binghamton, NY 
I'd like to start out this post by saying Happy Birthday to the blog! It has been five years since this little adventure launched, and it has led to amazing things in my life, including becoming a column in my local paper, which has been an honor and a boon because it forces me each week to sit down and write about one of the things I love best - movies.

I recently took a trip back to my alma mater, Binghamton University, since this year marks a decade since I graduated with my Bachelor's degree in - what else? - English and Rhetoric. It had been almost five years since I had been back in the area and it was time to visit "the old country" once again. Binghamton is an incredibly special place, and though it has grown and changed since the time I have been there, I find it encouraging that it continues to thrive and attract a huge eclectic group of students from all walks of life. It is that eclectic nature of the school that drew me there in the first place. I made lifelong friends in the time that I was there, such as writer and fellow blogger Libby Cudmore, who has contributed her writing to this site and has her first novel, The Big Rewind, hitting the shelves early in 2016. She and I and Corey Christopher, engineer and amazing leatherworker who I featured on the Critic's Pick of the Week not too long ago, hit the streets of Binghamton this month for a fun adventure of running around the Nature Preserve, hitting up a local comic shop, blasting "Everybody Have Fun Tonight" by Wang Chung, and, of course, drinking lots of bubble tea at K&K's The Old Teahouse. (See picture below).
Badass BU broads in the Nature Preserve

When I found out a film called The Rewrite - about a disgruntled film writer (Hugh Grant) that came out late last year had been filmed at Binghamton, good or bad, I had to watch it. What a perfect way to wrap up such a moving nostalgia trip, of visiting all my favorite places and seeing so many of my lifelong dear friends and fellow alumni - although due to time constraints, not as many as I would've liked to!

I wasn't expecting much. Hugh Grant rom coms tend to be a tad formulaic, and with only a 40 percent audience rating score on, it didn't bode well. What I wasn't prepared for was remarkable writing, snappy dialogue and humor so edgy you can cut your tongue on it. Grant plays stylishly weathered has-been screenwriter Keith Michaels, who after winning an Oscar years ago has since fallen into a desperate slump. His agent, an all-business LA bottle blonde, finds him a teaching job at what the synopsis amusingly calls a "remote" university in the Northeast - certainly a far cry from Los Angeles. One of my favorite actors, J.K. Simmons, plays the head of the English department that brings Michaels on with a cautious optimism that is characteristic of anyone who has been privy to the mercurial world of academia. Simmons proves he had reason to be cautious - Michaels proceeds to make a complete ass out of himself, screwing up his foray into college teaching in every possible way. Marisa Tomei offers a welcome reality check as Holly Carpenter, a hardworking single mom of two who has gone back to college for her degree, and arm wrestles her way into Michael's class.

The Critic at Binghamton U, circa 2002.
What is refreshing about The Rewrite is how unabashedly funny it is. Very few movies make me literally LOL - and this one did, several times. It pushes the envelope and pulls serious punches - addressing sticky issues such as Michaels bedding one of his students without much moral reflection on the matter with a boldness that acknowledges the reality of the situation without belaboring the ill-fated consequences on a professional career. Grant plays his role with a kind of comfortable uneasiness, a paradox of a personality that he has honed over the decades. Buoyed by excellent writing and a supporting cast of talented students (particularly the venomous but sympathetic Karen played by Bella Heathcote, whom first catches the rakish Mr. Michael's eye), it runs a brisk 107 minutes and doesn't belabor the inevitable romance to spring up between Michaels and the more sensible Holly. My only real complaint with the film is an unnecessary scene in which Holly and Karen have a rather public catfight with one another, which is cliche and beneath both characters. It makes Holly, to anyone who has spent any time in the real world, appear to be an insecure older woman threatened by this young filly, which runs counter to the poised, confident nature of her character throughout the rest of the film.

There is plenty of school spirit to go around - sweeping vistas of the campus (Oooh lookie, that's the room I took Anthropology in, and the New Student Union!), quips about the weather - Michaels darts into the bookstore to buy an umbrella because it is pouring and goes outside to beautiful sunshine a few minutes later - and enough BU merchandise on everyone. They even make a big deal about the plethora of antique carousels and the famed spiedie sandwiches, which offers a comforting taste of home for any BU alumni, and a fun backdrop for a smart comedy for anyone unfamiliar with the area.

Toby sez: Hilarious razor-sharp comedy and a heartfelt plot make this film stand out from a slew of mediocre rom coms, and those with a connection to the university will enjoy revisiting "greatest hits" of the Binghamton area on the big screen.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Critic's Pick of the Week: Nocturna, a hidden star in the wide sky of European animation

The Cat Shepherd, Tim, & Tobermory, Tim's assigned guardian cat, with friends.
Most of us have been afraid of the dark at one point or another in our lives. We try to face those fears as best we can, and it is good training for later in life when as adults we face bigger and altogether too real demons. Nocturna, an animated film that is a collaboration between two French and Spanish studios and directed by and, explores this theme of facing terrors in the dark with a collection of round-faced, quirky characters, done in the traditional hand-drawn cel-animation style.

I stumbled across this little gem completely by accident. I was on Amazon Prime trying to find Song of the Sea, an Irish animated film by the creators of one of my absolute favorites, The Secret of Kells, which was nominated for best animated feature in this year's Oscar race. (Sadly it did not win, and I have my own personal grumblings about two Disney featured films winning that title two years running, but I'll save that for another time). Unfortunately, Song of the Sea was not available, but Amazon did recommend Nocturna to me (plus, it was free to watch - bonus!) Hmmm..lots of cats, check, focus on the slighty grim topic of shadowy night figures, check, cute, pudgy looking kid, and only 80 minutes long. Okay, let's wind this up and see what happens!

The pastel colors and beautiful watercolor skies make the viewer feel like they are inside a Monet painting. We see that our pint-sized hero Tim is something of an outcast in the orphanage where he lives in an unspecified city (looks a bit like Paris, or perhaps Barcelona - the European influence is palpable here). He also happens to be a budding astronomist, gazing up into the sky from the orphanage window and relying on his stars there to keep him safe from his fear of the dark. One night, he discovers that his favorite star has winked out, which upsets him greatly. When a school bully pulls a nasty trick on him the following night, leaving him in total darkness, he finds his way up on the roof, and discovers a whole other world that comes alive at night, of creatures and cats - loads and loads of cats - each who are assigned to a child to make sure they are sound asleep to ensure the world of Nocturna can be kept safe and undiscovered by the unsuspecting human world. The cat's long,elegant tails quirk upward like a dancing parade of questions marks as they wind their way through the night with shining, golden eyes and sleek, blue-grey bodies.

Tim and Tobermory - images courtesy of Filmax Animation. 
Unfortunately, Tobermory, Tim's assigned cat, has a case of narcolepsy (his version of course, since his "daytime" is at night), so he doesn't do a great job of getting him to go back to sleep. As a result, Tim meets the Cat Shepherd - a hulking, doll-like being who is short on temper but big on heart, who grudgingly agrees to take him to Moka - the coffee-bean crunching head honcho of Nocturna - when they realize more than one star is disappearing on them. I enjoy the stage set effect of the nighttime in the city - that everything atmospheric is achieved through gears, levers, wires - and a dash of magic amid all the practicality.

The accents of the various characters in the English dub are a bit confusing - Tim has a refined British accent, while other characters sound like they have arrived fresh out of the Bronx. But it seems to fit the kaleidoscope of cultural influences the film embraces. I particularly enjoyed the hair "undressers", doll-like creatures who resemble middle-aged women with Long Island accents whose job is to mess up children's hair in their sleep and thus create the effect of "bed head." The plot does become unfocused at times, particularly during the sequences involving Moka. His apparently flexible morals are befuddling rather than intriguing, to the point of where one wonders why he needs to be part of the plot at all. But the eye candy of of the animation and the warmth and grit of the supporting cast (including one very tough little light fixture) more than make up for it's less-than-streamlined moments.

Toby sez: Quirky and unexpected, it is a true showcase of stunning animation created across the seas. Plus, the plethora of cats is a big thumbs up.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Critic's Pick of the Week: Feeling the love with HP Lovecraft's Precipitous Tales, Narrated by Neil Hellegers

Image courtesy of 
Ah, February. A time for Valentines, Mardi Gras, roses, and....slowly going mad?

Precipitous Tales: Origins of Mythos features four of the master of horror HP Lovecraft's earliest short stories, retold by New York voice actor, Neil Hellegers. Accompanied by the ominous music expertly mixed in by the good people at Alcazar Audioworks, an independent audiobooks publisher based on the West Coast, it makes for well-produced suspenseful listening. 

Hellegers' deep, rich voice conveys a sense of cultured aristocracy with a tinge of the uncertainty of one who has experienced terror so great as to be scarred for all time. Most haunting is the fourth tale, "The Music of Erich Zahn," which tells of a young man who rents an apartment in a rambling old mansion and finds he has a rather...interesting neighbor. He is an old man who must play his music furiously through the night to keep at bay some kind of all-consuming evil force threatening to rip out of its world into ours at any moment. What is enjoyable about Hellegers' narration is the sense of doubt underlying his tones as he embodies the questionable psyches of the main narrative voices in each story. He understands that the characters in the story know how crazy they sound - and they don't care. All that matters is the story be told before it is too late. It helps that Hellegers doesn't take himself too seriously - he reads the work with a comfortable flow that eschews stodginess so often affected in retelling classic works of literature. His desperate, cautionary edge, honed to a sharpness with well-placed dramatic pauses and rising inflections, creates a polished finished product that will satisfy fans of Lovecraft and help usher in new ones. It is a great introduction piece to Lovecraft's writing, a prequel for the masterpieces that he would later write. 

Toby sez: Suspenseful, fun, engaging - A great homage to the works of a classic American writer. Well worth two hours of your time for a listen. 

Click below to hear an audio sample! 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Critic's Pick of the Week: Leatherworker Corey Christopher

As promised, I am featuring something or someone cool that I run across each week. I'm happy to feature artist Corey Christopher as the first of this series, whose Etsy page TaDaLaboratory blew up last November when her Smaug leather cuff (among others) was featured on Fashionably Geek. I'm here to showcase a bracelet she made specifically for me, fondly entitled, "Once a King or Queen in Narnia, Always a King or Queen in Narnia."

 This is Corey. Hi, Corey!

Corey says, "I'm badass."

This is the cuff in the initial process of engraving the soft leather. 

Closeup of the Aslan image.

Once the engraving is completed, the painstaking process of painting the details begins. Corey mentioned that this was "definitely one of the toughest paint jobs I've done. His eyes are really piercing." I'm inclined to agree!

His gaze is searing into my soul!

The final product once the paint drys, including the incredibly ecstatic recipient!

Corey makes every single one of her cuffs by hand from real leather from beginning to end, and she also makes key chains, belt bags, and baggage tags. Prices range from $15 to $60; pretty reasonable for something so unique! Her designs range from Lord of the Rings to Dr. Who to Marvel and everything in between; she always has something new and exciting to add to her collection! Follow her on Twitter @CoreyChiev and check out her shop here. 

Toby rating of finished product: 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

In the Projection Booth with Michael Dunaway, director of 21 Years: Richard Linklater

Michael and I at the Sewanee Union Theatre, Sewanee, TN
I had the pleasure of interviewing 1991 Sewanee, University of the South alumn Michael Dunaway, editor of the film section of Paste Magazine and founding partner of Gasoline Films and of Poitier & Dunaway Motion Pictures. Last month, Dunaway showed the latest film he directed, 21 Years: Richard Linklater, a documentary (currently on DVD) that follows the work of a pivotal filmmaker whose film Boyhood is currently nominated for SIX Oscars, including Best Picture. (Linklater's also long been a favorite director of mine -  you can read my review of his film Bernie here.) Passionate and affable, Dunaway agreed to meet with me in the projection booth of the Sewanee Union Theatre, where he as a student worked many a night, and answer a few burning questions about 21 Years and why he chose to become a filmmaker. You can view in the interview below! Special thanks to Laura Willis, editor of the Sewanee Mountain Messenger, and Alexander Bruce at the Sewanee Union Theatre (go like their page on Facebook!) for making this opportunity possible. 


Words of wisdom from Linklater that Michael cherishes:
"He captures that punk rock ethos: Don’t ask anybody for permission, don’t wait till the time is right, don’t wait till everything’s perfect and until your skills are perfectly honed, f that, just get out and make something."