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Review by C.J. Bunce

At last a new Nancy Drew television series has arrived, but except for the odd screencap (a quick shot of Nancy Drew and The Hidden Staircase, or Nancy Drew and The Secret in the Old Attic) it has little resemblance to the novels the series is based on.  Billed as a brilliant teen detective by the studio, CW’s Nancy Drew presents a heroine that is anything but, if the rest of the series is anything like the pilot episode.  If you like disinterested young adults begrudgingly solving crimes that would be solved quicker by reasonably motivated teenage kids with half a brain, then this is your show.  This is not the smart, driven hero detective beloved by generations of readers.

The pilot reveals yet another series-long mystery set-up, instead of a mystery-of-the-week a la The X-Files.  Coincidentally the pilot introduces the same kind of body-in-a-box mystery as the far more engrossing new series, Fox’s Prodigal Son (but compelling writing and acting is pulling me back for more of that series).  It even shares the same story of a split family and parents somehow conspiring (or not) over a corpse in a trunk, while tricking the younger version of the series lead that it was all a dream.  Nancy Drew unfortunately also shares a lead character much like the brooding under-achiever in this year’s new AMC mystery series NOS4A2, a series that handled strange mystery and a confused young woman protagonist more believably.

Nancy Drew is played by 23-year-old Kennedy McCann.  Sometimes a series will cast young adults for teenage roles and make it work, but McCann just doesn’t look like a high schooler (nor do her friends).  Nancy’s boyfriend is played by Tunji Fasim, and her key circle includes diner (think Twin Peaks, Riverdale, etc.) co-workers played by Maddison Jaizani, Leah Lewis, and Alex Saxon, with Nancy’s dad played by Scott Wolf, and his lover/city detective played by Alvina August.  The mystery begins with Nancy and her co-workers present as the last to see a local socialite alive–Nancy finds her dead in the diner parking lot, and everyone is hauled downtown to get interrogated.  The backdrop shuffled in is some local lore about a teenager who committed suicide by diving off a local cliff years ago, and Nancy coming to terms with her father after her mother recently died.

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It looks just like a remake and update of African Queen, and a great set-up for the next big Disney franchise follow-up to Pirates of the Caribbean.  The first trailer is out for Jungle Cruise, and the theme park ride turned big-screen adventure could hardly look more fun.  Emily Blunt (Edge of Tomorrow, Mary Poppins Returns) seems to have walked right into a role written for Johnny Depp, as she teeters through a clever Rube Goldberg-inspired scene as we’re introduced to Lily Houghton, a scientist embarking on a journey with her brother in the Amazon, via riverboat, where they meet an unusual ship captain.

With Hollywood’s #1 box office draw Dwayne Johnson still entertaining us with his Jumanji jungle series and international tours in the Fast & Furious movies, there’s hardly a better person to cast with Blunt in this kind of new team-up, and possibly a new franchise.  Here he looks a lot more like Popeye than Humphrey Bogart.  Johnson has referred to Blunt’s character as “a female Indiana Jones.”  For most of the world–who haven’t ever been to a Disney theme park–it may help to know the movie Jungle Cruise is based on a theme park ride like Pirates of the Caribbean.  As much as the latter began as what seemed like a Disney attempt to make some more money off its theme park intellectual property in a new venue, the Pirates films ultimately were a big hit with audiences and a treasure trove for Disney.  Will Jungle Cruise find Disney’s next pot of gold?

The great Paul Giamatti (Lodge 49, American Splendor, Paycheck) co-stars with Black Mirror’s Jesse Plemons, with a rousing score by composer James Newton Howard (Dave, Waterworld, The Postman, The Sixth Sense, The Dark Knight, Snow White and the Huntsman).  Check out this trailer for what could be a fun amusement park ride of a movie, Jungle Cruise:

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A Curse Dark as Gold cover Elizabeth C Bunce

The trees are turning red and orange, and Halloween is only three weeks away.  If you’re looking for a ghost story to get you into the mood of the season, check out borg.com writer Elizabeth C. Bunce’s novel A Curse Dark as Gold, available in hardcover, paperback, and E-book editions from Amazon and other booksellers, first reviewed here back in 2011.  The audio book as read by British actress Charlotte Parry, known for her roles in Tony Award winning Broadway plays, is a great way to immerse yourself in this ghost story.

A Curse Dark as Gold is set in the Gold Valley in that far away land where fairy tales reside.  Charlotte Miller is a girl in her late teens whose father dies and leaves her the town of Shearing’s woolen mill, which serves as workplace for most of her community, along with the care of Charlotte’s younger sister Rosie.  Unwanted responsibilities fall into the lap of this young woman from page one.  From a framework standpoint A Curse Dark as Gold at first is a spin on Rumpelstiltskin-type “helper” tales of the past, but this story takes on its own life.  Shearing is at once lovely and pastoral, yet dark and creepy doings begin to permeate the corners of the town.  A mysterious uncle arrives and begins to interject himself into the girls’ lives, pecking away at their sanity.  As if sick itself, the mill begins to respond to the death of Charlotte’s father, with boards crashing down, textile machines failing, and the fabric of Shearing seeming to unravel.

A Curse Dark as Gold audio Elizabeth C Bunce told by Charlotte Parry

The story is set at the dawn of an Industrial Revolution.  Water wheels are about to be replaced with steam power and the smoke-filled cities that come along with that new technology.  Charlotte has inherited her father’s acumen as a savvy businessperson, yet pressures including competition from big city wool firms and unfair attempts to squeeze Shearing’s mill out of the marketplace cause the mill to lose its workers.  The economic issues are only the beginning of Charlotte’s problems.  A strange neighbor lady is a follower of old world ways, superstitions and magic, and tries to help.  Charlotte is steadfast and stubborn, relying only upon her own intuition as she turns away from everyone near her, including sister Rosie and her new husband.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

For all the hype, CW Network’s latest series adapting DC Comics had an uneventful start this week.  After Arrow, The Flash, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, Supergirl, Black Lightning, and several crossovers, Batwoman is the next crimefighter to throw her dagger-lined gloves into the ring.  The pilot is a straightforward introduction following the Greg Berlanti model of the other CW Network shows:  A voiceover by the caped hero/heroine, backstory training in a far off strange land, and a tidy origin tied up in a bow with a closely-connected villain, to be the focus of conflict over the course of the first season.  And like the other series, excepting the later introduction of Superman in Supergirl and crossovers, there’s no expectation that one of the biggest characters of the DC line-up will ever show.  In this case, that means Batman, but the set-up for the first episode of Batwoman pretty much requires an appearance at some point in the show’s future.

Batwoman is Kate Kane, played by Ruby Rose, who has had cameo appearances in the other CW series, starred opposite Jason Statham in last year’s summer action flick The Meg, and she got to show her skills as a badass character in John Wick: Chapter 2, the last Resident Evil, and appeared opposite Vin Diesel in xXx: The Return of Xander Cage.  She brings an edgy quality that matches the comic book superheroine, complete with tattoos that would distract from any other character but works for Kate Kane.  Batwoman changes the course for the CW Arrowverse, with real-world issues of lesbians in the military, gender identity, and bias, so hopefully the series ultimately finds the right balance to match that edginess.  The first episode very much reflects that less-than-edgy quality of Arrow.  But it’s only the beginning, and the other series in this genre took some time to get going, too.  Sorry–Rose doesn’t don that cool red supersuit in the first episode.

The only question is whether Ruby Rose, who seems to fit perfectly into the superheroine role and this take on the comic book story, can match the charisma and acting of series antagonist Rachel Skarsten, who plays Alice, an Alice in Wonderland-inspired villain who isn’t really who you think she is.  It feels early to let loose an identity bombshell, but Batwoman’s writers jump right in, revealing what you’d think would be big secrets (we won’t disclose them here).  Skarsten has had her share of fantastic badass roles, too.  She was Dinah Lance in the original Birds of Prey, Tamsin the Valkyrie in Lost Girl, and she was the young Queen Elizabeth on Reign.  Skarsten’s Alice has some similarities of the Arkham Asylum variety as that millennial-favorite character Harley Quinn, but Skarsten’s level of acting is more subtle and polished than we’ve ever seen Harley portrayed.

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As we inch closer to Christmas, Hasbro Gaming is making its latest effort to breathe new life into its classic board games.  The new idea is mash-ups of classics, combining two games into one, which should tap into the nostalgia of long-time players.  The game company is taking its recently developed game Speak Out and its famous acquired Parker Brothers inventory Monopoly, Clue, Taboo, and Scrabble, and combining them with its celebrated former Milton Bradley games Candy Land, Connect Four, Guess Who?, Jenga, and Twister.  The result:  Hasbro Mash-Ups, some strange combinations, but new twists for family game night, all at less than $21 each retail price.

The best bet looks to be Monopoly Jenga.  This game adds some additional strategy to the wooden block game where players remove a piece of the tower one by one until the tower collapses.  The Monopoly twist is adding color-coded Monopoly properties as blocks: Railroads, Free Parking, Chance and Community Chest cards, and a Go to Jail block.  The goal?  Collect the most properties, property sets, and railroad blocks without making the tower fall.

 

The strangest is Hasbro’s Taboo Speak Out.  There’s something really creepy about a family game with mouthpieces, and the box cover art doesn’t help much.

 

Perfect for ventriloquists, but a problem for everyone else, the speaking barriers are the key twist to the fun classic Taboo game.  The rules are simple:  Give clues to get teammates to say the Taboo word on the card, without using any of the five forbidden words, all while wearing a Speak Out game mouthpiece.  Easy peasy, right?  Maybe not.

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Every single episode of season five left us breathless and anxious for the next.  History’s Vikings is returning in early December to begin its sixth and final season, and the network just released the first trailer and poster for the show, based on the sagas of the Vikings in medieval Scandinavia, England, and France.  For followers of the series it’s goosebump-inducing stuff.  Action-filled, bloody, and dramatic, the series has seen brilliant characters in Ragnar Lothbrok, his sons Bjorn and Ivar, Lagertha, and Floki.  It’s also seen some powerful guest stars with roles taken on by the likes of Donal Logue, Linus Roache,  Adam Copeland, Kris Holden-Ried, and Gabriel Byrne.

Series star Katheryn Winnick has lead the way with her powerful, historical character Lagertha.  Credit goes to creator and showrunner Michael Hirst for his vision and smart writing, getting viewers to this season, and as the trailer reveals, some kind of a resolution between Bjorn and Ivar, for better or worse.  It’s great television, and if you haven’t been watching, you have two months left to catch up.

Alexander Ludwig is back as Bjorn, with Gustaf Skarsgård as Floki and Alex Høgh as Ivar.  Here is the new trailer for the sixth and final season of Vikings:

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Typically a sci-fi movie’s tech manual is a compilation of spec designs and blueprints used in a film’s production, from designs and drawings, model making and miniature effects, drafting, and set building.  Graham J. Langridge′s new book turns that around.  Alien: The Blueprints is the culmination of more than a decade of side projects by Langridge, an architectural student when he began creating ship drawings for the franchise, and now he’s the artist and designer of an expansive set of blueprints based on the ships and sets from the franchise.  It’s all timed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror classic, the original 1979 film Alien, which sees a return to theaters this month as part of the Fathom Events series (details on that below).

Similar to tech manuals you may have seen from other series and intended to be read in conjunction with the 1995 book Aliens: Colonial Marines Technical Manual, this month’s follow-up work Alien: The Blueprints discusses the creative work behind the ships of Alien, Aliens, Alien 3, Alien Resurrection, Prometheus, and Alien: Covenant.  But the bulk of its 156 over-sized (10.5-inch by 14.6-inch) pages consists of detailed, newly-created engineering drawings.  These are the key ships and creations anyone who has seen the films will be familiar with:  the Nostromo (with ten pages of detailed drawings), the Narcissus, and refinery from Alien, the Sulaco (with 11 pages of drawings), the alien ship, space jockey, armored personnel carrier, dropship (10 pages of drawings), powerloader, Hadley’s Hope (16 pages of drawings), and tractor from Aliens, the escape vehicle and penal colony facility from Alien 3, the Betty and Auriga from Alien Resurrection, and the Prometheus and Covenant (10 pages of drawings) from the latest films, and a lot more.

Along with an afterword by the author explaining his process, a section on each film discusses the film designers, with contemporary quotes and reference information from Roger Christian, Ron Cobb, Martin Bower, Syd Mead, H. R. Giger, Norman Reynolds, George Gibbs, Nigel Phelps, Sylvain Despretz, Steve Burg, and Chris Seagers.  A few close-up photographs of models of the actual ship props and original concept artwork fill out each chapter.  As a bonus, the Suloco and Covenant ships get full pull-out, double-page spreads for their design drawings.  The entirety is an end-to-end compilation of finely detailed artwork for the diehard Alien fan.  And each page is printed on thick, glossy paper, making them ideal for framing.

Check out this preview of a few of the ship and tech blueprints in Alien: the Blueprints:

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Sometimes the marketeers get everything exactly right (one of our favorites is still that Coma ad pack we received 7 years ago).  And that goes for a new roleplaying game from Wendy’s.  Yep, that’s right, a fully fleshed-out roleplaying game from everyone’s favorite fast food restaurant that serves Frostys.  And best of all, it’s free (you can download the entire 97-page rulebook and campaign guide below).  Not only is it capitalizing (“capital” as in in-your-face, unapologetic commercialism) on the recent wave of interest in Dungeons & Dragons that was re-kindled by Stranger Things, the new roleplaying game Feast of Legends will probably divert at least a few groups of Wednesday night gamers to join in on a fun (and humorous) new adventure.

Feast of Legends is another good introduction to roleplaying games and springboard to the real deal.  It includes a Rule Book and Game Master’s Guide with five campaigns to be led by your designated Game Master: Take on The Queen’s Quest, Trouble at Frosty Canyon, Lighting of the Bacon Beacon, The Biggie Vale, and The Deep Freeze, plus there’s a chapter on expansion play.  Make your own character, join one of the 14 orders, or use pre-designed character sheets via a “quick start guide” to get on your way, with instructions on how to do so.  This isn’t your typical throwaway giveaway.  Players have five levels to achieve, and the book has all of the details on gameplay, adventuring, and yes, you will use food, specifically Wendy’s menu items, cleverly incorporated along the way.  One of the underlying themes is Wendy’s advertising fresh meat over frozen, so a key villain here is the Ice Jester–a not-so-subtle jab at Ronald McDonald.  His lair?  A playhouse with tunnels and a colorful ball pit.  Brilliant!  Constable Von Freeze steps in for Mayor McCheese…  Beware the Mimic Meal…  Can you help Queen Wendy, by sneaking into the Deep Freeze and stop the Ice Jester before he can march on Freshtovia and start a new Frozen Age?

Although we wish we could credit by name the Wendy’s inside marketing team that wrote these rules, a big shout-out is owed to Alex Lopez for illustrations that mash-up the visual style from both classic RPG and Wendy’s iconography.  Neither Lopez nor mapmaker Collin Fogel appear to have created illustrations before for D&D producer Wizards of the Coast, but this rule book should help them get their foot in the door (if D&D is really their thing).

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Prime viewing for October and the Halloween season, and a movie you probably skipped in the theater, is the rebooted Hellboy, now on home video.  Far better than critics would have led you to believe, director Neil Marshall′s Hellboy is every bit loyal to the Dark Horse Comics character, stories, and mythos.  Both Mike Mignola and Mike Richardson produced this third film in the series, and if you don’t agree it matches the quality of the first Hellboy you’ll likely agree it’s better and more memorable than its sequel, Hellboy II: The Golden Army.

In fact this Hellboy–this time with Stranger Things’ David Harbour in the red, sawed-off horns and hammer arm–is that kind of dark, violent, monster movie that would have appealed to fans of Freddy Krueger or Hellraiser in the 1980s.  It has that same kind of hard R rating that would have prompted 12 to 16-year-old boys to sneak into the theater to see what they were missing.  So if you don’t care for the kind of monster movie with innocent victims getting ripped apart by giant demons, re-stitching a witch together, watching another creepy witch and her cauldron of kid stew, and making it through several blood-bursts and beheadings, backed with a never-ending volley of F bombs, by all means run away now.

This isn’t Ron Perlman’s kinder, gentler demon.  But this presentation more closely matches Mignola’s stories, including steeping this tale in a variety of classic lore.  Here that means the vile Baba Yaga as villain, complete with her chicken-legged mobile house, and a film full of twisted King Arthur legend.
Missing is Doug Jones’ wonderful Abe Sapien, or Selma Blair’s fire-wielding friend Liz.  Trying to make up for that is the booming presence of Ian McShane (Magnum, p.i., Dallas, The Golden Compass, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Deadwood) as Hellboy’s father, and Milla Jovovich (Resident Evil series, The Fifth Element, Ultraviolet) as a banished witch trying to return to the present to smite out humanity with a plague.  Both McShane and Jovovich are good in anything, as they are here, even when the special effects aren’t up to that Peter Jackson quality we all hope for.

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No other subject rips conversations apart like it.  It sets brother against brother, spouse against spouse.   What can you say about Pumpkin Spice that hasn’t already been said?  It may be the elephant in the room at your house, but here we’re goin’ to throw all our cards on the table.  It’s everywhere, so why not embrace it?  (Unless you hate it).  You can’t love pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving and shun the same flavor dripped into your coffee, or muffin, or yogurt, or cereal.  (Right?)  So like the “Big G” Monster Cereals, the arrival of the most sought-after of spices is in full swing (they’re back, too, all again except for Fruit Brute and Yummy Mummy).  We first saw the flavor of pumpkin spice in grocery stores beginning way back on August 18.  But now you don’t need to be a spice smuggler to find it.  The flavor has done more than infuse itself into a few coffee shops.  And it’s now taken over pretty much every aisle of the store.

Often labeled “with pumpkin” or “pumpkin-flavored” or “limited time only” in marketing materials–presumably to ward off buyers offended by the PS banner–the “sans spice” labeling will not fool us.  Cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice and maybe some actual pumpkin or just a flavoring added in, is mixed-together-magic.  We’re going to tell you it’s okay to climb aboard and enjoy the ride.  (Or don’t).

We finally decided to track everything we see this year.  And here’s what we found, some new, some you may have seen before:

Just try to tell us these Toll House Baking Truffles wouldn’t make for an amazing cookie.

Pumpkin Spice Life.  What more can you say?

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